Flip This Car Extra: 1991 Subaru Legacy Sport Sedan—Part Two

By Christopher Smith

June 26, 2011


I’ll get right to the point. Those who saw part one of this two-part FTC Subaru sidebar and thought I literally flipped it, you’re in for a disappointment. I suppose I could make up a fabulous story about how I skidded down a cliff rubber side up after rescuing innocent children from an exploding volcano, but to borrow a line from an old Kenny Rogers tune, sometimes you’ve got to know when to fold ‘em. This is especially true when you violate the Christopher Smith Cheap Car Purchasing for Dummies guidebook, which opens with chapter one: Never fall in love with the idea of a car. In other words, don’t buy a specific used car just because you want that particular brand or model. Make the purchase because you want that actual car and evaluate it as you would any other machine. That way, you enter each situation with a proper eye and a level head which, in theory at least, will help you avoid bad purchases.
Had I followed my own rules, the Legacy may have never been on my radar in the first place. The seller lived four hours north and agreed to meet me halfway, so much of the transaction involved online photos and telephone conversations, at which time he mentioned a leaking fuel filler neck. Fuel leaks of virtually any kind on an older car are near the top of my run the other way list, but I definitely should’ve turned down the purchase when I spotted a leaking fuel line at our meeting a couple weeks later. That leak was opposite the fuel filler neck so the two weren’t related, and while investigating that I also uncovered some severely rotted rocker panels, suggesting the unibody may not be as sound as it appeared. Lastly, a nasty snapping/clunking in the front end that would occasionally cause the car to pull aggressively to the right should’ve been the final deal breaker, and these problems were in addition to the issues the seller had already told me about. But it was too late. I’d already convinced myself that I could easily handle the repairs, and hey, the seller had driven the car over 100 miles to meet me, so it couldn’t be that bad. Besides, I’d already formulated a modification list which included lowered suspension, an aggressive exhaust system, minor boost tweaks with a modest goal of around 230 horsepower, and some fresh black paint with gold STI wheels (because you can’t have a turbo Subaru without gold wheels.) And therein lies the second violation of my guidebook: Don’t start thinking performance until the maintenance is done.
But I’d already fallen in love with the idea of owning a first-generation Legacy turbo, so I handed over $1200 and dribbled 93 octane the entire 120 miles back home.
What followed can only be described as two weeks of pathetic rage. It took two days of soaking in penetrating lubricant just to get the driver rear wheel broken free of the hub, so it took that long to simply get a proper diagnosis on the fuel leak, which then turned out to be two leaks in the fuel line. In the meantime, the battery had run dead; it wouldn’t hold a charge for more than 24 hours so that was an unplanned $75 before the car was even officially on the road.
This was not a good start.
One fuel leak turned out to be an easy fix, but the second was nestled way up between the rear fender and fuel tank, where the steel lines turned to run across the top of the tank to the fuel pump. After three winter evenings lying on my back in an unheated garage trying to deduce a plan, I determined there would be no easy fix on this one. The only proper solution was to replace the entire line, which would require dropping the fuel tank. And because this was an all-wheel drive Legacy, the drive shaft, rear differential, rear subframe and rear sway bar—AKA the entire rear assembly—would also have to come out. And with a week already spent looking up at the unibody, let’s just say I had doubts on everything coming apart then going back together without some fabrication to account for rusted, weakened metal. I consulted some Subaru specialists who confirmed my fears and tossed me a worst-case estimate of $1500, accounting for welding and fabrication to get everything reassembled properly. Mind you, that was R & I just to replace the fuel line; new rear suspension components were extra and that included no parts or labor for the front. I could handle engine work, body work, and minor suspension work, but dropping pretty much everything underneath and welding up new bits was way out of my league, and with other shops quoting similar amounts to do the work I’d have nothing left in the budget to address the Subie’s other problems, never mind doing up the fun performance stuff. Dropping the entire rear assembly was simply not an option for me; it was at this point when my infatuation with the Subie really started to wane, and as it did I realized I had in fact made a bad purchase.
