If you think rusty cars are a thing of the past, think again. John Evans investigates reports of rust eating into the bodywork of modern cars
20 March 2016

Rust: it did for the Lancia Beta and it has consigned many a motor to an early grave.

Today, car makers claim they’ve got it under control with better pre-production treatments, more use of aluminium, plastics and composites, and smarter design but, even so, it appears it hasn’t quite been banished.

In 2013, of the 27,285,855 Class 4 vehicles (cars and light vehicles up to 3000kg) that had an MOT test, 1,393,721, or 5.11%, failed on corrosionrelated issues either of components, component mountings or the vehicle structure itself. With numbers like these, it’s no surprise people have a view about rust. For this story, I posted my own experience of owning a rusty Vauxhall Zafira on the Pistonheads forum. It triggered a wave of rustrelated anecdotes and observations (see below).

Recently in Autocar, James Ruppert shared the story of reader Nick Williams and his 2008-registered Honda Accord 2.4 auto, which had a rusting sunroof. Thankfully, Honda replaced the car’s sunroof without quibble.

However, just as rust has a habit of spreading, so did Ruppert’s assertion, in his report, that despite car makers making huge strides in fighting tin worm, it has never entirely gone away. Evidence supporting his claim arrived at the Autocar offices almost immediately. Michael Ward, a Bradford-based independent motor engineer who spends his days doing pre-purchase vehicle examinations for customers or for people in disputes with sellers, provided the most compelling.

“Rust can be found in various makes and can be serious,” he wrote. “I find it hidden behind plastic wing liners, sill covers and undertrays.”

Ward backed up his claim with photographs of a 2004 Vauxhall Zafira he’d just inspected whose subframe, adjacent to the car’s wishbone mountings, was badly corroded. “There was no clue to its condition until the undertray, which is often not disturbed during servicing, was removed,” he said. “The undertray has a felt-type soundproofing material which had held moisture and which, I suspect, was the cause of the corrosion. I suspect there are many others like it.”

I asked Vauxhall why it continues to install rust-promoting undertrays on its cars. A Vauxhall spokesman defended their use and said, to be on the safe side, the company carries out annual inspections to check for rust: “It is general industry practice to install these type of undertrays to improve airflow under the vehicle and absorb engine noise. The company has a six-year antiperforation warranty [corrosion], which requires a customer to present their vehicle each year for an inspection to maintain it.”

I then contacted Ward, partly to hear more about his rusty Zafira but, really, to establish his credibility. He seemed a plausible witness.

“I’ve been inspecting cars since 1986; typically five a week,” he told me. “I rarely see incidences of serious corrosion but it still happens. Sometimes, body cladding moves and rubs the paint. Often it forms behind sill covers, wheel arch liners, under body panels and engine undertrays where metal surfaces can’t dry. MOT testers won’t take covers off to check behind them, so corrosion may be happening out of sight.”

Motor engineer James Carswell of Scotia Vehicle Inspections, based in Greenock, claims to have seen plenty of rusty cars in 56 years of poking around the things. One of his standout memories, however, is not of corroded Crestas or rusty Rovers from way back, but flaky Focuses from just four years ago and, more recently, dodgy Dacia Dusters.

“Around four years ago, Ford commissioned about 20 vehicle inspectors, including me, to check certain Focus estates for tailgate rust,” he says. “During the 18 months I was employed by Ford, I checked 10 to 15 cars a day for two weeks every month. Approximately 10% of the cars I checked had signs of rust. Ford was very good about it and did a thorough repair, or replaced the tailgate.”

A Ford spokesman confirmed Carswell’s story: “We ‘recalled’ Focuses with rust perforation under their 12-year warranty. It was at the tailgate. Something inside the panel was rubbing the body down to the bare metal. It was about three to four years ago and the cars were coming towards the end of their warranty, so they’re old now.”

More recently, in the past year, Carswell claims to have inspected four Dacia Dusters rusting at their seams, and behind the sills and headlights.

A Dacia spokesman told Autocar: “On a limited number of right-hand-drive Dusters, built in India for the initial production phase and delivered between January 2013 and August 2014, it was found that an inconsistency in the process of painting the bodywork may have caused some surface corrosion on certain panel edges. A robust repair was arranged for any Duster that may have needed it. Right-hand-drive Dusters from Romania are not affected.”

