By on June 29, 2011


The Malaise Subaru Apocalypse is in full swing in Colorado, if we are to judge from the selection of old Leones in Denver junkyards these days. Yesterday, we saw this ’82 GL “Cyclops”, but that was just the beginning of the Subaru death toll in this yard. A few rows away, I found this brown GL wagon, a little rustier than the ’82 but still appearing to have plenty of life left in it. Is anyone restoring these things?

When you’re driving a brown Malaise econo-wagon, you’re pretty well obligated to sport brown plaid upholstery.

The same rule applies when it comes to orange and white tape stripes: you must have them!

I thought that speedometers on US-market cars from the 1979 through 1982 model years were required to max out at 85 MPH. You know, for safety. Either Subaru found some loophole for this car, or someone swapped in a later 120 MPH speedo. Imagine, this car doing 120!

I’ve worked on a few of these things, and I always thought they were pretty unreliable and shoddy next to contemporary Hondas and Toyotas (though Malaise Subarus were built like bank vaults next to Mitsubishis of the period). The quality of Subaru products improved as much in the 1990s as did Hyundai stuff, which may explain the hindsight-based perception that the old GLs were bulletproof (cue the enraged commenters who got 400,000 trouble-free miles out of their Malaise Subies). Were I transported back to 1979 and found myself shopping for a four-wheel-drive car, I’d go for the less civilized but sturdier AMC Eagle SX/4. Still, it’s sad to see all the old (non-BRAT) Subarus getting crushed now.

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34 Comments on “Junkyard Find: 1979 Subaru GL Wagon...”


  • avatar
    jmo

    My impression was always that they were miles ahead of anything from Detroit at the time. Mechanically they were very sound they just had huge rust issues.

    Note: It would be interesting to get a post written by someone in the industry with knowledge of how they were able to make such huge improvements in automotive rustproofing technology over the past 30 years.

    As a kid I know rust was a huge issue in the early 80s but by the mid 90s there was a huge improvement.

    • 0 avatar
      ClutchCarGo

      I totally agree. One of these in gold was my first new car, purchased after a miserable Chicago winter in a RWD Corolla. I was so sick of struggling thru snow that I went looking for 4WD, and a Subaru or an IH Scout II were about my only options. I had no mechanical trouble with it all, but midwest road salting ate it up from under me.

    • 0 avatar
      Robert.Walter

      Introduction of double-sided galvanizing. Incremental improvements in the processes and materials used in the e-coat body-dip process.

      Backstory: A Chrysler Engineering Director (Mr. Love … there were, and still are, a whole bunch of top managers running around in Chrysler with that family name) … was our neighbor, and sang in our church choir … I recall him giving me a lift home from church one evening after choir practice, ca. 1980, and he told me that Chrysler’s plan was to begin to offer a 10-year warranty against rust-thru within 5-years… not long after, dbl-sided galvanizing made an appearance…

      Prior to the introduction of this technology, the only parts that were galvanized were things like rocker panels and valances. This was because of cost (the galvanic dip was done after stamping, today it isintegrated into the rolling operation at the steel mill), and because it wasnot possible to create a post-dip smooth surface (I think this is solved today by rolling the sheet again, just prior to coiling, after the zinc is deposited on the surface of the sheet.)

  • avatar
    Sam P

    A high school friend of mine is restoring an ’82 GL 4WD stick-shift hatch he bought that hadn’t been started in four years – $500 in parts and some sweat equity later, the Subie is back on the road again. It is a rust free Washington State car with a surprisingly good interior and is pretty damn cool. Down the road, an EJ22 engine swap from an 90′s Legacy or Impreza may be in order.

  • avatar
    fintail jim

    I bought a FWD 1979 DL wagon in 1986 in San Antonio, Texas. The car had only 69k miles at the time. It was to replace a great 1979 Toyota Corona Liftback that had been totaled in a wreck (R20 engine: great, 3-speed automatic transmission: reliable but really ruined the driving experience. A different story for a different thread).

