(a slightly belated welcome to John Li, our new Sunday COALman. He’s got some great stories to share) I grew up the only gearhead in the family. My parents viewed cars as nothing more than daily transportation, and weren’t quite sure what to make of my early obsession with automobiles. My elementary school had a subscription to Motor Trend — in retrospect, I’m not sure why an elementary school would have such a thing — and I discovered it in second grade. Shortly thereafter, I convinced my parents to get me a subscription, and it literally changed my life forever. Add in a healthy dose of the video game Gran Turismo at a formative period of my life, and the die was cast.
When I was very young and the family was living in Pennsylvania, my parents bought a lightly used Subaru Legacy from an Altoona dealership. One of the few memories I remember as a wee tot was running up and down the dealership lot where there were a small selection of sedans, two of them robin’s egg blue. I liked the one with the cool stripes the best, and that was the car we ended up taking home.
That Subaru Legacy, along with a cheap Chevy Celebrity station wagon that my father bought for $500, moved my folks, my brother, and me from State College, Pennsylvania to Champaign-Urbana, Illinois where I’d spend the rest of my childhood growing up. The Subaru was the family truckster up until 2001, when my parents decided to replace the Subaru with a brand new Toyota Camry.
My father, who had started his own small laboratory business, kept the Subaru around as a company car, lending it out to employees to drive around. But eventually, the car was parked behind the lab in the parking lot, where it sat for a year. When I turned sixteen, I decided that I needed a car to call my own. Well, we had a “free” car that no one else wanted to drive around, so I decided to claim it.
But first, I had to get the car moving.
I arrived at the parking lot behind the lab to find a forlorn car with a flat tire. I was stuck. At the time, I was a kid with no mechanical know-how at all. I could recite stats of my favorite supercars, but I knew nothing about how to work on an automobile. I didn’t know the first step to changing a wheel.
Fortunately, one of the lab employees was willing to lend a hand after work. He showed me that there was a spare wheel and tire in the trunk, and showed me how to change the flat. We added some fluids, and I had a running car! I drove the car home and was ecstatic.
That Subaru was my ride for my junior and senior years of high school, and when I attended the local University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the car came with. The car took me and my unimpressed date to the high school prom, and once I was in college, my friends and I drove around the country following the basketball team, the only year in decades that Illinois basketball was any good. Those were great times.
I’m ashamed to admit that I don’t ever remember changing the oil in that car the entire time I drove it around. If it was any other motor other than the indestructible 2.2L boxer four, I’m sure the car would have died a natural death well before I wrecked it.
It was the summer after freshman year when the car made its last trip. I was doing one of those summer painting “internships” where young naive kids are convinced to spend their entire spring semester going door-to-door offering and doing estimates and their summers painting houses, pitched as “running your own business” and not more realistically as “you will be in servitude until you earn back the cost of the equipment we’re giving you, and even after that we’re taking a big cut.” I was rushing from one job to another when I pulled out of my parallel parking space without taking enough time to check over my shoulder that no one was coming my way.
BAM! A small Ford Ranger pickup truck rammed right into the driver side front fender, turning the wheel inward so far that the Subaru had a seriously hilarious case of pigeon toes.
Fortunately, all drivers were okay. The driver of the Ford Ranger got out of his truck, gruffly made sure I was alright before calling the cops, paying me no more attention until the police report was finished.
I was heartbroken. I loved my little blue Subaru Legacy. I had known it for nearly my entire life at that point, and I was sure that I was going to keep the car going forever. (Despite the fact that I didn’t know that oil changes were a thing!)
I thought that maybe the car could be fixed up, but my parents were having none of it. They were right, of course. In the grand scheme of things, the car was just a normal car, with nothing special about it. Adult me would agree, as the car was slow, had those annoying automatic shoulder belts, and had those nearly useless cup holders that popped out of the dash and blocked your radio and HVAC controls.
But you always remember your first car. I remember my little Subaru Legacy fondly, for giving me my very first taste of freedom, to the memories made in the car with friends on long trips.
Every now and then, I think about buying another Subaru Legacy and reliving a little bit of my youth. It’d have to be an early 90s Legacy Turbo or a 2000s Legacy GT though. As wonderful as my time was with that 2.2L 4-speed automatic Subaru Legacy was, I want a rosy reminder of my youthful experience, not an exact facsimile, ha.
I was determined that the next car I would own would be a stick shift, so I could be a Real Car Enthusiast. There was just one little problem: I didn’t know how to drive stick, and neither did my parents, nor the vast majority of my friends…
John, welcome to the COAL mines!
I am also a UIUC guy. I was already an alum by the time the basketball team was good again but that was a hell of a ride. One of my favorite memories of the almost-championship season was watching Illinois just demolish northwestern up in Evanston.
