The old wagon was sagged comically in the back, where it was loaded down with all of the possessions of a young man getting ready to close one chapter of his life and begin another: books, records, clothes, and all the detritus of two years of college. There was a lot l was leaving behind, including the weeping, beautiful young woman standing in the driveway I was turning out of with a sense of finality.
Two weeks later, the car would need to be sold to a new owner and I would be spending the next several years without a car, alone in the Big Apple with the future looming wide open, like a chasm. And when I found myself lost, I would often think back to that car that had served as a faithful mule and always got me where I needed to go. All this time later, I can still remember how I felt as I backed out of that driveway. I was thinking: It is hard to let go.
I bought “Sunshine,” a 1995 Subaru wagon, in 2003 with the money I had made as a sleepaway camp counselor the previous two summers. She was a salvage title and the window sticker that was folded up in the glove box showed that she had migrated all the way from Juneau to LA. This was the first car I purchased myself, and I remember haggling $200 off during the negotiation. The next day, I proudly spent that money on a CD player and new speakers installed at a Circuit City (remember those?) The salvage title was due to an accident to the rear of the car, which was cosmetic and had been repaired decently, so there was no effect on the mechanicals. Sunshine had some minor quirks like a missing side mirror, a cracked taillight, deeply corroded battery terminals, and a passenger door that would only open from the outside. I remember one date freaking out about that when I picked her up for dinner.
“Sunshine” was the perfect name for this car’s sunny disposition. It was a pretty gutless ride, but it always got me where I needed to go; it was the little car that could. I can still remember her tired 2.2L 4 cylinder engine firing up in the dead of winter when it was 30 degrees outside and the glass had a layer of frost half an inch thick that took ten minutes (or a bucket of lukewarm water) to defrost.
It feels like Sunshine and I spent a lot of time fleeing one place for another. I recall flaming out of the college town where the menial job I was working had dried up; I remember moving in and out of my parents’ house. “Mom, I got into the one school I applied to!” I gushed, as I waved the acceptance letter over my head. “Maybe you’re an underachiever,” she responded.
While attending classes at Cal Poly, I moonlighted as a musician, playing at the local pubs and coffeehouses. Sunshine swallowed all my musical gear: Keyboards, guitars, amps, mic stands, all of it. I recall a number of occasions where I would travel and sleep out of the wagon, too. It was long and flat back there, and easy to curl up in at the beach, where alternatively, you could pull down the tailgate and lounge.
The old Subaru needed very little to keep chugging, and in hindsight, I could have done much of the work myself if I knew anything about cars, but I did not. I recall a cracked axle, some torn CV boots, and the corroded battery that I really should have replaced earlier. I know what you are thinking: What about the dreaded Subaru head gasket? I never had to do it.
In addition to playing music and going to school, I held down a job at the bookstore in town. After working there for a couple of weeks, one of the baristas upstairs caught my eye. We had both been preparing for the GRE, and we bonded over this common ground. We started dating and the relationship blossomed while we kept it a secret at work. One day, Diana got an acceptance letter to UCLA, which meant she was going to move to LA. “We won’t be that far apart, we can still see each other on weekends,” she said as she broke the news to me. But within two weeks, I had been accepted to NYU, and the writing was on the wall that we were going to be living separate lives in different places.
Living in NYC would mean that I no longer needed a car. This meant that I’d either have to ask my parents to dock Sunshine for the next two years or that I would have to give her up. It wasn’t fair to ask the former, so I reluctantly opted for the latter. I put the car up for sale on Craigslist (which I’d become an expert in handing off my belongings through) and found a taker for a little more than half of what I had paid four years earlier. As I recall, the buyer wanted it to haul his bike around with. Seeing Sunshine drive off for the last time felt a lot like pulling out of my girlfriend’s driveway for the last time; I forced myself not to look back over my shoulder.
During those years in NYC, I missed driving. I lost my California tan, and I shaved off all my locks. The winters were long and frigid, and I felt like a specter as I blended into the big city. During that first year, Diana came out to visit once or twice. Increasingly, we talked on the phone or used the then-newish Facetime, and something started to happen to me: I fell in love. I realized that we were growing together and not apart, that we were on parallel lines. We entered into a cross-country, long-distance relationship, and we vowed to stay together, not letting time or distance interfere.
