Or as I liked to joke, “the highest concentration of 1986 Subaru XT Turbos east of the Mississippi River.”
Why do we like some of the cars we do? It’s pretty obvious why some cars are well liked: they are fast, they are stylish, they are emotional, and if we’re lucky, they’re all three. But there are some cars that you’d be hard pressed to explain why you like them.
Make no mistake, the Subaru XT Turbo is a terrible car. And yet, I love them. But sometimes, a deep love isn’t enough to overcome the crippling reality.
My introduction to the most angular Subaru ever
For a long time, I never knew that the Subaru XT and XT6 existed. I lived in the Midwest, where early Subarus weren’t as popular as, say, the Pacific Northwest or the snowy mountainous areas of the Eastern US, and any 80s Subaru that had the misfortune of living through a salty Midwestern winter had returned to the earth well by the end of the 90s.
And yet, as luck would have it, one of the most diehard Subaru XT6 fans happened to live in my neck of the woods. When I started autocrossing with the Champaign County Sports Car Club, I was amazed to find a Subaru XT6 competing at the local events. It was the first Subaru wedge that I had ever laid eyes on.
The owner of the car was a man named Jim. He was one of the moderators of the now-defunct XT/XT6 board, the name of which I simply can’t remember anymore. But anyhow, he knew his way around the Subaru XT6, and his maroon car, nicknamed “Ruby Red,” was an XT6 modified with the suspension bits from a WRX, running in the Street Touring Sport (STS) class. It was never going to be a competitive autocross car, but I was tickled pink that this cool little car was built to terrorize cones and curvy roads.
I managed to convince Jim to let me drive the car at an event, but a storm with torrential rains and strong winds ended up canceling the event where I was supposed to drive the car. (Hard to hold an autocross when the wind is blowing away the cones on course!) Rats.
Rust had taken its hold on Red Ruby, so Jim went off and found a rust free car — from Hawaii!! — and brought it back home to Illinois, transplanting all of his go-fast bits to the new car. As it was a black XT6, he christened it “Black Betty,” and continued to autocross that car and use it as a daily driver.
After I finished school, I moved to Michigan and began my first real job, working in the auto industry. Now that I was making money, I was constantly on the lookout for fun cars to drive, leading me to bring home a 1966 Ford Mustang, a 1988 Mazda RX7, and a 1967 Saab 96. But all the while, what I really wanted was to find a Subaru XT Turbo or XT6 to call my own.
Finding XT Turbo #1
I had vowed, after the terrible experience of wrenching on a rusty car before, not to have a rusty car serve as a project car.
But most cars from 80s rust, and rust a lot. And Japanese cars from the era, even more so. Add in the fact that the Subaru XT and XT6 never sold all that well to begin with, and frequently suffered from expensive mechanical maladies, and you’ll find that most examples were long since parked, rusted into the ground, or junked well before the turn of the new millennium. I had regular Craigslist searches going, eBay alerts set up, and a regular cadence of checking all of the Subaru forums in an attempt to find a rust free, stock Subaru XT Turbo or XT6, and I’d only get a few hits per year.
At this point, Black Betty had started rusting, as Jim had used it as a winter beater while in Illinois. As I was looking for my own example, I found myself quietly cursing under my breath that Jim had let such a fantastic little car go to ruin. Okay, “ruin” is probably too strong a word, as I’m sure the car could have been patched up, but if I had a completely rust free Subaru XT6, I’d never expose it to salt ever. It didn’t seem like I could ever find a rust free garage queen Subaru, as days turned into weeks turned into months turned into years.
I was making my usual rounds on the internet, looking for a Subaru when an eBay email alert popped into my inbox informing me of a 1986 Subaru XT Turbo for sale in Oregon. I excitedly hurried off and checked out the eBay listing. There it was, an all-black car that looked really solid body wise, with an interior that looked good enough. Even better, the car ran and drove, and the eBay seller mentioned that he had driven the car to and from work a bunch of times, so I figured that the car must be roadworthy.
A quick look at my Craigslist feeds showed that the car was also for sale there locally. I called the seller and explained that I was really interested in his car, and that I wanted to buy it and ship it east to Michigan. But first, would it be okay if my friend in Portland came over and took a look at the car? The seller agreed, and I rung up my friend, asking him to go take a look at the car for me. “If there’s even a speck of rust on the car, let me know,” I told him.
My friend took a look at the car, and reported back that there was no rust on the car at all. I was getting even more excited. I had my friend close the deal for me, sending him money electronically so he could give the seller cash. Once the deal was settled, I hired a shipping company to pick up the car for me and deliver it to my garage.
When the transport truck arrived, I excitedly dashed out my front door to watch the car get unloaded from the truck. Once all four wheels were on the ground, I jumped inside and took the car for a quick spin.
Unfortunately, I couldn’t get the air suspension to raise the car. The test drive was extremely short, as it quickly became apparent that the car was riding on the bump stops, and the car was shaking itself apart. How did the previous owner drive this car to and from work? Perhaps the air suspension was working before and something happened during transport. Or more likely, the previous owner drove the car like this and thought it was just fine.
