My Subaru Brumby is quite possibly the most unreliable car I’ve ever owned

I hate admitting this. I’ve rarely bought a bad car over the years, but my recent purchase of a Subaru Brumby is making me sweat, swear and wish I’d never set eyes on this little runabout.

I bought this car because a) I wanted a ute, and b) the Brumby has a reputation for being bullet-proof both in terms of longevity and reliability. The prices for these cars on the used market back this up. I knew that I paid a little too much for mine when I bought it, but it had very low mileage (just 100,000 kms) and it had power steering fitted (which was never an option for this model) so I took the plunge.

It’s been an exercise in frustration ever since.

First, the water pump failed the day after I bought it. Fair enough. Water pumps give up eventually and this could have simply happened at a bad time. Plus, it was relatively inexpensive to fix at around $90 for the pump itself.

I’m starting to get the feeling, however, that the water pump failure was evidence of a lack of maintenance in general by the previous owner. The fact that it’s got just 100,000kms on it is great, but even Subarus need maintenance during that 100,000km period.

Right now, I’m dealing with a jammed door lock that won’t let me lock the car. I tried to fix this last weekend but no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t get the window winder off to get behind the door card. Damn you, special tools! I’ll get that one sorted.

But my biggest bugbear is the fact that the car simply won’t start on cold mornings. Once it starts, it’s fine. Getting it started, however, is frustrating beyond belief.

Despite being a car made in the mid-1990s, it’s based on late 1970s Subaru tech. That’s means a carburettor. And a choke. All of a sudden I have this sinking feeling that the carby’s going to need either servicing or replacing and when you’ve already paid over the odds to buy the car, the thought of having that extra spend is very unsettling.

Here’s what I’ve discovered, for those of you skilled in diagnosis:

  • Fuel, Air and Spark are what’s required to get combustion. Air isn’t a problem and a new air filter was fitted when I had the car registered here a month ago.
  • Spark shouldn’t be a problem, either. New plugs and leads were fitted last week, and a new battery was fitted just before I bought the car.
  • That leaves fuel. I’ve had to pour some fuel directly into the carby on previous start attempts and that’s worked before, but this morning (with the battery wearing down from previous start attempts) even that didn’t help. My proposed course of action now is to move from least expensive to most expensive – fuel filters, fuel pump (though it works fine once the car’s started, so I’m doubtful on that) and then perhaps a carby service or replacement. An upgrade to a Weber carb is a popular one with these models.

The last two mornings, I’ve tried unsuccessfully to get the Brumby started in low temperatures (around 4-6 degrees C). The really frustrating part is that when I get home at around 5pm, after a day around 13 degrees C, the car starts just fine. It’s like a grumpy teenager that doesn’t want to get up when it’s cold.

On those non-start mornings, I’ve ended up having to open the garage and take my Alfa GTV6 to work instead. Who’d have thought a mid-80’s Alfa Romeo would be more reliable that a 1990’s Subaru?

I really, really want this car to live up to its reputation. My problem is that I’ve already paid a little too much to buy it and I don’t want to spend a whole bunch on making it what it should have been in the first place.

I have a feeling there’s a carby replacement in my future. Air and Spark should both be OK. It can only be the fuel and once the car’s going, that’s fine. It’s getting fuel to the combustion chamber on a cold morning that seems to be the problem. Or am I completely off base?

Your thoughts are welcome.

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      1. Cap and might want to consider wires. If you can get it started in total darkness, try opening the hood, what you may see could be illuminating, literally. I found cracked spark plug wire insulators by seeing the arc flashing to ground through the crack by doing this.
        Sounds more like a malfunctioning choke to me though.

      2. Have a good look-see, clean well and make sure metal contacts are not corroded. The distributor is very important, and often overlooked when troubleshooting.

        The choke could be the problem too, but the thing is that you need a little choke even on a warm day if the engine is cold. And your car is starting with cold engine given the air temperature is higher, right?

        My feeling is that you can’t rule out spark before the distributor has been checked. Try also to feel if there is any play in the distributor axle.

  1. I feel your pain! My current Saab 93 convertible, 2000 model, the reason I ever discovered your writing, is a trial of faith. I desired the car for over ten years and was delighted to have finally realised that ambition. It drives like heaven…. when it drives…. Currently I’m up to almost 2/3 of the purchase price in repairs in two years and contemplating giving it up.

  2. Getting spoiled by modern cars, I guess.

    I remember all the problems I’ve had getting my V4 carburator sorted, and well, after 6 months of continous adjustment it worked perfectly. But not when I bought it.

