Northern Exposure Tests Winter Wheels

Several manufacturers have cold-weather test facilities in Canada. One of them is a massive General Motors centre in Kapuskasing, Ont.

  • Cold Weather Testing Facility

It’s 6:45 on a dark January morning. It’s -18 C and your breath fogs the dashboard as you turn the key to start the car.

But the engine roars to life and after a few minutes, the interior is warm and toasty and you’re on your way.

What we take for granted in our harsh Canadian climate is the result of years of cold-weather testing and adapting by automakers.

Several manufacturers have cold-weather test facilities in Canada. One of them is a massive General Motors centre in Kapuskasing, Ont.

Located on a 159-acre tract more than 800 kilometres and a 12-hour drive north of Toronto, this facility opened 40 years ago and continues to test vehicles in some of the coldest weather on the planet. From December to March, the temperature rarely gets above freezing and can hover at -40 C for days on end.

GM first ventured north to Kapuskasing in 1941 to conduct tests on its military vehicles. By 1953, it was using the town for much of its cold-weather testing, though on an informal basis on the parking lots at a local motel and a GM dealership.

After tests on a new engine starter in 1968, GM decided to build a permanent facility in “the Kap,” which opened in 1973.

Everything from engine oils to plastic interior parts and rubber door seals are tested, evaluated and if needed, modified to withstand the climate.

A large part of the facility is the 1.85-km driveability track, which was opened in 1980 by Frank J. Winchell, GM’s vice-president of engineering staff.

As he explained at the time, “the track will provide more tests per hour in the limited time available, free from regular traffic, than do the public highway and streets of the town.

“The development programs conducted by GM of Canada at Kapuskasing for the entire GM Corporation effectively complement the programs conducted at the other GM North American proving grounds.”

By 1983, all GM vehicles were being tested in Kapuskasing — the result of an increased awareness of the problems posed by cold weather, explained Frank Fleck, GM Canada’s then-director of engineering and forward planning.

“Because of this, corporate involvement at our Kapuskasing centre has increased significantly in both scope and volume in recent years,” he noted at the time.

In addition to the track, there is a large garage that houses offices, test stalls and very large refrigerated cold rooms, where vehicles can be tested under a strictly controlled environment.

Electronic systems, heaters, defrosters and batteries are all put under scrutiny to make sure the vehicle starts, heats up and maintains driveability.

Other tests focus on power windows, mirrors, windshield wipers and the interior materials of vehicles.

In addition to the many GM employees on-site, part of the assessment is conducted by about 100 local residents who test drive more than 200 vehicles each winter — trying to replicate two years’ of typical usage in about 10 weeks.

All this evaluation is recorded through on-board computers for technicians and engineers to analyze and make improvements.

GM believes that if a vehicle can survive and function as intended in this Northern Ontario town during the middle of January, it can survive anything winter can bring to the table around the world.

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