Essentially undrivable, I parked the car in the back corner of the garage. I figured that if worst came to worst, I could cobble together a strut and coil spring conversion on the car and get it road worthy that way. In the meantime, I had a Miata that I was developing for National Solo competition, and a Mustang that was being prepared for a cross country road trip.
Finding XT Turbo #2
As luck would have it, I managed to find another 1986 Subaru XT Turbo on eBay about a year after I brought the black car back home. This example hailed from the New England region, and as expected, had rust on the body. But most importantly, it had a very clean interior and a supposedly working air suspension.
I put in an absurdly high bid for the car to guarantee that I would get the car. As very few other people in this world are interested in rusty XT Turbos, I won the auction handily. I made arrangements with the seller to have a transport company pick up the car.
This example I actually got to drive around for a little bit once it arrived at my home. You couldn’t inflate the air suspension from the interior switches, but this car came with something worth its weight in gold: a genuine Subaru diagnostic box for all the wacky things the car had, including the air suspension. It was a grey metal brick, with a line of metal toggle switches and LEDs galore, with a cable that came out the side that was plugged into a port next to the driver’s seat.
With the diagnostic box, I could force the air suspension to inflate, ignoring whatever fits the non-serviceable ride height sensors in the air shocks were throwing.
But I didn’t buy the car to drive it around. Before long, I put it in the garage, and began stripping the car for parts. With the help of some friends, I got most of the interior bits and the suspension bits off the car in a single weekend. I threw the shell of the car on some dollies and pushed it into the other back corner of the garage.
Unfortunately, I had grossly overestimated the amount of free time I had and my ability to endure long, drawn out troubleshooting sessions, so both Subarus sat in the back of the garage for months while my other cars occupied my time.
Selling the car and making unexpected friends
My one golden rule is that if a car isn’t being driven, it gets kicked out of the fleet. A man can only drive so many cars at a time, and it never made sense to keep a car only to let it fall apart from disuse. After much thinking, I decided that I wasn’t up to the task of repairing the black XT Turbo and would rather spend time wrenching on and racing my other cars, so it was time to move the black XT Turbo on to a new owner.
Unsurprisingly, after posting the car online in several places, I got very few responses. The first person interested in the car was a young kid looking for an AWD Subaru, and he thought that my XT Turbo would be a decent substitute for a WRX project car (and much cheaper to boot). I set him straight right away and refused to sell the car to him.
The second person to contact me took me by surprise. It was an email from someone local imploring me not to sell the car. Why would you reach out to someone and tell them not to sell a car?
As it turned out, this person, Tim, was also a fellow Subaru XT Turbo owner. He had a mint condition — perfect interior, perfect exterior — copy of my maroon red XT Turbo parts car. He also lived in Dearborn and was also a Ford employee. He volunteered to help me troubleshoot the black car. A nice gesture, but I declined.
Finally, several weeks after first posting the car online, I got a message from a kid named Brady. He was interning at FCA for the summer, and was interested in my XT Turbo for sale. As usual, I was very skeptical, but I agreed to let him come by and take a look at the car.
Brady came by and took a look at the two forlorn cars sitting in the back of my garage. I laid it on to him straight: the black car wasn’t streetable, and the parts car needed to be dragged away on a trailer. Brady didn’t have a truck and trailer though, so he was hoping to drive the black XT Turbo out of the garage and take it home.
I made him an offer: if you can get the black XT Turbo working, I’ll sell you everything for way less than the listed asking price. You are free to come to my garage whenever you are free and use the tools I have here to wrench on the car. Once you’re done, drive the black car away, and I’ll take care of scrapping the parts car.
He took me up on the offer. For two weeks, after finishing work in Auburn Hills, Brady would drive the hour down south to my garage in Dearborn and spend two hours working on the car. Tim, the local Subaru XT Turbo geek, came by and joined us on several evenings, and the three of us bonded as we watched Brady carefully strip parts off the parts car, test each air strut and all of the air suspension componentry, and piece all of the working spares together.
When Brady managed to get the air compressor on the black XT Turbo working and inflated the air suspension for the first time, we were ecstatic. I was so happy that the black XT Turbo was going to the right owner, as I sure as hell wasn’t it.
Funny how these things work out. I may not have achieved my dream of having a cool, minty little XT Turbo to parade around on the streets and in car shows, but I somehow inexplicably made two friends whose paths I would have never crossed if it hadn’t been our mutual interest in one of the most obscure cars on the road today.
I still have my Craigslist feeds and my eBay searches going, on the lookout for a XT Turbo, XT6, or Legacy Turbo. There’s a small part of me that still wants to jump on the right car if it ever shows up. But in the end, the real world intervened and I don’t have an 80s Subaru wedge anymore. For that matter, neither does Jim, having now moved on to modern Subarus.
Jim’s a smart man. But I still pine for a rolling doorstop. What is wrong with me?