1988 Subaru GL

During my formative car geek years (junior high and high school), I lived outside Kansas City, Missouri.  I only mention this because I knew someone who had a late-80s Subaru GL 3-door and it was such an interesting and unusual vehicle.  People in the west and northeast may scoff at this idea, but the fact is, Subarus were rare in the midwest at that time.   An interesting aside to that rare theme – my dad still had the ’79 Rabbit during this period – and no dealership at which to service it.  The only VW dealership in the Kansas City metro area folded sometime around 1989.  If Subarus were rare, VWs were downright exotic.


While the interior of the country suffered through winters with few all-wheel-drive choices, drivers in mountainous areas were afforded the choice of either toughing it out flatlander-style or buying a Subaru.  Most people toughed it out.  Mainstream car buyers viewed Subarus as a little too eccentric – weird styling inside and out and an overall reputation of being a liberal arts professor’s car.

What those unwashed masses missed out on was a truly great combination of bad weather capability and all-around utility.  Many people selected the wagon, but sedan and coupe versions were available as well.  Powered by a carbureted flat-four, none of the Subarus of the time were speed demons – in fact the weight and drag of the four-wheel-drive system found on most models conspired to make the cars downright slow.  But that lack of speed in perfect conditions was balanced by impressive foul weather capability and even halfway decent offroad manners due to increased ground clearance over typical cars.


There are very few of these old Subarus left on the road today.  Not because their engines weren’t bulletproof (they were) or because their owners weren’t dedicated (they most certainly are), but because these particular Subies rusted.  Badly.  Quickly.  And thoroughly.  Sadly, while many carmakers had figured out better rustproofing techniques by the mid-80s, Subaru didn’t until the 90s.

So it’s not too surprising to see today’s Hatch in the Wild candidate with a bad case of tinworm infestation in all the usual places.  That being said, with decent routine maintenance, the engine will continue to soldier on, many years after the beauty of this 3-door hatch has rusted away.

The GL-series models had ditched much of Subarus funky styling cues in that carmakers first attempt at mainstreaming their line for more midwestern tastes – odd proportions were replaced with clean, crisp lines that would have been at home in a contemporary Toyota dealership.  Body styles included a handsome 4-door, a practical wagon and this sporty 3-door hatch.  A choice of front- or four-wheel-drive was available on all models, however, setting the Subarus apart from those mainstream Toyota models.

Further mainstreaming efforts (with the exception of the switch to all-wheel-drive only on all models) has brought Subaru to the point where many of its models simply blend in to the landscape.  Gone are the days of the funky-proportioned DL and GL lines, the futuristic video game look of the XT and the exotic SVX (likely a future topic on this blog).

Oh well, you can’t begrudge them making money.  And selling a few cars to Kansas Citians.


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3 responses to “1988 Subaru GL”

  1. Real Al to your Bizarro Ray says :

    In the midwest, if you wanted an all-wheel-drive hatchback, you bought an AMC Spirit.

  2. BeaterBlogDave says :

    I drove a 1987 GL sedan for almost three years. I inherited from my grand father in 2003 with only 48k miles. I don’t know how he beat on it so hard without driving it. Before I rebuilt the Hitachi carb it took all day to get to highway speeds and couldn’t maintain 65mph up-hill with the A/C on. It had too many problems to list but the worst was back firing like a gun shot when you dropped throttle.

    Despite its many, many shortcomings it was fun. Mine was a 1.8L auto with barely enough torque to break the wheels loose on ice with 4×4 activated. A light weight AWD vehicle is surprisingly capable on snow and ice.

    It is kind of a shame you don’t see these any more. In Virginia, Subura was one of the best selling import cars for a good portion of the 1980’s so I imagine that’s where we need to look.

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