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Getting the best footing on winter roads


Now that the TV weatherpersons are regularly pointing out frosts in the south and zero degrees around the Desert Road, winter really can’t be far away.

You can also tell that winter’s looming when retailers and manufacturers of tyre chains start advertising. In many parts of the country, the annual unfurling of the chains is of only academic interest – they’re simply not needed. But for people who go skiing, live in or visit areas prone to snowfall, chains can literally be life-savers. Chains provide traction and an ability to steer in snow and some other cold conditions that even the best snow or mud tyres can’t match. They may also be able to crunch through some types of ice to find traction on the surface below. These are reasons why skifields may still require chains, even when you turn up on your expensive new winter treads.

Many skifields make it easy. They rent chains at the base of the access road and – best of all – will fit them for you. Fitting and removal are the worst aspects of chains. It’s dirty, awkward work even for the practised. Putting them on is tricky; then by day’s end they’re cold, filthy and their release mechanism is most likely stuck. So save a warm word of thanks for those guys at the rental centre, they save you a truly awful task. The next big drawback of chains is that you can’t really drive them on the road. They’re noisy, rough and wreck the surface. Some expensive European chains are designed to go on the road, but only at low speeds and for relatively short distances. The price for this is that they may not be as good in the snow as more conventional chains – but they’ll still outperform any tyre. Chains are made in two common patterns, ladder and diamond-shaped. Ladder-type chains with their “rungs” are regarded as better for going up and down hills. Those with a diamond type of pattern are a better general purpose chain and offer good steering characteristics.

The best set of chains is a full one – in other words, one on each car wheel. However, if only one pair is available, they should be fitted to a car’s driving wheels. Front-wheel drive cars are ideal, because one set of wheels provides both drive and steering. On rear-drive cars, steering may be vague without the advantage of chains on the front wheels, but use caution and commonsense and you’ll be okay. Owners of “proper” 4WDs may fit chains to the front wheels, when the drive to them is engaged. A word of caution: some vehicles don’t have the clearance in their wheelwells for chains. And chains might foul steering or braking components. In some cases only specially-designed European (and expensive) chains can be used. If in doubt, seek guidance from your service or parts manager. And if you decide to buy chains, practice fitting and removing them in the comfort of your garage. Learning how to do it “in the field” is not a lot of fun.

More than just snow

Chains take on a much wider meaning for owners of 4WD vehicles who use them off the road. They add amazing traction in mud and slippery paddocks, among other dire conditions – better then even the most aggressive tyres. However, chains fell into disrepute because of their tendency to tear up the ground when used aggressively. Some recreational 4WD clubs banned their use.
But the modern aggressive tyres can cause the same sort of damage and now chains are regaining some of their former popularity. 

Treading through the snow

Tyres designed for use in winter (often identified with an MS prefix, for Mud and Snow) have come into disrepute in New Zealand after a series of accidents – including a well publicised fatality. They came into the country fitted to used imports that had been owned in snowy parts of Japan. Used seasonally in a winter environment, these special tyres are great. It’s when they’re used on dry roads, possibly mixed with normal tyres, that they can cause trouble, especially in an emergency. Tens of millions of Europeans and North Americans use winter tyres without undue problem, but those motorists have grown up with them and understand their limitations.  Some jurisdictions ban their use outside the winter months.

What is a solenoid?

An electro-mechanical device used to make a push-pull mechanical operation using electrical current. The best-known solenoid in a car is usually the one in the starter motor, because that’s the one that causes most grief when it fails.


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