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Junkyard Gem: 1981 Subaru GL Hatchback


May 9, 2023
Junkyard Gem: 1981 Subaru GL Hatchback


The first Subarus sold in the United States were 360s imported by Malcolm Bricklin in 1968, and the Pleiades-badged brand was best-known here for selling very cheap small cars for more than a decade after that. Even while an increasingly devoted group of American drivers became Subaru converts thanks to the company’s innovative four-wheel-drive cars (first appearing here as 1975 models), Subaru still competed on price with the most affordable of tiny imports in the early 1980s. Today’s Junkyard Gem is one of those cars: a front-wheel-drive three-door hatchback Leone, found in a Colorado car graveyard recently.

The Leone name wasn’t used in North America. Instead, Subaru called this car just “the Subaru” and used trim levels as de facto model names (except in the case of the Leone-with-truck-bed BRAT). When the bigger and more modern Legacy appeared here as a 1990 model, the Leone was given the Loyale name. This car is a GL, which was the nicest version of the Leone hatchback available here in 1981.

The first Leones appeared here in 1972, with the very last ones leaving American Subaru showrooms as 1994 Loyales.

The cheapest possible 1981 Leone was the base three-door hatchback, priced at $4,664 (about $16,128 in 2023 dollars). This being a GL, its MSRP was $5,495 (about $19,001 today). With the GL, you got a five-speed manual instead of the base four-on-the-floor transmission, plus a bigger engine and lots of comfort and convenience features. This car has plenty of options that would have added to the price, including dealer-installed air conditioning.

In 1981, even a single-speaker AM radio added quite a bit to the cost of an economy car. This one has a luxurious Clarion AM/FM radio, which may have been a dealer option.

The GL got a 1.8-liter boxer-four, rated at 72 horsepower. 

This car, like so many I find in Colorado junkyards, began its career in California. The California-spec ’81 Leone cost $99 more than its 49-state counterparts, due to additional emissions hardware and testing ($342 now).

I suspect that the speedometer cable and/or odometer mechanism must have failed decades ago, because this car looks like it has driven far more than 104,360 miles during its career.

This crash damage probably took it out of action.

That snow-capped mountain in the background is Pikes Peak.

This car served its owner or owners well for more than four decades.

Subaru’s advertising focused on the four-wheel-drive vehicles. This car would have cost an additional $601 with the 4WD option ($2,078 after inflation).

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