COAL – 1995 Subaru Legacy (and Briefly a 1997)

After selling my 1993 GMC Vandura, I was back to using my Falcon as my only car. I was now engaged and a homeowner (or, at least, a condo-owner). Neither my fiancé Jean nor I needed to drive to get to work, but we frequently made trips out of town, often to Tahoe in the winter, or exploring California rivers and backroads in summer, and my nearly 50-year-old Falcon wasn’t the best vehicle in which to do so.

I still played music and sometimes needed to haul music gear, and we were still in the process of furnishing our place, often with items picked up at estate sales, and my recently-sold Vandura’s ability to haul any sort of cargo with ease was missed, though it had never been the easiest vehicle to park.

I started thinking about getting a second vehicle that might be good for winter driving, long road trips, and hauling things.

The one-car garage at our new place was used for my Falcon, my motorcycle, and various bicycles & outdoor gear, so I was also looking for something I could park on the street – a reliable used car but nothing I’d be too upset about if it got the inevitable dents and scrapes, and something fairly easy to park in San Francisco. I’d done fairly well parking the GMC van on the street, but Jean had never been too happy on the times she’d had to parallel park the large vehicle with no back windows.

We frequently drove in winter over the Sierra Nevada mountains, and the peculiarities of chain control there made me consider something with AWD or 4WD. In both California and Nevada, mountain highways often go to chain control during winter storms, and the most frequent requirement is R2, which means “chains or traction devices are required on all vehicles except four-wheel/all-wheel drive vehicles with snow-tread tires on all four wheels.”
In both states, a “snow tread tire” is considered to be anything with a mud and snow (M+S) rating, which encompasses most all-season tires. There’s a lot about this that may not make sense – in this situation, a front-wheel-drive car with actual snow tires (like Bridgestone Blizzaks) would need to put on chains, whereas an AWD SUV with cheap Pep Boys all-season rubber could proceed on, even though the former vehicle would likely be a lot safer on a snowy or icy road. But I don’t make the laws, I just live under them, and after numerous trips to Tahoe over the years where I’d had to chain up and unchain whatever vehicle I owned at the time, I thought I’d try something with AWD or 4WD.

A common situation heading to Tahoe, Reno, or Yosemite in winter.

I initially started looking for a Honda AWD Wagovan. This somewhat oddball wagon was produced in the late 80s to early 90s, had full-time AWD, a 6-speed manual, and was sold at commuter car prices. I had fond memories of my 85 Civic, and the Wagovan was cut from the same mold.

Unfortunately, by the mid-2000s, it was pretty hard to find one of these Hondas in decent shape. The Toyota Corolla AWD wagon also seemed intriguing, but they were also rare. The Audi Quattro and other European AWD wagons seemed appealing but also potentially a maintenance headache, and most were out of my price range. I did come across an ad for a Volkswagen Quantum Synchro wagon and momentarily considered taking a look at it, but memories of my difficulty finding parts for my Capri made me shy away from anything too obscure.

I wasn’t all that interested in an SUV. I assumed at the time that most of them wouldn’t handle all that well, and after owning my GMC van, I was hoping for something less top-heavy and ponderous on winding roads.

And though an AWD wagon seemed to fit the bill, I initially shied away from Subarus. My mom & dad had owned a 1990 Loyale wagon some years back, and a roommate of mine had owned an early-80s Subaru wagon with plaid seats. Both had seemed slow, cramped, and prone to strange mechanical problems, and both had succumbed to blown head gaskets, which seemed to be endemic to Subarus.

As I continued my search, I couldn’t help noticing that there were a lot of Subarus available in the SF Bay Area, many within my price range. I decided to at least take a look at a few Subarus.

Doing some online research, it looked like the non-turbocharged 2.2 liter (EJ22) Subaru motor was less prone to head gasket woes than many other Subaru motors, and though it had a timing belt, some years of this engine were non-interference, meaning that a snapped timing belt wouldn’t spell the end of the motor as it would on, say, a Honda motor. I started looking for a 2.2 liter Sube.