    Anyway, I loved the Subie. It had a five speed and a really good air conditioner even for Texas summers. It was not as smooth or as powerful as my in-laws 1981 Civic Wagon but the thing was dead reliable and rode like a magic carpet; credit the torsion bar suspension. I made deliveries for a pizza place for about two years using the Subaru and never had a problem. Even without 4wd it would go a lot of places in the Texas hill country that, say, my fathers 1978 Bonneville would not. It had fantastic ground clearance for a small car.

    Later that year I bought an Isusu P’up also with torsion bar front suspension. It seems Chrysler and Packard were on to something good in the mid-50s. Given the desire for a smooth ride in those days I wonder why other manufacturers didn’t follow the trend.

    I kept the Subaru until 1989 when I committed a double mistake: #1 I sold the Subaru and #2 I bought a new Mercury Tracer (badge engineered Mazda 323). The Mercury/Mazda was fine for 75k miles then it just fell apart (I do maintain my cars well by the way.)

    The 1600cc flat four was rated at 68hp and I saw the speedometer needle half way between 75 and 80 one time on Interstate 10. It did get 30-35 mpg however. I even got a speeding ticket in it once for going 45 in a 35mph zone. The cop must have been bored.

  • avatar
    krhodes1

    As the previous posters have said, these cars were pretty much bulletproof mechanically. We had 10+ of the ’80-’84 generation in my extended family back in the day, and all of them were VERY reliable. But they all succumbed to rust before thier 10th birthdays, and most needed welding at only 3-5 years to pass inspection here in Maine.

  • avatar
    noxioux

    I think your assessment about these cars being unreliable and shoddy is completely off the mark. In my experiece, these cars are virtually indestructible, and I’ve witnessed several superhuman efforts to destroy them–including the old “Jam it at WOT and see how long it takes to detonate” trick. As I recall, the boys had enough time to get bored before the poor thing did quit.

    I bought an early little hatchback from a guy, drove it a couple miles home and decided to give it a tune up. Well, the plugs were virtually nonexistent (as in burned to a stump). And after pulling the heads, every single valve in that motor had burned almost completely through. But it still started and went down the road.

    As for restoration, I know the Brats are held in high regard–and are very hard to find. But they have quite a following. But any 5-speed Suby with the dual-range 4×4 is a keeper.

    It’s too bad, but I think our nostalgia about these ‘gems’ of the malaise era is wishful thinking. Back then, we just wished for better cars. And now our imaginations are caught up, hoping somehow that some of this old 80′s crap isn’t better off in a Chinese razor blade factory.

  • avatar
    ClutchCarGo

    One of the curious features of these Subies was that the boxer engine could be mounted so low as to allow the spare tire to be carried under the hood on top of the engine.

    • 0 avatar
      geozinger

      @Clutch: Look under the hood of any 70′s era Fiat, they did the same thing. With an OHC inline 4 cylinder motor. IIRC, many Renaults and Peugeots from the same era did that too.

      The real pain was, is anytime you needed to attend to the engine, you had to take out the spare tire. Sometimes, forgetting to put it back in when you were done. At least the Fiat spares just sat in the rack above the motor, they weren’t bolted down at all…

      • 0 avatar
        ClutchCarGo

        “Look under the hood of any 70′s era Fiat”

        A very scary place, indeed. :)

        The Subie was the only car I ever saw that did that, and everyone else who ever saw under the hood of mine was similarly shocked to see a tire in there. I think that you could check the oil with the tire in place, but it was mildly annoying to have to pull the tire for most anything else, like adding oil or checking/changing the air filter. I did wonder if the heat build up in the engine compartment was deteriorating the rubber, tho.

    • 0 avatar
      Robert.Walter

      Engine cmpartment is never a good place to put a tire …the heat and fumes age the tire much faster than other stowage locations.

  • avatar
    Domestic Hearse

    Had a Subie of this vintage back in the mid-late 80s when I was in college (yes, I date myself). A handmedown from my mother. Already had 80k on the clock. It was blue and orange (the latter hue created by rust). It later become blue and orange and transparent (the latter feature caused by holes where the rust used to be).

