COAL: 2003 Subaru Legacy L Wagon: The Dowager Queen

Ten years old and the cover of Vogue.

[This installment has been delayed by first, me taking my family out of New York during the blooming of the Omicron wave of the coronavirus pandemic, and then, me coming down with symptoms of coronavirus on the highway out of the city. The ensuing two weeks of quarantine guaranteed that everyone in my family acquired it and then healed from it. Now we are home again, and everyone else in my social circles are getting sick. But I have access to my photos again!

In the summer of 2002, I drove my sister Elisabeth up and down Route 17 in Paramus to Japanese import dealerships because.  Because. Because she had just received a full-ride scholarship to a masters in public health program at the University of Michigan – which she chose to attend over the wooing of the School for Tropical Diseases at the London School of Economics, and my father promised her a new car to take to graduate school.

We stopped at the Mitsubishi dealership, where she drove a Galant on stretches of the limited access highway between the malls. We stopped at the Nissan dealership, where she tried out an Altima, and then, we stopped at Ramsey Subaru where she picked out an an Outback Impreza to test drive. I plumped for the Galant, which I felt had the best road manners.  In truth I knew – know – nothing about cars so two weeks later when Liz picked up a green ’02 Subaru Outback Impreza from the now defunct dealership in Tarrytown, I shrugged and felt I had done my duty. It wasn’t my money, and it was a new car, while I was still driving my ’90 Daytona which was getting by on three hundred dollars worth of repairs every six months.

Aged eleven in front of the North Col driveway.

The driveway to the garage in my parents’ house in Liberty is unfortunately steeply graded. There’s most of ten degrees decline from the horizontal there, and one memorable morning in 1979 after an ice storm, two of Sam The Thief’s wreckers could not drag Mom’s Valiant from the garage up to the street, because the first was trapped in the ice and the second could not drag the first and the Valiant at the same time.  That three sedan long parking cut you see off of Willey Avenue was paved the next summer, and cars were rarely parked in either the garage or in the descending driveway during the winter season.

Christmas of ’02, Liz came home with her new Impreza from Ann Arbor and parked in the driveway knowing a heavy snowstorm was coming. The next morning, I armed myself with shovels and expected a long slog freeing my Daytona, my mother’s Caprice wagon, and my father’s almost-out-of-lease and *definitely* out-of-mileage last Lincoln Continental (a 2001), and, of course, my sister’s Subie, heedlessly parked on the North Face of the Eiger there. Bwwooop. She just drove out. Started the car and drove out. All wheel drive. Bwoop. Paul Symansky came with his front-end loader to clear the driveway, and Liz was out and I was still jockeying the Caprice in front of my Daytona.

The next car would be all-wheel-drive.

Ten months later, I was engaged to be married, had saved up most of ten thousand dollars, and was looking for a new car, because the Daytona only had one airbag and I was no longer going to be one person. The new car would be ruthlessly practical: not sporty, not sexy, but a big useful reliable appliance, which I would extract every single utility from until it collapsed from use like the one-hoss shay. I would be remorselessly self-abnegatory. I had pulled my blond beauty, and there was no more need for sportiness. Remembered my Pontiac, it would be a wagon. There weren’t many all-wheel-drive sedan wagons back then – Audi, Subaru, and Volvo were alone in the compact AWD wagon segment at that time, and in my price range and my comfort zone, only the Subaru ticked all the boxes. All the people who I knew who had recent Volvos were unhappy, and I did not have the guts to buy an Audi for thirty grand on my teacher’s salary. I come from Plymouth people, Chevrolet people, Oldsmobile people. Dad *leased* the Lincolns because Marty Braunstein gave them to him super cheap, but god no buying a *Lincoln*? Never. Also, I was still in my German boycott phase so definitely no Audi. No Outback, because reasons – it would be a plain, brown Subaru four cylinder AWD wagon, the wagon that would carry my first children home from the hospital.

I turned 28 in late October 2003, and part of my birthday celebration was to go to Margate and visit the local dealerships in Atlantic City and Cape May Courthouse and see what ’03’s were left on the showroom floor at the end of the model year.  My friend Klaus at the Margate library also alerted me to the fact that the library stocked the New Car Cost Guide – from the Black Book, the information resource used by insurance adjusters, car dealers, and loan underwriters for asset pricing.  I had the dealer invoice information, option package differentials averaged across the whole country, and I had a little book on bond and loan math so I could work up a down payment and payment schedule on a minimal interest auto loan – which would be the first money I would ever borrow from a bank. I was going to be financially literate.