I first test drove a banged-up 93 Legacy wagon. I liked how it drove, but it was in very rough shape, it had automatic seatbelts that I really didn’t like, and it was an upmarket LSi model with an air suspension that seemed to be having some issues. This particular example wasn’t the car for me, but driving it convinced me that I might be happy with a Subaru.

The Subaru Legacy had been through a substantial redesign in 1995, and I decided to look at 95 and up Legacies. This generation of Legacy was also used as the basis for the newly-introduced Outback, but most Outbacks had the more trouble-prone 2.5 motor and I was looking for a car with a 2.2, so focused my search on Legacies.

I responded to an ad for a 95 Legacy but when I arrived it was actually a 1994. I gamely test drove it, and though it was clean and in good shape, I again found the automatic belts to be annoying even on a short test drive, and I decided to hold out for a 95 or later Legacy.

I was not a fan of the automatic shoulder belts on the first-generation Legacy.

A dealer in Fremont frequently had Craigslist ads advertising high-mileage Subarus at quite reasonable prices. I prefer buying from a private individual, but I thought I’d test drive one of his cars to get a sense of how they drove.

The dealer had quite a range of Subarus on his lot, and I zeroed in on a 1995 Legacy wagon with a manual trans. It drove well, but had a worrying noise from the transmission. It was also in fairly rough shape, and I recall it had an aftermarket roof rack for which the dealer didn’t have keys. I decided a Legacy of this vintage might be a good car, but this particular example might not be the one. The dealer told me he had a similar Legacy wagon coming in that was in better shape. He was very forthcoming that his business was buying higher-mileage Subarus and those that had suffered minor damage at auction and reselling them, and he was in the process of refurbishing another car.

A week or so later he contacted me to tell me another 1995 Legacy was on his lot. He sent me damage photos from the vehicle auction – the car looked to have hit the rear of another vehicle (most likely a truck or something with a high bumper) which had damaged the hood, grille, driver’s fender, and driver’s headlight. The airbags had not gone off, and it seemed to be a fairly low-speed collision, but the car had been totaled by insurance because the cost of replacing and painting the damaged parts would have been close to or equal to the book value of the car. He had worked the hood and fender back into shape, replaced the left headlight, and left the grill as is. The car now had a salvage title, and he was asking $1900.

A poor-quality scan of the Legacy’s front end damage prior to repair.

I went out to look at the Legacy, and it was better than I expected. He’d provided a Carfax on it, and it seemed like it had lived its life in the San Francisco Bay Area. Looking at some service records stuffed in the owner’s manual folder, I noticed the previous owners all had the same last name so it seemed likely the car had been in the same family before being salvaged. Though it had well over 100k miles, it was in good shape, seemed like it had been well maintained, and had had a new timing belt sometime in the past.

I’d owned a salvage title Honda before, and it had worked out well for me, and the story of how the car had ended up with a salvage title seemed to make sense. Looking at it closely you could see the hood was bent a bit, and the driver’s side headlight had been replaced and was much less oxidized than the passenger side, but overall the repair work had been neatly done. It had a set of off-brand radials on it, and I made a mental note that I’d need to get better tires before I took it to Tahoe in the winter. Overall it was clean, it drove well, and seemed like a lot of car for the money. I decided to pull the trigger, and drove home with a new car.

At that time, Jean and I had been engaged for close to two years. Due to a variety of scheduling issues with our immediate families, we never seemed to be able to set a date to get married that wouldn’t cause problems for someone. Getting everyone in one place at one time increasingly seemed like an impossible task.

It was December, and we had made plans to visit my family over Christmas, her family right after Christmas, and had a trip planned to Vietnam and Cambodia not long after. I remarked that it would be a good time to get married since we’d be able to celebrate with both our families, followed by a honeymoon-worthy trip. There was a long pause. Jean also thought that might be a good idea – we could drive our new car to Nevada and be married in time for the holidays. I took the Subaru to Larkins Brothers Tires on Van Ness the next morning for a new set of Michelin all-seasons, and by that afternoon we were headed up to Tahoe. The following day we were married. In years to come we’d joke that our wedding took less than 24 hours to plan and the biggest expense was a new set of tires.

