By on March 18, 2015

049

Those of you who regularly read Bark’s Bites (Hi, Mom!) may remember my tale of acquiring a friend’s 1996 Subaru Legacy Wagon. I posted that article on August 29th, 2014.

On March 9th, 2015, the SuBaruth, as it came to be known, died.

Here is her story.

Over the course of seven months, I put nearly seven thousand miles on her.  She occasionally refused to start, but most days, she turned over with a bit of a struggle and let me pilot her wherever I wanted to go. She took trips as far away as Myrtle Beach, SC, about a nine hour drive from my Old Kentucky Home, with nary a complaint. Sure, she made a few weird noises every now and then, but everything worked pretty well.

Until it didn’t.

I took her on a drive to Fort Wayne, Indiana, a few weeks ago. She was performing her regular duties without complaint, making a 480-mile roundtrip without dissent, when we encountered a patch of black ice at about sixty miles per hour. All of a sudden, we were sideways on Interstate 69, sliding without much hope of stopping. Against all natural instincts, I stayed off of the brakes and countersteered slightly, feathering the accelerator and silently praying. Miraculously, she caught grip and I was able to right her again. Over the next mile of highway, I saw no fewer than a dozen cars in the ditch. Our little slide probably lasted five seconds at the most, but it felt like an eternity. I patted her on the dashboard and told her, “Thanks, SuBaruth. I think you just saved our lives.”

That night, however, on the trip back, she started making a mechanical grinding sound. It was coming from the driver’s side front wheel. The car started pulling fairly hard to the right, as well. I pulled off at the next exit, got out of the car in the pouring rain, and did a visual inspection of the car. Everything looked to be okay—the tires were fine, the tie rods seemed to be straight from what I could tell—so I got back in the car and cautiously continued on. For some reason, the sound stopped and the car started tracking normally again. Weird. Then again, this is the magical self-fixing Subaru.

After I got home, I parked her in the driveway for a few days until my trip to the airport the following Monday. When I drove her out of that same driveway, I immediately knew that something was wrong. The grinding sound was much, much worse, and it increased greatly under acceleration. I had made it about a mile when I decided to turn around and go home.

Unfortunately, the last left turn onto my street proved to be too much for the old girl. With a loud bang that was all too familiar from my days of autocrossing S2000s, the car just stopped. I got out and looked at the front left wheel—the tire had blown, but I was pretty sure that wasn’t all that was wrong. I called my insurance company and had them tow it to my local garage. Since the SuBaruth is car number four in the fleet, I called them up and told them that there was no urgency in repairing it.

I received the autopsy call yesterday morning. I felt bad for the lady on the phone—she was clearly under the impression that the little wagon was my only means of transportation, and she was calling with horrific news. First of all, the timing belt was bad—they couldn’t even get the car to start. Secondly, as I feared, the axle had broken. But it hadn’t just broken; it had snapped with such amazing force that it had sent a seven-inch piece of itself spinning into the left front rim, ripping a tremendous hole in it in the process which is what caused the tire to blow. It had also damaged the right front wheel. Both tie rods were destroyed, too. Total repair estimate: at least $1200, including labor.

048

See that massive black hole? Yeah, that’s my front left rim. In the words of the garage tech, “I have NEVER, EVER, seen that before.”

I weighed my options carefully. I could:

  1. Junk the car and be done with it.
  2. Pay the garage more than twice what I had originally paid for the car, and still have a nineteen-year old Subaru that was likely to have some other things break in the near future.
  3. Do what all TTAC commenters would have done, which is break out my impressive array of tools, put the car up on the lift in my garage, and spend thirty minutes repairing all of the issues myself.

Guess which one I did?

Number one, obviously.

The garage offered to junk it for me, saving me the hassle of draining all of the fluids, etc. I probably could have sold it as a parts car for a couple of hundred bucks, but time is money and all that. I  donated the car to the garage as a favor for doing all of the diagnostic work for me—hopefully they’ll be able to get some money out of it. I went to the garage and retrieved my personal items from the car (including three dollars in change, a saxophone stand, a folder of CDs, and a yoga mat) and said goodbye to the old girl. Maybe she’ll be featured in one of Murilee’s junkyard finds in the near future. I hope CrabSpirits is able to spin an eloquent yarn about her. She deserves one.

So, what would I have done differently, if given the chance to do it all over again?

  • I would have done a more thorough mechanical review of the car upon purchase. I had the garage look at it when it wouldn’t start regularly that first week, but in hindsight I would have asked them to put it up on the lift and give it a once over. I’m not sure if that would have prevented this axle issue, but it might have.
  • I would have driven it directly to the garage rather than taking it home. Assuming that they would have just had to fix the axle and the timing issue, that might have only been a $500 repair.
  • That’s about it.

Was buying the Subaru a good financial decision after all was said and done? Let’s see:

  • The car cost me $600
  • The total registration property taxes on it were $86
  • It cost me $38 a month to insure it
  • I drove it about 7,000 miles and averaged 26 MPG on 87 octane fuel. At $2.20 a gallon, that’s about $593 in fuel costs.

What if I had put those seven thousand winter miles on the Boss 302 instead?

  • KBB Very Good value on a Boss with 30,000 miles is $35,969. Changing that value to 37,000 miles makes it worth $35,002
  • The Boss averages about 18 MPG combined on 93 octane fuel. Those 7,000 miles would have cost me about $972 in premium fuel, assuming $2.50 a gallon.
  • I wouldn’t have had any additional insurance costs
  • However, I would have needed to buy winter rims and tires for the Boss. The cheapest winter wheel/tire combo available at Tire Rack is $1,528 plus shipping. Divide that by four, assuming that the wheels and tires would last about four seasons (or that I would sell the car in four years or less) and it comes up to $382.

In total, the Subaru cost me $1,545 to operate for seven months. However, operating the Boss over the same time period would have cost me $2,321. That’s a savings of $776. I call that a win. Repairing the Subaru at a cost of $1200 would have meant that I would have needed to operate the Subaru for another year with no additional repair costs just to come out even, which seems unlikely. Now that I have the Fiesta ST, as well, it’s doubtful that I would have driven it as much as I did. It’s more likely that I’ll just throw a set of snows on the Fiesta next winter and avoid the additional insurance, maintenance, and acquisition cost of another beater.

