Tempting fate in a rusty Subaru GL

By Dave S. Clark

I have a weakness for cheap cars. Cheap vintage cars especially, but really any cheap crap can. They are fun, I don’t care if I wreck them and they are the main reason I’ve owned about 20 cars so far in my life. I also have a weakness for the Whiteshell Provincial Park, where I basically grew up as a kid. In 2004, those two weaknesses collided in an ill-fated journey.

At the time, I was a broke journalism student, wanting to get away for a little summer break and show my favourite spot in the world to my then-girlfriend Karlie. What little money I did have was tied up in my Nissan 240sx, which I was swapping an SR20DET into.  I was eager to show her the cottage where I had spent all my summers as I child and take her on our first major road trip together. The only concern was I was having loads of problems troubleshooting the freshly installed engine, which was only running on three of its four cylinders.  I had two options: not go, or drive my very beat up winter beater, an early ’80s Subaru GL. Or maybe it was a DL. I’m not sure, but what mattered was that it was a wagon, rusty, smelly and possibly not worth every last dollar of the $400 purchase price.

Against the advice of my father, I chose to drive the Subaru. It had never left me stranded, it was one of the most fuel efficient cars I had owned (I think it actually consumed more oil than gas) and it had more than enough space for our luggage and anything else we wanted to bring. The tape deck still worked somewhat, so I could hook up my Discman to the tape adapter and we’d even have music. There was only one crackly speaker, mounted in the dashboard, but it was better than sitting in silence for 14 and some odd hours.

I got to Karlie’s house and we packed up the car and set out on our journey. We had so much room, I didn’t really need to “pack” so much as just toss everything all over the cargo compartment. Considering all the suitcases and backpacks we have for travelling now, this seems crazy, but we didn’t have anything that resembled luggage at that point in our young lives. So we had at least a dozen plastic shopping bags, a backpack and even a few boxes. We packed a cooler with a few drinks, cookies and a couple of Karlie’s dad’s sandwiches with the finest Italian meats and the softest white torpedo buns. 

Before we knew it we were in Saskatchewan, making great time and even better fuel efficiency. I remember getting out of the car in Lloydminster at a gas station to get some food and fuel. As I walked back to the car, I started noticing it’s extensive rust and body damage. Even the wheels were covered in rust. For a moment, just a very brief moment, I realized that I should be incredibly surprised the car made it this far, some 250 kilometres past Edmonton. I can still remember that moment at that exact gas station, wondering what the hell I had been thinking. But it was too late to go back now. Surely if the car made it this far, it would make it to our destination, some 1250 more kilometres down the road.

We got back on the highway, got the car back up to speed and continued on our journey. I really wish the car had a tachometer because at 120 km/h, the engine was just blaring. Like any old car with nearly 300,000 KM on it, the Subaru had a lot of rattles at this speed. It sounded like it was ready to spontaneously explode into a million pieces, even though we were on the flattest Saskatchewan highway.

All was well until we hit a town called Moosomin, Saskatchewan. The check engine light came on. Not only is it the worst warning a car can give you, it is also the most ambiguous. It couldn’t be any more vague. Check the engine? How many damn parts are there in an engine? Couldn’t it be just a little bit more specific?

So the dreaded little red light flashes on just as we head into Moosomin and my heart skips a few beats. Moosomin is not the place I want my car to die. There are only two things that I remember that are in this town, a Dairy Queen and a pizza joint called Crusty’s. No offence to either, but I don’t want them as my last meal before my girlfriend kills me for stranding her here.

