Forget Florida: The Pacific Northwest Has the Best Climate for Classic Cars

For decades, the label of a “Florida car” was considered a massive advantage (or a sales trick) in listings for used and classic cars. The label became popular in the 1980s, after a particularly awful and malaise-ridden prior decade saw vehicles fall apart in mere years, thanks to heavier applications of road salt in the Northeastern and Midwestern states. Buyers saw touting a car’s Florida origins as a valuable card to play, at the very least promising that it had probably not seen road salt—if they were telling the truth. It seemed like common wisdom, and there was a certain amount of herd mentality attached to the concept, painting a mental picture of a squeaky clean car that had not seen so much as a rainy day.

But in reality, is the promise of a Florida car synonymous with good cosmetic condition? Consider some other effects of using a car in Florida for a number of years, especially with the plastics and paints of yesteryear.

For starters, the amount of sun damage to the car could be pretty severe, from burning off the paint on the roof, hood and trunk, to bleaching the convertible top and burning out the plastics inside, including the dash. The damage to older paints could vary in severity, of course, but any liquids that pooled on the exterior and were then baked by the sun into the paint could take a serious toll very quickly. This goes for rainwater, bird bombs and palm tree bits—all could do damage in record time if not attended to.

Then there is the issue of heat. In addition sunlight blasting the top of the dash and windowsills, cracking and bleaching them, the interior temperatures can degrade the various plastics and rubber materials, causing them to warp and change shape, introducing rattles and other aging effects. Absurd amounts of heat are also not great for leather, so unless a car is kept in an air-conditioned climate controlled garage year round—an expensive proposition—the humidity can cause leather to deform and develop mold. A hot and humid climate can damage cloth interiors as well, causing the glue to degrade and the cloth to detach from various surfaces of the interior.

Look on Miami Craigslist long enough, and you’ll see mistreated luxury cars with all of the above maladies, from leather that has deteriorated due to humidity to paint and plastics that have been blasted by the sun for years on end. Suddenly, the Florida car doesn’t sound so appealing. It may not have rust, unless it drove through puddles of ocean water seeping in from wetlands and the seller didn’t bother to note this fact, but keeping the exterior and interior of a car from deteriorating in the heat is a tall order. And snowbirds’ cars with low mileage hide their own perils: Months of no movement isn’t great for the gas in the tank or the engine, and we wouldn’t trust those cars to have been kept in air conditioned garages for months on end.

A modern alternative to the mythical Florida car, one that seems to hold far more promise for hunters of classic cars, is northern California and the Pacific Northwest.

NorCal climate has been notably favorable to classics and used cars for decades, owing to a lack of road salt and a generally mild climate with low humidity. The streets of San Francisco in the 1980s still saw plenty of classic Japanese and European cars from the 1960s, seemingly unaware that rust existed. The lack of road salt or any meaningful winter weather also meant that older cars could maintain their appearance with relative ease, even if Seattle and Portland have a reputation for many rainy days.

Of course, there are a few caveats when it comes to used cars generally parked outside in the Pacific Northwest. Pine needles are an issue, and excessive collections of needles in the windshield gutters, when combined with pooling water from rain, could cause some rot around those areas. Subsequent blasting by the sun could cause problems with the paint, even though few cars today have surfaces that would permit rainwater to collect in too many crucial places. However, this is more an issue of upkeep than climate—trees pose their own problems for car paint in almost every region.

The classic PNW mildew stains could also add a greenish tint to the paint—one of the tell-tale signs of a car from anywhere near Puget Sound—and are a problem for cars kept under trees. But for garaged cars from Seattle, that’s rarely an issue.

There is one other reason the Pacific Northwest has emerged as a promising hunting ground for youngtimers: We’ll call it the Radwood effect.

The Seattle, Portland, NorCal and eastern Washington areas traditionally have had a lot of foreign car dealerships, and Japanese pickups are popular. Translated into the classic car trends of today, this has meant that plenty of Hondas, Subarus and Toyotas of the 1980s are still in good supply in these regions, oftentimes in surprisingly good condition even if they haven’t been in enthusiast hands. It takes just a few minutes of browsing Bring a Trailer to see that the Pacific Northwest is now a major source of Japanese cars and pickup trucks, ones that had been overlooked in previous years because they were deemed unworthy. And it takes just a few minutes to see that interest in these common cars and trucks of the 1980s and 1990s is on the rise.

As older millennials begin to look for the common cars and trucks of their youth, they’ll be looking in the Pacific Northwest for vehicles that have fared well in a forgiving and mostly dry climate.

So yes, you probably won’t find rust on a Florida car, but we’d opt for pine needle problems over a paint and interior that had been blasted by the sun and humidity.

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