Because, after all of this, my number one takeaway is that I’m really not cut out for the Beater Life. I don’t want to have to spend time fixing (or, in my case learning how to fix) cars. I don’t really enjoy driving old cars. I loved the Subaru, but she would have been better off in the hands of somebody who would have taken better care of her, in all honesty. A little bit of preemptive care and she’d likely still be on the road today.

All in all, a valuable lesson about who I am and what I expect out of a car. Your mileage may and likely will vary. God speed, SuBaruth.

051

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115 Comments on “Bark’s Bites: Subaru, We Hardly Knew Ye...”


  • avatar
    danio3834

    Moral of the story:

    You don’t need to be rich to own a cheap car. You just need to buy a $600 car every year.

    • 0 avatar
      Zykotec

      As someone who has more or less lived like that in the past (with some extra pocket change for minor repairs and modifications) that is the correct way to drive cheaply, if you choose your cars carefully.
      Having a car loan and the depreciation that comes with it is no way near as economic, but gives you much more peace of mind and more sleep.
      I just came back from scrapping a good running Audi 100 2.6 with ‘only’ 180.000 mies on it. Over here they pay you around $400 to scrap a car, and you save the same amount in road tax, so even if the car could easily have been kept running and road legal longer it’s just not worth it.

    • 0 avatar
      Lou_BC

      danio3834 – interesting point. I had a few friends that used to do just that. A constant steady procession of beaters. They claimed that it was cheaper than buying new. I did some rough calculations in my head and pointed out my yearly costs if one factored residual values etc. I found that for me it was on par with their multi-vehicle strategy but hey, everyone needs a hobby.

      • 0 avatar
        FormerFF

        That’s been my experience as well, particularly if you are paying a shop to do most of your repairs and maintenance. It’s better to buy a modestly priced new car and drive it 10-12 years, the cost differential over buying and maintaining a series of older cars is only a few hundred dollars a year, and you get a nicer, more up to date car and spend less time going to the repair shop.

      • 0 avatar
        danio3834

        Of course I realize that many people won’t have the fortune of finding a $600 car that will last a year without major failure, but you can’t beat that kind of math with new or slightly used cars over the course of the same time period.

        You could up it to a $1000 car and still not beat that math. Maybe even a 2k car if you buy it, do nothing to it and drive it into the ground over the course of 12 months, then sell it at scrap value to one of the many Jawas that populate the nation’s alleyways.

        • 0 avatar
          highdesertcat

          You know, from MY perspective, I don’t see many Subies in MY area being traded or sold. There are plenty of them, especially in snow country.

          The people who bought them new, seem to be holding on to them well past the expiration date of most other cars.

          What I have seen, and continue to see quite a bit of, is more than one Subie in someone’s driveway, like with a four or five year model difference.

          You know, like more than one Jeep Grand Cherokee in someone’s driveway?

          I cannot remember ever seeing a used Subie on any of the local used-car lots in MY area, but we don’t have a local Subie dealer either.

        • 0 avatar
          FormerFF

          Around here, a car like the Subaruth would go for around $2000. That’s about the minimum for a running car unless it has some fairly significant body damage.

          • 0 avatar
            danio3834

            $2k minimum for something that *runs*? There are no cars that would qualify to be used in the 24 Hours of Lemons near where you live without significant collision? Where is “around here” so I can know where to ship some running crap boxes at a 150% profit?

          • 0 avatar
            krhodes1

            Pretty much the same here in Maine. If it looks decent and will pass safety inspection, it’s worth $1500-2K, no matter the mileage. The pass inspection being the kicker, of course. No way would you be able to buy a Subaru like that one for $600 here. I don’t think you can buy a rotted out parts car for $600 here if the motor and trans are any good.

            People do keep Subarus for a long time, but they tend to be darned expensive cars to keep on the road. Friends just junked an ’02 Outback due to rust. One owner car with only ~100K on it, but not economic to fix the rot, and no way would it pass inspection again. Had many pending mechanical issues too, as with the advancing rot they stopped putting any money into and just drove the thing. They bought another new one.

          • 0 avatar
            FormerFF

            That would be Atlanta Metro area. Just for giggles I looked up what on Craglist I could get for less than $1000. All the ones I checked were both old and broken. So, I looked up what I could get for $1000 – $1500, same thing, only slightly newer and not as broken, or at least that’s what the seller said. At the $1500 – $2000 price point, you can start finding stuff that’s 15+ years old and high miles, but still running well, or something a little newer that needs repairs.

            Just for comparison, I looked on Austin’s Craigslist, it looks like you can find something there 20 years old with high miles for around $1200, but anything cheaper than that either needed fixing or had a lot of body damage.

            Any of these old, cheap cars is the automotive equivalent of having ramen for dinner seven nights a week. I understand if you’re beyond broke, that’s what you gotta do, but if you’re not, there’s no reason to subject yourself to that kind of life.

          • 0 avatar
            danio3834

            “The pass inspection being the kicker”.

            Yes, but now we’re moving the goal posts. If you add the caveat of passing a state inspection, I definitely agree the price definitely goes over $1500.

            A simple runner in a non inspection state like MI can be found and registered without too much difficulty for well under 1k. Of course it won’t be nice, or even in reasonable repair, but will probably get you to work for some amount of time.

            “I understand if you’re beyond broke, that’s what you gotta do, but if you’re not, there’s no reason to subject yourself to that kind of life.”

            I’m not broke, but have driven cars in that category for no other reason than the amusement of beating the p1ss out of some machinery at practically zero cost. Call it privilege.

          • 0 avatar
            FormerFF

            @Danio, i understand the satisfaction of squeezing all the juice you can out of the ol’ clunker, but I sure don’t have the time or the space to deal with an older car myself. I have room for one and it needs to be trouble free.

        • 0 avatar
          Zykotec

          Fortune does have something to do with it, but experience and some know-how does woners for choosing the right car. Some quick tips, get a car that is already road-legal (if you live somewhere where inpections are even an issue, they are here) or can be with some minor repairs.Look for cars that are well-kept, preferably big sellers that are easy to get parts for and easy to work on, and repairs that sound scary or expensive, or are just time-consuming but not too difficult to fix in the shade of a tree by a novice.
          Also, cars that get lously mileage are always cheap to buy, but this ofcourse depends on how much you drive if you’re planning on saving any money.

