COAL: My Very First Car, a 1991 Subaru Legacy – Who Needs An Oil Change Anyway?

(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.

The Subaru after I had dragged it home from the industrial parking lot.


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.

A very 90’s interior, with a non-airbag two spoke steering wheel, automatic shoulder belts, a simple dashboard and center console, and the infernal retractable dash cupholders, only good for holding cans of soda while blocking access to the radio and HVAC controls.


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.

Friends climbing out of the car as we road-tripped to Chicago for the Big Ten basketball tournament.


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…

The author and his car in high school.