The Subaru: A Maine Love Story

The surprising popularity of a sensible car.

By Edgar Allen Beem
Photographed by Jason P. Smith
From our January 2013 issue
[T]he Subaru wagon is the official car of Maine,” boldly declares Dave Getchell, Jr., associate publisher of Maine Boats, Homes & Harbors.

Dave can be forgiven his enthusiastic overstatement because five of the nine people in his Rockland office drive Subarus, and he himself races a sporty little Subaru WRX in road rallies.

One might also get the impression that the Subaru is the most popular car in Maine on any given trip to Sugarloaf, Saddleback, or Sunday River ski resorts, Common Ground Fair, Whole Foods, and Trader Joe’s, the parking lots of any number of environmental organizations or institutions of higher learning in Maine, or, for that matter, the offices of Down East.

Our own family owns two Subarus at the moment. We drive a 2010 Impreza sedan, and daughter Nora, an environmental educator who needs the all-wheel drive to reach her cabin atop a mountain in New Hampshire, drives an almost identical 2008 model. As Maine natives who have owned five Subarus over the years, we understand that the Subaru is a supremely sensible car for Maine — all-wheel drive (AWD) for mud and snow, comfortable ride, decent gas mileage, relatively affordable, hatchback, roof rack, just load the kids and gear and go.

Subaru, of course, is not the most popular vehicle in Maine, where there are 1.2 million registered cars and trucks. That would be the Ford F-150 pickup (34,144) followed by the Toyota Camry (24,369). But the 53,000 Subarus registered in Vacationland (that’s all models combined) make Maine one of the best markets per capita for Subarus in the country, second only to mountainous Vermont.

“Maine is a great market for Subarus, as are the states of the Northeast and Northwest,” says Jeff Walters, vice president for field operations at Subaru of America in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. “People in Maine are a little smarter and got it earlier. We just wish there were more people there.”

That’s because, while Subaru has captured only 2.5 percent of the total U.S. new car market, it has close to 9 percent of the Maine market.

There is, of course, a pretty simple explanation for the popularity of Subarus in Maine — traction. For many years, Subaru was the only vehicle with AWD you could buy if you didn’t want to drive a truck. But the loyalty to Subaru takes a little longer to explain.

Subaru imports began arriving from Japan in 1968, but they were not readily available in Maine until the early 1970s. The first little two-stroke Subaru 360s were mini-cars marketed in the U.S. with a novel advertising campaign that promoted them as “cheap and ugly.”

Subaru is the Japanese name for the Pleiades star cluster, which explains the Subaru star logo. Dick McElman, who has been selling Subarus at Bath Subaru (actually in Woolwich) since 1973, has a little 1968 360 on his showroom floor and a 1971 FF-1 in a garage nearby.

For many years, Subaru was the only vehicle with AWD you could buy if you didn’t want to drive a truck. But the loyalty to Subaru takes a little longer to explain.

“They rusted out quite frequently,” says McElman of the early Subarus, “but they got great gas mileage, did well in the snow, and were cheap.”

McElman got into Subarus because he had been doing well with Saabs. You used to see them with bolts in their tires racing on the frozen New Meadows River in West Bath. Subarus had front-wheel drive until 1972 when they introduced AWD. McElman remembers those first Subaru imports as rust buckets painted unappealing colors. He estimates that over the past forty years, Bath Subaru has sold ten thousand new and ten thousand used.

Impreza sedans and boxy Forester wagons are still made in Japan, but the ubiquitous Outback as well as the Legacy and the Tribeca are manufactured at the Subaru of Indiana Automotive plant in Lafayette, as, for that matter, is the best-selling Toyota Camry. There are only seven Subaru dealerships in Maine, sixty-three in New England.

“New England is the only area in the whole world where Subaru stores are all single-point dealerships,” says Ernie Boch, Jr., president and CEO of Subaru of New England.

The fact that Subaru of New England refuses to allow dealerships to sell anything in addition to Subarus may 
help explain why the Greater Portland franchise has changed hands several times since the 1980s. Pape Subaru 
in South Portland, where we bought our two Imprezas, has had the franchise less than five years, but it is having a record year, as is Subaru of America (SOA). Subaru sold 267,000 cars in the U.S. in 2011 and was on track sell 325,000 in 2012.

“We were the only ones in 2008 to actually have a sales increase,” says SOA’s Jeff Walters. “We’re the only manufacturer with five straight years of sales increases.”

As of August, Subaru had sold 2,939 cars in Maine compared to 5,912 Toyotas, 3,758 Fords, 3,520 Chevrolets, 2,822 Hondas, 2,121 Nissans, 1,908 GMC trucks, 1,508 Kias, 1,453 Hyundais, and 1,378 Jeeps.

“Mainers were early adopters,” says Walters of Subaru’s popularity in Maine. “They realized you could drive them ten to fifteen years.”

One of those early adopters was Jim Charette of Lake Region Imports in Westbrook. In 1982, he moved his repair shop to Route 302 in Westbrook and began selling used Subarus. People told him he would go broke specializing in one make, but he’s still going strong thirty years later. “Most people who have Subarus, if they have one in the family, they’ll have five or six,” says Jim. “If they’re driving a Subaru, their kids will be driving a Subaru. We now have third generation customers. It’s almost a cult.”

Jim Charette attributes the brand loyalty to the reliability and longevity of Subarus, but the initial attraction is traction. “Once you’ve had all-wheel drive,” he says, “it’s a feature difficult to trade for front-wheel drive.”

“People like Subarus as a daily driving car because they are extremely reliable,” adds Dave Getchell. “At four degrees below zero, you know it’s going to go.”

