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- George Washington

Friday, 26 November 2010

Snow and the Tin Snail

A similar scene, somewhere else

It snows rarely round here (last year's was the first snowfall I can remember for at least ten years) but when it does, it doesn't mess about. I was half-way to Carmarthen this morning for my Door supervisor training, when it started. It went from cold, sleety rain to proper snow in a couple of minutes, and before I had covered a mile the A40 was white from side to side, and the traffic slowed to about 40 mph. I started getting a little nervous when a white car overtook me at about 60 and then had to dab his brakes when a white van pulled out in front of him. The white car span across both lanes of the carriageway, over the hard shoulder, back into the fast lane; and then recovered and carried on at the same speed. Good save, poor judgement. And then I got to the roundabout at Carmarthen, slowed to 10 mph, applied the brake gently, and the ABS kicked in immediately and the car slid forward for 20 yards. I had left plenty of room between me and the car in front, so no drama, but the loss of control was absolute. It's a horrible feeling.

I quite like driving in snow, and having lived in East Yorkshire for many years I have had plenty of practice. But the Mondeo is the worst car I have ever driven in snowy or icy conditions. It's a good car to drive (for a car!), and has plenty of grip in the dry and the wet. But as soon as the road surface gets icy, it loses all its composure and behaves like a bar of soap on a wet bathroom floor. The ABS cuts in almost immediately, robbing you of any delicacy in braking, and traction uphill is almost non-existent. I've had more 'helpless' snow/ice moments in the Mondeo than in any other car. I can't think why, as the tyres are in good condition with plenty of tread. I suspect it is the fact that it is a heavy car with a long wheelbase (it's the estate model), and there just isn't enough mass on the front end.

When I lived in the Yorkshire Wolds, I had a Triumph Dolomite (actually two, one after the other, both cast-offs bought from my Dad), and they were quite effective, especially with a block of concrete in the boot. No ABS, and rear wheel drive, so what they lacked in outright traction, they gained in controllability. In fact, the Dolly, given a bit of snow and no other traffic, could be a whole lot of fun. But the best car I have ever driven in snow was my Citroen 2CV6 (and its replacement, a Dyane - the same car with a posher but less stylish body). I commuted between Stamford Bridge and Hull through the winters of 1980 to 1983, and I never once failed to get to work. On one occasion, there was a complete white-out on the A1079, and I passed a strange thing at the side of the road that looked like someone had left a ladder lying there. It turned out to be the top of a petrol tanker which had slid into the roadside ditch and been covered in a snowdrift. The 2CV pootled on past, no worries.

I can think of five reasons why the 2CV is brilliant in snow:
  1. Low power (29 bhp; a 602cc air-cooled flat twin) so you are never tempted just to jam your foot down and blast your way out - which never works anyway;
  2. Modest brakes, four tiny drums, that are no more than adequate for normal use, but are sensitive in slippery conditions;
  3. Narrow tyres which dig down into the snow and find the grip that wider tyres just float over;
  4. Light weight (just over half a tonne), which means the tyres don't have too much mass to contend with;
  5. Good ground clearance.
In fact, that last point needs amplification. The ground clearance is good due to the large diameter wheels, but the reason it laughs at snow is the shape of the underside. In effect, the front of the car is the lowest point, and the underside rises from the front axle rearwards. There is no possibility of getting a wedge of snow building up under the front and reducing the traction of the driving wheels. The front bumper tends to act as a snowplough. In addition, the weight distribution is 58% to the front (when you have taken one apart, you will see why - there is nothing much to the body at all), which means the rear is virtually weightless. Under 200kg is on the rear axle (if it had a rear axle, which it doesn't). so, whatever weight it carries, and it isn't much, most of it is over the driving wheels. The effect is that my 2CV could dance up hills, slaloming round the lorries, vans and cars that had stopped dead at a variety of angles on the way up. Never very fast, but never stopping. And always home in time for tea.

I loved that little car, and if I had the money I would have another one in a heartbeat - just for days like today. Mine looked like this:

but with the square headlights of the 1979 model. Oh, YVY 27V, where are you now? Last taxed in 1984, so probably dead.


  1. Oh dearie me! Fast lane? Fast lane? From a man of your experience? As I'm sure you are aware there are overtaking lanes, but there is no such thing as a fast lane, no matter how much our journalists would have us believe otherwise.

