The Wheel Deal | Life in the Kingdom

Vermont claims a state bird (hermit thrush), a state flower (red clover), and a state mammal (Morgan horse), but its truest symbol may be its unofficial state automobile, the Subaru.

By Ben Hewitt

Dec 15 2016


One in a long line of Subarus owned by the Hewitts, this 1996 Outback is shown earning its keep hauling a harvest of winter squash from the family garden. “I’ll bet we loaded at least 500 pounds,” says Ben. “But that’s being real conservative.”

Photo Credit : Penny Hewitt
One in a long line of Subarus owned by the Hewitts, this 1996 Outback is shown earning its keep hauling a harvest of winter squash from the family garden. “I’ll bet we loaded at least 500 pounds,” says Ben. “But that’s being real conservative.”
One in a long line of Subarus owned by the Hewitts, this 1996 Outback is shown earning its keep hauling a harvest of winter squash from the family garden. “I’ll bet we loaded at least 500 pounds,” says Ben. “But that’s being real conservative.”
Photo Credit : Penny Hewitt

I bought my first Subaru when I was still a teenager. It was a dun-colored 1977 GL wagon, and it cost me a whopping $300, which I’d earned by serving as head broom-wielder on a small carpentry crew. This was in 1988 or thereabouts, before Subarus had become nearly ubiquitous in Vermont. Indeed, these days it is not uncommon to emerge from the supermarket and climb behind the wheel of someone else’s same-colored Subaru wagon. Yes, I’ve done this. Twice. And one of those times, I actually started the car before I realized my mistake, because like most folks in rural Vermont the owner of this ’ru had left his or her keys dangling from the ignition. Heck, if not for Rod Stewart crooning from the CD player, I might’ve driven the wrong car home.

Anyway. I drove that ’77 for about as long as one can reasonably expect to drive a $300 car, and I did not own another Subaru until shortly after our oldest son, Fin, was born in 2002. This one was a 1994 Legacy in a particularly unflattering shade of brown, as if mud season had never relented. We picked it up cheap, too—I can’t remember exactly how much, but I doubt it was more than $1,000, if only because we never spent more than $1,000 on our vehicles back then—and, as with that old ’77, we got exactly what we paid for: This one lasted only about a year before suffering a fatal internal engine failure.

By then we were hooked on Subaru’s all-wheel-drive system, so we bought yet another Subie. This time we spent a serious chunk of change, dropping $4,000 on a 1995 Legacy wagon that had spent most of its life in Rhode Island, where the roads are not bathed in salt on a regular basis and cars do not disappear before your eyes as rust consumes them. By our modest standards, the car was in exquisite condition (meaning we could not watch the road unfurl beneath us through a hole in the floorboard) and replete with all manner of luxury options (meaning it boasted a working heater and a cassette deck). Best yet, it had a mere 107,000 miles.

We loved that car. I’m not going to say it never failed us, because that would be a lie, but it was very, very good to us. We drove it for nearly five years. We filled it with building materials, piglets, lambs, more piglets, hay bales, and still more piglets. Once I even strapped two tractor tires to the roof and drove from Maine to Vermont. While this did not make for a relaxing trip, the looks I got from oncoming motorists justified my anxiety. By the time I was halfway home, I’d stopped to inspect the ratchet straps securing my cargo approximately 37 times, but they remained as taut as at the outset of my journey, and I finally relaxed.

The ’95 eventually succumbed to rust, though not before I received a phone call from a detective with the Vermont State Police; apparently the fellow who’d sold us the car had been buying cheap high-mileage rigs from out of state and rolling the odometers back, thus drastically increasing the resale value of the cars. Our beloved Legacy actually had closer to 200,000 miles when we bought it. Shortly thereafter, restitution checks began appearing in our mailbox on a monthly basis. In fact, we’re still getting restitution checks for that car. I never kept track of how much we’ve received, but I don’t doubt it’s more than we paid for the car in the first place.

When that car failed inspection, we did what any Vermonter worth his or her patched woolen long johns would do: We parked it in the woods behind the house and immediately bought another 1995 Legacy wagon, allowing us to strip parts off the old car as they were needed on the new one. Over the span of a couple of years, we snagged the alternator, the heater core, both hatch struts, and the driver’s-side mirror. Better yet, the old Subaru served as a convenient hiding spot for valuables. When I was sitting on a wad of cash I had pulled from the bank while shopping for a tractor, I stuffed it into a Mason pint jar and stuck it under the spare tire. In hindsight this does not strike me as a particularly surprising (and therefore secure) location, but I was pretty pleased with myself at the time, and, most important, the cash was still there when I went to retrieve it.

We’ve had a few other Subarus since then—a beater Forester, an early-2000s Outback, and something else I’m not quite remembering—and we are now driving the nicest of the lot, a 2005 Legacy wagon Penny’s folks passed along to us when they quit driving a few years back. It’s a very, very nice car, with more amenities than I’d even known existed. For instance, did you know that some cars these days have these little buttons between the seats, and that a few minutes after you push the button that correlates to your seat, your rear end gets hot? I know, I know: It sounds crazy, but it’s true.

Grateful as I am for our current rig, if I’m to be perfectly honest I’m not nearly as fond of the newer Subarus as the older models. For one, they’re far more expensive to maintain, in large part because of the newer, 2.5-liter engine’s affinity for leaky head gaskets. Those of you who drive Subarus know exactly what I’m talking about; if you don’t, you will soon. But mostly I miss the utilitarian simplicity of those old Legacys, and even more so that GL, with its crank windows, its AM/FM radio, and the little handle between the vinyl seats you had to tug on to engage the four-wheel drive.

Of course, every modern automaker equips its cars with all manner of technological gewgaws; if it didn’t, it’d be out of business in a heartbeat. A friend of mine just bought a spanking-new Chevy pickup; included in the $65,000 (!!!!) price tag was an option for air-conditioned seats. When my friend commented to the salesman about the array of features in his new truck, the salesman grinned. “Buddy,” he said, “this thing’s one button away from wiping your butt.” The interaction of vehicles and heinies seems to be the new frontier in automotive luxury.

We’ll drive our current Subaru until the point we drive all of our cars, which is to say until the point it will drive no more. Hopefully, that’ll be another year or two. But in the meantime I’ve got my eye out, because what I’m looking for is becoming rare. What I’m looking for is any Subaru made before 1997, when the head gasket–
hungry 2.5-liter engine was introduced. It needs to be in running condition, relatively free of rust, and, ideally, fitted with a cassette deck so that I can expose my children to the collection of mid-’80s classic rock I’m perennially stubborn to part with. I’ll even pay extra for crank windows and manually adjusted seats.

Finally, if by any chance you’ve rolled the odometer back and might at some point in the future be charged with odometer fraud and compelled to pay restitution, please, by all means, give me a call. I’ve got a nice wad of cash in the spare tire hold with your name all over it.