    I how I wished it to die. Quit. Stop running. Shudder and expire by the side of the road. But it never did. Not even when the Sears service center forgot to put new oil in it, and my ex drove it 15 miles sans a single drop of oil in it at all.

    It really was bullet proof. The only thing it needed (over and over) were CV boots. Ate those every 10-15k miles. But other than that, it was the Timex watch of cars.

    • 0 avatar
      Robert.Walter

      Didn’t she notice the red light on the dash? Could it be that Sears (remember, they had a huge fine from the FTC for chating customers by not really replacing all the parts they billed for) didn’t really empty all the oil out of the engine?

  • avatar
    Wagen

    Love the co-branding of the stereo (Clarion) and clock (Citizen). With the plaid seats too (hello, GTI) it seems quite ahead of its time.

    • 0 avatar
      TEXN3

      Up until 2007, Subaru was still using Clarion headunits.

      I kind of wish more factory radios were co-branded, always curious who makes them.

      Our old Volvo 760 had it’s original Becker but was not branded as such. However, 2 out of the 3 MB’s my parents owned (87 300E, 93 300E 4matic, 02 E430 4matic) had their radios still branded as a Becker.

      All of my Honda/Acura products have been produced by Panasonic but not labeled as such.

      • 0 avatar
        YYYYguy

        Really? That explains why I’ve never liked the sound systems in any Subaru I’ve had but loved the Honda units I’ve had (and/or have taken a ride in). I’m a big Panasonic fan but I guess not so much of the Clarion systems. A bit tinny for my tastes.

      • 0 avatar
        Wagen

        Interesting note about the cobranding but not marked as such. My 6th gen Civic had a CD changer input that fit perfectly an Alpine CD changer, and my MkIV GTI had one that fit a Clarion CD changer. Not sure if the head units were also manufactured by those respective brands.

        I’d think it would add more “prestige” to continue with the cobranding of even the non-premium systems, but I guess that may deter some from upgrading to the uplevel OEM system.

  • avatar
    gottacook

    When I met my wife to be, she drove an ’86 GL wagon (stick, FWD) that she’d bought new with Rusty Jones treatment (their jingle remains stuck in my head, although the company’s been out of business for years). Rust in the engine cradle finally rendered it unsafe in ’99.

    The ’86 was the first of what is now an all-Subie household, but I wouldn’t imagine that anyone would ever want to restore a GL/DL or earlier Subaru; one of the car magazines at the time called its drivetrain “agricultural” in character, and correctly so, I think. Starting with the first Legacy in 1990, Subaru offered a lot more refinement.

  • avatar
    doub

    A few friends of mine had this gen Subie as first cars in high school. Can’t say that they left much of an impression on my V8-obsessed mind, but I DO remember constantly slicing up my arm on the seemingly endless array of stamped-tin heat shields and rock guards when trying to do anything under the hood. Subarus bite back.

  • avatar
    Acc azda atch

    I remember being about 10 years old and my parents had a version of these from ’79 and couldn’t get it started… or their other heaps.. 78 Celica / Corolla. I used to go out with the keys.. and start them everyday. Didnt have my license at the time.. so not wise to drive these heaps around. They never could understood how 3 cars that wouldn’t start.. suddenly did.

    When they had this carted away the were told, “the rear end locked up”? Parents weren’t smart enough to figure out exactly what was wrong or had the cash to fix it.

    Looking back these were one of the few FWD cars on the road. To this day Im fond of the fwd vehicles and the more control and or power. I never warmed up to AWD or the idea that it could help you, if you dont have good tires. SHIT, it doesn’t explain the company’s transition to AWD and their constant marketing b.s campaign AWD = safety. AWD is control NOT safety.