      • 0 avatar
        Jeff Weimer

        I understand there are two ways to economically own a car – Buy new and drive for 10 years, or 4 year used car and drive for 4 years. That’s an average, obviously. The new and 10 was the least expensive, with the 4 and 4 slightly less so.

        • 0 avatar
          baconator

          That’s pretty much the best summary I’ve yet read. We should call it “Weimer’s Rule.”

        • 0 avatar
          krhodes1

          If you can turn a wrench, older and cheaper can work out very well. For many years I bought the best $5K European cars I could find, did what needed to be done, drove them for a few years, and sold them for $4-5K. I had some very nice cars on the cheap. But you need to be able to DIY or this doesn’t work. I enjoy it, and I would much rather buy a tool than pay for labor.

    • 0 avatar
      Acubra

      Ah, the wonders of a throw-away culture in the post…

      If you are into sub-1K cars, you just have to be knowledgeable, with good wrenching skills and never neglect/disregard serious issues and weird sounds.

      • 0 avatar
        highdesertcat

        Acubra, when I was young and poor I was into sub-1K cars, out of necessity.

        Those in the throw-away culture now have that culture because they can.

        I recently rescued a 1989 Camry V6 from certain destruction in the crusher, because I could. But while it is a fun toy, it is by no means my primary transportation.

    • 0 avatar
      Compaq Deskpro

      I don’t know if I’d be able to resist the urge to (pay to) fix everything wrong with it.

      • 0 avatar
        golden2husky

        I am in your camp. My 23 year old Sable is fully functional. Only the power antenna is broken, but it stuck up so I left it alone. Otherwise everything works. No way could I drive a car with a worn suspension or a Christmas tree dash. I’d have to fix it.

        • 0 avatar
          krhodes1

          Same here – and if you put the energy and a little money into bringing the car up to snuff, it will be reliable for a LONG time.

          My best example of this was my ’86 Alfa Spider. I bought it in late 2009 for $4000. I spent the winter going through it from stem to stern bringing all the maintenance up to date, rebuilding the suspension, replacing all the hoses, etc., etc. Then I drove the wheels off the thing for four summers with not a single issue. Nothing but an annual oil change. Cost me maybe $1000 in parts, and a couple months of occasional evenings and weekends. Maybe a solid week of work. Then I sold it for $4500. That was some fun motoring on the cheap.

          That was probably the biggest project I have tackled. More typical was my ’95 Saab 900SET that was the last used car I bought as a daily driver before I started buying new cars. Bought it for $5K with 70K miles in ‘2007. Put maybe $500 into it when I first got it – needed an exhaust, and I did a full service. Daily drove it for 2.5 years with nothing beyond routine maintenance (brakes, tires, a DI cassette). Sold it for $4K in 2009 when I bought a new left-over ’08 9-3SC.

          The CHEAPEST car I have gotten by with was when I sold that ’08 Saab in early 2011 and ordered my current BMW, which would not arrive until the Fall. Aside from the Saab, my other cars were my Spitfire, the Alfa Romeo, and a project Alfa. So I needed a cheap real car for six months. I bought a ’95 Volvo 945 with 212K off eBay for $1000. And then proceeded to try to see how little I could do to the thing and still have it be reliable. I had to do suspension bushings and an exhaust for inspection, that was $200. And I replaced a fuel pump relay for $10. That was it. Sold it for $1500 when the BMW arrived. Drove it all over the place too, went to the northern tip of Maine, all over New England for work, it never skipped a beat other than occasionally the torque converter would decide to not lockup for a while when it was really, really hot out after stop and go traffic. Even the A/C worked.

          • 0 avatar
            gtemnykh

            Some flavor of Volvo brick is on my ‘to own’ list, a clean stick shift 740 (8 valve, non turbo) would be ideal. Likewise, a Saab 9000 is a car that I’ve always admired from afar. I just don’t have space or time in my life right now to take on another project vehicle.

  • avatar
    Vulpine

    As it wasn’t an ‘only vehicle’ or even ‘one of two’, you likely made the right decision. Interestingly, had the garage been willing to speculate, they might have performed the repairs and made some profit off of it as physically she doesn’t look too bad; maybe get $3K through Craigslist.

    As a single or one-of-two, the better choice might have been to repair, then either continue driving or trade for something newer. Remember, she DID save your life (maybe) and could have saved her next owner’s life in a similar manner.

  • avatar
    Detroit-Iron

    As Harry Callahan once said, “A man’s gotta know his limitations.”

  • avatar
    mister steve

    I bought a new ’95 Legacy L wagon, and kept it for 10 years and about 140k miles. I still miss the car. The only problems I had were it seemed to eat brake rotors and pads, and was starting to get rusty, having spent its life in the Chicago suburbs and Maine.

    The 2 liter engine was very solid, better than the head-gasket-eating 2.5 that followed it. As long as you do the timing belt change at suggested intervals, of course.

    So yeah, you got your $600 worth out of that car.

  • avatar
    gasser

    There are NO magical self-healing cars. I never saw a tent revival for beaters.
    If you want to own a beater, the next time it makes a horrendous noise, stop and tow it to the mechanic.
    So many crazy things fail on an older car, that a quick inspection can’t begin to unravel what’s going on.
    Sequences of events like this are so rare and unique, that there is no algorithm to follow in their diagnosis.
    Magical thinking converts $500 repairs to $1200 repairs. You pay for driving a beater with incovenience, as well
    as $.

  • avatar
    SCE to AUX

    Good decision.

    I once had a ‘self-healing car’ – for a few moments. My 74 Fiat 128SL began making a loud high-pitched squeal on the highway, but the sound went away as I increased speed. It returned when I slowed down. About 1 mile later on surface streets, the car jumped up with a bang when I released the clutch at a stop sign.

    Diagnosis: The lower ball joint had begun separating on the highway, and it was being ground away by the CV joint on the front drive axle. The grinding action permitted the ball joint to separate more, until it finally came apart from the control arm. The axle partially separated from the transmission, sending needle bearing parts from the tripod bearing into the transmission fluid.

    It actually wasn’t hard or expensive to fix myself, and I kept the car for another year. But it was very educational!

  • avatar
    CoreyDL

    “A little bit of preemptive care and she’d likely still be on the road today.”

    Have to think though, at this age that little bit of preemptive care is nearly the whole value of the car, once or twice a year. But it doesn’t get done, and that’s why beaters only last so long!

