An “Unbelievably Freaking Cold” Ford Transmission Development Tale

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“Greetings from Bemidji” photo by Ed Tahaney

Part of developing cars and trucks involves attempting to drive our development vehicles in every way and every place that you, the customer, will drive yours. To this end I’ve been all over the US, Canada, and even Mexico.

Usually we went to the extreme places at the wrong time of the year. In January you could almost always find me somewhere cold. Timmins, Ontario, Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, Thompson, Manitoba, Bemidji, Minnesota, or Sault St. Marie, Michigan.

The common thread of all of these places are that we needed it be no warmer than -20F. The coldest actual temperature I ever saw was -48F in Timmins, Ontario. That’s UFC – Unbelievably Freaking Cold!

All of our transmission development vehicles had block heaters, but we rarely used them. Remember this point. We didn’t want the engine warmed up because that would keep the transmission from getting cold enough.

The block heaters were Plan B, if the engine wouldn’t start, plugging the heater in for an hour or so usually warmed it up enough to get it to start without getting the transmission too warm.

The morning that it was -48F in Timmins we did our usual routine. We dressed with so many clothes that we could hardly move, and then we went out in the cold to try to start the cars that had been sitting outside overnight. We tried each of our cars, and a few did crank the engine over a few revolutions, but none of them started. We plugged in all the block heaters and went to get breakfast.

When we came back about an hour later each engine was at 0F and the transmissions were still at -38F. Perfect! Each one started and drove and we got a pile of excellent data. About the time we finished the engine development guys stopped by the garage we were renting. They couldn’t get any of their vehicles to start, either. But they didn’t have block heaters, so they needed to push each vehicle to our garage and put them inside to warm up.

“Toasty Beaver’s Sports Bar” photo by Ed Tahaney

When I asked them why they didn’t have block heaters, the answer was that they were required to start at -20F without a block heater. Now that they proved they couldn’t start at -48F, I pointed out that if they had block heaters and didn’t plug them in their tests would still be valid, and if they failed and didn’t start, they could just plug it in, get it started, make changes, and try again tomorrow.

They must have listened to me because next year all of the engine development vehicles had block heaters. One interesting footnote to that really cold temperature. Every vehicle that cranked before getting the underhood warmed up to about 0F had rubber flake off the serpentine belts. We collected a small pile of rubber from under the crank pulley on every vehicle. We had to replace every belt after that cold weather trip.

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