The happy couple on their wedding day.

We hit some snow on our way up to Tahoe and back, and the Legacy comported itself admirably. It would prove to be a rugged and generally reliable driver for many years to come.

Three years into my ownership of the car, on Highway 5 between San Francisco and Los Angeles, I noticed a faint whisp of smoke coming from the hood as I pulled into a gas station. Examining the car, there looked to be a slow oil leak onto one of the exhaust pipes. I was concerned about a blown head gasket, but the car wasn’t overheating and the oil and coolant looked good, and the dipstick wasn’t showing any major oil loss, so I bought a few bottles of oil, topped up the crankcase, crossed my fingers, and continued to LA, stopping every so often to check the oil. It made it to LA and home using a quart or so of oil, and examining it closer, it didn’t appear to be a valve cover or head gasket issue – rather, oil was coming out between the engine and transmission.

I took it to a mechanic that had been recommended to me – a former Subaru dealership mechanic who now worked out of a 76 station. He said he’d need to pull the engine and I saw winged dollar signs but he explained the Subaru flat-four would take him maybe an hour to pull and an hour to replace. The issue looked to be a bad separator plate between the engine and the transmission. My Subaru had a plastic plate, and he could put in a metal plate from a later-model Sube. My car was also coming due for a timing belt, which it made sense to replace while the engine was out, and he recommended replacing the water pump & cam seals along with that. All told, the repair estimate was close to $1500.00.

The car had over 200,000 miles on it at the time, this was going to be an expensive repair, but so far my Subaru had proved reliable, and I’d come to like it. Doing this work would, I thought, give me at least a few more years of use out of the car.

The black plastic piece on the right can crack after many miles. Later Subarus upgraded this part to a metal plate.

A few days later my car was ready, with all the oil steam cleaned off the engine and chassis, and I enjoyed many more largely troublefree years with the car. Every so often, it would require a minor repair, but these would generally be something I could tackle, or could be handled by a visit to the 76 station.

When working on the car myself, I was impressed with how easy it was to repair the car. The starter was mounted to the top of the motor, and when it came time to replace it, I found I could bolt a new one on without crawling under the car. The Legacy was the first car I’d owned with OBD2, and when the check engine light went on, I borrowed a scanner from Autozone and figured out it was a bad knock sensor, a doughnut-shaped part that bolted to the engine block that was perhaps a 20-minute repair.

On a trip back from Yosemite, I hit the limits of the all-season tires and slid on an icy road, one wheel hanging precariously over the edge of a steep downgrade. It seemed advisable not to wait in the car as it was in a precarious position, so the passengers and I climbed out the passenger side, grabbing our jackets, gloves, and hats as it was cold and snowing. A passing ranger had a recovery strap in his truck and was able to pull us back onto the road. After this, I got in the habit of carrying a recovery strap in the Subaru and had occasion to use it a few times.

Off the road, outside Yosemite.

On another trip to visit Jean’s family in LA over the holidays, I heard the telltale sound of the wear indicators hitting the rear discs. I figured I could probably wait until I got back to San Francisco to replace the pads, but a few days later, I heard the disheartening sound of metal hitting metal when applying the brakes. My father-in-law offered me the use of his garage and tools, drove me to an independent auto parts store for parts, and we spent the afternoon doing the brakes on the car. I was concerned I’d trashed one of my discs, but I remember him examining it closely, dragging his fingernail across the surface of the rotor to check for scoring, and saying he’d reused far worse ones in the past. He has since passed away, and while I have many memories of the man, this day spent working on a car with him always stands out.

Quite a few Decembers after buying the car, I was at band practice and Jean was heading out to visit friends in Alameda. We parked the Subaru on the street, and in SF, that often means parking several blocks from where you live. I had parked the car earlier, but she couldn’t find it where I had left it. After some texting and phone calls, it became evident the car was gone. I phoned City Tow on the off chance it had been towed, but it dawned on us that our car had been stolen. The Subaru was then about 20 years old, and I had naively thought that such cars weren’t targets of theft.