  • avatar
    CJinSD

    I grew up in a college town full of Subaru early-adopters. What I remember about this generation of Subarus and the ones that came before was that the engines failed. Often. If you had a restaurant in the mid ’80s, chances were that someone would abandon a Subaru with a dead motor in your parking lot. I saw it a few times in my first job as a dishwasher at Western Sizzlin when I was 14 years old. When I mentioned it to my friend that worked at a pizza place, he told me his new manager was trying to figure out what to do about a similar abandoned Subaru sitting in his lot. Another friend with a part time restaurant job told us what caused them all to fail, but I don’t recall over 25 years later. I do know that rectifying it was beyond my 14 year old abilities, or we’d have had an all Subaru racing class on the neighborhood farm roads.

    • 0 avatar
      TEXN3

      Probably headgaskets. The biggest Subaru weakness, from then until now.

      My 2007 just got out of the shop yesterday for a headgasket replacement. With 52k miles, under warranty, it started overheating on our way home from camping at Hells Canyon…limped 2 hours home after the coolant temp had spiked and settled back down. Coolant was spewing out the reservoir, overpressureized. Internal leak on rear cylinders. Not happy, but I still like the vehicle…kinda wish I had sprung for the H6 though. My wife agrees, because of the sunroof and dual climate.

  • avatar
    Russycle

    My cousin had one of these in the late 80′s, and practically gave it away “because it needed new brakes”. Of course I didn’t find out until after it was gone, I nearly cried. For a Southern Cal ski mobile (no need to chain up, and no worries about rust), you couldn’t beat it at the time.

  • avatar
    wmba

    It’s a pity that the Japanese car industry took so long to recognize the superiority of galvanized tin for car bodies, not that it was available in 1979. But the Audi 5000 of the middle ’80s was the first to go that way, and they went double-sided. Only part of the car that lasted (says a guy who had five new Audis in a row from 1975 to 1996). The big deal with Audi was their new process of welding the stuff without ruining the zinc coating.

    Detroit went single-sided galvanized about 1990, I think, but the Japanese were last. Hondas and Toyotas prior to 1997 or so disappeared in about six to seven years in the Canadian Maritimes. Subarus the same. Honda kept a place in Dartmouth to study rust, as they were replacing subframes that rusted through and suspension mounts, etc. Apparently, the Not Invented Here syndrome of the Japanese prevented the use of galvanized sheet metal until the advantages were so damn obvious that no manner of obsequious apologies could make up for the piles of rust.

    There are a number of rust prevention companies operating in Canada, and I got my new ’99 Impreza treated by Krown. Useless outfit — they use giant dull drills to open up the inside where they spray their concoction. Usual franchise problem, no consistent standards. Three years later, all the holes had rust around them, rest of the car pristine. Used Krown’s warranty (they were prompt, give ‘em that) and had all the holes sealed at a good body shop, and repainted. No problem after that until year 10.

    Old Subie engines dying? Nope, but the electric fuel pumps did. No gas no go.

  • avatar
    fiasco

    Murilee should buy these old Subies and start up a Lemons Rental Shop!

  • avatar
    skor

    I dig that groovy Brady Bunch interior. Just the thing to conceal Mama Brady’s crabs.

  • avatar
    fintail jim

    More to say about my ’79 FWD wagon: No rust problems in San Antonio unless you drove to the Gulf Coast and didn’t rinse the salty sand off the car. We did get 15 inches of snow in San Antonio once while I lived there (easily a 100-year event) but we didn’t have the Subaru then. The whole city was at a stand still. There was a cold snap in Jan. ’87 when the temperatures were in the low 20′s. The little flat 4 couldn’t generate enough heat to keep the interior of the car warm even on a 15 mile drive.

    I was dismayed to find that I had to remove the engine/transaxle from the car to replace the clutch (my only major repair in 3+ years and over 50,000 miles – 120,000 miles total). I broke a spark plug off in the head once when I was doing a tune-up. Realizing I would have to take the engine out also to remove the head, I connected a bolt remover to an impact wrench, soaked the heck out of the threads with lubricant, and prayed for the best. I got lucky. I’ve always used anti-sieze, especially on dis-similar metals, ever since.