    I would say that if you haven’t changed the distributor and distributor cap, that’s the number 1 & 2 suspects. If you examine it carefully maybe you find a black trace inside the cap or on the distributor between the leads (which means shorts once it get humid) or that one or more of the receptors for outgoing leads seems bad. In general, all high voltage parts are susceptible to creepage, the coil internals included. Such problems may go unnoticed on good days.

    Knowing next to nothing about Subarus carburators, I’m guessing that it most likely have a modulating choke, which means there is a vacuum piston that need cleaning now an then to maintain proper function. It sometimes help with releasing the gas pedal abruptly to unjam this piston if it’s (semi-) stuck, as it will dimish the choke function if jammed.

    Does it start on starter gas? This will settle the spark versus fuel question.

    1. Mailr, it usually starts with a little gas poured directly in, but this morning it didn’t. I just went home at lunchtime and it still wouldn’t start (and I’ve now worn out the battery trying to get it going, so that’s on the trickle charger).

      I’ve just spoken to my mechanic and he’s going to focus on the choke when I take it to him on Monday (providing I can get it started). If that’s all it is, I’ll be a very happy camper.

      In the meantime, I think I’ll do the dist cap tomorrow. Just to rule it out.

      1. One more trick, if it’s a carburetor with a accelerator pump as the V4, one way to start it is to pump a lot on the gas pedal with no attempt to start it (getting a lot of fuel into the intake), let it rest for a minute or so (so all liquid becomes gas), and then attempt to start it.

        Also, you don’t have a fuel leakage from the carburetor so that it’s completely dry in the morning? If the fuel pump is electrical (my V4 had a mechanical one), ant the fuel pump doesn’t have starting problem, this wouldn’t be the problem in your case.

  3. I thought “spark plug leads” when I had read half-way through, but I understand that you changed them as well. I owned a Volvo once *argh*, and despite it being just 10 years old, low on km:s and very well maintained it had constant problems with spark plug leads.

  4. I’m no expert, but what about engine timing? Have you got that checked, just to tick off another box?

  5. There are electronic ignition add-on kits to replace the old contact-breaker / rotor arm distributor caps. Might that be a direction to follow-up? I presume it’s all been sprayed with WD-40 or equivalent? As @mailr suggested – cold start aerosol spray might be more successful than pouring fuel into the carb.

  6. Swade, if the choke is automatic your problem most likely lies there. A manual might have come off altogether. I’d still replace the rotor and cap though.

  7. My first guess is the choke mechanism.
    Have you tried spraying-in a can of carb cleaner?

    My second guess is a vacuum leak. Those can be a pain to track down. Often your best bet is to buy a roll of vacuum hose and replace each line on the engine (one at a time). You will notice that just about every line is cracked and oxidized.

    1. Vacuum leaks are a pain. Hovever, on a natually aspirated engine they usually lead unstable idle RPM. Small leaks increase the idle RPM, so at idle, try to move all rubber hoses around to see if the the idle RPM changes.

  8. Sounds like the auto choke isn’t going on. My old man’s a wizz on carbys, failing that I’d recommend Pro-carb in Invermay, Launceston. Recently put a rebuild kit through the WB and it cost me all of $50!

  9. Swade…I feel your pain! I think most of us who have been around vehicles for awhile have been down this path at one time or another (I’m in the middle of it with a ’71 Yamaha CS3)….Seduced by the steel fantasy that came, well equipped, with harsh realities! While this may be a simple choke issue, it helps to back up, and cover, the basics first. Have you checked compression & engine vacuum? This can show a myriad of potential problems and an engine with weak compression can have even less when stone cold and be reluctant to fire. Have you verified spark during these no start events? A good visual with a spare plug inserted in an ign. wire and well grounded should do (or the primary coil wire disconnected from the cap and held a few mm from a good ground…..not always recommended in the service literature but always effective on C-900’s) to show whether you have sufficient “zap” or not! Of course cam timing could cause the engine to be lethargic and hard to start, but that goes back to the compression/vacuum check. With any vehicle new to the fleet, I like to start with a fresh tune-up (with valve adjustment, if applicable) using OE parts to establish a baseline from which to work with any inconsistancies…..I know, with Saabs, things like the the Autolite spark plugs or Pep Boys wires that the last DYI owner installed can cause all kinds of grief! Hope this sheds a little light on your plight and that the solution is imminent and affordable. Failing this, finding a good Subi-gu-ru may be in your future! Good luck!

  10. I would guess electric more than carburettor.
    I have no idea what your engine is equipped with but in general there is quite a lot of things that can be dodgy in the spark-department

    Replacing the distributor cap and rotor is often a good maintenance thing (if it is equipped with such things.) If this was not the problem then you have a spare set to keep in the car for such a failure.
    One tip would be to borrow your wifes hair fan and warm up a suspicious component. The ignition coil should not be forgotten, not a first guess but it still need to be checked.

