Not Even Raw Eggs Could Save My Suburu Brat, but Damn It, We Tried

The real Subaru Brat was the friends we made along the way.

byLewin DayJun 3, 2022 3:30 PM
A disabled Subaru Brat
Lewin Day
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The Subaru Brat, or Brumby as it was known in Australia, is a unique beast. The diminutive ute paired a simple carbureted boxer engine with four-wheel drive in what quickly became a much-loved farm vehicle Down Under. Most lived hard lives, being flogged up and down paddocks until they expired from rust or sheer old age. Back in 2016, I happened across one such example belonging to a friend, and I could see it was in need of help.

With a tray full of water bottles hinting at its demise, and mushrooms growing in the bodywork, the wretched car I'd come to call "Ulysses" was a sorry sight when I first laid eyes on it. However, with years of watching Roadkill under my belt, I smelled an opportunity. I was going to bring this humble steed back from the dead. I took the week off work, dialed up some friends, and got down to wrenching.

Content Warning: This video contains Australian English, which means a lot of swearing.

Finding The Car

This Brat had been passed around my friend's family for years. It had split its time between a series of young drivers and doing duty as a farm car in the dirt and dust up north. It hadn't seen too many services in the past decade, and all I knew was that it hadn't run since arriving at its current resting place.

When I showed up with my crew, the 1987 Subaru Brumby was sitting in a carpark behind a small set of flats. It had air in the tires, a tray full of junk, and a nasty damp smell in the interior. It wasn't pretty, and nor was this parking lot an ideal venue for a project. The jagged, gravelly surface promised to dig into our backs as we slid under the car to work, and we had to be conscious not to make a mess. The other apartment-goers would be less than pleased if we left the place in a state.

Despite the conditions, it was too good an opportunity to pass up. Here was my chance to take a car akin to a barn find, and try and bring it back to life like so many wrenchers before me. I wouldn't get to keep the car, and it would take some time and money, but I had to give it a shot.

I assembled a crack team of youths who had never rescued a car before and damn it if they weren't enthusiastic when motivated with the dual promises of glory and fried chicken.

Assessing the Project

The first point of order was to get a picture of the car's current status. Decrepit was a straightforward way to describe it; years of farm use and teenage drivers had taken a toll. The bodywork was rough, with multicolored panels in classic Aussie style. The many water bottles in the tray and interior hinted at a major cooling problem, too.

While it's bad practice to turn over a motor that's been sitting for a long time, I couldn't resist trying to crank the engine. The starter barely moved the motor, suggesting to me that it could be seized or at least a little stuck. Not a great sign for the start of the project, but not necessarily a death knell in and of itself.

From there, the next point of call was to check the fluids. Dropping the sump plug revealed abject horror. To our surprise, out splashed a liter or so of clear water. It was quickly followed by a thick, sticky, brown substance that oozed out of the engine with a consistency more like custard than engine oil. Somehow, coolant was getting into the oil. Again, it boded poorly.

Preliminary checks were rounded out by pulling the spark plugs. While these are miserable on some Subarus, on the EA81, they're not so bad, being readily accessible from above.

As we pulled them out, we were surprised to find they looked old but otherwise not too bad. There was a little evidence of coolant entry to the combustion chamber on one, but by and large, they seemed functional. A small win, but a win nonetheless!

Overall, though, between the sludge, the grime, and the tray full of water bottles, it was clear the engine was in poor shape. It was now pretty obvious something major had left it parked for the last few years.

Loosening The Engine

We decided to try and get the engine running, and would make further decisions on the project from there. We started by dumping plenty of petrol and degreaser down the oil filler neck to flush out as much gunk as possible from the oil channels. The coolant was also dumped out of the engine too, not that there was much in there anyway.

Thanks to the high-mount alternator, the engine could actually be manually turned over by hand. If an engine has sat for a long time, it's good to check everything is turning freely before starting it up.

We then whacked on a fresh oil filter and poured in some Castrol oil. Well, we did so after a further flush; my pal Alexei had accidentally poured coolant into the oil filler neck since the EA81 engine uses a design similar to coolant fill necks on many other vehicles.

Once the radiator was filled with fresh coolant, we set about turning over the car. Sadly, the starter motor struggled to turn the engine over, which we put down to a bad battery. Even hooked up with a jump-start from another car, though, the engine was still sticky and at times, it barely moved. The starter motor began to smoke at one point as it overheated from our attempts.

The oil filler on the EA81 engine looks like it's meant for coolant. We forgave Alexei this small error because he's great.

At this point, we did what we should have done in the first place, and squirted some oil down each of the cylinders. We then spent plenty of time cranking the engine with the sparkplugs out, letting everything loosen up. We also took off the rocker covers and gave the valve train on each side a good cleaning.

The motor turned over happily with the plugs out, not having to fight against compression. This contrast was a good sign though, suggesting the motor did actually have compression, and that the rings weren't entirely shot.