As it turned out, numerous Japanese cars from the era before immobilizer keys are frequently and quite easily stolen – often as quick though illegal transportation rather than to break up for parts. I filed a police report, and someone familiar with the situation explained just how easy it was to steal these cars and told me that it might show up fairly soon with the locks intact, most likely within 20 miles from where it was taken, and quite possibly smelling of marijuana.

I held out hope that it would resurface, but after it had been gone for over a month, I figured it was time to look for a replacement.

I was now fairly familiar with Subarus, and was curious about picking up a WRX (or perhaps a SAAB 9.2x Aero – essentially a rebadged WRX), but it became evident that these were out of my price range and often in poor shape or suffering from ill-advised modifications. I hadn’t bought a car in nearly a decade, and the days of a 10-year-old car with 100,000 miles selling for perhaps 20-25% of MSRP seemed to be long gone.

After looking at a number of candidates, mostly Subarus of various vintages, I found a 1997 Legacy in decent shape. Other than the color and a few minor differences, it was very much like my 1995. I didn’t know the engine’s history, so I sprang for a new timing belt and water pump (given the mileage, it seemed overdue). I also put on a set of General Altimax tires – not a true snow tire, but an all-season that I found worked OK in light to medium snow. I began to refer to it as the “Silver Legacy” (also the name of a casino in Reno)

The Silver Legacy

My new Legacy went on several trips to Tahoe and made a trip in winter to Yosemite (free of mishaps this time). After owning the 1997 for about 2 months, I received a call from the police in Colma that my 1995 Legacy had been found. It had been abandoned in the parking lot of Lucky Chances Casino, a cardroom in Colma, and was currently sitting at a tow lot.

I went to claim it the next morning, having no idea what shape it was in. Looking it over, all my tools were missing from where I had stored them in the spare tire well, and the radio faceplate had been stolen. but the car was otherwise much as it was when I’d last seen it. The locks were intact, and thankfully there were no odd odors inside. Thre was, however, a brand new, still in the box control arm for a Honda Fit sitting in back, presumably left there by whoever had stolen it. The battery was dead, and wouldn’t respond to a jump pack at the tow lot. I recalled that I’d replaced my battery less than a year before, and the lot let me pull the battery and take it to Autozone where I was able to swap it for a fresh one under warranty. Installing the new battery, the car started right up, and after settling the paperwork, I drove home in my lost and then found Legacy.

My Legacy at the impound lot

When I’d initially learned my Legacy had been recovered, I had debated over whether to keep the white 1995 or the silver 1997. Driving my 1995 home from the impound lot, though, it felt far more familiar – like pulling on a broken-in pair of shoes, and my mind was made up. The 1997 was newer and had fewer miles on it, but I’d only owned it for a few months, and it was an unknown quantity, whereas I’d been maintaining and repairing the 1995 for years. I swapped over the nearly new tires and alloy wheels from the 1997 onto the 1995, as well as a stereo I’d recently put in, and advertised the 1997 for sale.

I listed the 1997 for about what I’d bought it for – it had a new timing belt, as well as a fuel pump, but it was slow going trying to sell it, and it having over 100K miles may have put some people off. I finally sold it to a musician acquaintance and would see it around town occasionally afterward.

I put in a kill switch and a steering wheel lock in my white 1995 Legacy, as well as a dummy blinking red LED on the dash (the car was often parked blocks from my house, and car alarms are just background noise in San Francisco but I figured it couldn’t hurt) and it went back into service as my regular driver.

Piled high with a load of 100-year-old pecky cedar boards from a lumber salvage yard. Unlike today’s nominal dimension lumber, they measured a true 1 inch thick by 12 inches wide.