  11. Not directly relevant to your current spark/fuel/air issues:

    It occurs to me that the most unreliable car that I ever had was also a 1980’s Japanese car. My 81 Corolla, which I purchased in 87, went through brakes, a clutch, a water pump, an alternator, a radiator, a rusted gas tank, a transmission mount, intake manifold, exhaust, and a head gasket before I gave up on it. It also suffered from horrible rust and any number of minor ailments (battery, horn, speakers, every piece of interior trim, etc). That’s just the stuff I remember off the top of my head.
    That car was 10 years old when I junked it.
    My current Saab, on the other hand, has never left me stranded and only slightly delayed me once (bad crankshaft position sensor meant that I had to let it cool down a little before it would start). It is also 10 years old.

    Common wisdom would have you believe that 81 Corollas are “bullet-proof” and that 2002 Saabs are “unreliable.”


    You are in the process of discovering that the “good old days” aren’t what they seem. Your Brumby is quite possibly as reliable as any (taking into account some delayed-maintenance issues). What’s different is that your tolerance for mechanical failure and/or extensive maintenance has waned.

  12. Can’t help with the no-start issue as I’m quite the tool mechanically-speaking, but I did have to remove a window crank on my mother-in-law’s Corolla recently and found a little trick online which might help you. There should be a U-shaped clip holding the crank to the door, try to use a relatively thin rag and wiggle it between crank and door to try and push on the top of the U, that worked for me.

    Good luck on the other issues.

  13. (Seriously… Except for James Bond, this must be the most boring opening ceremony of any Olympic Games that I can remeber…)

  14. Ahhhhhh……..the olde Soobie carb/choke problem. Easily solved by a Weber carb.

    I seem to remember the culprit was the electric choke on the Mitusbishi carb. I’m guessing the problems you’re experiencing are similar to mine with cold weather. Around here (southeast Wisconsin) 4-6C is balmy weather.

    I had a similar problem with a ’80 Brat (US version of the Brumby). I also bought the Brat to be used for hauling construction debris from home to the dump/transfer station.

    The problem was solved by installation of a Weber carb which just happened to fit a Saab V-4. The Mitsubishi (Mikuni???) carb from the factory received some rather negative comments by the mechanic making the suggestion. He said “they all do that”, this being a Saab Master Mechanic starting on stokers and factory certified on the 9000 in 1986. The Saab dealer was also a Subaru dealer, everyone knows Subaru is a poor man’s Saab……

    When I sold the Brat, I replaced the original carb and kept the Weber carb for my Sonett. Still have the Sonett and Weber, but the Weber hasn’t made it into/on the Sonett.

  15. The door clips ate indeed a right pain. You can’t physically prose the clip out to release the spindle. Push it in with a flat blade screw driver and simultaneously pull the hadle off. The clip splays it’s arms open pushing or pulling.
    Auto chokes are renowned for their cantankerous behaviour. Remove the system and get a manual choke cable setup put on. Do it yourself. Then you get control the way you want it, rather than relying on a bimetallic strip that was never specified to work under 5 degrees C.

  16. There is a reason I do not love Subarus, and it has to do with carburetors.
    But, in your case it might be low compression caused by overheating, which you definitely do not want to hear. But most likely it is just a piece of crap carby that can’t do it’s balancing act of being rich enough to start and lean enough to keep running. When you pour a trickle of fuel into the carb it is usually too much, and that washes the oil off the piston rings and the result is low compression because the rings can’t seal. I would definitely check the cylinder leakdown on that little motor after it has been run and warmed up and when it has sat overnite cold. Start with the basics, and then move to the expensive stuff.

  17. I feel the same about my 2006 9-5 Aero. Love to look at it, hate to drive it. Idles so rough, hard starts. Only 44,000 miles. Is this normal? Replaced plugs several times, DIC, belts, bypassed pulleys, leaks oil, gas cap always breaks, control arms, power seats, AC problems, headlights every year and fog lights, cup holder breaks all the time, steering rack problems, alignment issues, battery issues, navigation system problems, replace inside door handles 3 times because of chipping and peeling plastic, parking brake becomes loose, hard as hell to get replacement or extra key fobs. It’s in the shop every couple of months with the check engine light on. I have a 2 inch stack of repair reciepts. $200 here $600 there.

    After 3 new and 1 used Saab models in the last 14 years I think I’m done. Pretty sad when I choose to drive the company car Kia Spectra 5 on the weekends instead of the Saab. Especially with the NEVS Saab direction I think it’s over.

    1. Troy,

      Perhaps you should find a different shop to service your car. It sounds like whomever is working on the car doesn’t know Saabs very well (they may be outstanding on Hondas, but that’s neither here nor there).

