The first Subaru GL wagons came out in 1972, and like most Japanese cars of the era, they were light, tough, and usually rusted to pieces before they'd seen the end of two decades. So it's pretty hard to find first, and even second generation GLs still on the road.
Old Subarus of every stripe are a little more common in places where Subaru sold a lot of them — most notably the Pacific Northwest and in Colorado, where I live. Nevertheless, rust has killed most of the older ones. Imagine my surprise when I found one hidden on the back lot at Super Rupair, Boulder, Colorado's thriving independent, you guessed it, Subaru repair shop. I didn't spot it myself, but stumbled across it on an online forum and figured that since it was in my own backyard, I'd better go have a look.
(Full disclosure: I'm an unabashed old-Subaru nut, and wanted to drive the 1978 GL wagon so bad, I pestered the guys at Super Rupair until they'd allow me to come by to take it for a spin. Being the good sports they are, they let me take it out, unchaperoned, for several hours.)
It turns out that the car, which only has about 40,000 miles on it, has spent most of its days parked in front of a house in South Boulder. Its original owner, who talked to me on the condition that I not divulge her name, is a 90-something-years-young retired scientist who bought the car new at the Subaru dealership in Richland, Wash. in 1978. She only recently sold the car because she doesn't drive anymore.
"At the time, the Subaru was the only four wheel drive car you could get with a floor shift where you didn't have to get out and switch the hubs by hand," she told me, adding that she'd had some experience driving four wheel drive as a Women's Army Corps captain during World War II. "I had driven army Jeeps during World War II, so I was familiar with that sort of thing."
In 1978, the only options you could get were the four wheel drive and a sunroof, and since she knew she wouldn't be living in a tropical climate, she checked the 4x4 box, but opted out of the sunroof. It was a wise choice, as she ended up moving to Boulder two years after she bought the car.
Over the next 32 years, she only used the car for grocery shopping and errands where you'd need a car.
"I ride the bus a lot here in Boulder," she said. "We're very lucky to have this mass transit system here. They don't have that option in a lot of places."
So today, her '78 GL wagon is in more or less pristine condition, aside from a bent bumper and some faded paint on top of the right rear door. From the long, tight throws of its manual transmission to the deep, mellow timbre of its single-speaker AM radio, the car felt brand new, and left me wondering how Honda Civics and Toyota Corollas got, like much of the American public, so fat over the past 20 years. It made me realize somewhat acutely our need to rediscover how to do more with less.
The lines of the 1978 Subaru's body are unmistakable 1970s Japanese. Which is to say that although not as sexy as many Euro classics of similar vintage, they have all of the good things American cars of the period had, but in a smaller, more tasteful package. If it looks vaguely like a Nissan Skyline of the same vintage, it's because Subaru's designers teamed up with Nissan for a few years starting in the late 60s.
The wagon version of the GL added a utilitarian box to the back, but they blended it in so that it didn't look like a shoebox grafted onto the back of an otherwise svelte coupé. This particular example is in nice shape, although there are a couple of scarcely noticeable faded paint spots and the front bumper has seen better days. It looks great from 20 feet away, and the shape is pleasant enough to make one overlook its age-induced imperfections.
Originally, this car came with vinyl seats, but the car's former owner told me that she had an upholstery shop put in cloth seats at some point in the 80s. If you've ever owned a car with vinyl seats, you know that cloth, even though it's more difficult to keep clean than vinyl, is a vast improvement. Vinyl's plasticy surfaces, which appear faintly S&M in any weather, are cold in the winter and will scald bare skin in the summer sun.
A low beltline offers good visibility all around, but without that overly tall feel you get with a late model Honda CR-V or, gag, Element. With simple, well organized gauges and controls, lots of light from lots of windows, and comfortable seats, the old GL's interior was a nice place from which to enjoy motoring. The blue and black houndstooth floormats were a nice touch, too.
Let's put this into context here. It doesn't quite have the snappy acceleration of a modern turbocharged Subaru, but neither does it have an old Volkswagen's laggardly trudge. At 1,700 pounds, it also doesn't weigh as much as newer Subaru wagons, which tip the scales at a whalelike 3,500 pounds.
