By on August 20, 2018

1988 Subaru wagon in Colorado wrecking yard, RH front view - ©2018 Murilee Martin - The Truth About Cars

Living in Colorado (as I do) and spending a lot of time in junkyards (as I do), I see discarded Subarus. Lots of discarded Subarus, in fact, so many that I only notice the more interesting ones — say, an XT Turbo or a really ancient wagon out of a novelty song.

Today’s Junkyard Find isn’t particularly noteworthy by those standards, but it seems to embody so many Denver Subaru stereotypes that I decided to photograph it. High mileage, high final owner, and high levels of oxidation, all here at a mile-high junkyard.

1988 Subaru wagon in Colorado wrecking yard, Rocky Mountains - ©2018 Murilee Martin - The Truth About CarsThis yard is located just north of downtown Denver and just east of the Rocky Mountains, so it’s more picturesque than, say, your typical urban yard in Santa Fe Springs or Green Bay.

1988 Subaru wagon in Colorado wrecking yard, odometer - ©2018 Murilee Martin - The Truth About CarsDuring the 1980s, Subarus managed to get the same sort of reputation for reliability that Hondas, Toyotas, and Mercedes-Benzes earned the hard way, though these Leones really weren’t anywhere close to the sort of indestructibility enjoyed by owners of, say, an ’88 Civic or 190E. Still, this one nearly reached 250,000 miles, putting more than 8,000 miles under its tires for each of its 30 years on the road.

1988 Subaru wagon in Colorado wrecking yard, rust - ©2018 Murilee Martin - The Truth About Cars1980s Japanese cars didn’t rust as readily as 1970s Japanese cars, but this car has plenty of that too-many-trips-to-the-ski-slopes corrosion.

1988 Subaru wagon in Colorado wrecking yard, rear view - ©2018 Murilee Martin - The Truth About CarsThe hatch is rusty and from a different car, so the original one must have been a real oxidation horror show.

1988 Subaru wagon in Colorado wrecking yard, 4WD lever - ©2018 Murilee Martin - The Truth About Cars1980s American drivers of four-wheel-drive cars were somewhat accepting of the need to reach down and move a lever when they wanted to switch between two- and four-wheel-drive modes. This is how the Tercel and Civic 4WD wagons did it, too.

1988 Subaru wagon in Colorado wrecking yard, 4WD instructions - ©2018 Murilee Martin - The Truth About CarsThe problems came when drivers didn’t understand the reasons to ever leave four-wheel-drive, which led to tire damage and worse. Full-time all-wheel-drive with center differentials, which came a bit later for cars like this, took the decision-making out of the drivers’ hands, hurting fuel economy but boosting sales.

1988 Subaru wagon in Colorado wrecking yard, cannabis decal - ©2018 Murilee Martin - The Truth About CarsI’d say that a majority of junkyard Colorado Subarus older than 20 years have at least one sticker from a cannabis dispensary. Let’s call it 70 percent.

1988 Subaru wagon in Colorado wrecking yard, brewery decal - ©2018 Murilee Martin - The Truth About CarsYou can’t have cannabis stickers without brewery stickers. It’s the law.

1988 Subaru wagon in Colorado wrecking yard, dog decal - ©2018 Murilee Martin - The Truth About CarsIt’s also a Colorado law, or at least a very strong tradition, that you must have some dog-related sticker on your Subaru.

1988 Subaru wagon in Colorado wrecking yard, engine - ©2018 Murilee Martin - The Truth About CarsIt’s a four-wheel-drive wagon with a five-speed manual transmission, so the 73-horsepower (or maybe 84 hp, depending on options) engine doesn’t take away from the things we like about such cars.


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59 Comments on “Junkyard Find: 1986 Subaru GL 4WD Wagon...”


  • avatar
    nels0300

    I had one of these, it was my winter car when I had an LX 5.0L Mustang notchback.

    It was the slowest car on earth, but it kicked ass in the winter, it rode nice, and it had nice big wagon space. But good Lord was it slow.

    It made getting the five-O out in the spring that much more glorious.

    • 0 avatar
      Brumus

      I test drove a Crosstrek a few years ago and found it wanting in the power department. But Jesus — it was a rocket compared to the GL 4WD wagon I drove in the early 90s.

