Cars come to Fairbanks for cold

PHOTO/Courtesy A&B Auto Inc.
Every winter, several automobile manufacturers send teams of engineers and test cars to Fairbanks in search of frigid temperatures and frozen roads.

Without fail, they find them.

Over the last 20 years or so, Fairbanks has arguably become the premier cold weather proving ground in the world. Most German manufacturers -- Mercedes-Benz, Porsche, BMW, Audi and Volkswagen -- test their vehicles in Fairbanks, as do some Japanese and domestic makers like Mazda and Ford.

Fairbanks residents also get treated to some cool cars that never reach production.

Cold weather testing is a clandestine operation, as automobiles are often camouflaged with contour-concealing panels to guard against the peering eyes of competitors and the automotive media.

"One of the things (automakers) really value is secrecy,’’ said Randy Bonjour, president of A&B Auto Inc., a Mercedes-Benz, Mazda and Suzuki dealership.

Bonjour said Mercedes-Benz has been testing its cars in Fairbanks since at least the mid-1980s when he opened his dealership. In the summer, Mercedes-Benz tests its cars in the searing heat of Nevada’s Death Valley, the lowest elevation in the United States and one of the country’s hottest regions.

But they come to Fairbanks for bone-chilling cold.

"The Germans are exposed to cold weather in Europe, but they don’t like the media,’’ Bonjour said. "The European paparazzi won’t follow them to Fairbanks. They value that.’’

Mercedes engineers travel in small groups and stay in town for a few days to a couple of weeks, Bonjour said.

He is rarely notified when a carmaker is coming to Fairbanks, but when they do, Bonjour’s dealership is open to them.

"They have a set of keys to the shop and they come in and download all their data,’’ Bonjour said.

Cars are often outfitted with special testing equipment that monitors everything from tires to doorjamb tolerances.

Not only does it get cold -- sometimes as low as minus 50 -- but Fairbanks has a wide variety of roads to negotiate, and engineers can drive far as Prudhoe Bay or Canada.

"I don’t know if they drive the roads fast, but let’s assume they do,’’ Bonjour said.

Cars generally are shipped by air freighters from Europe to Fairbanks and sometimes to Anchorage.

Rick Morrison, owner of EERO Volkswagen & Saturn of Anchorage, said he too is rarely notified when a automaker is coming to town.

Morrison, who also owns dealerships for Porsche, Audi and Isuzu in Anchorage, said publicity is something auto manufactures are not looking for when testing cars.

The reason, he said, is that if someone sees one of the prototype cars, they may hold off on buying a current model.

"They’re afraid it may hurt sales,’’ Morrison said. "People may wait for something that may never get produced.’’

Morrison said that once a pre-production car was hidden on a back lot, but the secret didn’t last long.

"Somebody sneaked a photo and it ended up in one of the car magazines,’’ he said.

Rick Thayer, EERO service manager, said he looks forward to meeting with all the automotive engineers, many of whom have become his friends over the years.

"It’s a real interesting part of the job,’’ said Thayer, who often gives feedback to the automakers.

"We do have a lot of information on cold weather issues,’’ Thayer said.

The harsh roads and teeth-numbing temperatures in Alaska tax engines, brakes and electronic, cooling and heating systems, said Lance Gilbertson, service manager for Fairbanks Nissan, Volkswagen, Daewoo and RV Center.

Gilbertson said he’s seen engineers tear cars completely apart trying to track down a cold weather problem.

The engineers rarely ask for help when it comes to working on a car; what they do ask for are maps and directions.

"We have a wide array of roads they find suitable,’’ Gilbertson said.

Gilbertson said he’s never been allowed to drive a pre-production car, but manufacturers often give him things like T-shirts and key-fobs for helping out.

While most tests prove successful in Alaska, sometimes there are some glitches.

Bonjour said Mazda once purchased several competitors’ cars to compare them to its models. A team of engineers drove the vehicles to Prudhoe Bay where temperatures were minus 65. The cars had to be left running overnight, for fear they’d never restart. One of the competitor’s cars overheated, caught fire and burned.

"So much for that test,’’ Bonjour said.

Another time, one of Bonjour’s employees was raising a Mercedes on a car hoist, but didn’t center the car well. The lift split the sidewall of a prototype tire that cost thousands of dollars to make and could not be replaced.

11/25/2001 - 8:00pm