    Large fwd cars are a problem. In snow I have to reverse my old Laguna up the steep hill to the house (weight from acceleration & engine thus over drive wheels) but of course this could prove difficult on a main road: "Officer, I can assure you I was travelling North on the Northbound carriageway, even though my car is pointing South." "Aye Sir, you will be blowing into this if you please."


  2. Fair point. I was using common terminology, and I should have said - strictly - lane two of two.

    (Incidentally, there is a convention on uk.rec.motorcycles to use terms like 'lane 2.5' for filtering exploits. I like that.)

    Glad I'm not the only one to experience the problem. My Dad always used to have a set of winter tyres ('Town and Country'), which he put on the car every November and took off in March, but that seems to have fallen out of fashion now. If we had more of this stuff, I would be looking into it for the Mundaneo, as it's damn near useless as it is.

  3. Debatable point but based on my experience - Reason no. 6 - Front wheel drive with forward c of g (engine in front of wheels?)as you mention in the text afterwards!

    Winter tyres seem to be obligatory in Germany - if you don't fit them the insurance won't pay. You can get away with M + S types.

    I don't know why you are being got at re the fast lane - that is exactly how everyone drive sin this country! Although on the M6 "fast lane" means "expectaton of fast but actually bunched up with comical panic braking" - I now drive in the slow lane and go faster...

  4. *eyes her new Freelander's street tyres and mourns her old Jeep Grand Cherokee's giant deep-treaded shoes*

  5. @ Nikos - it's a long time since I was under the bonnet of one, but I think you are right: the bulk of the engine was in fact forward of the axle, which increases the pressure on the tyre contact patch. Thanks for the support on the 'fast lane' issue! I normally use lane 1/lane 2 etc, but this time I think the guy's speed must have made an impression and I thought 'fast!'. And you are right - when the idiots start stacking up in lane 3 (heh), then lane 1 is often the fastest route. You don't have to object to the odd bit of mild undertaking, though. It makes Mr Sales Rep in his BMW furious, which is a bonus.

  6. @ Julia - I can highly recommend BF Goodrich All Terrain (AT/KO, or something) tyres, which are made in the right size for your Freebie. They are a bit chunkier than street tyres, but they are awesome in mud and snow. They lasted me on average about 35,000 miles as well, which is excellent. The only downside is that they are not good for high speeds (>100 mph) and they are a bit noisier. If I had a Freelander, I would get a set of s/h rims and fit the BFGs as my winter wheels.

  7. Cancel that! BFG A/Ts as a do-anything tyre, but if they were exclusively winter wheels, I would go for the Mud Terrains, if they still make them. Those are almost proper trials tyres, but they still work well on the road.

  8. It's not here yet, but...snow: Versys or VFR?

    Work from home.

    Down here in the south - where driving standards are traditionally pretty low at the best of times, let alone when snow is involved - watching people failing to understand how their ABS works or why they're currently sliding helplessly towards immovable objects is practically an all-day spectator sport.

  9. Versys. I know it's a high-risk activity, but riding a trailie-style bike in the snow is a lot of fun.

    Until you fall off, of course.

    But having one-wheel drive is surprisingly effective in getting where you want to be. Not sure I'd want to ride one on a dual-carriageway, but back roads are fine.

    I agree with the comments on the standard of driving. Imagine what it's like here in Pembrokeshire, where until last year drivers under 30 or so had never even seen snow. But as for ABS - well, I know how it works, and usually I like it to be there, but in snow it's a bloody liability. It's like having no brakes at all, and there's bugger all you can do to get round it. There's no 'off' switch of course - presumably for 'safety reasons'.

  10. Yep, Versys if I have to!

    Agreed, snow itself's actually not too bad for riding. Unfortunately, with South and Coast, not only do we get very modest falls, but it tends to melt and refreeze during the day. By morning two, it's usually a layer of rippled sheet ice with a light dusting of snow - and that's nothing like as much fun!

  11. No, I think I'd have to agree there :) Guaranteed bruises and bent bits.

  12. Good advice, cheers! Really hoping it doesn't become necessary!

    So far, it looks like we've escaped the worst of the weather - we've had hard frosts, but no snow. But that global warming, see.... ;)

  13. You've got it coming, I think :)

    I'm loving this global warming. It's very picturesque. Although the oil bill isn't so welcome.


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