      It was a practical car that gave me little trouble, but its engine was hopeless out on the open (and hilly) roads.

      • 0 avatar
        slavuta

        I remember this car for its hard and square plastics surrounded by rust. I also remember how touchy the brake was. But I have to say, some people drove it for 20+ years. This is because fixing these was easy. Replacing transmission was simple and inexpensive.

  • avatar
    ThomasSchiffer

    I find it interesting that the spare tire in the engine compartment (how French) appears to have been used and recycled. The wear on the tire profile appears very to be quite strong.

  • avatar
    redapple

    Subaru.
    Dollar for Dollar. Best Car value available-period.

    I have turned my back on GGM garbage.

    • 0 avatar
      Art Vandelay

      What a load of horse manure. Overpriced and now that Mazda has killed the rotary one of the few cars made you can expect to have a major issue with in the first 100k miles. J bodies run more reliably than these.

  • avatar
    CaptainObvious

    Trying to decipher that Dual Range info sticker:

    Going around turns you DON’T use the clutch?
    Or:
    Don’t engage 4WD going while turning?

    I’m guessing the second?

    • 0 avatar
      gtem

      I’d assume you need the clutch in or to be in neutral before you move the transfer case lever. I’d also assume that it is a part time system like the Tercel, and earlier versions of the Civic 4WD before they adopted the RT4WD approach that Arthur is referring to on his ’87. These early systems really are basically traditional part time 4wd systems with both pluses (very effective and predictable and transferring torque) and minuses (ease of use, limited use scenarios).

    • 0 avatar
      whynot

      It is saying have clutch engaged while driving straight (not turning) when shifting into a different 4WD mode/FWD in typical poorly written English from smaller 80’s Japanese company (“when shift the select lever”…).

    • 0 avatar
      pwrwrench

      Combined with the stickers on the dash, it means; “Don’t (or always) engage 4wd before, or after, smoking weed.”

  • avatar
    Lie2me

    Looks like the previous owner(s) got their monies worth out of it

  • avatar
    Arthur Dailey

    Murilee, Our 1987 Honda ‘Realtime AWD’ Wagon did not have a separate lever to engage the AWD. It was a 6 speed manual with the lowest gear locking in the AWD for low speed, ‘extraction/traction’. Otherwise it was an automatic system.

  • avatar
    SirRaoulDuke

    Wow, that is pure Colorado, you are 100% correct about weed, craft beer, and dogs.

  • avatar

    I wish Subaru kept offering the dual range gearbox as an option. They did in Australia but not in the US. A 1.45:1 Lo range isn’t much but it would certainly help while driving off road in my Crosstrek.

    I also realize that by taking my Subaru off road I’m inside of an even smaller demographic than those who still drive manual transmission.

    • 0 avatar
      gtem

      Yeah a low range in Subies would be cool, and like you said in much of the rest of the world they offered this option on manual transmission models until very recently. My brother and his friend do some winter-wheeling on forest access roads in central PA and his friend’s ’09 Forester 5spd simply runs out of gearing and starts overheating the clutch when you get into hills with dense snow that you need to chew through. Conversely my brother’s ’02 XL7 (also a 5spd) with its traditional part time t-case does much better in those conditions.

      • 0 avatar
        brandloyalty

        I don’t know about the newer ones, but the first generation Forester was sold in other markets with a low range. My awd Escape Hybrid got up a steep snowed in logging road that defeated a friend’s Subaru because he fried his clutch.

        • 0 avatar
          gtem

          Up through the end of the ’07 gen of Impreza, the 5spd ones sold in Russia had a standard low range fitted, engaged with a lever next to the hand brake. That’d be a really neat option, the small but growing cult of subie-offroaders would kill to have that in the States.

  • avatar
    ernest

    We had one of these. It was our third Subaru- loved them all. Powerful? Eh, not so much, but winter driving made up for it. Back in the mid 80’s, there was very limited choices for a fuel efficient 4WD wagon.

    • 0 avatar
      gtem

      “Back in the mid 80’s, there was very limited choices for a fuel efficient 4WD wagon.”