Dr Martin Strangwood, senior lecturer at the School of Metallurgy and Materials, University of Birmingham, says applying a good anti-corrosion coating to a car is vital for a long, rust-free life. He says: “It’s crucial the correct layer of anti-corrosion coating is applied. Occasionally, its protection is used up too soon; perhaps where the metal component is concealed behind a plastic cover and is permanently damp. Also, it’s still difficult to put a thick layer of coating on complex shapes.”

However, for all the car industry’s huge strides in anti-corrosion protection, Strangwood says there’s still one chink in its armour. “Galvanised steel offers only sacrificial protection. The zinc element of it will corrode in preference to the steel. That’s fine because the zinc is not structural – the steel is. However, it does mean the coating has a finite lifetime. To extend it, in winter, people should wash the road salt off their cars.”

Whether your car is rusty or not, that’s probably one thing we can all agree on. 

What you said about rust

We posted a tale of a rusty used car on Pistonheads recently. Here are just a few of the responses that it attracted.

THEY RUST

Fords rust, as do certain years of BMW and Mercedes. Certain years of Golf front wings rust, too.”

“Mk2 Focuses suffer a fair bit with tin worm, and my 58-plate Mk2.5 is starting to show signs of it.”

“Recently, I’ve seen more than one Mazda 6 with rotted sills and arches, as in large MOT failing holes.”

“Anything Japanese will still be prone to a bit of rust. It’s because they don’t use salt on the roads, so don’t need rust protection.”

“A lot of modern rust issues are specific failures — arch liners rubbing through paint, and blocked drainage channels.”

THEY DON’T RUST

“French makes are pretty good for not rusting.”

“My Citroën and Renault are both 13 years old with zero rust.”

“My old X-plate Honda Accord had no rust at all when I sold it on a year ago, and my dad’s 52-plate CR-V is totally rust free, too.”

“I’d say, on balance, things are leagues ahead of where they once were.”

“Just sold an eight-year-old Galaxy and not a spot of rust on it. It was the Ka and Puma that tended to rust and the earlier Focus. I think Ford has it under control now.”

The metallurgist’s view

Dr Martin Strangwood — senior lecturer at the School of Metallurgy and Materials, University of Birmingham — on anti-corrosion protection.

“A lot of today’s high-grade steels are pre-galvanised to provide anti-corrosion protection, and their edges coated and protected after cutting. Bodies that are made from steels that have not been pre-galvanised will be hot-dipped to galvanise them thoroughly. A polymer coating might then be applied before painting. This trend towards more complete protection dates from the Lancia Beta, which was only partially protected from rust.

“In general, the level of corrosion protection will be influenced by how much coating is applied, and how well. Today, coatings and the metals they’re applied to are developed together, so you can coat the metal thoroughly and evenly before it has been formed.

“There are geographical differences in levels of corrosion protection. Vehicles supplied to the Gulf states don’t need to have such a high corrosion resistance. Those supplied to the UK need greater protection from road salt. In Russia, much of the soil is acidic because of the pine forests. If you’re supplying a global market, you need to plan for all these eventualities and over-specify your corrosion resistance.”

John Evans

Our Verdict

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Comments
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20 March 2016

My wife's Golf Mark 4 had rotten front wings....apparently because the wheel liners rub through the galvanise coating and then the sponge behind the liner holds constant damp resulting in crumbling wheel arches on both sides.
I wont lie, I was shocked.
This is apparently a known and common problem on this model, VW authorised an inspection, but because the car had had specialist rather than main dealer servicing over its latter years refused to replace the wings, this despite the fact that all servicing was to schedule and using genuine VW parts.
I don't expect to have rust issues these days whatever the age of the car....especially from VW, and therefore I will never buy a VW again....having had so many over the years in our extended family.
it has already cost them thousands of pounds more than it would have cost them to just put two wings on the car in lost business, some 9 car purchases and counting... Very short sighted!
VW should think twice before taking this superior stance over substandard design, satisfied customers mainly keep quiet....unhappy customers tell everyone!