  • avatar
    bikegoesbaa

    It would have been worth $100 a month to me to drive the Mustang instead of an 18 year old Subaru.

    • 0 avatar

      Driving a Mustang this winter wouldnt have been super fun. The two snowstorms that each brought over a foot of snow made the Subaru nearly priceless.

      That being said, I mostly agree with you. However, there are voices in the commentariat that would suggest I should have sold the Boss and kept the Subaru as my only car.

    • 0 avatar
      rpn453

      You must have mild winters! Around here, the Subaru would be way more fun to drive for those five months of the year.

      It looks like it’s in good condition from the pictures. I expect that someone will make the necessary minor repairs.

  • avatar
    30-mile fetch

    “I went to the garage and retrieved my personal items from the car (including three dollars in change, a saxophone stand, a folder of CDs, and a yoga mat)”

    Well of course there was a yoga mat in there. It’s a Subaru.

    Bummer about the car, but at least it died in an dramatic and interesting manner.

  • avatar
    sirwired

    That is a clean-looking car; I hope it finds a good home instead of the junkyard. Maybe one of the mechanics will buy it and flip it.

  • avatar
    Secret Hi5

    IDGI, what’s the connection to Jack Baruth? (“Subaruth”)

  • avatar
    gtemnykh

    What sort of “car guy” wouldn’t inspect the front end for what was wrong after the first time hearing the sound?

    I bet those boots were torn for years before Bark even got his hands on it, it was only a matter of time before the last of the grease leaked out and the axle(s) failed. Even the most rudimentary look around/under the car when buying it would have caught torn axle boots.

    I dunno, just seems like carelessness bordering on incompetence at that point.

    • 0 avatar
      David Walton

      A car guy who’s not a grease monkey.

      • 0 avatar
        gtemnykh

        I read that as “a car guys who’s not a car guy” You don’t have to be a ‘grease monkey’ to know the basic layout and function of powertrain and drivetrain, and suspension/braking components. I’m not saying in fine detail, or to know how to actually go about replacing said components. But to look inside the wheel well and see grease strewn everywhere and a torn piece of rubber from whence said grease came. I think even the average jalopnik reader is capable of that ;)

        • 0 avatar
          David Walton

          You’re obviously making a value judgment.

          I’m certainly a “car guy”, but my mechanical aptitudes are limited and I’ve never turned a wrench, nor do I have any interest to. My understanding of the engineering involved is somewhat above the threshold I described, however.

          • 0 avatar
            gtemnykh

            Well that’s certainly your prerogative. I was just raised with the understanding that it’s a man’s job to know how his car works and to know how to fix it, by the side of the road if need be. Might be a legacy of my family’s Russian origin, where you oftentimes only have your wits and your two hands to get you out of trouble. I personally couldn’t live with myself if my car broke down somewhere while traveling with my girlfriend, and all I could do was hope that I had cell reception and stood around twiddling my thumbs. In fact I’d be kicking myself for not maintaining my vehicle better and allowing the breakdown to occur in the first place.

          • 0 avatar
            David Walton

            I was raised to understand and respect the economic realities of comparative advantage; I’ll stick to my professional specialization and my mechanics can stick to theirs.

            Neither of my vehicles even has a spare tire, and little can be done without the luxury of a lift, or even dropping the engine. I don’t know HOW I’ve managed to elude significant roadside calamity during my driving lifetime.

    • 0 avatar

      Ah, there’s the post I was expecting.

      I know much more about Prada boots. I’m not a wrench-turner. Nor do I care even a little bit to learn. I can afford to hire a mechanic.

      I appreciate your attempt at challenging my manhood. I was raised with the understanding that man has better things to do with his time than screw around under the hood of a $600 car. In fact, I couldn’t live with myself if I couldn’t hire a mechanic to do his job while I spent my valuable time doing mine.

      In the future, you can save us all a lot of time by just typing “I don’t like you.”

      • 0 avatar
        87 Morgan

        So, the premise of the argument is that the 99.999% of men who don’t fix their own car are in fact not men? Makes sense….

        FWIW, I think you made the right call. What you did not calculate was the potential cost of your 5 seconds of slide in the Boss. Only you can know if that slide would have ended differently with a set of wide meats on the back and not AWD. $1k deductible plus the diminished value of a carfax hit on the Boss, I would say the Subie more than paid for itself

        • 0 avatar

          Oh, without question. I am a big fan of my own driving skills but I doubt I could have saved the Boss in that situation.

          • 0 avatar
            PeriSoft

            You might not have saved the Boss, but the Boss might have saved the Boss. I’m not sure how good the ESC is on one of those, but if it at least measures up to the quality of gear in my late 2005 Saab 9-5, the entirety of the experience might have been the car going, “Blrrrrp!”, blinking its ESC light, and you deciding to go easy on the loud pedal for a while.

          • 0 avatar

            The ESC is pretty decent, but no ESC helps when there’s simply no traction to be had. I remember watching the ESC light on my RX-8 go solid once as I slowly spun directly into a ditch.

          • 0 avatar
            PeriSoft

            Well, if there was truly no traction to be had, then the outcome would have been the same regardless of what lump of metal was on top of your four useless contact patches.

            I’d be interested to see (in a rigorous way) a study of how ESC vs. optimal driving stack up in such situations. Even if there’s some area where there’s really zero traction, it’s going to start and end, and even if you’re channeling Ayrton Senna the ESC *ought to be* quicker at stabilizing the car during the transition periods. But that depends how it’s programmed.

            I know that in situations with merely limited traction, as highly as I rate my own car control skill, the Saab was far, far better – if for no other reason than that it had control over the speed of each wheel, which I didn’t. The feeling of getting the 9-5 into a slide followed by the brick-wall feel of the ESC grabbing hold and figuratively (and literally) slamming the brakes on the car’s rotation left quite an impression.

        • 0 avatar
          Russycle

          I was thinking that too. I don’t often drive on black ice, but when I do I prefer a Subie over a ‘stang.

      • 0 avatar
        gtemnykh

        Like I said, given the relatively civilized circumstances, help was a phone call away, and you could thankfully keep your Prada boots dry.

        Me knowing how to maintain my vehicle, as well as being mindful of known weak points and knowing how to address those with the basic hand tools that I carry in the trunk in no way impede or distract me from pursuing professional endeavors or enjoying my free time doing more fun things (a lot of outdoors stuff in my case). I take no issue with farming out work on my cars, as long as it is being done by someone competent, and I’m 100% in the know on what is being replaced, with what quality parts.