Two years later, we received our degrees and reunited back in California. We agreed to move to the place where the first one of us landed a job. That turned out to be me, and we migrated up to the Bay Area. Once I got established up there, it was time to get another vehicle, and guess what I ended up with? A 2003 Subaru Outback that I dubbed “Big Red” (a COAL for another day, perhaps?).
Today, 15 years later, Diana and I are happily married. And while I had to let go of Sunshine, it was the car I always remember fondly when I think about this very impactful period of my life, the younger years where there was a lot of change in the winds.
Using Carfax, I was able to determine that after I sold Sunshine with about 165k on the clock, she soldiered on to 198k before landing in a scrapyard. She was a faithful car to the bitter end, eventually harvesting her organs to keep other Subarus on the road. I wish I could have kept her, and while the followup was a great car, too, there was something about the first one that had got ahold of my heart. It was the best car I ever had, hands down.
Sunshine taught me an important lesson:
There are few second chances in life, so if you have a good thing… hold onto it.
Nice story, and the Subaru wagons are always a good hook to read about, slow, but they’ll generally get you there (and back!). Frog and Peach was after my time, I think I spent more time at Bull’s (memories are foggy…) and then Mother’s was started by a classmate of mine. A lively bar scene there. I met my wife in that town too, glad it worked out for you.
Thanks Jim, one day you and I will hopefully get to have a beer and talk about our parallel lives that seemed to have been separated by about a generation. Maybe when I get to the part of my chronology where move out to Colorado, ha 😉
Frog and Peach Pub is still a really cool spot in SLO. When I was there, it was known for lively reggae on the weekends. Linnaea’s, a coffee shop over on Garden street, was another favorite spot of mine to play or to get breakfast at. Since I married a local girl, I’m back in SLO a couple times a year. I do love it there.
Beautiful story. Cars do offer us independence. And a car does not have to be pretty with all the bells and whistles to earn our love. I have always had a difficult times letting go of cars, except my Ford Escape that failed me at every turn. But I have had several Honda’s and I wish I had them all back today.
The “dreaded headgasket problems” didn’t ‘t happen to the 2.2’s. Timing belt/water pump/tensioner failures were infrequent inconveniences, not disasters as they were on 2,5’s, since the 2.2 engines of Sunshine’s day were freewheeling engines and weren’t prone to self-destruction. If the belt fails, you line things back up, install a new timing belt, and you’re good for another quarter of a million miles (almost literally, in some cases!) I contend that they were the best Subaru engines ever built. Mine outlived two vehicles, and would now be in a third if New England rust hadn’t consumed all the transplant candidates. I miss my old Forester! (and before someone “corrects” me, Foresters came with 2.5’s, but 2.2 were an easy swap as happened to mine.)
What a beautiful, happy ending! Sometimes things, events and people come full circle. Glad that yours happened for you.
Love. It’s what makes a Subaru, a Subaru.
Subaru had all those commercials with dogs, too, that struck a chord with me. They had one where you see the kid grow up alongside the chocolate lab that always got my eyes foggy since I am definitely a dog person. I was too young to have my own dog when I owned Sunshine, but Diana and I traveled everywhere with our dog, Charley, when I got the followup Outback.
Wonderful COAL with a great ending, a nice Sunday evening read, thanks.
I lived in Scranton, PA during the early to mid aughts and while not as nearly as prevalent as in the EJ25, head gasket issues did exist in the EJ22 just as they could in almost any engine. Source: roomate was a tech at Minooka Subaru and I moonlighted at a Subaru-only (-ish, we did service other makes but 95% Subaru) shop. Both of us saw several, but not an alarming amount of 2.2 HG jobs, including my 91 Legacy sedan. Factoring in Subarus being one of the most common brands in the city at the time one can average it out I guess. Trust me the 2.5 became my meal ticket, but 2.2s did blow HGs. While everyone has an opinion on how/why a 2.2 could require a HG job, I never let it sway my opinion on the ej22 being a solid engine. 2.2 swap into a 2.5 car all day, every day.