Welcome here, John. Great story; I look forward to reading more!
Welcome to the club, John! Great first COAL.
My first car, handed down from my older sister, a 1970 Plymouth Duster. Ah 1981, what a good year.
Welcome to the club, John! Wonderful first effort, and a great story!
I had one of those Legacies a 93 Wagon NZ assembled with 1800cc four and carby, my daughter uncle had owned it many years having spent thousands just out of warranty replacing the transmission unfortunately where he had it serviced had zero knowledge of how carburettors work, it took a while to sort that out but once I did the car ran better performed better (still slow) and drank less gas (still expensive to run) it was a nice enough car to drive as long as you arent in a hurry with average road holding compared to the Peugeot 406 it replaced the 4WD was handy for playing in mud down by the river and for traction on loose surfaces but it made the car savage on petrol and being an automatic did not have the off switch the manuals came with, I replaced it with a $300 diesel Toyota Corona wagon figuring if I was going to have a slow car I’d have one that was cheap to run too.
Oh man. I thought my 2.2L NA car was slow… I didn’t realize there was a carb’d 1.8L version! Learned something new today!
Welcome to the COAL club. I grew up in a non-enthusiast house hold as well. My parents had no mechanical and very little DIY interest so I have had to self teach myself over the years.
I love the stripe kit on the Subaru. Very 90s!
Your Subaru looks really nice, looking forward to another COAL articles.
I like the C-pillar treatment, it gives an impression of even better visibility from the car. Or is it really thinner than in other comparable vehicles?
I think other cars of the late 80s and early 90s had similarly thin A and C pillars; I think the effect is exaggerated here as it appears that some designer just threw their hands in the air and tried to squeeze as much glass as possible underneath the roofline. The car had frameless windows, which probably helps accentuate the sea of glass look…
You’ve got talent as a writer. Fresher memories allows you to describe more than just a car. Your story is rich with details of events and feelings associated with the car. Old guys like me have often lost these more subtle memories to time. Looking forward to reading more from you.
Welcome to the club! Nice Soobie, I had one of that generation as a rental for a couple of weeks after totalling one of my own COAL’s after college (around ’93 or ’94). Not the fastest thing or anywhere close to it but impressively solid and stable in poor weather conditions. It left me a Subaru fan from them on, so one of the times a rental car helped to impress in a positive way. I’m looking forward to next Sunday already!
I liked these Legacys — I knew someone who bought a slightly-used 1990 Legacy sedan, and it was a refreshing change from the all-too-common Hondas and Toyotas that folks tended to gravitate to at the time for used car purchases. The frameless doors lent and upscale image, and the car seemed overall well-built and reliable.
Looking back on Subaru’s development, these early Legacy sedans seem like an evolutionary dead-end. In the 1970s & ’80s Subarus had a somewhat rustic & unconventional image — then the brand cultivated an outdoorsy image in the 2000s. But stuck between those two eras was the Legacy — trying to compete head-on with Accords & Camrys until Subaru decided that might not be the best strategy.
Great story here — looking forward to more in this series!
I assume it’s no coincidence that your family lived in two college towns?
It’s not. My father did two post-docs, one at Penn State, and one at the University of Illinois.
There’s still a few of these around. I shot one almost identical to yours not long ago, but now I can’t find it.
Cue up the Fountains of Wayne’s song ” ’92 Subaru”……..
Welcome to the COAL club johnli.
“… Every now and then, I think about buying another Subaru Legacy and reliving a little bit of my youth…”.
That is probably a very common sentiment here in CC world. I stop and read in detail any ad or auction of any of the cars of my youth, young adult time, middle age, and on. But, then I think of the short comings of those vehicles, the much better attributes of my current rides, where I am now (not wanting to take on the maintenance of an old car), and I think that while one can enjoy rose colored memories triggered by specific cars, it’s a rare situation where one can actually relive those treasured memories through a car.
But, some here have done just that, or never gotten rid of their old rides, or both (e.g., LT Dan), and their entertaining CC COALs can attest to their successes. So, go for it if -and- when you can, and let us know about it.
Thank you for taking the time to share your COALs with CCers; I’m looking forward to the next chapter.
LT Dan has so many cars that they don’t all need to be running at a given time!
Nice writeup, thanks for sharing your story, in an honest manner. Welcome to the ranks of the COAL writers. Your writing is very readable and I look forward to your next article.
Your Subaru was a car that I thought of at the time to be well off the mainstream, certainly as compared to Subaru of today. My son has a WRX, and I enjoy hearing him drive up the street, it sounds so different from every other car on the road, it is so distinctive.