      Not really. There was the Civic wagon 4wd, the Tercel 4wd, the Colt Vista 4wd, Sentra 4wd 5 door, and a few others that escape me. If anything, it was the heyday of the cool and quirky 4wd Japanese stick shift wagon. Sadly they were all incredibly rust-prone

      • 0 avatar
        slavuta

        I don’t know about Sentra but there was Stanza Wagon 4WD. And I owned FWD version of it.

      • 0 avatar
        el scotto

        Sadly, the Big 3 never entered this automotive segment and lost potential customers and their potential loyalty. Woulda, coulda, shoulda but passed on it. Subaru sales just keep on growing.

        • 0 avatar
          Arthur Dailey

          Datsun/Nissan sold the Multi and later its replacement the Axxess in AWD format in Canada. Believe that in the USA they had different names (Stanza wagon?).

          And of course AMC’s Eagle wagon.

          So the 1980’s did indeed have a variety of AWD/4wd vehicles in wagon or people mover/micro van format.

        • 0 avatar
          gtem

          GM and Ford both technically had the hardware, Pontiac 6000 AWD system could probably be mated up to an A-body wagon, if not a J-body Cavalier wagon. Ford had a similarly crude/effective AWD option on the Tempo, not sure how easy it could be adapted for a 1980s Escort wagon.

      • 0 avatar
        ernest

        @ gtem

        “Not really. There was the Civic wagon 4wd, the Tercel 4wd, the Colt Vista 4wd, Sentra 4wd 5 door, and a few others that escape me. If anything, it was the heyday of the cool and quirky 4wd Japanese stick shift wagon. Sadly they were all incredibly rust-prone”

        The Civic, Vista, and Stanza Wagons all resembled rolling phone booths. The Vista was probably the best of that group, but interiors were appallingly cheap. The Tercel was decent, but so underpowered it made the Subaru seem like a race car by comparison. Subaru also offered a Turbo in this bodystyle, although it was Automatic only as I recall.

        Then, as now, Subaru managed to stay a rung above everyone else. We moved on from Subaru only because we outgrew the car as the family grew. Another car bearing the moniker “GL” entered our garage. A Volvo Wagon.

        • 0 avatar
          gtem

          Okay so my original point stands, the 80s were the heyday of the “fuel efficient 4WD wagon,” but you personally don’t like the other options.

        • 0 avatar
          Arthur Dailey

          @Ernest, having cross shopped all of them and for some reason also the Isuzu Trooper (?). We picked the Honda. Subjectively we felt it to be ‘superior’ to the other vehicles. The Toyota would have also been a good choice regarding longevity.

          Our perception of the Honda, was quite possibly justified, based on the fact that the 1st generation CRV was little more than a Honda Realtime AWD Wagon, on stilts.

          That being said, I did very much wish to own a Brat.

  • avatar
    slavuta

    The only good thing about it and why it could go many miles – easy to change transmission, axles, etc. But it rusted more than any Mazda. I had to weld mine to reinforce because otherwise mechanic wouldn’t let me drive it for safety reasons. And it was really plasticky too.

    • 0 avatar
      VW4motion

      You have to be the most predictable and hilarious person on this site right now.

      • 0 avatar
        slavuta

        See? – good for you! you get reliable data and great sense of humor from me. Enjoy!

        • 0 avatar
          VW4motion

          Your data is the entertainment part.

          • 0 avatar
            slavuta

            VW, you have nothing. Just nothing. You have not own this Subaru. So why even post? What, finger-itching today?

          • 0 avatar
            VW4motion

            “VW, you have nothing. Just nothing. You have not own this Subaru. So why even post? What, finger-itching today?”

            No I never owned the Subaru in this article or any Mazda product. I did however sell Mazda’s in the 90’s and they were the junk of all Asian brands. Transmission,, rust issues after two years. You name it. And I do currently own a Subaru which is my second one in three years. So far my Forester has had no issues and still feels extremely solid. It is also very confident in the snow and daily canyon drives to 10,000+ feet in the winter.

