Subaru Brumby – Too Much, Tribulation and Triumph

I finally got my Subaru Brumby home from Melbourne on Sunday morning. I’d like to say it was a smooth, simple transaction with a nice, breezy trip home, but that would be lying.

Let me say this up front – I think I’ve probably paid slightly too much for this car. The body is indeed rust-free, as advertised, but it has a few more dings in it than what I could see in the photographs. A slight impression has been made in one of the doors, an even slighter one in the hood of the car, and the numerous light scratches in the paintwork give a hint that the previous, elderly owner (now deceased), might have operated the machine using some sort of Braille technique.

With that said, I also believe it’s a very genuine car. The seller (who is the previous owner’s son) is a very genuine guy and the his description of the car’s history and condition was, over all, quite reliable. I first called him about the car last Monday but didn’t arrive to see it until Friday. He mentioned that he could have sold it several times during that week and one buyer even offered him an extra $500 to knock me out of the queue. I believe it, too, as these utes are sought after and examples like this – with ‘rocking-horse-poo’ power steering fitted – just don’t come around.

After the test drive and inspection, I had a few things to think about. Given the poorer-than-expected presentation of the vehicle and the fact that it was in need of a tune, I tried to whittle down the price by another $500. The seller wasn’t budging, however. Believe it or not, I actually stuck to my guns and drove away with my nephew, sans the Brumby.

10 minutes later, I was back. After thinking about both the practicalities of my situation (money invested, travel booked, etc) and the fact that this was still a very good car, I ended up buying it at the price we originally agreed.

Folly? The next 48 hours would both prove that it was, and that it wasn’t.

After we finished exchanging money and ownership details, I drove the car for the hour-long journey across the suburbs to visit my mother. Then on to get some dinner before finally arriving at my sister’s place where I stayed the night. No problems. The car drove perfectly. The next morning I had a few hours to kill, so I headed down to a shopping center nearby, hoping to buy a new USB-capable stereo system for the car. This is where the trouble began.

The first thing I noticed was a slight, but very familiar cooling-system smell. You know the one. A quick glance at my temperature gauge confirmed my fears and I quickly escaped the rather full carpark in search of some airflow. I eventually arrived at a service station nearby and checked the radiator, which appeared to be bone dry. The fluid trail emerging from the front end indicated it wasn’t quite bone dry YET, but was in the process of emptying itself.

I couldn’t tell where the leak was coming from, but several litres of water and some expert observation later, I learned that it was the water pump that was leaky.

I should add that by the time I got this diagnosed, I was around 2 hours away from closing time at the workshop (not enough time to get a part in and fix it) and I was also around 3 hours away from checking in for the overnight ferry back to Tasmania.

Do I re-book the ferry, delay my return and get it fixed on Monday? Or do I fill up a few large Coke bottles with water and embark on one of those seat-of-the-pants road trips in a completely unfamiliar car?

I think you all know the answer to that one.

After chatting with the mechanic, the biggest worry was going to be stop-n-go city driving. Once I got off the boat, the 280kms or so to Hobart would be do-able as long as I kept an eye on the temperature and had spare water at hand. No problem. My biggest obstacle would be the 30kms between suburbia and Station Pier, which would take me along the fringe of Melbourne’s central business district and, of course, all the traffic such a journey implies.

It was, indeed, an arduous trip. The first 20kms through suburbia weren’t too bad, but the last 10kms along the city fringe were full of traffic lights and more cars than I expected. I stayed as close as possible to the emergency lanes and had to fill up the radiator twice – once at a service station and once from my own supply. The temp needle was around 2mm from the red zone when I finally parked the car at Station Pier, where I’d wait for another hour or so before check-in.

Even though I’d made it that far, there was little respite from the anxiety. If I used my bottled reserves to fill up the car now, much of it would leak out before I moved another inch and there was nowhere to refill my reserve. As it turned out, the hour wait cooled the engine completely. There was another 500 meters or so to drive up to the loading gate – and it was amazing how quickly the needle rose on that short drive – but I managed to check-in, get to the loading gate and shut her down without any problems (first in line, too!).