Hi John- welcome and thanks for sharing your story. I knew someone who had the wagon version of that Legacy- same color, too. Having been a passenger in a couple different Legacies from that era, my recollection was that they were very solidly built. Of course, being Subarus, they also had those wonderful Soobie quirks–especially that boxer 4–that made them so endearing.
As soon as I could drive, my dad drilled into my head to check the oil regularly. In fact, I think I wasn’t allowed to drive either my parents’ cars unless I agreed to do so.
Looking forward to your next piece!
Seems that if you don’t change the oil, it turns into COAL.
Nice writing, sir.
These cars were very well-regarded in their time, and rightly, despite the sedan winning the title for Most Inept C-Pillar Join. (What did they do there, forget where the window line was going? Or, worse, did they intend this gargoyle?)
Friend’s parent had the 4wd sedan new, and it was a beautifully-built thing. Sweet to drive too, with a real Euro ride/handling balance, and 2.2 injected twin-cam litres felt very adequate then. Only flaw was most ordinary seats, characteristic of many Japanese cars to that time. They drove it forever, with miles to match. I think a door-lock failed once.
Here’s some trivia for you. These were (and are) called the Liberty here. Legacy is the name of a large and hallowed war veterans volunteer organisation, set up after WW1. Naturally, it was especially busy at the time of the 1989 launch of the car with vets from the war against Japan in WW2, as they had become older men with more needs. Subaru Australia had the doubtless slightly awkward job of telling Japanese head office that they thought it would be indelicate to put that name on a Japanese car here. (There have been a few clashes with head office – and some funny tales – associated with telling Japanese car HQ’s that certain names just couldn’t be used here, with the locals not always winning out either!) Fortunately, head office quickly agreed.
Looking forward to the next installment.
Haha Justy, it is not just your part of the world that these awkward moments happened.
When Subaru was choosing a site for its only USA plant (shared then with Isuzu) it chose some land along State Road 38 outside of Lafayette, Indiana. The road which had been designated as the Bataan Memorial Highway. Subaru is still there, but I have not seen any references to the road’s designation as a Bataan memorial in decades.
Welcome, John – I enjoyed your first installment. I was another one of those isolated gearheads, so understood completely the odd feeling of knowing “everything” about cars except how to actually do something on one.
Welcome to COAL, John. Well written first entry on a Subaru similar to once my mom once owned – a white ’92 Legacy FWD wagon, given to my son to drive in college.
To me that car was Peak Subaru. Fun to drive, economical, handles and stopped well. We’d own two others, a ’98 Legacy Outback that was also a fine ride once we replaced the head gaskets, and an ’05 Outback that was more refined but less fun to drive.
Those old 2.2s would run forever if maintained.
Our 1990 Legacy SE AWD wagon was an 8-year-old hand-me-down from my dad; we had one small child and were about to have another, so AWD and antilock brakes were most welcome even if the automatic transmission wasn’t. It was quite an advance over the ’86 GL (FWD) wagon that my wife brought to our marriage. The ’90 lasted another 5 years until head gasket problems began, and we replaced it with another Legacy wagon, a new 2003 Special Edition 5-speed that we got 15 years of use out of.
Awaiting future installments and their photos.
Welcome aboard John – great post, nicely written! I can relate to your experiences, as back in the mid-90s my parents bought a 1989 Legacy wagon, and I’d forgotten all about those awful cupholders until you mentioned them. Your dashboard photo brought everything back too… But that was the only negative I can remember, as my parents’ one was a JDM GT turbo wagon, the first turbo I ever drove, and it was seriously quick for the time (not to mention just a tiny bit savage when the single turbo kicked in!). It was actually a very nice car and totally changed my opinion of Subaru. It also changed my parents’ opinion, as that was their first Subaru, and they’re on their fifth (an XV) now.
Anyway I digress, great to read your experiences and looking forward to the next chapters!
Maybe I’m alone on this one: But to me this first gen legacy sedan is one of the best sedan designs.Ever. Just so clean and elegant. The light blue works perfectly to compliment its lines. Even the stripes can’t ruin it. If anything, they lend it some period-correct atmosphere.
Thanks for a great post, and welcome at CC!
I forgot to mention that I am a huge fan of the blacked out pillars/floating roof effect that was popular at the time. Could make for an interesting post in itself, cars with this design feature….I would write it but my second child is born any minute now, so…. Anyone? Tatra87?
Nice looking first car, I always found the styling on these nice to look at. Well, glad you were not hurt and now you know about oil changes.
My dad had a 1993 Legacy wagon with one airbag from 1997-2008 until a rear strut tower broke due to metal fatigue from salting the roads. It was a bit small for me to learn stick shift on though, but it was a nice car.