It continued to be reliable, though like any older car, it required an occasional repair. A wheel bearing went bad, making an alarming airplane sound. A windshield was replaced due to rock damage, and a back window was replaced due to vandalism. The fuel pump went out, which I replaced on the street a block or so from my house. It continued to run well and rack up the miles.

At Lake Tahoe in winter

12 years into my ownership, it turned over 300,000 miles – which I made a point of documenting:

Somewhere around this time, I’d received a letter from the state of California informing me that I could voluntarily retire my car and receive a $1,500 payment. I’d known a few people who’d taken advantage of this program to retire their beaters, but my Subaru was still running great and was reliable on the regular trips Jean and I took out of town. Interestingly enough, I’ve never received such a letter about my 1965 Falcon – I’m guessing that the state has some cutoff year before which they don’t send letters to avoid antagonizing the owners of vintage autos.

I drove the Subaru for a year or so longer, but the idea that I could quickly cash it in did stay in my head. It was coming due for a new timing belt, it had a control arm bushing that was worn, and something in the ABS system was acting up, leading me to disable the ABS by pulling a relay under the hood until I could fix it. The Legacy, though still running well, was reaching a point where it would require some time and money to be spent on it to continue to deliver reliable transportation.

At around this time, a 2017 Subaru Forester in my family was coming off lease and I had the opportunity to do the lease buyout for the remaining value. I’d borrowed this Forester a few times for trips to Tahoe and was impressed with how it drove, and I started to consider upgrading to a newer car. The fact that I could quickly convert my Legacy to cash definitely played a factor. Initially, the Forester seemed like too new, too nice, and too expensive a car for me, and I briefly looked at used Subarus a few years older, but the 2017 Forester seemed far more appealing, and not all that much more expensive, and Jean and I were able to marshal funds to do the buyout.

As the end of the lease approached, the paperwork was completed, and for a while at least, we owned two Subarus. Based on my experiences trying to sell the 1997 Legacy a few years before, the $1500.00 buyout was around what I could get if I tried to sell the car, and it would avoid the headaches of doing a private-party sale.

I did, though, have mixed feelings about essentially scrapping what had been a very reliable car. It still drove well. I would have no qualms taking it on a trip of several hundred miles. The paint was still shiny. The interior had held up remarkably well – the front seat upholstery was still in good shape and it had never needed seat covers. All the power accessories still worked. Had a friend or family member been in need of cheap wheels, I would have gladly handed the Legacy off.

I didn’t know anyone in need of a car, though, so I cleared out my tools from the tire well and random junk from the glovebox, pulled the stereo (which had been purchased for the silver Legacy, was transferred to the white Legacy after being recovered, and now resides in my Falcon), gathered my paperwork, and drove across San Francisco to an auto wrecker on 3rd Street who participated in the California buyback program.

The counterman made a point of telling me that once I signed the car over, it couldn’t be undone – the car would be retired and that was that – I wondered if they’d run into problems with people having second thoughts. It made sense to let this car go. I had a new vehicle, and I had most definitely got my money’s worth out of my Legacy. Well over 100,000 miles and nearly 13 years of use for a car I’d spent less than $2,000 on. I sighed, signed the paperwork, collected my check, and silently said goodbye to my Subaru. I snapped a final photo on my phone as I left the auto wreckers.

It was a pleasant day, and I decided to walk home. The auto wrecker was maybe a 15-20 minute walk to my house, and as I headed back home, I felt a bit sad. I didn’t regret letting the Legacy go, but in doing so I felt like I’d let down a faithful friend. It felt faintly like taking a pet to be put down. The car had been a constant in my life for many years, and now it was gone. Over dinner that night, Jean was also similarly sad to see the car go but agreed our newer car made sense. Marie Kondo was big at the time, and her idea of expressing thanks and gratitude when letting go of an item that had filled its purpose felt applicable here – the Legacy had delivered reliable service far above what we expected of it.

I was not all that familiar with Subarus and a bit apprehensive of them when I purchased my Legacy, but I’ve become quite familiar with the quirks and strengths of the brand, and I hope that my new-ish Forester will give me as much use as I got out of my Legacy.