Starting, Running, and Even Idling

With fresh fluids in the engine and things loosening up, we reassembled things and had another go at starting the engine. It was at this point we realized that coolant was spewing out of a broken fitting. Suspecting this as the cause of the gross brown milkshake we'd found in the sump, we pushed on. The plan was to try and get the engine running without coolant. There was no point fixing the cooling system if we couldn't get it running at all.

Amazingly, after loosening things up, we got the engine turning over fast enough to catch. We used some throttle body cleaner as a stand-in for starter fluid, because I didn't think they were really that different. They're both flammable, anyway. Along with some petrol splashed down the carb, we got the engine stumbling along and even idling for a decent amount of time.

We still had problems with the starter motor struggling, along with a dead battery, but the engine ran. We hadn't even put fresh fuel in the tank; it was running on stuff that was over a year old.

The sad thing was, it was pumping coolant straight into the sump—liters of it, after running for just a few minutes. I was inexperienced, but it seemed unlikely that the broken coolant fitting was the sole cause. The engine had pumped a great deal of coolant right into the sump after just a minute of running. A leaking fitting on top of the motor wouldn't explain that. I suspected a cracked block, but decided to keep going anyway, hoping we'd figure it out as we went.

Fixing The Cooling System (Or Not)

The most obvious problem was actually quite easy to fix. The broken coolant fitting was for the heater core, and this was a feature we felt we didn't really need at this stage. Already over $100 in the hole for fluids that had been ruined, I was reticent to throw more good money after bad. Instead, I hacked up some of the existing hoses and managed to bypass the heater entirely with the remaining good fittings on the engine.

Sadly, this didn't spell the end of our woes. Coolant was still getting pumped into the oil at a rapid rate as soon as the engine turned over. My next attempt involved cracking two eggs into the radiator, yolks and all. The intention was to let the eggs find their way to the leak and cook in place, sealing the hole. Needless to say, it didn't work.

Starting Woes Fixed

Amidst all of this, we'd grown tired of having to jump-start the Subaru every time we wanted to crank it over. As it turned out, the problem wasn't just the stuck engine or the tired battery. It was also the fact that I was using a very cheap set of jumper cables. They simply weren't delivering a decent amount of current to the ute. Once swapped out for a better set, the engine was cracking over merrily at a good pace, and we had far less trouble getting it started up.

In the end, I dropped in a working battery from my Daihatsu Feroza. This meant we didn't have to keep a second running car on hand to turn the engine over.

Finally Taking ‘A Drive’

After all this mucking around, we could now start the car without too much trouble. I figured it was time to take it for a spin, even if it was still spewing coolant into all the wrong places. The car had been left for dead for years, anyway. I didn't feel like I was hurting anything by having a go.

Much to my amazement, Ulysses moved under its own power with barely a protest. The brakes worked and weren't even sticky, and the steering was fine, if heavy due to the somewhat-deflated tires. I backed out of the carpark amidst a cloud of blue smoke, probably due to the oil we'd squirted down the cylinders. With some trepidation, I crawled out onto the road.

At this point, I was filled with an electric joy. I was even able to coax the reluctant Subaru up to a full 55 kph! With a rumble and a clatter, this flower planter of a ute was actually functioning like a car.

Sadly, though, my joy was brief. The engine died going up a very mild incline, and I had to return to the yard. After more injections of carb cleaner, I headed out once again, hoping to taste success.

Alas, t'was not to be.

I could punt the ute around for a minute or two at a time, but it was a struggle to keep it going. The engine kept cutting out and became harder to start each time. I was well aware I was holding up traffic in the side streets. I was even more aware that the oil was full of coolant and I couldn't keep deluding myself.

The engine was seizing. And the hotter it got, the less it wanted to run. The noise increased and the smoke did the same as the ute slowed to a crawl. I gave up on trying to pedal it any further.

In the end, I limped the car back to the flats, coasting downhill for the last stretch as the engine refused to turn over. After many wonderful days wrenching, I handed back the keys to my friend, defeated. It wasn't all sad, though. I was buoyed that I had at least tried to bring her back from the rusty abyss. In the end, Ulysses went to the crusher, and my video became a memorial to that proud family vehicle.

Looking back years later with the knowledge I have now is bittersweet. Had I owned the car and had more time, I suspect maybe it could have been saved.

It was only a few short weeks later that someone on YouTube advised me that the EA81 engine is prone to popping freeze plugs, which dumps coolant straight into the sump. If I'd known to look for that, I might have had a shot at fixing it. I also smack my forehead for not thinking to put better gas in it.

Without coolant flooding the oil, and with fresh premium in the tank, the story of Ulysses might have ended completely differently. I could have gotten my drive on the beach in the sun. Even better, that ute could have served us all for a few more years, shifting furniture and recovering legendary finds from hard rubbish.

While this fix was not to be, young me gave it everything and came out smarter in the end. I had a great time wrenching with my pals, and I've got a beautiful memory for my trouble. Watching those innocent young meddlers having a crack still puts a smile on my face, and in the end, that's more than enough.

Got a tip or commiserations for the author? lewin@thedrive.com