        It was just shocking to read such a nonchalant and clueless account of how this all came to be: “oops there were noises, my car broke, I had the towing people pick it up.” It really does read like something I might hear from my mom’s friends. I’m more used to folks on this site like Murliee Martin, Jack, heck our impeccably dressed Alex Dykes put a lift kit in an old Grand Cherokee.

        • 0 avatar

          If your mom’s friends have any SCCA trophies, or if they can turn a 2:24 lap of Watkins Glen, have them give me a call and they can write for us.

          • 0 avatar
            319583076

            o_O

          • 0 avatar
            gtemnykh

            See, all the more bizarre to hear someone who spends so much time around cars and is so skilled at driving them to be that oblivious as to how they work. Even Schumacher’s gotta know how to change a tire or when to do an oil change, right?

            I’ve obviously hit a nerve here, let’s just quit while we’re ahead. You are a wealthy manly-man who is too busy being successful and driving cars very well to bother with plebeian concerns of how they work, and who has excellent fashion sense to boot!

          • 0 avatar
            319583076

            “Even Schumacher’s gotta know how to change a tire or when to do an oil change, right?”

            Not anymore he doesn’t…

          • 0 avatar

            You haven’t hit a nerve. You’re superimposing your value system onto somebody else.

            Let me spell it out as plainly as possible: it was a $600 car. It was not the primary, or secondary, or even tertiary vehicle in my driveway—It was the fifth car in my household. It was neither worth my time nor did I care to visually inspect every component of the suspension or drivetrain every time I drove it. It was purchased to be used as a throwaway.

            I’m sorry that it bothers you so much that I don’t care. Going through life trying to make other people care about what you care about is a surefire losing strategy.

          • 0 avatar
            gtemnykh

            Yeah I realized that after typing that out :/ Geesh to do all that F1 racing and it’s the family skiing trip that gets ya…

          • 0 avatar
            gtemnykh

            Fair enough, and you’re right that I went off on a tangent with the ‘real men can work on their cars’ angle. I’ve just helped way too many friends back in college buy cheap used cars to not give them a quick but decent once over to check the basics to assess roadworthiness. On anything with front CV joints that includes checking the boots and/or listening to any clicking. I also noticed in the photos that the brake rotor is rusty to the point of being unsafe to drive on (IMO).

            Besides that it’s checking the suspension for loose balljoints and tie rods ends (pull the wheels back and forth over the axis they aren’t supposed to move in, feel for play in steering), checking brakes for leaks, mushy pedals, and rotor/pad condition. It just becomes habit.

            I wouldn’t want a friend who trusted my judgement on a cheap car to end up in a bad accident, and stuff like brakes, suspension, and tires is just something I don’t fool around with. Likewise I wouldn’t feel comfortable having my gf or family member ride in a car I didn’t trust to get us from A-B safely.

          • 0 avatar
            Zykotec

            I don’t think anyone is hitting anyones nerves so far,at best you were just talking over each others heads because of different value systems.
            My foreman at work has this awful saying; ‘do you buy a car to work on, or to drive it’ and I’ll never understand what he’s talking about.?..
            Who doesn’t love working on cars?
            On the other hand, I prefer to work on cars when I feel like it, not when the car needs it, so I think i can see both sides
            (even if I would never waste my hard-earned cashy paying a garages hourly rate for something I was physically capable of doing myself, or have the correct tools for.)

      • 0 avatar
        Arthur Dailey

        One of my closest friends has been in the trades (construction) for nearly 4 decades.

        He always hires someone to perform work on his house. As he says “if everyone did it themselves, then there would be no paying jobs for anyone”. To a degree he is right.

        As to Bark/Mark’s comments, yes too many people on this site just assume that everyone has a garage, a full tool chest and the time, inclination and skills to maintain a beater.

        Although I had (recently let go off) a project car. In reality I have not worked on any of our daily drivers for at least 15 years. I knew some mechanics, not electronics.

        And I work 50+ hours per week and spend the weekends visiting, driving or enjoying activities with my family. Neither my wife nor my daughters are interested in helping take apart and try to put back together an old V-8 Chevy, hence the end of my project car.

        I would bet that there are many on the site, just like me. We appreciate vehicles but they are not our be all and end all, nor do we equate our manhood by them.

        • 0 avatar
          gtemnykh

          I think the main point being missed is not the necessity of doing repairs in a DIY fashion, but being in-tune with one’s automobile, something I assumed went hand in hand with being ‘into’ cars. Even if you don’t want to lift a finger to fix it, you can tell by sounds/smells/vibrations when things aren’t quite right. To willfully ignore the warning signs can result in the very thing we saw happen with that axle shaft coming off.

          Just driving down a bumpy road, you can oftentimes hear and feel a loose balljoint, or the on center slop in the wheel might make you want to have the tie rods looked at. It doesn’t take time away from family to take a quick look at what the brake rotor surface looks like, or how tires are wearing, or to go so far as to occasionally check the oil dipstick and coolant level.

          Don’t think that the more mechanically inclined among us are all just garage dwelling trolls that dedicate every free waking moment to maintaining/repairing our 1985 Renault Alliances and Saab 900s.

          • 0 avatar
            johnny_5.0

            I think the percentage of people with a similar stance to Mark’s on enthusiast car sites would probably surprise you. I love cars, but I don’t know how to wrench on them. I’m fairly mechanically inclined…when I want to be or have to be. I could probably install a supercharger on my car given the right tools and *extremely* detailed instructions without incident. Yet there’s basically no chance of me doing something even 1/10th as complicated as that myself. Working on cars just isn’t a hobby of mine right now for a plethora of reasons. Maybe when I’m retired.

          • 0 avatar
            Arthur Dailey

            Let’s assume that I am an ‘average’ driver.

            Having a family including children who drive and needing a vehicle to get to and from work, I do the following.

            Buy new vehicles that we can afford and that our family can fit into. New, because 1) there is less chance of something going wrong for at least the first 4 years, 2) I control its maintenance and hopefully can prolong its lifespan accordingly, 3) it has all the ‘latest’ safety equipment.