          • 0 avatar
            slavuta

            WOW! you sold mazda! bravo! So you took a new car, let it off the lot and now, somehow you know more about it than someone who lived with it 8, 17, 9 and 8 years (and for the last 2 not done yet)! bravo.
            And now you are leasing 2nd subaru and you gonna tell how they are to someone who seen them out through 8 – 12 years of service. I rest my case. I just have no more words. Its like engine block recalls just passed you by. You are fine salesman. But not gonna fool me.

          • 0 avatar
            gtem

            “So far my Forester has had no issues and still feels extremely solid”

            How old is it and how many miles on it?

            My family has gotten fantastic service out of a pair of 1st gen Mazda MPVs, a first year ’89 with the rare 2.6L 4cyl and a final year ’98 Allsport 4wd ES with all the trimmings. We bought the ’98 off lease in 2001 and owned it until 2017 and 170k miles. The ’89 we bought in ’96 with 90k miles and my brother still has it to this day as his mountain bike hauler, with 250k miles on the clock. No they’re not the most rust resistant things out there, but both cars were a decade or so old in the NY salt belt before anything showed up on the body. Mechanically they’re quite robust and very easy to service, and very nice driving/handling cars, with very good weight distribution. They make easy work of unimproved roads as well, the ’98 had a true mechanical full/part-time 4wd system with a locking center diff, it was a champ in the snow.

  • avatar
    Advance_92

    Avery’s not half-bad considering the front range has been overrun with local brewers for the last twenty years.

  • avatar
    readallover

    Reliability? Everybody I knew who had one of these for any length of time had head gasket or transmission problems, or both. I was amazed how quickly Subaru was able to shed that reputation.

    • 0 avatar
      gtem

      We had emigre friends that bought a pair of these in close succession, both mid-late 80s versions, and had headgasket issues with both. At the time we were becoming Honda Civic fans with a succession of nicer and less rusty used variants (’82, ’95, ’90) although we too had a freak HG failure on our ’90 right after buying it with 60k on the car, apparently it was a freak factory manufacturing issue(?). We then had friends that had a 1st gen outback with the gen 1 DOHC EJ25 back when they were newer cars that had a headgasket failure before 100k and some engine sensor problems as I recall (perhaps linked).

    • 0 avatar
      slavuta

      I think, Subaru is religion. Otherwise how would you explain people spending tons of money to fix those gaskets (a problem that runs for 20+ years) and yet, go back and buy more Subarus. Even CR says that Subaru long term reliability is crappy, and yet. I know people who just buys them, fixes them, they die and they go buy another. I mean, one thing if you drive for 6 years and sell…

      • 0 avatar
        gtem

        There’s undeniable appeal in the package they offer (useful wagon shape with very confidence-inspiring AWD, good feature content for the price, historically strong resale), although the newer models with MPG-optimized AWD and CVTs are starting to feel somewhat more generic and alike to other CUVs these days. To the Subaru faithful, an occasional headgasket is just tithing to the vehicle that they like a lot. I get it, plenty of guys spend much more than a Subaru headgasket job on annual maintenance on older luxury cars. And I think the “Drive 6 years then sell” is a pretty smart move with Subarus given how strong the resale value is and how generally reasonable the prices for new ones are. Drive it for 70k without touching a thing (besides topping oil perghaps) then sell it and get another one and enjoy all of the Subaru-ness.

        • 0 avatar
          slavuta

          gtem,

          subarus had wagon shape and room. But backseats were horrible. Interiors – horrible. Now most of them have cheap AWD, but better seating and interiors. You should see some videos how subarus can’t climb over simplest things that are like nothing for plain Jeep Renegade. But even then, going back to seating – I was probing Crosstrek and the rear seat in it is really for little kids. Very short seat, no leg support. Crosstrek is kind of car I would love. But…

          • 0 avatar
            gtem

            “You should see some videos how subarus can’t climb over simplest things that are like nothing for plain Jeep Renegade”

            video for reference? I geek out over offroading stock vehicles and comparing AWD systems.

      • 0 avatar
        krhodes1

        Completely agree – it’s a religion. Best example being a friend’s Mom. Had an Outback she bought shortly before she retired (early retirement), so only put about 60K on it in 10 years. At 10 years old, fails inspection due to rust. So she bought another one new. If I had a car that failed inspection in only 10 years in this century I would not give that automaker another cent. 30-40 years ago, sure, they all did that other than the better Europeans, but today?!?!