When we got into town, I pulled over and popped the hood. Where do I start? The engine is there. It’s running. There are no holes in the block. Nothing is on fire or leaking any more than normal. The belts are all on and spinning. I check the oil and top it up by about three litres. Seeing nothing of note, I give up and get back in the car and we get back on the road. Soon enough we’re in Manitoba and it’s getting dark. The little red check engine light is still on, taunting me with every kilometre I travel. Finally, I decide I can’t take it. I’m going to have to inspect the engine with my eyes just one more time before it gets completely dark. I pull over and pop the hood again. This time, I’m going to take my inspection a little further. I grab random hoses and squeeze them. I look at a few wires that have been snipped and spliced and left hanging throughout the engine bay. The previous owner clearly wasn’t an electrician, but then again neither was I. That couldn’t be the problem. I checked all the fluids again, but everything was topped up. Frustrated, disappointed, but not surprised I didn’t find the problem, I gave up and slammed the wrinkled and dented hood down and hopped back in the car. Winnipeg was still a few hours away and it was getting dark, so we got right back on the road.

I started accelerating, planted my heel in the rust hole in the floor and took off.  Then, against all odds, the check engine light started flickering on and off. Maybe this mysterious problem was just as mysteriously fixing itself. The flickering stopped. The light went out. Just as quickly as this issue appeared it had disappeared. I took a deep breath, cracked a little smile and kept driving. We only had a few hours to go and I was feeling as confident as ever.

As we got closer to Winnipeg, the warm, clear weather we had so far started to change on us. About half an hour before we reached Brandon, it started to downpour. The sun had set on what was a sunny day so the last leg of our trip was going to be wet and dark. I cranked up the wipers, not that it helped much. They were one of the many original but barely functioning parts of the car.

When we got to Brandon I thought it would be a good idea to call my dad who was at my uncle’s house in Winnipeg, where we were planning to stay the night. I pulled into a gas station and parked in front of a pay phone so I could call collect. My dad didn’t have nearly as much faith in the Subaru as I had and now that the check engine light went off and we were almost at our destination, my confidence in the little-beater-that-could was higher than ever. I told my dad we had made it to Brandon and we’d be in Winnipeg in about two hours. Surprised I had made it that far, he asked how the car was.

“Great,” I replied with a big told-you-so grin on my face. “It’s been perfect and I’ve hardly burned any gas.” I didn’t mention how much oil it had leaked and burned.

I was feeling pretty good about myself. Nothing feels better than silencing a big critic, especially when that critic was my wise old father. I hung up the phone and sprung back into the car, ready to finish the last leg of our trip.

I buckled up and popped the car in reverse. I cranked the wheel to the left, put it in first gear and hit the gas. That’s when I heard it. The sound that would change our trip for good. It was a sharp snap. It wasn’t a sound I had ever heard any car make before. It was the sound of my left CV shaft snapping and turning the beloved Subaru into a very stationary station wagon. I just sat there stunned for a few minutes until Karlie started to ask what was going on. Just moments ago I was bragging to my dad about how I had proved him wrong and now I had to make one of the hardest phone calls I would ever have to make.

The lesson that day? Don’t brag about accomplishing anything, when you haven’t yet finished it — especially when you are extremely close to the finish line and it’s a rather improbable journey.

I picked up the pay phone again and explained to my dad that I should have been a bit more humble on the phone a few minutes ago. The Subaru was dead. Luckily, around the corner from the gas station was a motel. Even luckier, it had just one room left. It was a smoking room and smelled horrible, but it did the trick. Karlie and I pushed the car into the hotel parking lot and called it a night.

My father, who has bailed me out of too many unfortunate situations to count, came through again. At 7 a.m. the next morning, his car was idling in the parking lot, ready to take us the rest of the way. He also had an old friend who owned an auto wrecker in town, who towed the Subaru away to the great beyond. My dad probably did get a little bit of cash for the car, even if it was just for the weight of the scrap metal, but I never had the nerve to ask him. After our little vacation in Manitoba, we piled into my dad’s little BMW 3-series and he drove us all the way back to Edmonton. It wasn’t quite the romantic adventure that I thought our first big road trip would be.

If it was any other girl, I probably would have been single by the time we got back to Edmonton. But not only did Karlie and I get married a few years later, we have also since travelled to 30-some countries together, although most of our subsequent trips have gone much more smoothly than this one did.

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