I’ve got a lot of fond memories of bouncing around in the passenger seats of old Subarus. My mother, bless her soul, almost always drove older 4WD Subaru wagons and even had two at one point! They were practical, rugged, and she could fix them herself with some basic tools and a shop manual, if need be. Those cars left an impression on me, so I’ve ended up owning and wrenching on quite a few of them, including an engine-swapped BRAT and a very 1980’s XT Turbo.
As I high schooler I turned wrenches on a handful of older Subarus for friends, and had a well-worn 1995 Outback as my own car for some time, but I didn’t get my own older Subaru until I was living in Milwaukee. A local Subaru fanatic by the name of Miles Fox, who I had been in touch with for a few years due to our mutual interest in the cars, gave me a tip on a right red 1988 DL 4WD wagon that was in remarkable condition. Originally from Montana, it needed a timing belt replacement (a shockingly easy job on these cars) and a front wheel hub. I picked it up for $500, and after a week of work, it was running and driving. I also came up with a white stripe job for the car, which gave it kind of a Starsky and Hutch vibe.
The driving experience these cars offer is both endearing and frustrating. The Harley-like rumble of the powerplant is unmistakably Subaru, and the light weight and high torque output means a lot of fun around town. These cars were not designed as highway cruisers, however; top speed is limited by gearing to around 90MPH, and they don’t get there very quickly. Gas mileage isn’t anything to write home about, either, getting a rough 20 miles to the gallon in most driving. They’re completely unstoppable in snow and mud with the 4WD engaged, though, and they are ridiculously simple to diagnose and repair. Overall, owning and driving one is a very agricultural experience.
I drove this car for about a year, when I stumbled across an incredible looking BRAT for sale on a Subaru message board. It was in Ohio, but had received an engine from a 2001 Impreza and needed only minor finishing to run and drive. The body was in excellent shape and it looked like a worthy project. I hauled it home for $750, and sold the red DL to Miles Fox. (The red wagon would later have a large deer slam into the side of it while driving, and was briefly owned by me once more and used as a beater. I then sold it on to another friend, who unfortunately had to scrap it when it quit starting one day.)
The BRAT was very easy to get buttoned up, and I used it as a daily driver for the summer of 2010. It got looks and thumbs-up from people of all walks of life, pretty much everywhere I went; the BRAT even won first place in the vintage class at a Subaru meet/show in Madison that year. The engine swap did it wonders, as the BRAT had about double the horsepower its original engine could have provided! It also returned incredible fuel economy, since the newer engine barely had to exert any labor to get the lightweight chassis moving.
The significant increase in power seemed to be straining the BRAT’s antiquated 4-speed manual transmission, however. This realization began a series of events that would end my time with the little Subaru trucklet. Originally, I wanted to use a stronger XT6 transmission that Miles Fox had available; it needed some additional parts to work, but would have solved the strength issue. So I removed the engine and transmission, and then…I got fired from my job at U-Haul for reasons that I still don’t fully understand to this day. Losing your source of income in the middle of an expensive car project is a great way to ensure that it never gets finished, and such was the fate of the BRAT. I ended up trading the Impreza engine for one from a 1985 GL wagon and reinstalled that motor along with the original transmission.
That was it for me. After losing my job, I had decided I was going back to finish my Bachelor’s degree, and the BRAT had to go. I could never get the new engine to run right, briefly making it work for short periods of time before it would suddenly start running poorly again. It managed to do just this when I had a potential buyer drive out from the East Coast to bring it home, and he turned around to drive back empty-handed, surely furious as well (if you’re reading this, I’m sorry and still feel really bad about that)! I ended up selling it on eBay with full disclosure of all its issues and got $1800 for it, significantly more than my investment. A shipping company came to pick it up; apparently it’s buzzing around a marina in Virginia these days.
I had now owned the ubiquitous station wagon and the desirable BRAT; I also briefly had the brown 1985 wagon seen in the above picture for a few months in early 2011, but it was a fairly insignificant vehicle and was replaced rather quickly. That was it for my Subaru ownership, until the summer of 2013 at least. Miles Fox had come into a Subaru XT 4WD Turbo, the very dated but extremely cool sports car Subaru offered briefly in the 80’s. He was willing to let me have it for $300. It needed some drastic maintenance, but seemed worth it…even if just for the phenomenal digital dash!
The car had supposedly been a Subaru of America demonstration car when it was brand new, and had a considerable number of rare and valuable performance parts installed. Miles Fox had taken the car’s transmission for his own, and gave me the car with an XT6 transmission ready to go in. We installed the transmission, but it wasn’t running right and still needed a ton of work. I re-did ALL of the turbo piping, fixed the mess that was the vacuum system on this car, put new transmission mounts in, re-did the brakes on all four corners, re-did the rear wheel bearings, properly set the timing, and many other things. It was a considerable improvement, but still needed fine tuning.
Much like the BRAT though, my ownership of the XT fell victim to a life change. I picked it up initially because it was dirt cheap, and I thought it was worth preserving. The winter after I bought it, I also re-acquired the 1986 Toyota Supra I had owned as a 16-year old, which became a much higher priority for me. The XT sat, it still didn’t run quite perfectly, and I was burned out on all of the heavy work it needed. The big turbo, lumpy camshafts and bigger intake manifold made the car extremely difficult to drive on the street; it was basically a race car. I sold it for $2000 to a guy in Indiana who apparently had three more XTs, so at least it went to a good home.
Like a lot of 1980’s imports these Subarus have pretty much vanished in the rust belt, but they’re still a common sight in the Northwest, proof of their longevity in climates that rely less on road salt. At least you can still see an old station wagon on the road in Wisconsin from time to time; they always put a smile on my face. Between my childhood and my own experiences I’ve experienced these old Subarus enough to know them like an old friend! Maybe I’ll have an XT6 next, or an older hatchback. If I can find one, anyway.