        Just baffles me how many people think AWD is a substitute for proper tires. I’d rather stop than go, personally.

        My friend was pushed into buying a new Forester by her – he’s the definition of Mama’s Boy even at almost 50. It is an absolutely hateful device to drive. Awful seats, lots of road noise, lots of wind noise, and sloooooow. Though I give him credit, he puts snows on it every winter even thought that means dealing with Subaru’s idiotic TPMS system.

        • 0 avatar
          gtem

          “Completely agree – it’s a religion”

          How is it any different than BMW guys that see nothing of rebuilding their cooling systems every 60k as regular preventative maintenance and think nothing of tracking down worn suspension bushings before the car hits 100k?

          If Subarus are a religion, BMWs are Scientology :p

          Then again I’m about to go down the road of old-Audi ownership so I won’t cast too many stones!

      • 0 avatar
        Dave M.

        My Outback 2.5 has 110k+ miles and no engine issues. And the Outback, Legacy, Forrester, Crosstrek and Impreza all have CR “recommended buy” distinctions.

  • avatar
    gottacook

    Our ’86 GL wagon (FWD, not AWD) lasted 13 or 14 years, until rust appeared in the engine cradle. No major repairs except a clutch replacement.

  • avatar
    Art Vandelay

    A true penalty box

  • avatar
    ernest

    And not a word about 1st Gen Accord headgasket issues here. We bought our first Subaru in ’81 because our Accord blew a head gasket @ 40K miles. Oddly, never had that problem with the three subsequent Subies.

  • avatar
    brandloyalty

    Trivia about these cars: the parking brake was on the front wheels.

  • avatar
    davew833

    About 15 years ago I picked up a 1990 Loyale wagon (same body style) 4WD turbo at a charity auction for about $150. It took very little work to get running and it was a hoot to drive. Unfortunately, it had terminal rust around the windshield, and even rust holes through the roof. I patched up the holes a few times over the course of 3 years, but they finally got bad enough around the windshield wiper area that lots of water started leaking into the dashboard. Then one of the timing belts broke. Since it was a non-interference engine, I could have fixed it, but there was no fixing the rust issues so I scrapped it.

  • avatar

    Full Disclosure: I’ve owned more than a dozen of the DL/GL/GL-10 wagons from 1982 to 1988 models. Some had the hi/low, the GL-10’s had the turbo. I never owned better cars in snow. And the GL-10’s would deliver 28mpg highway while scorching up the hill to the ski area. Around town, heat of summer, turbo lag, misery.

    Subarus in general eat head gaskets. Cheap to repair. The Automatic Transmissions in the GL’s failed but often could be fixed with a couple of successive fluid changes. Unlike the Outbacks, there was adequate room between the tires and fender as well as good ground clearance. (So you didn’t have to dig accumulated snow out of the fenderwell with stick) A hi/low with studded snows was virtually unstoppable. Even the non-turbos.

    Why women who love other women had such a strong preference for Subarus I’ll never know, but there it is.

    The only advantage of Subaru’s later AWD was when two tires were on snow/ice and two on dry. The 4WD steered toward the slush, the AWD tracked straight. In a Blizzard going over Wolf Creek pass I declared an AWD Outback a damned near perfect snow vehicle. But not as fun as the older GL-10’s. Easy to work on. Cheap parts.

    For over a decade a used GL could be had for $1000 on a street corner, fixed, and flipped for $2000 to someone needing reliable winter transportation. I eventually owned a WRX (insufficient clearance) and the last of my Subaru’s got traded away. You could haul bicycles, skis, they were cheap, easy to fix, and you really couldn’t call yourself a Coloradan until you’d owned at least one Subaru.

    Godspeed, Subaru GL Wagon.

  • avatar
    Jeff Semenak

    Ever see a Subaru Justy in the Junk Yard?

  • avatar
    pliddle

    I had this model–a local Subaru mechanic used to buy ones with blown head gaskets and replace and resell. The HI-LO transfer case was a trip–low range was a stump puller, generally useless except a few times I took the car to the top of Mt. Washington. Came down in 2nd gear LO range–held 18 mph with rpms around 4500 & never had to brake.

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