20 March 2016

I was annoyed to find rust forming on the front wing of my 08 Passat. Took it to my local VW dealer (Nottingham) a few weeks ago and they explained why the rust had formed (as in the article) and that they would replace the wing under warranty as it was a known fault. At no point did the cars service history come up. Surely the mechanical side of a cars history has nothing to do with the body work. Fingers crossed you get it sorted. Their's nothing worse than polishing a rusty car. I know, we've had MX5s for years...

20 March 2016

My 2001 Ford Focus is riddled with rust, started at the rear wheel arches. Went to Ford years ago about it when it was well within the paint warranty. I got the exact opposite treatment to in the story. Ford dealer gave me the runaround, but eventually they sent me to another dealer (over an hours drive away) to get it looked at. They said the car must have been in an accident as Fords don't rust! Totally obnoxious manners from them and I needed to clean my car with the marks they left on it. Went to a bodyshop to see about getting it sorted myself. They told me where the rust is before even seeing it as it happens so often. Wheel arch liner holds the moisture and finds the weak spots. I've seen multiple Focuses with the same rust patterns. Not been able to sell my car as it has no value with the rust.

20 March 2016

I have owned a number of Rovers and MG's and Austins from 1983 onwards, NONE of them suffered from Rust, our neighbour has imported his old HSV from Australia, never driven it in 7 years, and still not a jot of rust, yet another of our neighbours 5 year old CR-V and Fiesta from 2000, are riddled, and they do not misuse their cars and clean them more frequently than we do.

20 March 2016

Love the picture of the Renault 8/10. Learned to drive on one of those. Now THAT was a rust bucket. So was an X300 Jag I had. I think we'd all be running around in old Jags if they'd conquered their rust problem. And the last aluminium one I drove wobbled like a jelly.

20 March 2016

I had a 2002 civic and the rear arches were just beginning to rust. The problem was sand and dirt had collected on the lip inside the arch which had held the water. The previous owner (my grandmother) had never noticed. It was easy to clean out, then, as the car was worth £1500 at most, I made sure it was totally dry and applied some Vaseline to keep the water at bay. I cleaned it up every few months and reapplied the Vaseline and in the 18 months I had the car it didn't get any worse. I'd always be cautious about buying a car that had spent a lot of time in Scotland - they use a lot more salt on the roads (for obvious reasons) and it's noticeable whenever I drive up north how much rustier the cars are. But the worst vehicle for rust has to be the Mercedes Sprinter van, they seem to corrode if you so much as look at them.

20 March 2016

Agree about the Sprinter, I saw a current shape one the other day... think it was about a 10 plate? which had rust spots all over it. It looked like it had sat in a lake for 30 years! Yes it had probably been neglected but still it was quite bad for such a recent vehicle. My Shogun Pinin is going rusty around the front wheelarch and the edge of the door, and the bonnet slam panel above the headlights. Which is disappointing for an 05 plate but I understand they are quite bad for rusting as they were built in Italy not Japan. I still like it though :) and it's not half as bad as the Metros I had when I was younger!

currently a happy owner of a Mitsubishi Shogun Pinin :)

20 March 2016

Agree about the Sprinter, I saw a current shape one the other day... think it was about a 10 plate? which had rust spots all over it. It looked like it had sat in a lake for 30 years! Yes it had probably been neglected but still it was quite bad for such a recent vehicle. My Shogun Pinin is going rusty around the front wheelarch and the edge of the door, and the bonnet slam panel above the headlights. Which is disappointing for an 05 plate but I understand they are quite bad for rusting as they were built in Italy not Japan. I still like it though :) and it's not half as bad as the Metros I had when I was younger!

currently a happy owner of a Mitsubishi Shogun Pinin :)

20 March 2016

i was expecting the metallurgist's view to be a bit more along the lines of "rusting is exactly what steel does if you don't keep it separated from oxygen, people always ignore the underside of their car until there's a visibly bad problem". also, whenever people start talking about emissions i always end up talking about how cars should have a designed lifespan of 30 years instead of 15 - or ideally be infinately repairable like how land rover defenders appear to be - and that they should make the mounts to let you put a newer better engine into an older car. but that's a different subject.

20 March 2016

This article is trying to find problems where there aren't really any. Firstly, cars are not rusting badly within the first 2-6 or so years of ownership like they used to. Secondly, with the rise of finance and general consumerism, new cars are not kept as long as they were - why would makers spend more to keep 2nd/3rd+ hand car buyers happy?

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