I managed to snap off this photo before security told me “no photos here”. The car remained at the loading gate for another hour of cool-off time, after which I managed to get it on to the boat without issue – Winning!

Fast forward to 6:30am the next morning and I was busily working out my strategy for the near-300kms to come. I could fill up at a local service station as soon as I got off the ferry; even though it was 6:30 on a Sunday morning, they’re always open when the boat comes in. That left me mapping out the towns between Devonport and Hobart in my head and the approximate distances in between, the Plan A’s, B’s and C’s.

As it turns out, Plans B and C weren’t needed. I managed a full 100kms on the first refill thanks to some low ambient temperatures and level roads. The little Suuby didn’t have to work hard at all and maintained a perfect temp reading the whole time.

This might be a good time for me to mention what it was like to actually drive this little car.

I chose to take the less-safe option and drive with my leaky water pump as this is the sort of journey that makes you think, act, and in the end, makes you bond with the car. I was very worried about whether or not the little Brumby was up to the task, but it couldn’t have been easier.

The engine’s a dinosaur compared to modern engines. I still find it hard to believe that a car sold in Australia as late as 1994 had a carburettor. This one doesn’t have a whole lot of get-up and go but thankfully it’s a very light vehicle and the engine purrs along quite nicely on the highway. It’ll do the state limit of 110km/h with no stress on the engine at all. If you want to go faster than that – to overtake someone, for example – be sure to have a lot of clear road in front of you.

The Pièce de résistance for this Brumby is the power steering. Driving the car around town was a breeze and I really think my time with this car is going to be all the better for power steering being fitted by the previous owner. It made the purchase worthwhile, for sure.

Everything else?

The interior’s a little cramped for someone of my size but this is not a car that’ll see a bunch of long trips, so it’s not really a worry for me.

I’d like to change the steering wheel from the current one, which feels like a hula hoop.

The car has no rattles or squeaks – not one. All the electric controls work perfectly. The heater is (very) hot and the air conditioning works, too.

Potential changes?

There’s the aforementioned steering wheel and stereo, of course. I think I’ll also get the windows tinted. It’s amazing, but even on a very cold but clear day, the rear window being just behind your head makes the sunshine quite hot on your melon. I can do without that.

The remaining 180kms home saw a few uncertain moments. I had to pull over and refill on the side of the highway once when the needle crept high and stayed there. Thankfully one of my scheduled stops was just another 5ks or so down the road, so I could top up and refill my reserves. The approach to Hobart has two climbs: Spring Hill and Constitution Hill. They’re both a breeze under normal circumstances but I planned stops before both, just to be on the safe side, and the car ticked along beautifully as a result.

The last hurdle was the little bit of suburban traffic before arriving home. The needle did rise a little, but at the end of the trip the little Suuby had confirmed it’s ‘unbreakable’ reputation. Despite being hampered by a very leaky cooling system, the car only complained once and never really showed that it was hurt at all.

In fact, it managed to spring another surprise on me.

I still had half a tank of petrol when I arrived home in Hobart. I’d refilled it the previous morning in Melbourne (two-thirds of a tank for a miserly $37) and yet all of my driving to get home had amounted to an estimated $25 in fuel costs. That was much more economical than I thought it would be and I’m pretty sure none of my previous vehicles, except maybe the Mazda MX-5, could match it.


So…… I probably paid a little too much to start with and the water pump needs replacing. Would I do this again?

I remain quite certain of two things: 1) that this little ute will do it’s job and provide quite a bit of fun for years to come, and 2) that it’ll be worth at least 95% of what I paid for it in 5 years from now.

I probably could have got a similar-looking car (without power steering and without this one’s super-low mileage) for around 40% less, but when you’re talking around the $5,000-and-lower range, it’s not the difference that it seems.

My only regret is not having a Plan B ready, in terms of an alternate vehicle. I think if I had that Plan B, I would have kept on driving after I first looked at it, thereby avoiding the water pump tribulation (which I didn’t know about at the time, of course) and I would have ended up quite content with my Plan B choice.