      There’s no reason to change plugs several times over 44,000 miles, unless you are using the wrong plugs (there’s only one NGK model that’s recommended for your engine). If they also changed the DIC and you have a check engine light on, then they are just chasing their tails, applying solutions that work on other (lesser…) cars.
      Steering, control arm, alignment, etc: either you drive on very bad roads, or they are using cheap aftermarket parts. Cheap Saab suspension parts will save you $20 up front, but you need to replace them every year. This could also explain the engine vibration: original Saab parts are tuned to cancel-out engine vibration, cheap aftermarket parts use whatever rubber was available on that particular day.

      As for the door handle issue, do you (or your spouse) wear rings? A friend of mine replaces the inside door handle on his Audi every couple of years because it gets scratched by his wife’s wedding ring. It’s an easy DIY thing once you figure out how everything fits.

    2. It does not sound anything like normal. Your spark plugs should have been replaced once, at 40000 miles, if Saabs recommendations was followed. And it should have NGK PFR 6H-10 (or possibly PFR 7H-10) spark plugs, no substitutes, as the spark plug has other uses than just generate the spark. Belts shouldn’t need to be replaced that early (and it’s not common that they break), DIC replacement at 44000 miles is about a 20% probability, oil leaks on such a new car usually indicate lack of attention to detail in service shop. CE light every couple of months is a very much pointing on service personnel. Most 9-5’s never see a CE light within the first 44000 miles, but if seen, it should be fixed and not repeat. What are the CE error codes you’re getting?

      If the idle is rough and/or it has hard starts, something is definitively not right. Several possibilities, but first I would check if the plugs are of the proper type.

      1. Thank You. The first DIC was defective the shop said. The Faulty DIC messed up the plugs they said. Then they couldn’t find a DIC because of parts supply problems. They put in an aftermarket DIC and replaced plugs again. I think you are right about the aftermarket DIC. I should go back to the dealership and ask them now that the parts are available to put in a OEM DIC.

        1. I haven’t seen any T7 (black) aftermarket DIC at all, only T5 (red) DICs. I would be very weary of using a aftermarket one, as errors in the combustion output signals may very well allow fatally unhealthy operation conditions in the engine. (T5 and T7 have incompatible combustion (knock) sense signals, and according to very reliable sources, using the wrong one may ruining both the engine and the electronics if you’re unlucky. Saab has pointed out several times in service messages that T5 and T7 DIC should never be mixed up, all authorized shops should know this.)

  18. I am sorry to hear all the problems with your Subbie. I have an 09 Forester and had an 04, both excellent examples of Subbie reliability. My 04 had 110,000 miles when I traded it for the 09. I have several family members with Subbies and had many friends and family with them in the past, some with several 100,000 miles on them. I agree that, as with any car, maintenance is the key. Hopefully you can get it sordid and enjoy your Brumby as you should! Wonder how it would manage in the 107 degree F we are having here in Dallas???

  19. I absolutely love that the blog’s contextual ad display prominently served up one trying to entice me to buy used Subarus at the end of Swade’s tales of woe. Oops!

  20. An update:

    After flattening the battery last Friday trying to start the car, I put it on the charger over the weekend.

    This morning, a slightly warmer morning than we had most of last week, I reinstalled the battery and the car started on the first turn of the key!

    I still took it in to the mechanics this morning and they’ll keep it a couple of days and test it cold for themselves. We still think the choke might be the main source of the problem (it has a manual choke fitted, but that may have been done by the previous owner as it doesn’t look original).

    A proper update will come on the front page later this week and hopefully it’ll offer some good news.

    1. Steven,

      Might want to check that the FLOAT LEVEL in the carb is set correctly…or if in fact that there is ANY fuel in the fuel bowl.

      Could also be clogged jets or air tubes, bad needle valves, or a whole host of other things unique to carbs.

      First automotive thing I was taught at the tender age of 10, was how to rebuild a carb on a 1955 Chevy race car that belonged to a neighbor.

      If I was able to learn it at that age…you should have no problems now Steven. 😉

      Ahhh…the “good old days”… 😀

      A carb rebuild kit for it should be inexpensive, and a good Haynes manual will show you how to rebuild it in a short time. It is not difficult…and a good way to get better acquainted with the car.

      Best of luck…

  21. I Know this will be far too late for Swade but it might help people who reach this by google (Steven if you read this could you edit it into the original post?) – If you have a brumby (Or any EA81 engined Subaru) with an auto choke, you might need to fully depress the accelerator before starting to actually activate the choke. I don’t know if they were always like this or they just suffer from age, but mine has been like this for as long as I can remember.