Before the near-head-on collision on Route 70 in early October, the money I’d saved was going to be spent either at Tiffany’s, Fortunoff’s, or with the assistance of a friend of a friend of a relative in the Diamond District, and I asked Leah if she would be okay with not-a-diamond engagement ring if I bought a new car with most of the money.  She agreed, I spent a thousand dollars on a very pretty 18K gold ring with jewels, and had about eight thousand left for the Subaru.

I would hondel the car. I would bargain as if I represented a hundred generations of sharp marketeers – bottom, bottom dollar.

At Burke Subaru in Cape May Courthouse, there were two 2003 Legacy ‘L’ wagons left – one green and one silver.  I think the silver had a tow hitch installed. At Kerbeck Subaru in Atlantic City, there were two red Legacy wagons. My fiance and I visited both dealerships at the end of the month, did test drives, and then, I asked for the best possible price the salesman could give me. The sales manager at Kerbeck quoted me $18,100.  I took that quote to Burke who beat it by two hundred dollars. I took *that* quote back to Kerbeck who cut their price to $17,200. I sat in the showroom pretending to chew it over, and then I asked for another two hundred off.

I got it. Seventeen grand. I secured the car with a five hundred dollar deposit, went to try to get vehicle financing through my bank – which was not as generous as Subaru Motor Credit, and ended up getting a three year 1.9% APR Chase auto loan for $15,006.60, with seventy-two hundred dollars down, including sales tax, destination charge, for a total purchase contract price of $22,206.60.  Thirty-six payments of $416.85 monthly, until November 2006. The car was to be picked up Veteran’s Day.

This was Kerbeck Subaru on the Black Horse Pike in Atlantic City in 2003.


I wrote up a letter donating the old Daytona to the Chabad of Atlantic County and drove down after school to Margate to drop the Daytona off at Avrahom Rappoport’s house – leaving the keys with the Rebbitzin, and walked the mile and a half to the dealership.


Rabbit Rapoport’s house. The Daytona would sit here for eight months while he waited for me to get another title and sign it over, because New Jersey wouldn’t transfer without an endorsed NY Title.


Finally, I owned a new car, new to me, new to the world. I drove to the old Margate house, ate a two foot club hoagie, drank a bottle of Yoo-Hoo, and drove back to Queens with the Yiddish Radio Project on my new car’s CD player.

What did the car have? Dual moon-roofs, four speed automatic transmission, air-conditioning, cruise control, all-wheel-drive, dual airbags, manually adjustable seats, roof rack, 2.5L 4 cylinder boxer engine, frameless door glass.

I drove Leah to Liberty for our first Thanksgiving together, our families merging around the dining room table – Mom and Dad took out the Aynsley gold-embossed porcelain, the Tudor crystal, they polished the family silver (that a neighbor had hidden for my grandparents in Germany when they fled for their lives) and Leah tried on my mother’s size zero wedding dress, and we made plans to go to a particular bridal store [Charmet, now one with the infinite] in Bayside when we got back to Queens. While parallel-parking the Subaru on Bell Boulevard, and unfamiliar with its dimensions, less than one month after I bought it, I had my first body damage, on the right front fender, when I boinked the protruding chrome steel on a big Ford truck bumper. My gut burned. But…it wasn’t major, no lights were damaged, and I would not be selling the car to anyone, so… I could let it go? The plan was to drive the car into the ground, ten years hence, and, well, I live in New York City. Stuff happens. I could fix it for a grand or I could keep the grand. and use it for something else.

I drove my grandmother to my wedding in my car. I drove my bride home in that car.

Three years passed.  I used the car to move, we drove on vacations throughout the Northeast, nine oil changes, three tire rotations, one differential service, and then, two weeks after the warranty expired, the first brake job, at 37,000 miles.  The tires needed replacement, so I bought a new set of the OEM Bridgestone Potenzas from a wholesale tire shop in Middle Village  and had them put the tires on. That summer, my wife and I spent three weeks at the shore packing up and cleaning out the old house shortly before demolition and reconstruction, and the wagon was big enough for our stuff and the guinea pig cage. That fall of 2006, I paid off the note three months early, receiving the lien release letter which I clipped to the title.

I was going to drive this car into the ground. That Halloween, I was sitting in my dining room reading when I heard smashing noises from the street – someone had clubbed my passenger side mirror off, and I had it repaired in the scratch repair district near Shea Stadium.

The repaired mirror – cost me $20, and worked fine for the next 11 years. You can see the tape residue on the plastic housing.


The first picture of the car I have is from the following summer, after I bought my first digital camera. It was four years old.

Tanglewood parking lot, August 2007.