            When a member of my family takes one for a ‘long’ drive or night trip, I check the fluid levels, that all the lights are working and the tire pressure (including ‘donut’ spare), fill the gas tank and clean the windows. Make sure that their phone is charged and that they have their CAA membership card with them. Check the ’emergency kit’ in the back (flares, pylon cones, booster cables in a bag with instructions, emergency blankets, flashlight and good batteries, some water and energy bars, first aid kit). That’s about it.

            In between, I make sure that it has its scheduled maintenance.

            If, I hear something, see something leaking, notice it losing fluid, or ‘feel’ something, then I call the garage and make an appointment. That usually means on a Saturday. Getting a Saturday appointment means scheduling it at least a week and a half in advance. So no ‘quick’ fixes.

            So far (knock wood), only one failure on a trip, when somebody did not top up the gas driving an early 00’s GM with a faulty gauge (it read 1/4 tank when empty). That was a common problem in Ontario at that time. If I remember correctly, GM blamed the gas formula that Shell was using.

            Perhaps others remember this problem and can correct me or confirm it?

          • 0 avatar
            danio3834

            “That was a common problem in Ontario at that time. If I remember correctly, GM blamed the gas formula that Shell was using.”

            This was a ridiculously common issue on GM sending units of the period. Apparently additives in the fuel caused the contacts on the metallic wiper of the sending unit to degrade/corrode/discolor. This changed the resistance in the circuit, thus changing the voltage drop and causing incorrect gauge readings. GM blamed the fuel additives, but in reality they just failed to account for them in the design. The problem was far less common to non existent in other manufacturer’s vehicles.

          • 0 avatar
            gtemnykh

            Arthur, that’s precisely the simple and common sense sort of approach to looking after your vehicles. You don’t need to be a total pro-mechanic to do it, not by a long shot. Like you, before longer drives I check air pressure (including spare tire), check oil and coolant levels, and am mindful of any noises I may have heard on recent shorter trips. Where I might deviate from the more ‘hands off’ owner is that when I do an oil change every 5k miles (on my 4Runner), I inspect the bottom of the truck for any oil leaks or torn boots (ball joint/tie rod end, CV boot). And since I’m the one that did it, I distinctly remember when I last changed filters and brake pads so I know whether those items are worth checking up on. But your basic checks of vital fluids and tires are really the crucial steps that need to be done.

  • avatar

    Risk assessment skills are critical do beater/old car ownership.

    I hear/feel something. Do I need to:
    -Immediately stop and seek service?
    -Get to it next weekend?
    -Nothing…it kinda does that

    Too much caution and use of professionals increases your operating costs unnecessarily (and cancels out the benefits of cheapness). Insufficient caution leads to unnecessarily large breakage. It’s a tough skill to master.

    • 0 avatar
      gasser

      Risk assessment skills are also critical to stock market investment, jumping companies to a new job and of course, wife selection.

    • 0 avatar
      j3studio

      Absolutely.

      One of the toughest things to figure out when I first purchased our 1985 Corvette back in 2004 was knowing the difference between “they just did that [even when they were new]” and “this is really bad”. To some extant, this is a risk with any used car, but it’s especially a concern with an older car.

  • avatar
    an innocent man

    For future reference, a lot of problems on older cars can be fixed by turning the radio up louder. A little insider trick for you. Your welcome.

  • avatar
    genuineleather

    After spending my formative driving years in a series of well-kept, pristine old Mercedes, I can say that I will never own an old car again. The character and solidity of an old W123, W124, or R129 is hard to beat, but spending thousands a year on repairs and STILL not knowing if your car will start/drive/operate correctly is a eventually pushed me over the edge.

    I now lease a sales rep-approved midlevel Fusion; disgustingly common and slow with the base engine, but in ride, handling, and solidity, it does a pretty good impression of a base German luxury car. For peace of mind and time saved, I consider the $236 sent to Ford Credit every month well-spent.

    • 0 avatar
      Russycle

      Been there. Leads to some great adventures–in case you’re wondering, you can get an alternator for an 85 XJ6, installed, on New Years Day, in Fresno–but I’m spoilt now by boring Honda reliablility.

    • 0 avatar
      PeriSoft

      I made the same series of calculations, except with Saabs and a Sonata. I miss the Saab, and sure, overall it was relatively inexpensive to drive. But not only did it use up my time, it used up the time of my family when I needed help fixing / moving it, and it ensured that I was never quite positive whether I’d be able to make it somewhere in two weeks. It just wasn’t worth the tradeoff anymore.

  • avatar

    I see the SuBaruth had a Richard M. Nixon license plate.

    Great story. Nice analysis.

  • avatar
    Trend-Shifter

    I think the whole beater car formula has changed from the good ole days.

    The only way to beat the system is to buy a low mileage car and really bird-dog the maintenance. Then sell it as something serious starts to appear.

    Today it is cost prohibitive to rebuild major drivetrain and suspension systems.

  • avatar
    CliffG

    Sometimes you just have to walk away. I have rebuilt engines from the block up and done all sorts of other stuff to vehicles, but sometimes the car is just not worth the bother. Leave it at the mechanics, say good luck and move on with life. With a little work the the mechanic can do all the work and make some money off of it (after all he has a lift and I don’t). It is actually ok to leave money on the table for somebody else. Amazingly enough if you have kept the cosmetic end up, you can always get some money for them no matter the extent of the mechanical damage. So it is never a complete loss. And, oh, that previous story on VW 2.0 Turbo? Make sure you sell it at 100k miles.

    • 0 avatar
      highdesertcat

      CliffG, a profound and sage observation, and one that I share.

      Another option is always to part-out the vehicle.

      In several cases, when I put up a vehicle to part out, the buyer bought the whole thing, and I didn’t have to haul anything off to the scrap yard.

  • avatar
    Ryoku75

    Even as a Subaru skeptic this was a pretty neat, if sad story, credit for donating the car to your garage given the shape it was in.

    Good thinking keeping the Boss though, it would be a bit silly to sell it to patch up an old Subaru.

  • avatar
    DC Bruce

    Glad to hear that your ice-skating adventure ended well. Just guessing, but I’m thinking that the old Subie weighed less than your Mustang . . . a positive factor when sliding along and hoping to regain control.

