COAL: 1982 Subaru GL Wagon – 4 Wheel Deadly

Image: Unfortunately I have no shots of my Subaru.

Growing up, our family spent a lot of time in station wagons. My generation (X) may have been the last one to be raised in true station wagons; we came directly before the minivan explosion. Before Chrysler unleashed the Caravan on America, the RWD wagon was still 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.

Image: I did not know this website existed before today.

My father owned a cavernous ’67 Ford Country Squire when I was born, and this was the car I was driven home from the hospital in. It ferried us up and down the east coast for several years and was replaced with a ’68 when I was still a toddler. That was replaced with a gigantic tan ’76 Ford LTD wagon, which dwarfed my mother’s green Gremlin (named, respectively, Fozzie and Kermit by my sister) and was too large to fit in the garage.

Image: Don’t show this to my Dad; you will make him cry fat tears of sadness.

We had this until the gas prices got high again in the early 80s. After my dad bought the repossession agency we dabbled in other makes, owning, at various times, several gas Caprice wagons, a Caprice wagon with the dreaded LF9 diesel that stranded my sister and me in front of the Junior High school one morning when water clogged the fuel system, and an electrically balky Audi 5000 wagon that was like driving an unreliable spaceship.

You might say we’ve never really given up on the wagon: my mother bought a new Legacy Outback in 2001 and finally traded it in for a Forester last year.

Image: Identical to mine, but I had a factory roof rack.

A Subaru was the first wagon I called my own. It came in between the first two Mazda pickups and did a lot to cement my personal love of station wagons. I loved it, even though it tried to kill me. It was an’ 84 GL, bought at 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 was disgusting, as most repossessed vehicles are, so I took an entire day to hose 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 were coming home in the LTD during a furious snowstorm, my Dad behind the wheel. At the base of the hill we lived on was a four-way intersection, and our road climbed suddenly upward beyond that into the trees. Experienced in driving on unplowed roads, he solved the problem by getting a head of steam up on approach, laying on the horn, blowing the stop sign (nobody else in their right mind was on the road at this time anyway), and hitting the slope running. Momentum and judicious use of the gas pedal kept us moving uphill, and we made it home OK.

But there was none of that old-school nonsense here: this was easier than getting out to lock the front hubs and shifting a transfer case. As I recall, one had to stop the car and pull the 4WD lever up, then slowly pull forward to let the system engage. Easy, right? Remember this, because it will factor into my story later.

Image: Look at all of those gauges! 

The Subaru was full of little engineering miracles its designers had baked in–all manner of handy little compartments inside, factory cup holders, and a window shade over the rear cargo area, the first I’d ever seen this genius invention installed in a car. It had a display on the dashboard that showed which doors were open. Its headlight warning alert was a lovely set of bells instead of the harsh buzz of the Mazda. The interior was blue, and the seats had a plaid pattern down the middle. 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. 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 fourth 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 stuck in the cargo area. Now I could blast metal and punk rock cassettes at top volume whenever I pleased.

Image: Somewhere under that tiny tire is a tiny engine.

The engine, a 1.6 liter boxer, made 80 hp from the factory and had lost probably 1/3 of that power by the time I got it. But because it was so small and a stick and this was before the time of airbags and safety, it zipped along quickly for its age and condition. The spare tire was mounted on a bolt behind the carburetor directly above the engine, which always amazed me.  It was pretty easy to work on, and I don’t ever recall having a mechanical problem with it. But I soon discovered one of this Subaru’s idiosyncrasies: when stalled, the battery light came on and it refused to start under its own power: just a click. The first time it happened I was in the high school parking lot and had a friend jump start it; my family always carried cables in all of our cars. I thought it was weird at the time but didn’t know that this would come back to haunt me later.

This was the car I took on an epic journey to visit my girlfriend at college and then continue northward to visit my sister’s college. I was a senior in high school, she was in her first year away, and we both were too dumb to realize our relationship would never work long-distance. The first leg of the trip took me to windy, overcast SUNY Binghampton 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 it was the right thing to do, to break it off with her in person. This went poorly. From there, 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 road diet at the time.

Little did I know it was due to another, more sinister reason: a crack somewhere in the exhaust was leaking carbon monoxide into the cabin, and because I had the windows closed and the heater on in December, I was slowly asphyxiating myself. Somewhere on Interstate 81 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 in a patch of ice as I got to the shoulder of the road.

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 jump start. Presently, after some quality alone time out in the cold, someone did stop and give me a hand, 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.

Image: Ani Od Chai/Flickr

The return trip was mostly in daylight, which made travel easier, but as I neared the Hudson River, traffic started backing up as fresh snow started falling. At that time the easiest and cheapest route across the Hudson was the Bear Mountain Bridge, which was a direct shot across the river from home. 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 Route 6 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, it was doubtful I could get it out of the drain even if it was running; only my front left and rear right wheels were touching pavement and I doubted the hamster-driven 1.6L engine had the power. I hitched a ride with a nice lady who dropped me off at the first available rest stop, 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 right up, and as I recall it only took a few minutes with the winch to get it back on four wheels. We may have put it on the wrecker for the ride home, but I think I probably followed his taillights slowly across the Bear Mountain bridge and down into Putnam county.

That following week, the mechanics confirmed what we’d suspected: cracks in the exhaust. I think the diagnosis was too expensive to consider (or my parents had soured on this homicidal car), so the GL went on the market and I moved on to the second Mazda pickup.

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 it repeatedly trying to kill me, I miss that car very much.

For further reading: Jim Klein’s ’82 Subaru GL.