I didn’t have that Plan B, however. I chose to buy it and the problem, which wasn’t detectable beforehand, just happened. I got through it and now that the Brumby’s parked at my house, awaiting the installation of a new water pump on Thursday, I’m quite happy with it. Yeah, I paid a little too much, but it was a unique example and I’ll live with it.

And by the way, I called the seller about the water pump. He was quite shocked, quite regretful and happy to share the cost of the repair. Like I said, a genuine guy.

Caveat Emptor, my friends. And be happy.

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  1. Ahh that familiar smell. I’m travelling back to my Datsun days! A good read mate.

  2. I feel like I just read a segment from Top Gear–and I mean that in a good way! What a great read, as usual.

    Well, I’ll say I’m not as fond of this new-used car as any of your other ones… but it’s unique and interesting. I’m not a fan of utes, but maybe it’s because I’m not used to them outside of the El Camino or the Ranchero. Sounds like you bonded with your Brumby, at least. I’ll bet you’ll find the extra you ‘overpaid’ will be made up for in the years of automotive grins it will undoubtedly provide. And, as you pointed out, the seller offering to go halves on the new water pump shows he wasn’t trying to rip you off–but that he knew it’s worth the extra you paid for it 😉


  3. Do you know of anyone good with tuning carburetors in Tasmania?
    If you need some work done on it then…. Get yourself a Weber performance replacement instead 😀 I know you love them horsies heehee.

    Nice article Steven! Made for some good reading (even if not seated on the loo. 😉 )


    1. I second this emotion. My then-girlfriend’s Subaru DL let go of the second timing belt (the first one had been lost sometime prior without her knowledge) in 1992. Expensive repair. That car was positively agricultural, but it proved its mettle by withstanding her indifferent mistreatment.

    2. Good tip. I’ll have a good look prior to Thursday, but I’ve got a feeling that the belts were done just prior to the sale. I know some belts were done and are shiny and new. It’s just whether or not they’re the important ones!

  4. Congratulations Steven! Wishing you many years of enjoyment with the “Subie”.

    I do prefer the name Brumby to Brat as I think they were called state side (U.S.). Then again I was a brat myself when those first hit the market here. Ha ha.

    It looks like a cool little vehicle and I wish you well with it and enjoy your writing as always.



  5. Best of luck with the new wheels Steven.

    Reminds me of a 1965 MG Midget I bought from one of my brothers in 1968. Had a massive oil leak…what British car didn’t back then…that required me to carry around 5 gallon cans of motor oil. Took a trip of similar length to yours…and went through 3 of them round trip! But at least “Lucas…The Prince of Darkness” never visited me. 😀

    Ended up swapping the engine out for one that wasn’t so porous…and drove the car for quite a few more years. Great little ride.

    1. #saabdude reminds me of first cars and a family member’s Dodge Omni I drove a little that had a radiator that leaked like mad, and rather than fixing it, the family member just kept a supply of that radiator leak stop stuff on hand. It worked and was less expensive in the very short term versus actually fixing it.

      Also reminded of one of my first cars, a Volvo with a bad rear main seal and no money to fix it, and instead driving around with a case of Castrol oil in the trunk and adding a quart to the crankcase with every gas fill up. It was a little like owning a two stroker by needing to put oil in that often.

      Steven I hope your Brumby days don’t bring back quite so many actual experiences for you of what our first cars were like to own!

  6. Ahh the romance of the road trip:

    Our sunburnt country: tick
    Pickup truck: tick
    Four on the floor: tick

    What could possibly go wrong?

  7. Is that a Kangaroo bumper?

    I had a 1982 Subaru DL 1.6 manual 2 door hatch during college. It was a good car to zip around on gravel roads and was economical as I recall. Not much power as you mentioned but a good car overall. The only problem I had was the passenger side wheel hub and CV axle.

  8. As i se it the buyer of a car with that kind of elk, ehm, sorry -Kangaroo bumper in the front should be aware his new ride might have a few dents and scratches 🙂 It looks twice as hot now when i se it has that big 90’s-style 4WD logo.