As a last ditch effort to put the Legacy on the road without leaking fuel I resorted to a liquid metal product I’d used with limited success in the past. The car stayed on jack stands for another week while I applied a thin coat of putty via flat head screwdriver (fingers wouldn’t fit) every night. With the fuel system depressurized the line was bone dry, giving the goo a fighting chance to work its way into tiny cracks or holes (and also giving it a chance to plug the fuel line, but I was trying not to think about that.) While it was immobilized I reattached the rear spoiler and gave the interior a bit of a freshen; I could’ve done more, but the whole fuel line saga had seriously sapped my passion for the thing. Add in a growing level of disgust at myself for not recognizing the warning signs pre-sale, and it’s probably not a surprise that I began to consider just bailing out of it. List it for sale as-is and just try to recoup my $1200; sort of the live-to-fight-another-day-approach if you will—not extremely glamorous, but sometimes it’s the best way to go.
Before that, however, I’d at least see if the patch on the fuel line would hold. With the car still on jack stands, I cycled the ignition key and pressurized the fuel system, then crawled underneath for the moment of truth. The line stayed dry.
For about a minute, anyway.
The patch work had slowed the leak, but didn’t stop it. Running at idle, the line would slowly get damp until a small drip would fall, at about the rate of one every couple minutes. It was better than it had been, but still, it was a fuel leak. The patch had failed.
I put the car back together and decided to just drive it as-is while I weighed my options. For the next month or so I did this, accumulating upwards of 300 miles in that time while slowly acclimating to the nuances that make each older used car unique. Once or twice a week I’d take it on my 30-mile round trip commute to the office, or a quick five-miler to the store and back. The broken down suspension made the car bounce over bumps so bad that I would become seasick on certain stretches of local highway M-20, and the snapping up front during virtually every steering maneuver always had me wondering whether or not I’d come out one morning to find the whole subframe sitting on the ground. The solution I’d found was to simply steer with the throttle, which the 50/50 power split and the viscous limited slip differential was more than happy to oblige. And the engine was equally happy to oblige despite the minor fuel leak, which seemed to have zero effect on power delivery. With every stab of the gas came just a touch of turbo lag, followed by a surprisingly meaty surge of mid-range power that kicked the Subaru down the road with giddy haste. It so made me want to open up the intake and exhaust, but it also showed me why enthusiasts appreciate this engine so much. It’s a bit hard to describe, but there are some mills that just feel like they’re capable of so much more. This EJ22T was definitely one of them.
And I’ll offer this piece of advice to anyone who has never had the chance to pilot a well-executed all-wheel drive platform utilized in a performance application: Be prepared to become a slave to all-wheel drive performance for the rest of your life. It delivers a measure of control you never thought possible while still offering up the power-on oversteer tomfoolery that most petrolheads never grow out of. As rusty and suspension-busted and fuel-leaky as this Legacy was, it was still like driving a bachelor party whenever the roads weren’t dry pavement. The things you’re doing probably aren’t entirely legal, and you’re almost always in way over your head. But it’s still a crazy good time and no matter what happens, there’s this sense that you’ll still be alive in the morning to brag about it all. I’m not saying I broke any laws while in possession of this car, but there’s a three-mile stretch of dirt road somewhere in central Michigan that I’ll never see the same way again. At least, until I get another turbocharged, all-wheel drive performer.
Despite that awesomeness, logic ultimately prevailed and I finally listed the Legacy for sale at the beginning of April. I advertised it for $1300—a Benjamin more than my purchase price to account for the $75 battery and $15 in rubber fuel lines and associated bits. In the ad I explained all the known problems and that while it was drivable, it would need work soon. In a testament to just how rabid a following these cars have, I had two very interested prospects within 24 hours, one of whom made a two-hour weekday journey to see the car after work. He arrived with a friend (always a good sign) and promptly handed me $1300 after a short test drive. I was legitimately sad to see it go (especially considering that the fuel leak had mysteriously disappeared during their test drive), but it was still the right decision to make. As cool as the 1991 Subaru Legacy Sport Sedan was, the cost of continuing the relationship would’ve been far more than I could’ve recouped on the sale. I’m not necessarily opposed to investing in such automotive pursuits of passion; having irrational, emotional relationships with automobiles is, after all, the reason why Winding Road exists. But when the goal is to have some fun then make some cash, well, this time it just wasn’t meant to be. I officially owned the car for two months and racked up just shy of 500 miles. With tax, title and license fees figured in I ultimately lost around $70, but it could’ve been much worse. Rather than a failed flip, I consider it an inexpensive education.
From one of my shortest-ever used car flips to what’s becoming one of my longest—that’s right folks, the 1994 Buick Roadmaster is still with me, and it’s as strong as ever. See what I’ve been doing with the Beast during this FTC Subaru hiatus and what unlikely role it may adopt if it doesn’t sell soon, all in Flip This Car: 1994 Buick Roadmaster—Part Seven, coming shortly.