In 1979 I headed to upstate New York for my first USAF duty assignment – at Plattsburgh AFB. Plattsburgh was about 30 minutes from Lake Placid and about the same distance from the Canadian border – a beautiful area but with some tough winters. I drove to NY from Ohio in my 1976 Plymouth (Mitsubishi) Arrow – a car I had owned for three years and loved.
The Arrow was a great car; dead reliable, frugal, fun to drive, and with an eager personality. But it was not a real winter car – even with a bag of Quikcrete in the back and a pair of snow tires. It managed a mid-Ohio winter but I could tell it would be really challenged with anything more than three inches of snow.
It was a real dilemma – I wanted to keep the Arrow but knew that in the military, duty always comes first. That was reinforced to me when I first met my new Commander, who among other things, made it clear that “I don’t want to hear any excuses about missing mandatory formations because the weather was too bad – get yourself something that can handle it”. Well, that decided that – I started looking around for some more winter-capable alternatives.
I first went by the Jeep dealer – I had almost bought a CJ-7 several years prior. But given temperatures could get down into the minus-20s (it actually got down to minus-62 degrees F wind chill one night), the Jeep would need a hard top, and even then, would still be pretty drafty. The other Jeeps were outside my price range. Next…
I then looked at two models that seemed, by their numbers on the road, to be the favorites of the local folks. First was the AMC Eagle AWD Station Wagon. I had never considered an Eagle before – I kind’a thought they were warmed-over Hornets – not my kind of car. But it was clear that they were great in the snow, so off to the dealer I went.
And was quite shocked at the prices – those things were expensive. I later learned that AMC made a decision to market them as a “premium” product – but all I could see was a ten-year old Hornet with square headlamps and a Quadratrac AWD system underneath. Maybe it was because I associated them with “Ramblers” and thought they’d be cheaper, but the Eagle AWD Wagon’s base price was around $7500. The sedan, which I thought looked way too weird, was $7000. Most of the stickers seemed to be in the mid-$8K range. That was big bucks back in the day – and beyond what I could afford. Next…
Subaru 1600 4WD Wagons were probably the most popular car among the locals – several of the guys in my squadron had them – and all gave them a big thumbs up. There was a dealer that was within walking distance of the base – so I ventured down. They had quite a few 4WD Wagons; in both DL (base) and GL (up-market) trim. I found a nice one in bright red with red and silver plaid seats. The MSRP was around $4800, but the lot was full and the dealer was eager, so we settled at $4500 out the door.
I was surprised how tiny it was – it seemed smaller than my Arrow, in both length and width – though they were both about the same size. Mitsubishi just seemed to carve out more room inside. Sitting behind the wheel was pretty cramped, but as long as it got me to work, I felt I could tolerate it. The stubby FWD/4WD knob was right next to the 4-speed shifter. Up for normal FWD – down for part-time 4WD. The Subie had no central differential, so 4WD could only be used on traction-limited surfaces. Use it on hard surfaces and the drivetrain would bind. I saw several with that malady, and they tended to lurch or hop around corners.
But that didn’t matter in the snow – and this car was a mini-beast when the white stuff was swirling. It came with a set of four fairly small, thin snow tires, with an aggressive tread pattern. They would cut right down to where the traction was, and the 4WD would just pull you through. Many times I would get off from a midnight shift and the roads had yet to be plowed. Even with snow over the front bumper, it would surge forward. Through that entire winter, the Subie never once got stuck.
So you’d think I would have been happy – but I really wasn’t. The Subie was a great appliance – but it had zero personality. Well, unless you’d call “quirkiness” a personality trait. Just look at it – from the front it’s clearly a product of the 1960s/70s Japanese “Mothra vs Rodan” school of styling. Look at it in profile, and you kind’a scratch your head trying to figure out how it all goes together. Start the engine, and the 1600 cc flat four thrums out its own distinct vibrations and tune. Definitely quirky. And it had its downsides. As I mentioned, it was small. It also needed another gear (or two) – in fourth gear the engine would be turning around 3300 noisy rpms at 60 mph – not fun on a long trip.
It then dawned on me what I imagine most of the locals already knew – the Subie was a great second car. For the spouse to go shopping, or to drop the kids off at school – all during the season’s worst blizzard – the Subie was your go-to car. As a primary vehicle however, especially for an auto enthusiast, it was lacking.
After a year in which the Subie got me dutifully to work and back, I felt I needed something more – something other than an appliance. So I decided to part with it. The car that I bought next, which I wrote about several weeks ago, certainly had personality – unfortunately one similar to Norman Bates…
Recently the website TFL.com took a 40 year old Subaru Wagon off-roading with a brand new Jeep Gladiator, just to see how it would do. It made it up and down every hill.