For most people, their first car is a fun, increasingly distant memory. Even if it was just the family station wagon, there’s always a story behind it. For car enthusiasts, that first experience is usually the thing that sparks a lifelong passion. That’s how it was for Stephen Hodges of Albany, Oregon. The Subaru that molded him into a car guy was a 1981 Leone GL hatchback. 

The second-generation Leone was made from 1979 to 1984, helping to cement a solid reputation for Subaru in the United States. The GL hatchback offered a 73-hp 1.8-liter engine, a 4-speed manual transmission with a dual-range 4-wheel drive system, excellent ground clearance and a few unique features. The GL hatchback – as well as the rest of the GL line, including the BRAT – came with a third headlight hidden behind the grille badge, known informally as the “Cyclops” lamp. When the driver selects the high beams for passing, the badge panel rotates up to reveal the light. 

1981 Leone GL
Photo: Stephen Hodges

First Love

“Growing up and going to soccer practice, my friend’s parents owned this car,” Stephen recalls. “It was very similar to the GL wagon that my dad drove. I obsessed about this car, so when they decided they were tired of throwing money at it, they offered to give it to me.”

Full of teenage honor, Stephen said, “No, I want to buy it.” His friend’s parents agreed to take a dollar, but all Stephen’s dad had in his pocket was a $5 bill. He laughs, “My dad bought me my first car for $5. I was 14. I couldn’t even drive it yet.”

His new GL needed a new carburetor right away – Stephen did his homework and taught himself to keep the GL running.

“I drove it throughout high school,” he says. “Shenanigans were had! It needed brakes and tires, but it always fired up. Then when I went to college, I thought that I needed the $600 or whatever. So I sold it, and that was that.”

Stephen with his GL
Prior to the graphics changes, Stephen drove his GL through high school. Photo: Stephen Hodges

Gone, But Not Forgotten

After college, Stephen embarked on his adult life. He owned a string of fun cars, some better than others. As a young schoolteacher, Stephen was always long on energy and enthusiasm, even when he was short on cash. Along the way, he met Ashley and they fell in love. Yet throughout his adventures, he always kept a finger on the market for that unforgettable Subaru.

“I had an aggregated search for a Subaru GL on all the Craigslists,” Stephen says. “Anything that was reasonably close to what I had. I looked for it almost every single day since the day that I sold it. My thought was if I could find something similar, I’d be OK.”

Finally, there it was: his first car, for sale on Craigslist in Portland. 

“I had no money,” Stephen says. “But I contacted the guy and went out there with Ashley and saw the car anyway. This guy did everything right, so the car was in very, very good shape. It was such a surreal experience!” 

Stephen wanted his car back, but the pressures of adulting seemed likely to crush his dream. “I had just put a down payment on our house,” he says, “and I bought an engagement ring. So I thought, I can’t afford this car.” 

Sorry, Guys, She’s Taken

Ashley saw the anguish her fiancé was going through over the GL and decided to act. “We had a conversation, and she told me, ‘You’re never going to have this opportunity again,’” Stephen says.

“I had a little bit of savings that I was prepared to use for the down payment on our house,” Ashley says. “But he took care of that, so I said, ‘Let me buy this for you.’” 

1981 Leone GL in the snow
Photo: Stephen Hodges

Part of the Family

In the three years since the GL came back to him, Stephen has upgraded it with a 5-speed transmission and a limited-slip rear differential. “The 5-speed allows me to do 65 mph comfortably, so I can drive on the freeway,” Stephen says. “The limited slip in the back and a Weber carburetor really pepped things up.”

Yet even with all the upgrades, this GL is almost 40 years old. And with 315,000 miles on the clock, the engine is showing its age. “My mechanic said we should probably rebuild the engine,” Stephen says. “I’m going to have this car forever, so I want something that’s got some more power. And so, we’re planning to swap in a 2.2-liter engine from an early Legacy. For less than two grand, I’m going to have double the horsepower when I want it and reliability when I need it.”

Reliability became a much more important issue on July 17, 2020, because the couple had their first baby – Noah James Harrison Hodges. “This was our date car when we first got married,” Stephen says. “I’m looking forward to making more memories.”  


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