From the September 2023 issue of Car and Driver.
I learned how to drive, like most of us, behind the wheel of a heap suited to the abuse meted out by a clueless kid. You don’t realize it at the time, but the bland obscurity of that machine means you’ll probably never drive one again. You won’t someday be walking across the Costco parking lot and say, “Why, it’s a 1984 Subaru wagon just like the one I drove when I was 11 years old!” That’s because (a) Subarus of that vintage started rusting while they were still on the assembly line and (b) your parents, unlike mine, weren’t insane enough to allow children to head out for drives in the forest. I’ve always taken it for granted that I’d never get a chance to conjure that new-driver nostalgia because the relevant vehicle was terminally disposable.
On a lark, though, I reached out to Duncan Imports, an enormous classic-car emporium with locations in Virginia and Tennessee. “If you ever get an early-’80s Subaru wagon with a manual transmission, let me know,” I said. Almost immediately, I received word that, sure, they had exactly that—a 1984 DL 4WD with 54,000 miles. Wow. Okay, what if I want to revisit other cars from my past? Might they have a slant-six Dodge Ram or a black third-gen GM F-body with a tuned-port- injection 5.0-liter V-8? How about an E36 BMW M3? And the answer was, sure, to all of that. This could be one-stop shopping for whichever midlife crisis I cared to indulge. I promptly set out for Virginia.
Gary Duncan, the proprietor, is a car dealer—meaning a new-car dealer, currently with Honda and Hyundai franchises. Some dealers view cars as markers of wealth, but you don’t buy the world’s nicest 1984 Subaru DL because you’re looking for clout at Amelia Island. You buy it because you love cars, normal and weird and anything else, and in that respect Duncan makes Jay Leno look like a casual hobbyist. When I ask how many cars he has, he says, “About 1400 right now.” He surely runs the only Honda dealership where the showroom includes a 1980s Accord limousine.
We pile into the Subaru, and it’s almost like I remembered. Ours was a GL, which had low-range four-wheel drive and a center headlight hidden behind the Subaru logo in the grille, but otherwise the controls—the clutch, the four-speed shift lever, the spindly steering wheel—feel familiar. As we pull out into traffic, I realize that not only have I not driven one of these since I was 11, but I’ve also never driven one on the road. My parents, while nonchalant about rules, drew the line at uninsured motorists.
I’m delighted to find that the Subaru is better than I remember, partly because this DL is better than our rust-eaten specimen was. The little flat-four feels powerful enough to urge the wagon down the road at my personally unprecedented speed of 55 mph, and the four-wheel independent suspension is limber and composed. For my parents, coming off a winter slewing around in a 1979 Buick Regal, this must’ve been a four-wheel-drive revelation.
Next I climb into the 1986 Ram, a duplicate of my high-school winter-beater frenemy. It’s so slow, if scientists found a glacier they could describe as “moving like a slant-six Ram,” they’d say the world is healing. The 1992 Trans Am convertible is charismatic junk that makes me want to buy it and grow a mustache and brag about how far I can throw a football. The M3 feels like a damn Ferrari next to anything else I’d owned. Man, I want another E36. I want all my old cars back, including the bad ones—we all do. But even Duncan doesn’t keep everything. Big as the warehouses are, they’re finite spaces. And there are always more cool cars out there, rudely belonging to someone else.
When I pull back in with the M3, Duncan is on the phone. “You still got the SC430?” he asks. “I want to buy it.”
Ezra Dyer is a Car and Driver senior editor and columnist. He’s now based in North Carolina but still remembers how to turn right. He owns a 2009 GEM e4 and once drove 206 mph. Those facts are mutually exclusive.