    Back in prehistoric times, I owned an ’87 Mustang GT with a manual. It was the only car I have ever owed that was absolutely impossible in snow . . . even with cable chains on the rear wheels. I would respectfully suggest saving money on the 4 sets of extra wheels and snows for your Mustang . . . and keeping it in the garage when the white stuff starts falling. I dunno; maybe the newer cars have a little more weight over the rear wheels. But the old Fox body was more than a challenge . . . and the limited slip differential would get both rear wheels spinning, causing the rear to slew to the right . . . from the engine torque.

    • 0 avatar

      I think, if anything, a set of 15″ steelies and some Blizzaks will find their way onto the Fiesta.

      Either that, or I’ll call my friend about his Outback that he had for sale, too—I never learn.

      • 0 avatar
        Nick 2012

        Solely for safety, I’d go Blizzaks on the Fiesta because you’ll get better grip on slush/icy surfaces plus side/curtain airbags, ESC, and a much more modern crash structure if you can’t avoid a crash (or someone crashes into you).

    • 0 avatar

      The limited slip in your Mustang was probably worn out if it pulled to the right when it slipped. My ’91 Grand Marquis with 4.30 gears and a High Output Mustang motor and transmission got me through this winter just fine on no-season tires, and while initially acceleration from a dead stop in loose snow would cause the ass end to kick a bit right, the Trak-loc rear end always kicked in, transferring power to the left wheel and pulling/pushing the car straight generally by the count of three one-thousands.

  • avatar
    Jack Denver

    I don’t work on my cars much anymore but I know enough to keep ahead of leaks and suspicious sounds, etc. A grinding noise is never the tie rods. If it varies with road speed it is something in the parts that are turning when you are rolling. Not everyone needs to be a doctor but you need to know enough to know when you should see a doctor immediately and when you can delay. Your car was having chest pains and you shrugged it off – must be indigestion.

    Usually on Subarus it’s the passenger side axle boot that fails because it sits right on top of the exhaust and gets cooked. The factory axles are expensive but they can be rebooted or else you can get an aftermarket axle for really cheap (and they are very little labor to replace). Even if they are Chinese junk they will last a couple of years. You might figure that you are saving money by doing as little work as possible on your beater but by neglecting it you turned it from something that you could have driven for another year or two by spending a couple of hundred $ into junk.

    I’m not sure I understand how the timing belt fit into this scenario. Did the sudden shock of the wheel locking up cause it to jump a tooth?

    • 0 avatar
      gtemnykh

      “I’m not sure I understand how the timing belt fit into this scenario. Did the sudden shock of the wheel locking up cause it to jump a tooth?”

      I think that is definitely the most likely cause.

      I also agree with the root cause of the boot failure: close proximity of the boxer’s exhaust manifold. This continued to plague the 00-04 and 05-09 cars, and probably will be an issue on the current generation as well unless some super effective heat shield was implemented there.

      Re-booting OEM axles in a timely fashion (ie when they just start to tear) can save a lot of headaches with the cheap and poorly balanced remans and non-OEM aftermarket units. Although if the originals are beyond saving, I hear NAPA axles are one of the better choices, that and “RAxles” online.

      At least with this older non-Outback legacy, there’s the 2.2L SOHC motor, which seems to have been spared the curse of weak head gaskets, and will easily crack 300k miles as long as the timing belt and tensioner is changed.

      • 0 avatar
        Jack Denver

        Why is it that the 2.2’s last forever and the 2.5’s leak, even though they both use the same gasket material? Did boring out the engine reduce the amount of gasket surface area enough to create the problem? Are there certain narrow spots where the path to the outside (or inside, depending on the year) is extremely short in the 2.5? I’ve heard it said that the boxer design contributes to the head leaks vs a straight or V engine (bottom of boxer head is bathing in oil at all times) but the 2.2s are boxers too.

        It’s really a shame that Subaru took a (semi) bullet proof little engine and turned it into a guarantied lemon just to get a few more HP out of it. And then did not stand behind it when it was clearly their screw up.

        • 0 avatar
          gtemnykh

          It does in fact seem that enlarging the bores to 2.5L and increasing the compression ratio to achieve the fairly impressive naturally aspirated 175hp out of 2.5L (hot stuff in the late 90s!) may have pushed the limits of some of the materials thermodynamically speaking. Another factor sometimes brought up by the Subaru-gurus is that in Japan and in Europe, the Subaru EJ25s were specified to run on premium gasoline, whereas the fickle US market was catered to with a 87 octane requirement. The compression ratio is still fairly high as in the Euro/Japanese motors, so there might be some extra stress on the motor due to knock.

  • avatar
    71 MKIV

    FWIW, I gotta dollar that at some point during the slide, you hit a dry spot which put an odd twist on the hub. Axles aren’t designed to take much from that direction.

  • avatar
    mnm4ever

    Kind of perfect timing with you literally having just picked up a 3rd car that just happens to make a pretty decent daily driver?!?! Admit it, you planned the whole thing! Its a conspiracy! :)

    I hear you on the beater thing, but I think that also comes with age and financial ability/security. Even as short as 3 years ago the idea of owning 2-3 brand new cars was out of my reach, and I gladly picked up a daily driver “beater” when the opportunity came along. It is great for keeping mileage and wear and tear off my nicer cars. But through various circumstances I now have 4 cars (fun car and daily car for my wife and myself) and simply taking care of them is becoming tedious.

    The CRV has such high miles it isn’t worth selling, yet its too nice to really junk it either. So I limp it along for now, simultaneously hoping nothing expensive breaks while also knowing that when it does I will have an excuse to get rid of it!

  • avatar
    ajla

    “Do what all TTAC commenters would have done, which is break out my impressive array of tools, put the car up on the lift in my garage, and spend thirty minutes repairing all of the issues myself.”

    Well, driving old/cheap cars and fixing them is my hobby. I don’t play saxophone or race or paint or collect stamps or anything like that.

    That said, I personally wouldn’t criticize people that don’t enjoy the same stuff I do.

  • avatar
    RRocket

    I’m in the same boat here. I needed something to plow through winters here in the Great White North..my 911 wasn’t going to cut it. So I found a somewhat rough 1998 Subaru Forester S for a paltry $750. Rusting around the rear wheel wells. 5 speed manual was a nice bonus though. Having to sort out an EGR issue before it passed emissions was NOT a nice bonus. I fixed the EGR issue, put new o2 sensors in and threw on some winters tires. Knock on wood, it’s been unstoppable in the snow (Foresters can easily push snow up to the bumper!) and has been returning 24-25MPG with winter gas.

