This post is one in a series based on a format at another website; much like music, I can measure much of my adult life with the cars I’ve driven.
Growing up, our family spent a lot of time in wagons, from a cavernous ’68 Ford Country Squire all the way up to an electrically balky ’86 Audi 5000. In the early 70’s, an American wagon was respectable, held a ton of suitcases, Christmas presents, two kids and a dog, and could be counted on to make it through the high snow in Pennsylvania on December 24th. You might say we’ve never really given up on the wagon, even if it’s not American: my mother currently owns a Legacy Outback.
A Subaru was the first wagon I called my own. It came before the Mazdas and after the Honda, but it did a lot to cement my love for station wagons. I loved it, even though it tried to kill me. It was an’ 84 GL, bought at a repo auction. It had originally been white, and at some point was resprayed a medium blue, up to but not including the inner door sills. When I got it the outside was in good shape but the inside (as most repossessed vehicles were) was disgusting, so I took a long weekend and hosed out the dirt, cigarette funk, and mildew.
The GL series was set up by Subaru with an on-demand 4WD system, which was a perfect fit for a 16-year-old kid in New York State living on the side of a mountain. Our first winter in New York, we had ridden shotgun in my father’s whale-sized Ford LTD wagon during a snowstorm as he tried to make it up the first section of the road we lived on, at the base of the mountain. Experienced in this sort of thing, he solved the problem by getting a head of steam up on approach, blowing the stop sign at the base of the hill, and hitting the slope running. RWD in a 5,000 lb land barge meant we stayed at home until the plows came by.
The Subaru was full of little engineering miracles its designers had baked in, including a third headlight behind the badge in the grille, all manner of handy little compartments inside, factory cupholders, and a windowshade over the rear cargo area, the first I’d ever seen this genius invention installed in a car. There was a surprisingly large amount of space in the back when the seats were folded down. I put this space to good use during a couple of summer parties when there was no other place to crash. The spare tire was mounted on a bolt behind the carburetor directly above the engine, which speaks to both the miniscule size of the tire and the engine. But because it was so small and this was before the time of airbags and safety, it zipped along quickly for its age and condition. This was also the first car I owned with electric door locks and windows (it would be another 15 years before I owned another) and the second in a long line of stick shifts I drove through high school. I immediately fitted a third-hand Blaupunkt tape deck and ran wires to some car speakers retrofitted into two wooden speaker boxes.
It was also the car I took on an epic journey to visit my girlfriend at college and then continue northward to my sister’s college apartment. I was a senior in high school, she was in her first year of college, and we both were too dumb to realize our puppy love would never work long-distance. The first leg of the trip took me to windy, overcast Binghampton, NY to stay overnight on the hard floor of a dorm room between my girlfriend and her very uncomfortable roommate. I’d come up there to visit, and because I thought I was a stand-up guy, to break it off with her in person. This went poorly. From there, after I’d made her cry, I drove north into a snowstorm to stay with my sister. This being my first long-distance trip in the car, I’d arrived in Binghampton with a splitting headache but chalked it up to my poor diet at the time. Little did I know it was due to another, more sinister reason: a crack in the exhaust manifold was leaking carbon monoxide into the cabin, and because I had the windows closed and the heater on, I was slowly asphyxiating myself. Somewhere on 81 north I closed my eyes for a long minute, and when I opened them back up I was doing 65 down the side of a long embankment, heading straight at the concrete footer of a freeway sign. I hit the brakes, skidded to a stop, and took stock of the situation. Then I put it in 4wd, crawled back up the side of the embankment, and… stalled it right as I got to the shoulder of the road. It was then that I discovered one of this Subaru’s idiosyncrasies: when stalled, the battery light came on and it refused to start under its own power.
Had I been thinking clearly, I might have aimed it back down the embankment and popped the clutch, but I was already jumpy from my brush with death and lacking the confidence to get it kick-started. Further, it was snowing, and even though it wouldn’t crank over, the hazard lights worked, which meant it could help me flag someone down for a jumpstart. Presently, after some quality alone time out in the cold, someone did stop and give me a jump, and I continued on my way–with the windows rolled down and Back In Black blasting at full volume. I made it to my sister’s apartment in Geneva with another headache and stayed with her for a few days, drowning my sorrows in cheap beer.
The return trip was mostly in daylight, which made travel easier, but as I neared the Hudson River, traffic started backing up as snow started falling. At that time the easiest and cheapest route across the Hudson was the Bear Mountain Bridge, which involved driving the Bear Mountain Bridge Road, an ass-puckering stretch of two lane road towering high over the Hudson. I didn’t relish the idea of that drive in slippery conditions, but I had 4wd and figured I could make it. To get to the bridge from the west, I had to travel a section of the Palisades Parkway winding through the Bear Mountain State Park. Somewhere on the approach to the bridge, I rounded a curve and came upon a BMW mushed into the granite face of the cliff to my right. Alarmed, on the next straightaway, I downshifted to brake slowly and switch to 4wd. This plan worked perfectly until the right front tire dumped itself into an unseen storm drain and I stalled the engine again as I bounced upwards out of the seat.
This time, nobody who stopped had jumper cables, and it was doubtful I could get it out of the drain; only my front left and rear right wheels were touching pavement and I doubted the hamster-driven 1.6L engine could get me out. I hitched a ride with a nice lady who dropped me off at the first available rest stop on the Palisades, and I called my Dad for a tow.
Two or so hours later he appeared at the rest stop in the company wrecker, and I spent an uncomfortably quiet ride back to the Subaru with him to pull it out. It started quickly, and as I recall one of us stood on the rear bumper while the other backed it out slowly. We may have put it on the wrecker for the ride home, but I think I probably followed his taillights slowly up Bear Mountain and down into Putnam county.
That following Monday, the mechanics confirmed what we’d suspected: cracks in the manifold. I think the diagnosis was too expensive to consider, so the GL went on the market and I moved on to my next loaner vehicle. That spring, I talked my folks into the VW Type 2.
I miss that little car, for all its faults. It was miserly on gas. It was purpose-built and did many things very well. It was fast when it needed to be and stronger than it looked; it hauled more than people gave it credit for. Apart from repeatedly trying to kill me, I miss that car very much.