Homer’s Subaru love: More than a test drive

“Everybody in Homer has a Subaru story.”

This is according to Chase Warren, proud holder of a more than a few Subaru stories himself. As Warren recounted, he became caretaker for his first Homer Subaru within two days of arriving in town, courtesy of the household where he was doing a work-trade for lodging.

It was a 1998 GL wagon, he said, “Red with a white hatch from a tree falling on it.” In a coincidental turn of events, Warren ended up selling that Subaru to the very same person who convinced him to move to Homer in the first place.

Where do these stories come from? The sheer number of Subarus is certainly a large component; the brand has a reputation for dependability in Alaska’s tough winter road conditions. Still, statistics and four-wheel drive don’t add up to stories. Beyond the cars alone, there is also something cultural — maybe even spiritual — about the connection between driver and Subaru in Homer.

Bumppo Bremicker is a committed member of Homer’s large and proud Subaru fleet. He fondly remembers a red Subaru wagon he drove in the 1980s. Once, Bremicker parked between two other red Subarus in the Fresh Sourdough Express Bakery parking lot. After grabbing a bite to eat, he found himself trying to drive away in the wrong car.

“Wait a minute, this isn’t my Subaru!” he recalled with a laugh.

For his part, Bremicker counts “maybe a dozen” used Subarus he has driven over the years.

“I’m the guy that Subarus go to in order to die,” he said.

He drives each one for three or four years, dropping only a bit of money in for maintenance.

Right now Bremicker drives a noticeably-old yet still-functioning 1992 silver Subaru Loyale, a model that was discontinued in 1994. He purchased it from his daughter’s in-laws after spotting it sitting in front of their house. When asked why he stays true to the brand, Bremicker said, “There is no better car to drive in nasty conditions than a Subaru. I’m convinced of it.”

This is a sentiment that Subaru has carefully nurtured over a half-century of operations in the United States, building itself into a brand intimately associated with a certain type of lifestyle: rural, rugged, mountainous and independent. As of late there have been articles and think pieces published reflecting on the societal role of Subaru as a vehicular artifact or even an ideological commitment, not just in Alaska but in communities from New Hampshire and Vermont to Washington and Oregon.

This reputation is not accidental. It developed thanks to some clever marketing, and a few events in global geopolitics that together solidified Subaru as a car brand for the rural outdoorsperson.

Automotive News describes the growth of this reputation through the following key events:

In 1971, after facing a scathing review in Consumer Reports which called Subaru “the most unsafe car on the market,” the company launched an advertising plan to turn things around; they simply decided to push their vehicles in small, rural places where they figured people didn’t read Consumer Reports in the first place.

Then came the 1973 oil embargo which boosted sales on more fuel-efficient imported vehicles. A year later Subaru first introduced its four-wheel-drive station wagon, making standard a feature that was an extra amenity for most cars at the time. Soon the car was adopted as the official car of the U.S. Ski Team, which, according to this article, “gave Subaru cache among outdoor enthusiasts.”

By 1981, Subaru was advertising itself as “the best-selling import in Alaska.”

It’s clear that Homer has a Subaru reputation. But how many Subarus are driven here really? And how does this compare to other places in Alaska, and around the country?

Gary Bates has seen enough Subarus over the years to sketch out a pretty good picture. He has owned and operated Lower Peninsula Auto in Anchor Point since 1981, fixing up Subarus exclusively for the last 10 to 15 years.

Bates estimates that about 90 percent of his customers come up from Homer. From his perspective, Homer is “probably one of the highest percentage places in the state” for Subaru ownership, and “maybe even the nation, with a few exceptions.”

Can this be verified? A not-so-scientific experiment conducted by this reporter found that, on a recent Friday afternoon, Subarus made up 11 percent of cars in the Safeway parking lot. (For context, in 2017 Subaru accounted for approximately 4 percent of the national automotive market according to Car Sales Base data.)

It turns out that, outside of parking lot car counts, there is very little data to confirm the outsized presence of Subarus in Homer. The Alaska Department of Motor Vehicles doesn’t maintain records based on make or model. State-by-state data from the blog iSeeCars identified the Chevrolet Silverado 1500 pickup truck as the most popular car model in Alaska, but offered no breakdown at the municipal or borough level.

Susan Hamilton is director of advertising and marketing at Continental Auto Group in Anchorage which operates franchises for six car brands, including Subaru. It is one of three Subaru dealerships in the state, but Continental is the closest to the Homer area.

“Although I can’t share exact sales numbers,” Hamilton said, “(Subaru) is our most popular brand in the auto group.”

Even without official data, the wealth of local Subaru stories makes it possible to paint a pretty good picture. Where else can one find an entirely Subaru-based taxi service? Gregory Drais of Nick’s Taxi called Subarus “the exclusive cab choice for Homer.”

Liz Morphis doesn’t quite know why Subarus are so ubiquitous in Homer, but she does know that she’s always wanted one.

Morphis grew up in Homer surrounded by Subarus.

“I don’t know if everyone was in cahoots about buying Subarus, but when I was younger all the cool kids had them,” she said.

Now Morphis drives one herself, a gray 2000 Forester named Rocky the Rocket.

So where does Homer’s Subaru love come from? It could be functional, it could be cultural, or maybe as Morphis speculated, everyone is just in cahoots. Until the DMV decides to keep more detailed records — or another reporter does a more thorough parking lot experiment — the Subaru stories will have to be enough.

Mira Klein is a freelance writer living in Homer. You can contact her at mira.r.klein@gmail.com.