Love, And More: Keeping a 1987 Subaru Brat Alive

Remember the late-00s commercial tag line from Subaru? They’d have some blissful camping excursion or sweet family moment where the narrator chirps, “Love. It’s what makes a Subaru, a Subaru” before fading to the constellation logo. It encompassed the deep affection that people have for these vehicles while glossing over the high pain tolerance and endless patience needed to keep them on the road decades later.

I own a 1987 Subaru Brat, and it takes more than love to keep this Subaru going. A determined, mechanically-inclined lesbian, for one.

When my Brat isn’t modeling in a car show or puttering around town, he happily sits on his own set of jack stands awaiting repairs and modest upgrades. The jump seats in the back double as therapy chairs for inward reflection about why I choose to work on a vehicle that’s such a pain in the ass.

Parts are nearly non-existent. Replacement struts don’t exist and the oil pumps are rarer than the vehicle itself, for example. Searches for part numbers almost always end with the dreaded “Discontinued – No Longer Available” heading. Rust was so rampant on these old Subarus that many junkards got rid of them by the time that 2007 commercial came out, so forget finding body panels and interior pieces decades later. Guides on old websites and forums are a patchwork of dead links and deleted images, but you’ll find a well-loved Chilton manual on my workbench with scribbles of random notes pulled from archive articles.

Researching repairs and sourcing parts takes up time that most people would rather spend actually driving, and I don’t blame them. My mother had a Brat back in the day and purchased this one a few years ago as a fun little runabout to relive some memories. After having her fun with it and realizing the effort it takes to maintain a very old Subaru, she gifted it to me to make my own memories.

Cut to laying on the garage floor, hurling swears and wiping sweat while the trucklet is firmly perched on his jack stands for the umpteenth time. The floor is spattered with equal amounts of oil and rust dissolver, and the trademark teal valve covers are caked in grime. An oversized work light makes the underside of the EA81 engine look like a dramatically lit courtroom, where a rusted exhaust bolt is on trial for crimes against my patience. “Why do I bother doing this?” I grumble to the vehicle above me.

Love, right? It’s what makes a Subaru, a Subaru. Even if I don’t love it in the moments of frustration, I adore this dorky, truck-car-ute-thing, and I’m not the only one.

When the Brat is out and about, everyone wants to chat. Older folks chime in with how they or a friend or a neighbor had a Brat when they were young. Younger folks either have no clue what it is or exclaim “Holy crap, is that a Brat?!” A few other lesbians recognize it as the holy grail of butch Subarus. There’s plenty of time to catch a photo since the little 1.8L engine and 4-speed dual-range transmission top out at 60mph after what feels like an eternity at full throttle. It doesn’t matter where we go or what speed. The Brat draws smiles.

I’m not always smiling when I’m on the creeper under the Brat, contemplating my next move. “Can I fix this? Is there an alternative part that would work?” I spend as much time scrolling search results as I do with a wrench in my hand, but the improvements are worth the effort and time. The shifter slop was fixed with new nylon washers and lock nuts. The suspension creaking was fixed with a set of bushings made by another Subaru enthusiast at DRW Bushings. The differential mount was rebuilt in the garage with my then-girlfriend-now-fiancee after a previous owner (not my mother!) stripped every stud on it. Every project becomes a deep dive in research, studying, and carefully picking out substitutions.

Right now there’s a mountain of clogged emissions equipment sitting on my workbench that was gutted during a Weber carburetor swap. The 1980s were a wild time with redundant emission systems and few of them held up to carbon deposits over time, so the poor thing was wheezing and puffing. Removing the spaghetti of unlabeled lines and UFO-shaped devices has been a long adventure since diagrams on old sites are gone and books have conflicting labels for the same lines, so the process has been slow for tagging and removal. A spare table is laid out like a rummage sale with old dirty parts scattered among tools, new vacuum lines, hose clamps, and discarded packaging.

“Is this fun? Am I still having fun?” I think so. It’s hard to say no to that Delorean-esque face with the quad headlights and constellation Subaru logo in the grille. The Brat might be a platypus-like amalgamation of vehicle body parts on paper, but it has that blocky 1980s look that’s coming back into style. It’s so much fun to toss a Bluetooth speaker behind the seats and ride around blasting Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” on a sunny day. At Interstate Raceway we haul folks around the track facility in jump seats with Atari-style joystick handles.

There’s no substitute for whatever the Brat is, even with all the blood, sweat, and tears required to keep him going. The weird, 80s, butch, loud, leaky, uncooperative trucklet has a permanent place in my garage. If you catch us cruising around Fargo, give us a wave!

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