    But in the back of my mind….I’m ALWAYS waiting for it to die, not start, etc. So far so good, however…

  • avatar
    05lgt

    Sad story. At least it died saving your bacon. Not a quick end, but an honorable one. I once spun a 93 legacy wagon on ice at freeway speed and caught it after the loop. I was baffled that it caught and that I kept my lane through an ess curve while spinning. Pure skill, of course. Lots of cars on the barrier after the curve, the ice was on a bridge.

    Glad you are unhurt through it all.

  • avatar
    Athos Nobile

    “which is break out my impressive array of tools, put the car up on the lift in my garage, and spend thirty minutes repairing all of the issues myself.”

    Except, there’s no way in hell you can fix that car with all those problems in 30 minutes.

    I fix my cars myself (no lift, no fancy toolbox), and I’m totally with you with your choice.

  • avatar
    kmoney

    “It cost me $38 a month to insure it.” This is one of the only things that makes me want to live in the US. Insuring this in Canada (BC anyway) would be 3-4X more per month. Probably the only thing that stops me from owning many crappy but interesting cars.

  • avatar
    vvk

    Obviously, it would have been better to preemptively fix things. However, even given the damage, I would have fixed it myself. The 2.2 is a non-interference engine, so a new $30 timing belt would be enough to get it started (or not :) A couple of junk yard wheels and axles, another $50 for new tie rods… Not too bad. Junk yards are full of these…

    By the way, Subaru makes it super easy to the cam timing… Easiest I have ever seen. Swapping axles is easy, if you have a center punch and a big torque wrench.

    It just looks too good to junk it. A shame.

  • avatar
    burgersandbeer

    Great that the Subaru worked out for you Bark.

    I feel obligated to point out that the way the math worked out with your beater experiment is pretty much the best outcome anyone could hope for.

    It takes a minor miracle to find a running car for $600. Your Subaru looks far cleaner than anything I see on my local craigslist for under $1500. Almost all need an engine or transmission, and cosmetically look much worse.

    In addition, many states would eat into your margin by insisting that you fix the catalytic converter to pass emissions and also collecting sales tax. It probably wouldn’t erase it completely though – the big problem I see with this plan is the odds of finding a running car so cheap.

    For any non-DIY types on the fence about trying the Beater Life who might be encouraged by Bark’s story, I imagine the typical beater experience is more expensive and painful. Of course I might make it that way; I can’t not fix broken things.

    • 0 avatar
      Vulpine

      I’m the sort who would lose money going the beater route. Never once have I owned a second-hand vehicle that I didn’t have to put thousands more into it after purchase. Not Once. And these were supposedly ‘clean’ cars from dealership used car lots in almost every case; they weren’t cheap to start with. (Ok, cheaper than new, but still…) The worst of the bunch was a ’73 Gran Torino that cost me half my paycheck EVERY MONTH just to keep it running–so I could get to that job. Another needed a new engine block the week after I purchased it–finding oil in the water from a cracked cylinder wall. Even an ’85 Olds Toronado with optional sport suspension (supposedly copied from the Corvette) went through a certain engine sensor very regularly–like every six months. After the second one I told them how to prevent it, but it took them replacing two more–all four on their own dollar–before they tried it. No more sensor issues after; the nylon timing gear shredded instead.

      Interestingly, the one time I bought really cheap because I absolutely needed a pickup truck within a week, it cost me double what I paid for it just to pass state inspection. By the way, that one was a Ford, too.

  • avatar
    87 Morgan

    I think at some point we need to either define or re-define beater.

    For me a $600 ride is just not an option. It costs me way more than that to not arrive where I need to be M-F. On the weekend, I would hate to miss or have my kid miss a soccer game because we took said beater instead of the tried and true family hauler.

    I am currently in the market for what I would call a beater, in some measure to JBs personal results from the accord coupe, only I am looking for a sub 10k MT 4 mil to maximize mpg. I have found one and think I can be the deal done for 8k. If I can lay down 100k on it in 3 years, great for me. I would most likely not even attempt to sell it when I am done with it, cars for the blind or what have you. I bought my first car for $250 way back in 1991, spent a lot of time on the side of the road, with my tool box and then in my parents garage etc. That is just not an option today.

    In the end Bark, the subie worked out, but the fiesta may be your new/updated version of a beater.

    • 0 avatar
      gtemnykh

      For your requirements, a brand new Versa S with the 5spd might actually be not too terrible of an idea. They hold up pretty well as taxis in Mexico, that’s pretty high praise I’d say, considering how they’re driven and over what roads.

  • avatar
    rpn453

    You’re not giving yourself enough credit on the save, Bark. The vehicle didn’t save you, your inputs did.

    My buddy had an even more destructive half-shaft failure on his MkIV GTI last year. He re-used the torque-to-yield bolts when reassembling some time previously, and when they let go it punched a hole in his transmission housing.

    I don’t know about those older Legacys, but I was quite impressed when another buddy picked up a 120k mile, lightly hail-damaged, ’05 Legacy GT from a salvage sale for cheap and we were able to remove the timing belt cover with four small easily accessible bolts to inspect the belt. Sure enough, it was original and had a few cracks on the outs1de surface, so it was due for an immediate change. It’s terrible that most manufacturers hide such an important belt where you can’t even see it.

  • avatar
    Kendahl

    We have a 1998 Legacy GT wagon with 240k miles. Repairs cost us $2,200 in each of 2013 and 2014. We have spent $800 so far this year. A new Outback would cost between $25k and 33k. If we bought a new Outback to avoid the cost of repairing our old wagon, it would take us 11 to 15 years to break even and that ignores the cost of collision and comprehensive insurance and property taxes for the new one. I think it’s more meaningful to measure the cost of car repairs in months of loan payments rather than in dollars.

  • avatar
    DavidB

    I purchased a one-owner, well-maintained 2002 Lexus ES300 with 89K miles in the spring or 2015 for $6K and it has been flawless. My independent mechanic said it should go another 100K miles without major issues as everything works as designed. Timing belt was replaced just before I purchased it. That is as far into beater territory as I’m willing to go…

    • 0 avatar
      28-Cars-Later

      I had to chuckle at your comment on “beater territory”. Although I never liked the ES300 for its lack of oomph, what you describe is precisely what I seek out for my “nice car”.

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