    Another “wonderful” thing about this car was the parking brake. It worked on the front brake rotors by compressing six spring steel “wobble washers” located in each caliper. Well, it was different.

    I drove this car for 3-1/2 years and added 50,000 miles to the 69,000 it already had. I sold it to a college student in Houston for $200 less than I paid for it in San Antonio. I replaced the clutch (oddly, no CV joint replacement during my time of ownership) and bought 4 new tires. Other than that I only had to pay for gasoline, oil, filters, and plugs. I can’t complain.

    I wouldn’t restore one today but if I found a nice clean one (not likely) I would agonize about buying it. Once again, my wife would have to steer me off the road to perdition.

  • avatar
    Jimal

    1. The brown plaid is just fantastic.

    2. The last time I worked on one of these was when I was in Technical School, so either late 1988 or early 1989. What alarmed me about working on Subarus was (I don’t know if it is still this way) that they were famous for random design changes through the model year. When ordering parts, not only did you have to provide the year, model and engine size, but also the production date of the car. Coming from working on GM cars where part interchangeability was measured in years, that was weird.

    3. By the time most of these went to the scrap yard, they picked up that distinctive Subaru exhaust leak sound (the aforementioned lack of interchangeability made it difficult/impossible to fix leaks in a cost effective manner). I’ve always found it funny that some people take a perfectly good STi and spend more money on an exhaust system that ends up sounding like one of these old beaters.

    • 0 avatar
      Acc azda atch

      That truly is one of the most fucked up things Ive ever heard.

      NOW..
      I have a clue as to why.. every time I need a wiper nozzle or some b.s part on my 00 Accord.. I need to tell the parts guy: the paint code, the engine code, my exhaust material and what transmission I have…

      TO GET A DAMN WIPER NOZZLE!

      (Cause at one point.. interchangeability wasn’t designed into the “system”)

    • 0 avatar
      jmo

      (I don’t know if it is still this way) that they were famous for random design changes through the model year.

      Isn’t that the essence of Edward Demming’s continuous improvement ethos that built the Japanese auto industry?

      Coming from working on GM cars where part interchangeability was measured in years, that was weird.

      And that’s one of the many reasons they went bankrupt – a reluctance to continuously improve the product and its quality.

      • 0 avatar
        Jimal

        Isn’t that the essence of Edward Demming’s continuous improvement ethos that built the Japanese auto industry?

        To the extreme. Toyota, Honda and Nissan have been more successful with the daily/weekly/monthly updates. We’re not talking improvements that the customer can touch or see, but things under the skin. It sure makes it easier if get it right then refine.

        And that’s one of the many reasons they went bankrupt – a reluctance to continuously improve the product and its quality.

        The problem with GM wasn’t that you could swap parts between, say, a 1975 Camaro and a 1977 Camaro, but that the parts you could swap around weren’t all that good.

        In my opinion “constant improvement” and “constant update” are two different things. The fact that Subarus are still known for weak head gaskets tells me that at least in that one case the Demming model didn’t work for Fuji Heavy. Constantly tweaking what is proving to be a fundamentally flawed design without actually fixing the flaw isn’t “constant improvement”.

    • 0 avatar
      Wagen

      “but also the production date of the car.”

      This is also required for BMWs as they have an affinity to sometimes change a part midway through a model year (e.g., ZKW vs. AL headlamps on the E46). So you need to know not only the model, body style, engine, and which option(s) it has, if applicable, but also the month/year of production.

      • 0 avatar
        Sam P

        ZKWs and ALs were installed interchangeably on the E46 (seemingly depending on what was in stock at the time). There doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to them, which is fine except for the fact that the ZKW lights toast their projector bowls – which requires replacement or the aftermarket Lightwerks TFX upgrade. The AL lights don’t have that issue, thankfully (I have AL lights).

  • avatar
    cheezeweggie

    The sheetmetal on earlier Subaru’s was stamped from recycled Chevy Vegas…


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