Bill Hager knows all about that vaunted Subaru reliability. We went to the University of Southern Maine together back in the 1970s and Bill worked at Portland International Jetport for thirty-two years until he was downsized and outsourced in 2003. That year he invested $6,200 in a 1996 Subaru Legacy station wagon with 86,000 miles on it working for a courier service delivering packages all over New England. Today that workhorse Legacy has 637,000 miles on it.

“In the ten years that I’ve had that car,” Bill reports, “it’s probably been on the back of a wrecker five times.When I was driving 1,500 miles a week, every other Friday morning at 7:30 I had a standing appointment at Lake Region Imports for an oil change.”

“We now have third-generation customers,” says Jim Charette of Lake Region Imports. “It’s almost a cult.”

Bill has cut back on his courier trips a bit, but his Subaru is still going strong. Turns out the 1996 Legacy is well-known among Subaru enthusiasts for being virtually indestructible if properly maintained.

“One of the reasons Subarus are so long-lived, dependable, and reliable,” explains master Subaru mechanic Chip Levine, “is that they’ve always used the horizontally-opposed four-stroke boxer engine. They’ve had one style engine for more than twenty years.”

Boxer engines are flat because pistons move in and out sideways instead of up and down. This allows Subarus to have lower front ends and lower centers of gravity.

Chip started out as a Subaru mechanic back in 1984 at Falmouth Subaru, opened his own repair shop in a rented garage in Falmouth in 1987, and established Chip’s Service Center, a two-bay garage at the corner of Bates Street and Washington Avenue in Portland back in 1989.

It was Chip who delivered the bad news that we had purchased the wrong Subaru back in 1999 when we lease-purchased a brand new Subaru Outback from a local dealer. Chip warned us that the head gaskets tended to blow out at about sixty thousand miles on the 1995 to 1999 Outbacks with 2.5 liter engines.

Chip was also the David who went up against the Subaru Goliath a few years back when he was sued in succession by Subaru of New England, Subaru of America, and automaker Fuji Heavy Industries. “The only valid point they had was that Subaru is a registered trademark,” says Chip, who changed the name of his business to Chip’s Service Center under duress, but he also learned in the litigious proceedings that he could use “Subaru” as an adjective to describe who he is — a “Factory Trained Subaru Technician.”

When I asked Chip who his best customers were, I got a surprising answer. “Lesbians,” he said unhesitantly. “A lot of the cars we work on have rainbow decals on them.”

“I drive a Subaru specifically because they market it to the LGBT community,” explains Betsy Smith, executive director of EqualityMaine, the state’s leading advocacy group for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered people.

Who knew Subaru has been marketing its cars through gay media since 1996? In fact, the company has won a number of awards from human rights groups for its enlightened approach to inclusive marketing. Subaru ad campaigns aimed at the gay community often carry coded messages such as “It’s not a choice. It’s the way we’re built” and “Get out and stay out.”

Though Subaru’s gay ads target both men and women, Subarus seem to primarily appeal to women. In a 2009 listener poll, National Public Radio’s popular Car Talk compiled a list of “The Ultimate Gay & Lesbian Cars of All Times.” The Outback and Forester were one and two among lesbians. But the Volkwagen Jetta and VW Beetle were tops among gay men and there were no Subarus at all on their list.

Laurie Phillips, a PhD candidate at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, researched and wrote a 2010 marketing case study as part of her doctoral work. In her case analysis, Phillips found that “lesbian Subaru owners had a high socioeconomic status and an active lifestyle, complementing Subaru’s four existing consumer bases.”

When I asked Chip who his best customers were, I got a surprising answer. “Lesbians,” he said unhesitantly. “A lot of the cars we work on have rainbow decals on them.”

Subaru owners have a median age of fifty, 66 percent have a college degree or higher, 62 percent have incomes above $75,000, 68 percent are pet owners, 48 percent dog owners. While only 17 percent of Subaru owners nationally are retirees, Dick McElman at Bath Subaru says they’re his best customers. “Our demographic,” he says, “is retirees who have winterized their summer place and need a good vehicle to get in and out.”

Bob and Ellen Brewer, retired Bath Iron Works designers, have purchased seven Subarus since 1983. The Brewers live on a dead end street at the top of a hill and sometimes couldn’t get home without AWD.

“Where we live in Bath,” says Bob, “all of our neighbors have at least one Subaru.”

General manager Larry Stark finds that Pape Subaru caters to a lot of young suburban families. Pape did, however, have one customer fly in all the way from Fairbanks, Alaska, to drive home in a sleek new 300 hp WRX. “That was when I knew we were dealing with a different group than Silverado buyers,” says Stark.

The Subaru WRX (for World Rally Cross Country) is a different animal entirely from the safe Outback and sane Forester. The wily WRX is prominently featured on Mainely Subarus, an online chat forum with some one thousand members.

In June of 2011, British driver Dave Higgins, of Subaru Rally Team USA, virtually “flew” a WRX up Mount Washington auto road to set a new Climb to the Clouds record of 6 minutes and 11.54 seconds.

Dave Getchell co-pilots a WRX on the rally circuit, barking out directions to Last Ditch Racing driver John Cassidy as the pair speeds along dirt roads such as those between Rumford and Bethel on the annual New England Forest Rally.

Dave’s partner, artist Randy Fein, however, just needs to navigate the back roads between Camden and Unity where she teaches at Unity College.

“The Subaru Forester is the most amazing vehicle on the road today,” he insists. “It’s totally practical. It’s the kind of SUV most SUV drivers should be driving.”

Spoken like a true believer, Dave.

Every motorized vehicle ever made, of course, has its admirers and adherents, its own demographics and devotees, but in Maine, where roads frost and heave, turn to ice and back to mud, the sensible AWD Subaru holds a special place in the hearts of those of us who just want to get there and back with a minimum of drama.