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What exactly did the Mt. St. Helens eruption do to cars?

Published in blog.hemmings.com

The story on the photo of the Pinto in front of the Mt. St. Helens eruption elicited plenty of comments from those of you who were there in the Pacific Northwest at the time, and we appreciated the perspectives everybody shared. In particular – we are an old car blog, after all – we appreciated hearing how your or your family’s automobiles fared in the weeks and months following the eruption.

Take, for instance, willyjp’s recollections:

Automobiles running in those days of course breathed ash regularly for several months at least, the amount depending on exactly where they operated. It was pointed out at the time that the finest components of the ash were far smaller than could be filtered out by common air filters used in motor vehicles. The prevalent opinion was that no one would want to buy or keep a car that had been driven through that unpleasant time. It was quite common to hear stories of engine failures due to ash ingestion and of people finding clumps of ash in their sumps at teardown, but I never actually saw that myself.

Similarly, John B. wrote

Luckily, I had moved away from Eastern Washington the area where much of the ash ended up carried by winds.

In Spokane it came down like snow and drivers, initially not knowing any better, drove in the stuff that was several inches deep. You can imagine what the fine grit and did to autos. Stories of blown engines became legend. Soon, someone told folks to wrap air filters and take other preventive measures. My sisters left town for a few days until the mess was cleared up.

Still, I would have been leery about buying a used car for a couple of years.

To avoid blown engines, constant air filter cleaning and/or replacement became routine, as 76impala (then driving a Chevette), John C. Amundson (then driving a Dodge Dart), and ICEMAN from Winnipeg (then driving a 1979 Thunderbird) related.

And to attest how bad the ash was for engines, Tom Hergert at Rocket Restorations sent over a bunch of photos he found in the archives of the Washington State Patrol. The WSP, apparently, had the 440-cu.in. V-8 in one of the agency’s 1978 Plymouth Fury patrol cars seize up due to the ash, so the agency sent the car and engine back East for Chrysler to tear down and inspect. “When they opened it up they found that the ash inside the cylinders had turned to glass!” Tom wrote.

The WSP, as we can see, didn’t take the results lightly. Plenty of photos – including the one below that Tom sent, another couple that reader Tom Turner also pointed us to, and numerous similar photos floating around the Internet – show elaborate filter contraptions fitted to WSP cars in the aftermath of Mt. St. Helens.

As for Dick Lasher’s Pinto, word of its fate has yet to reach us. If Lasher really drove it through the ash cloud as the story goes, it probably didn’t last all that long after May 1980.