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Just Six Weeks of Sitting Played Havoc on My Car’s Brakes

I knew leaving a car in the snow for a month and a half wasn’t ideal, but I was still surprised at the level of degradation I saw.

byAndrew P. Collins|
Culture photo
Andrew P. Collins


Cars hate sitting static. Well, OK, they don't feel emotions per se but machinery does degrade over time even when it's not used. In fact, a car can break down quickly because it's not being used.

You've probably noticed that brake rotors tend to turn brown with surface rust if you've parked in the rain for as little as a day. This is normal. You might have a few squeaky stops on a wet day, but your brakes will clean themselves after just a few miles of driving.

Rust never sleeps, though. The longer a car sits, the stronger rust's hold becomes. A little spray-tan of surface rust from a few days of sitting in bad weather can devolve into scabby crocodile skin if brake rotors spend too many days in a moist environment. And that can make for real problems—you want a smooth surface on your brake rotor so the pad can get a consistent bite.

I knew that, but thought major brake rust would happen after, like, six months, not six weeks. That turned out to be wrong, so now I'm typing out this article for you to reference with friends or family who might not get why they shouldn't let outdoor-parked cars sit in one spot for weeks on end.

Andrew P. Collins

My Honda is my amateur motorsports car, my "let's experiment with aftermarket parts" guinea pig, and my year-round daily beater. So it doesn't usually hibernate ever. But this winter my wife and dog and I went to Colorado to live with my sister for a while. I left four cars behind in New York, and sadly, I only have two indoor parking spots there. I decided to let my Montero and wife's E46 sleep indoors. My old Scout and my Civic had to spend the time in the driveway.

When I got back, I was sad and angry with myself for not securing better storage when I saw how much deterioration had happened on the Honda. I could have avoided this grief if I'd just asked my father-in-law or somebody to move the car around the property every 10-20 days ... though I guess I did think of that and decided it was too imposing. Next time, decorum be damned.

Mice had left some nuts in the engine bay, no surprise there. But they'd also entered the cockpit, the little jerks! I found some tree parts in the console that I didn't put there, and the cabin filter had been peed on.

I also have a new inexplicable crack on my radio face. It's really weird ... this is New York, not Arizona, so six weeks of being outside in March is, like, three weeks of sun max. Could it be UV damage? Had a mouse really been going ham on that "display" button? I'll never know.

Then I found a fuel vapor venting hose that was inexplicably disconnected (didn't look damaged). Then the trunk and fuel cap wouldn't open right (rectified with some fiddling).

How the heck would these even happen. Andrew P. Collins

I must admit, it was a bizarre combination of ailments to have happened while the car was resting. I suppose some of it could simply be ongoing issues I never noticed, but still.

I thwacked a trickle charger on the battery before trying to start it, which worked, it lit up green and the car fired up straight away. But the sounds it made rolling out of the driveway, woof, it had the daintiness of a freight train.

The sound could only be brake pads dragging over rusty rotors, and indeed, it diminished a little bit with some driving. But 45 miles later there's still some audible cantankerousness, and brake pulsing when I go deep into the pedal.

I didn't think to take a picture right away, but here you can clearly see where the pad fused to the rotor while the car sat. Since these parts are cheap, I should really just replace pads and rotors and start over. But since I'm lazy, I'm tempted to just run this a little longer to see if the pad knocks the rest of that rust off.

The current combo, by the way, is Stop-Tech blank rotors and Hawk HPS 5.0 performance street pads. I put them on last summer, but they're already weirdly worn because of a remanufactured caliper failure that happened shortly after installing them (sigh). I went ahead and grabbed a new set of rotors and pads from NAPA—not performance stuff, but the good anti-rust coated rotors and the higher-end store-brand pads.

I will probably drive on the Krabby Patty rusty rotors another day or two, optimistically, to see if they heal themselves. But Civic brakes are cheap, and the replacement job is not much harder than an oil change.

The Hawk pads, before their stint in the snow, seemed ... fine. Can't say I was exceptionally impressed with them though; I'll be keen to try some other performance options for future track and autocross events.

Besides serving as a cautionary tale about not leaving your car in the elements without it being driven, I wanted to share this dumb little story because it was a bit of a turning point in my relationship with the car.

When I got it, it was pretty wretched. Lots of ugly mars on the interior and such. I spent a lot of time cleaning all that up to try and get it close to perfection. Now it's showing some scratches again ... and I'm not saying about about to let the thing melt into a junk heap, but I'm gonna take a little chill pill on the polishing and primping and just focus on making this Civic the most fun car it can be.

Time to get back to work—this sloth has slept enough this year. Andrew P. Collins

Next weekend I'm heading to Vermont to compete in the Mount Philo Hillclimb, if I can get my new set of Fortune Auto coilovers installed in time. That's right—we're already moving on to much more fun mods once these stupid brakes are set right again.

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