Getting back to the less is more theme, the '78 GL wagon has plenty of power to get you onto a busy road quickly (even if the cars behind might have to slow down a little once they catch up). Acceleration was sprightly and fun, but you're not going to win any races in a car like this. Fully loaded, I'd imagine this car would take its time getting up to 60 mph. But still, if everyone drove modest little econoboxes like this one, maybe the roads would be a bit safer.
As with just about any car of this era, braking leaves something to be desired, but this car has disc brakes! Ok, it has front disc/rear drum setup that stops the car quickly enough, but engineers have since figured out that wider tire footprints and bigger brakes are always a good option.
When you get into a small car, especially one this old, it's easy to imagine that the ride will be harsh and noisy. But some genius at Fuji Heavy Industries figured out a good blend of some sound deadening material and a collection of simple, light suspension parts. So the ride is smooth and quiet enough that you don't think about it.
When a car weighs 1,700 pounds, it's bound to be pretty nimble, which this one is. A pretty tiny MacPherson strut front end and a torsion bar rear, slapped onto what basically amounts to a 4x4 tin can make cornering a blast, even though the car's narrow track make it look like it would tip over around tight turns. I expected a lot of body roll, but didn't get too much, despite the car's narrow track. Then again, I wasn't carrying any load other than my waiflike self, and compared to other, more sporty cars, this one's handling won't invite acclaim of any sort.
Subaru started selling wider, heavier vehicles with a wider track a couple of years later, when they realized that selling cars meant to fit a certain tax classification in the Japanese market made no sense here in the states, where anything under 4,000 pounds was (and in many ways still is) considered tiny.
Some of these cars — the front wheel drive ones, I think — came with a five speed manual gearbox, but this one had a four speed manual with another lever to shift between front- and four-wheel drive. Luckily, the lady who bought this thing didn't go for the optional three-speed slushbox, which like most economy car automatic transmissions of the period, was probably a power-sucking ball of lameness.
The four-speed in this car shifted pretty well — with only 40,000 miles, the shifts were tight and the synchros were still functioning perfectly — but it had a kind of clunkiness that I normally associate with old Japanese pickup trucks. Subaru made their manual transmissions smoother and more carlike in later years. Even so, there's something fun about the small truckish gearbox, so I didn't mind it all that much, especially since I was fully aware that I shouldn't expect anything about this car to be sporty.
Many small car owners bemoan the fact that long distance travel and carrying unwieldy objects are difficult when your cargo space has a small opening, or has a weird shape that makes carting large items all but impossible. A small car that's also a wagon solves that problem. You can carry almost anything in an old GL wagon, even a tiny one like this. The cargo area is spacious, and it has a roof rack for long items. Add to that the fact that it's small, easy to park, and gets good gas mileage, and you've got a very user-friendly package. Unless, of course, you're a big person. If that's you, you'd better let people like Jason Torchinsky, Raphael Orlove and I revel in our enjoyment of cars that you'll never fit into comfortably.
Let's see, Nissan Skyline-esque styling, lightweight utility, four wheel drive, and blue and black houndstooth floormats... Factor in that there aren't that many of these left. How much more character do you need than that?
Driving this car around, I got a lot of waves and smiles from all kinds of people, even from a couple of large pickup segment buyers. It's a cool looking car that's great to drive around town, and what it lacks in brute masculinity, it makes up for in quirky cuteness that few can take issue with. For me, the icing on the cake was a guy (who I'm pretty sure had just come out of the marijuana dispensary around the corner) who walked up and said, "I never thought I'd say this, but that's a beautiful old Subaru!"
This isn't the rarest car in the world, but neither is it the most prolific. With its elegantish small car styling, dwindling numbers, and mountain state cool factor, it's pretty collectible in certain circles. If you can find one that hasn't been used to death (the downside of its usability) and isn't all rusted out (the bummer about mountain state coolness), I'd say you're in pretty good shape to have a unique collector that will turn heads wherever you go.
These go for anywhere from $1,000 to $3,000 in most cases. The current owner of this car hinted that he wanted somewhere in the neighborhood of $5,000 for it, but the people who would actually pay that much for an old economy car are limited indeed. What they lack in sense, they make for in fervor. That said, an economy car is an economy car, so this GL won't be getting much of a following amongst the Concours d'Elegance crowd.
1978 Subaru GL Wagon
Photo credit: Benjamin Preston