Late in 2007, the transmission began to be balky, and I had my mechanic, a local guy on Woodhaven Boulevard named Gunter Duy, check it out. He did a fluid flush and found metal particles in the transmission fluid. The flush fixed the problem. Nine more oil changes.  On my birthday in 2007, I was parallel-parking in front of a home-brew store on Horace Harding Expressway in Fresh Meadows and a Chinese lady tried to swerve around me and hit the left front fender.  The insurance adjuster marked everything to be repaired, including the right-hand fender damage from the bumper encounter in front of Charmet on Bell Boulevard four years earlier, and the car was as good as new with 75000 miles.  The car was repaired up in Poughkeepsie, near my in-laws, and I used the rental car benefit from my insurance to rent a Toyota Yaris while it was being repaired. Where was I while it was being repaired? Puerto Rico.

I broke my arm right before the trip in the skating rink in Bryant Park, but I enjoyed my coco frio. Rental Yaris, right. I drove it with my right arm when it had to be parked and when I was not high on Percocets for the pain.

Her insurance company and mine fought over the fault for two-plus years, until the case was settled in the hallway of the Queens Civil Court in Jamaica in January of 2010, in my favor. I got my deductible back,

I went to law school in the fall of 2009, and by 2010, the car was closing in on 80000 miles. Time for the timing belt/water pump. New tires, too – Michelins, for $650 dollars. When I took the car for the dealer service in Queens Village at Star Subaru, the service manager told me that because of “piston-slap” I needed a new short block.  I know nothing about cars, but I knew I was being taken for a fool, so I drove away determined never to take the car for a dealer service again.

How did the car do in the snow? Excellently. Every single time. I always was able to drive out without trouble, even on the worst blizzards. All it needed was a bare patch of pavement under one wheel and we were off.  I learned to drive rear-wheel cars in the snow, so the Subaru was a piece of cake.

Stuck in Margate after the 2010 Boxing Day Blizzard – or were we? We were not. Bwoop. Twenty-six inches of snow. Bwoop.

Gunther handled the struts and shocks the next year, as well as the rear springs and the power steering.  I installed a new exhaust system – after six years, the old system fell off the back of the exhaust manifold. I ordered a cat-back kit from a supplier in Washington state, and had Gunther put it on – about $700. Seven years in, the reason for the car finally came: I drove my firstborn son home from the hospital in that car.

My wife, pregnant in the summer of 2011. The station wagon moment was imminent.

The purpose of a station wagon is to be useful. Ice cream eating

That is chocolate ice cream from Purity in Ithaca, and his first ice cream cone.

and passenger sleeping utility.

  In late 2012, a sweet burning odor came into the cabin – external head-gasket leak. I was so angry. Head gaskets on a car with eighty thousand miles?! I had Gunther switch the OEM head gaskets with pressed steel gaskets guaranteed to solve the problem ($1700), but ten months later in 2013, Leah got into a t-bone collision on Queens Boulevard in the car.  She opened the speeding Hyundai Excel up like a tin can, and the adjuster totaled the car for $6500.  The car was still drivable after the accident, and I noticed the car was tracking straight – no unibody frame deviation affecting the alignment – so what was I to do? Everyone told me to buy a new car.  So I bought the car back for salvage, had it repaired for $5500 in Poughkeepsie, and got the car back at the beginning of November.

The collision repair guy didn’t put my license plate back on. I got a ticket.

In 2015, new tires again, as the car reached 110,000 and the Michelins were getting old – Continental PureContacts.

The last set of tires.

In October of 2015, I bought the new car. But I kept the ’03 two more years. Gunther replaced the front wheel bearings ($1100) and the harmonic balancer, and when the life-time guaranteed exhaust system fell off in 2017, I had him replace that with the guaranteed replacement part. A neighbor backed into it in the spring of 2016 and shattered the front bumper cover, which I replaced with an unpainted bumper cover.  Then, one morning in November 2017, with kid #2 imminent, and a balky start – and a *check engine* light – I had enough. I was pretty sure the downstream oxygen sensor was throwing the check engine fault, but I was in no mood for a major driveline repair on a fourteen year old car with 130,000 miles.

I pulled the battery wire and cleared the check engine fault. Drove it two more weeks without a check engine light. Gunther checked it, said “It is rusted, but not rusty.”
And I put it up on Craigslist. A post-doc at Rockefeller University bought it from me for $2600 – his friend did the test drive and said “it drives like a new car!” and I replied that I maintained the suspension because I had small children and I wanted the vehicle to be as safe as possible. New shocks and struts twice, plus the rear springs.  As of last summer, it is still tooling around San Diego at age eighteen.

All in, I spent $31,560 on the car’s purchase and regular and extra-ordinary maintenance, an additional $14,486 on insurance (dropping collision coverage in the last two years), and $15,182 dollars on gasoline (yes I kept all of my receipts), and got back $2800.  The car cost $0.45 per mile over my fourteen year ownership. This compares very favorably with lifetime expected costs, considering the fact I did not do my own repairs.

The last picture of the car.