I also like the fact that I am reading this CC after I just boxed up my project 2003 Outback’s heads to drop off at a machine shop during my lunch break tomorrow. The 2nd gen Outback is my favorite of the models, decent styling outside and IMO the best interior of them all. Yes they can be needy, even after a quality HG job, timing belts & water pumps, front CV axles, but it isn’t all bad. I love the wagon on snow days, so it’s worth it.
The ’03 I owned after Sunshine did require the head gasket repair. That was the only receipt the previous owner passed along, but it was the most important one!
Terrific COAL. It is rather amazing when cars take us along a journey of various stages of our lives.
I laughed at the part about haggling $200 off the sales price and then sinking that money directly into a CD player and new speakers. I have a feeling that about 50% of used-car purchasers during that period did the same thing. I had considered doing exactly that too when I bought a used Ford Contour in 2000 because the stereo’s face plate was damaged, but when I mentioned it to the dealer, they offered to put in a new stereo instead. I found that a great bargain because then I got to avoid Circuit City.
With some cars you double the value of the car every time you fill the gas tank. It’s ok to make it comfortable and fun. It’s not like you can get another car for the price of a radio.
Swap out the brand and I can completely relate.
New love makes your bond with your vehicle special. Same with new adventures, birth, new jobs. A vehicle is a tool that doesn’t change as we do. Looking back on these vehicles makes us realize how important stability, can be.
Generations ago, this built a car brand’s loyalty. Bet you will always seek out a Subaru.
After Sunshine, I owned an ’03 and ’05. The ’05 I only ended up keeping for about a year because it needed too many costly repairs. Although the ’03 was a good car, it still seemed like head gasket repairs and catalytic converters (there were three or even four on the ’05 – I don’t exactly remember) got me wary of staying loyal to the brand. I also didn’t like the migration away from the wagon shape.
After the Subarus, I learned to wrench on my own cars and bought a Honda Element that I modified into a camper. It has been a great ride, and I’m going to keep it as long as I can.
If I didn’t already have a project vehicle in my Westy, I might consider picking up an old Outback to relive the glory days. But I know it wouldn’t be the same; I’m at a different place in life now.
Good story. Can certainly relate to how a brand can ‘stick’ to you through a lot of travels (and travails). First new car I got out of college was an Escort wagon, bought from a dealer that also carried Subies, but the GL/DL just looked too “homely”. If’n I had only knowed…
Second was the Loyale Turbo AWD wagon with 1.0 which acquitted itself well between home and Beserkshires. Added a 90 Legacy sedan when M&D bought something or other.
Later shifted to off-lease cars, 96 Outback wagon in that great green-over-platinum, a 98 Outback Sport same colors, an 05 Forester which 1.0 replaced with more recent one.
Speaking of replacements, when 2.0 came along, back to the brand with my 05 LGT wagon which will soon be for sale as its replacement gets flat-bedded this weekend.
Love. Its what reclaimed me as a Subaru owner.
I have one just like it right now it’s 96 manual red legacy 2.2
I have a 1994 Subaru legacy wagon with a 100802 Miles.
I bought it with 15000 miles on it from my Brother that had bought it for my Mom. I Have had it serviced every 3,000 miles. We live in a little Mountain community in Wyo. I have had no major repairs and had it serviced every 3,000 miles.
I some times thought about putting a snow plow on fount
as with my 2 yr old snow tires I switch out for winter time can go though any snow.
I was looking forward to the deep snow we get here.
But a deer had a different idea.Driving home late at night a deer jumped out in front of my car and took out the front grill AC Condencer, radiator, and hood.
The airbab went off an me and my passenger were fine.
We halled th back to my Daughter’s house and move condencer and radiator forward and she ran like a top.
She sits in my daughter back lot at her house wit a strap over the hood to keep the weather off and battery out in storage.
I just had liability sotdont know what to do.The shops want way too much to repair and even with my 2 set of winter tires wit almost no wear.
I was hoping to have someone interested as a project car and put another 100000 plus miles on her.