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Should I try again to get Rubi on the Road?

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'04 Forester XS
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Discussion Starter · #1 · (Edited)
The smell of a fresh interior is an experience for the man trading a grand for the keys, irregardless of the vehicle's age. Fresh is something that handles differently from what he drove before; it's the worn leather (how many people slid across these seats); the sunroof he always only dreamed of (how many passengers kicked back to chase the clouds down the road); the pennies between the seats (might they have more miles than the car itself).

Almost exactly three years ago, in 2017, I gave a cousin I never knew a handful of cash, and he gave me the keys to his late-father's (my never-to-be-known uncle's) 2004 Subaru Forester XS 2.5L SOHC which gleamed like a silver bar in the sunny street. I had been patiently hunting for any hatchback with stars in the grill, and finally took a shot on a steal.

Patience -- this is all about patience.

We knew it needed breaks all around, and a touch of exhaust work. The hatch latch was finicky, it'd only start in neutral, and would only start after pressing the blue button on the keys. Glad I had repair experience from working on my first two Ford Rangers ('99, '97 respectively), but it was not nearly as much as I'd need.

Brakes and exhaust are a cakewalk when there's no rust. I left the latch and keys to be quirks of Rubi's, and got her on the road. For a four-banger, she'd pull -- power & balance makes sense for an engine named "Boxer." The A/C was wonky, but that didn't matter because there was a sunroof; there was a breeze. Driving home at one in the morning, after being stuck at work all evening, I was free. All the windows were down and my music was up. LEDs lit my feet, and I was the only one on the 33. It was bliss. It was peace. I was in the car I always wanted to be driving.

Unfortunately, around the start of August, she began overheating. Life was busy, so I tossed coolant in if she'd need it, but then it got really bad. I couldn't get to work before setting her on fire, so I set my life aside and took my first dive under her hood. Weighing her symptoms with my research, I tried installing a new thermostat (someone in a forum mentioning the stupidity of exhaust pipes wrapping around the oil pan & filter reminded me of this part). So, coolant was added, the system was burped, and it felt like a healthy burp at that! Drove for a week, and she kept cool. Thank goodness, because I was hauling three friends and two canoes to Vermont at the end of that week.

Patience reveals problems.

Since the canoe trip, many people have scolded me for being irresponsible and not fully investigating the issue. That kind of communication is crying over spilled milk and diminishing & demeaning to the man who now has a much bigger issue to deal with. That is, overheating two hours down the road, and throwing the #2 rod. It was one of the most frustrating experiences of my life, and beyond my anger, was sadness for this beautiful metal beast now smoking on the shoulder. Well, we still made the trip and had an amazing experience, but I had that to deal with when I got back. Thank goodness for my other cousin and my dad who picked up the Forester and towed her home.

"A few months at most, and she'll be running like new!," I lied to myself.
Step one: open the engine. Step two: find the broken part. Step three: put in new part. Step four: close the engine. Step five: Drive.
OH, man... if I knew what I was getting into then... I'm not sure if I'd be less confident or more diligent.

The engine came apart in our garage during the first month, and I was as amazed by the process as I was nervous about putting it back together correctly. Working with wood, we say, "measure twice, cut once." Well, I must've measured everything fifty times, because it wasn't back together until next summer.

We rolled Rubi into the driveway, and I hopped into the driver's seat for the first time in a long time. My hands were heavy on the wheel, so I said a prayer, remembering my excitement getting this car, then losing my job the week it broke down, and all of my blood, sweat, and tears (which there was a lot of) and the hours I had alone in the garage, disassembling, cleaning, brushing, scraping, measuring clearances and honing cylinders, then putting it all back together, and I poured my faith into that turn of the key.

Immediately, my dad shouted, "turn it off! woah, woah!" Oil was spraying straight out of the top. Turned out, in my excitement to finish, I put one of the head gaskets in upside down. Ahhh... that was embarrassing. I didn't give up here, because she did turnover. Engine out & in again, maybe a couple of weeks, and I'm back in the driver's seat. I turn the key and... no leak! She was running, but idling low -- low enough to start stalling without tapping the accelerator.

We kept her running for awhile and took a couple of trips around the block to break in the rebuilt engine. I was overjoyed. I was ecstatic. I was no longer patient.

Patience is a virtue.

Scanning vacuum hoses and electrical connections, I found nothing wrong around the engine, so I took her to the mechanic. After an amateur rebuild, why would I fuss over a low idle? Since I couldn't find the issue, maybe - hopefully - a professional could. Well, this is where I really started banging my head against the wall.

After a couple of weeks (which may be a modest estimate -- there was consistent patience required) my mechanic tells me he couldn't find anything after looking at what I already had. So, he tells me to try replacing the 1/3 head, and he has a guy with an '04 who'll pull it for $100. I go with it... for another month. Why it takes a month to pull a head beats me (unless it's me procrastinating). When we finally get the head, my mechanic offers for me to do the work in his yard to save on labor costs. That seemed like a sweet deal, but turned into a battle between my schedule and the elements.

Let's jump forward to the new-used head being installed, and I'm sitting in the driver's seat a third time. This time a quick prayer and I turned the key. My mechanic shouted, "turn it off! Woah, woah!" Oil was pouring straight out of the bottom. Turned out, I didn't put the gasket in upside down again. I just lost the second-half of my torque procedure sheet, and unknowingly under-tightened the head bolts. Embarrassing, again.

Let's jump forward to the new-used head being correctly installed, and I'm sitting in the driver's seat for a fourth time. Prayers aside, I knew I did it right this time. She started, and my mechanic shouted, "turn it off! Woah, woah!" Oil was spraying straight out of the top, again. My mechanic wisely explained, "there's a problem with your engine."

Patience pays off, right? ...right?

Luckily, he had an '03 in his lot. It was in an accident (the front passenger fender was dented in), and it was totaled. My mechanic offered it for $400. I asked, "does it run, and is it interchangeable?" He said, "yes," twice. So, I agreed -- as long as it works. Well, this is the good one. This is tragedy becoming comedy. This is rock bottom...

One discrepancy between my '04 and the '03 is a tube running from the EGR to the back of the head (not the one I swapped out). My mechanic told me we could drill and thread a hole to fit the pipe. He looked it up. It'll work. Okay, I'll continue listening to the guy whose job this is. I sure as hell didn't want to drill the engine, though! I thought I'd screw it up, so I told him to do it. He reassured me and handed me a drill. Then I drilled the hole a little to deep, but it seemed within spec.

I pulled the '03 engine myself, my '04 engine, and swapped them in the yard -- open to the hot, cold, rain, and snow. Gave her a jump, and turned the key, praying that this was all a long, long road to my destiny of driving a Forester, and that this engine was indeed sound. The only sound it made was the starter clicking, a slight whir, and coolant pissing out of the muffler. A worker looked at it and said, "I never saw that before!" I pressed my forehead into the steering wheel.

My mechanic's diagnosis was no longer, "there's a problem with your engine," it was, "you drilled the hole too deep." I replied, "told you I'd screw it up."

This whole endeavor, friends and family have told me how much I'm screwing up, and I have been, but that's taking risks. We get nowhere without risk, and nowhere further without support.

Along the way, it's easy to point fingers, and I have in anger and fatigue. When it comes down to it, who owns the car? It's been a road of bad timing and misinformation, but I haven't given up because I've given three years of my life to making this my next car.

Would it all be a waste if I stopped now?

Is it worth it to continue?

Patience was the recurring theme of this story, but its conclusion is about trust.
Trust is a risk; it's truth is revealed with patience.
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