Winter can be rough on equipment. Everything mechanical seems to move with reluctance when it’s really cold: starter motors, wheel bearings, door hinges.

Engineers and manufacturers have made great strides toward building vehicles that move well no matter how chilly it is.

The engine — and therefore the heater — in my current car warms up a whole lot quicker than the V8 that powered the 1966 Oldsmobile my grandfather gifted me after he drove it through 10 Michigan winters.

My newer vehicle also starts in the cold with much more certainty than that long red car made in the year Batman debuted on national television, the Beatles released Yellow Submarine, and the U.S. and U.S.S.R. signed a treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons in space.

Temperatures below freezing still have a profound effect on machinery. Not to mention knees and knuckles, some of our biological equipment that slows down in bitter cold. But that’s another story.

Snow removal equipment has been getting a workout the last few days all across northern Michigan.

The Grand Traverse County Road Commission clears snow and slush from 1,200 miles of roadways. Its drivers were hard at work over the weekend.

Private snowplow services, too, have been clearing driveways and parking lots to ensure the rest of us can get where we need to go. And residents who take matters into their own hands have been running snowblowers and muscling shovels after every snowfall.

Muscles and motors both need to warm up a bit before tackling the snow at full power.

Even after oil and blood are up to operating temperature, we need to maintain a grip on the ground, with either tires or boots, because traction is essential to motion.

Too much torque applied to slippery surfaces leads to slippage.

During my drive into work Monday morning, I saw one solution to the traction problem.

A worker was using a small front-end loader to clear the sidewalk along Grandview Parkway, and the machine was equipped with cleated tracks instead of rubber tires. It had no issues with traction atop the snow and ice.

It’s pretty hard to get a tracked vehicle stuck. That’s why bulldozers use tracks. Some agricultural tractors use tracks.

So, of course, do military tanks, which need to maneuver over all kinds of terrain without their drivers worrying about getting stuck or suffering a flat tire.

The sight of that little tracked snow-clearing machine reminded me of the time I drove a much larger tracked vehicle. Not a tank, but a track/wheel hybrid fittingly called a half-track. It had wheels on the front for steering and tracks on the rear for traction.

A friend of mine, a northern Nevada sheriff’s deputy, was a military equipment buff. He had a surplus military Jeep that looked great, but I never saw it move out of the shed where he kept it stored on blocks.

He also had a WWII-era White half-track troop carrier parked in the grass. The olive-drab vehicle provided an interesting visual contrast to the yellow and red bird feeders stationed next to it. I asked my friend about his largest yard decoration. He said he had purchased it years before from a well-drilling company and hadn’t much thought about it since (my friend was more a collector than a user).

My question apparently piqued his interest. He decided it was time to see if he could get the half-track to run. He cleaned out the fuel system, replaced some rotted hoses, changed the oil and transmission fluid, filled the radiator and swapped in a borrowed battery. He asked me to crawl up under the steel-plate hood to install new spark plugs in the huge straight-six engine. Finally, we poured in a gallon of gas.

The ancient motor, amazingly, started after half a dozen tries. Desert conditions preserve machinery better than Michigan’s damp climate. We pumped up the front tires and pumped grease into all the fittings we saw in the track system.

Then my deputy friend took the vehicle for a spin through the sandy desert behind his house. He drove maybe 200 yards in five minutes and returned sporting a big grin.

He let me take the wheel. I trundled along the tracks his journey had left in the sand. It was fun — sort of like piloting a 20,000-pound Tonka toy.

I never pushed the clanking vehicle above walking speed, because that already seemed too fast for the ancient collection of nuts, bolts and plates of steel.

Besides, whatever spring action the suspension system originally possessed was gone and the driver’s seat was a simple square of bullet-proof metal. It was a rough ride.

But that thing rambled over loose sand without any traction problems. I have no doubt snow would provide no obstacle for that military-surplus hybrid.

Modern snowplows run atop tires. Tracks just don’t allow the speed needed to get around on modern roads, and the cost/benefit ratio of tracked vehicles doesn’t make business sense.

Local snow plow operators do a good job of keeping our roads clear no matter what Old Man Winter throws our way.

And mechanics ensure that their equipment keeps functioning smoothly, no matter how cold the air.

Contact Business Editor Dan Nielsen at 231-933-1467 or

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