Tell Me All The Weird Stuff Your Car Does When It's Cold

Image: Craigslist
Image: Craigslist

“Morning Sickness” was a common issue with a lot of 1980s-era General Motors cars. When it was cold outside, turning the steering wheel required the strength of a giant.


Morning sickness was a chronic issue for The General’s A-body cars especially. As this old Chicago Tribute article I dug up from 1988 mentions, GM offered free repairs to owners of quite a few vehicles, including 1982 to 1984 model years of instant classics like the Buick Skyhawk, Chevy Celebrity, and Oldsmobile Firenza. On top of that, 1985 Buick Electras, Cadillac DeVilles and Oldsmobile 98s were also included in the complimentary fix (which, GM was quick to point out, was not a recall).

The newspaper says the delayed power steering on cold mornings resulted from “a shaft cutting into power steering seals, which induces a gradual fluid loss.” This 1995 edition of Popular Mechanics talks about the problem in-depth, saying:

“Morning Sickness” is caused when hydraulic seals wear grooves into the soft aluminum pinion housing and the power rack and pinion steering unit.

When the steering fluid is cold and thick, hydraulic pressure goes up causing the fluid to leak around the seals, which results in a loss of power assist. When the fluid warms up, it gets thinner. Then the pressure goes down, the seals become more compliant and power assist returns.

The solution, the magazine says, was to install a steel sleeve into the pinion housing to reduce the chance of grooves forming.

I was reminded of this issue because my $600 Jeep Cherokee—which actually has a recirculating-ball power steering design, and not a rack and pinion—suffers from a similar “morning sickness” issue, which undoubtedly stems from the power steering fluid’s higher viscosity when cold.

Clearly it’s not just 80s era GMs that suffer when the temps drop. What weird stuff does your car do when it’s cold?

Sr. Tech Editor, Jalopnik. Owner of far too many Jeeps (Including a Jeep Comanche). Follow my instagram (@davidntracy). Always interested in hearing from engineers—email me.


Erin Marquis

I had a 2004 Saturn Ion that would not start in the cold. The problem was a gel that would constrict in the cold and not allow the solenoids in the ignition to make contact. It was a known problem that GM refused to fix for free, so I, a broke college kid, had to keep a lighter on me at all times to get the car key red hot, so that it would warm up the interior of the ignition lock just to get it to start. If it didn’t start, I had to wait 10 minutes before trying again, thanks to a governor designed to stop people from flooding their engines. I ended up getting a remote starter to bypass the ignition.

Of course, the problem went away once GM was forced to recall those faulty ignitions switches. Go figure.