Sir Clax-a-Lot — The SG5 Forester Saga

This is a story full of love and hate. Being ahead of your time while the world passes you by. A most unreliable of reliable vehicles. The trendsetter outpaced and other such juxtaposed clichés. It’s the story of an underdog overcoming the odds, but ultimately succumbing to the sad statistics of reality. It begins, as so many stories do, with a blown motor and a rolling chassis.

Whoops, that’s a photo from today. Mk. I and Mk. II in tear-down and build-up, but I’m getting ahead of myself. This vehicle first came under my care in 2012 about as it sits now: awaiting a motor. It was a work assignment to build a budget overlander and write an accompanying editorial on the process. Budget Overlander—there’s our first oxymoron for this journey.

Instead of burdening you with links to other white-backgrounded sites, in the next few posts I’ll recap that initial project and the build since…


This is gonna be good…

Literally just thinking the same thing.

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This forum just has the best build threads! Can’t wait to see how this one turns out.

The Budget Overlander, Part I

About a year after moving to Prescott to work with Overland Journal I met the Forester. It was early 2012, I was soaking up an unusually warm spring sun and watching with amused interest while a colleague struggled to get the second rebuilt engine in 1,000 miles into the car. The chassis was just over 102,000 miles old and had been flogged hard for most of it’s life by the previous owner. It was his first car, and every part of the little station wagon reflected that from the interior to the undercarriage. I didn’t know too much about Subaru except that they looked badass bombing down a fire road, and they were made in Japan so they had to be reliable, right?

Less than 500 miles later the engine developed the same clatter down below that the previous two had experienced: spun bearings. My colleague gave up and bought a new 4Runner, and the Foz sat in the back lot at Overland HQ rotting under a tarp. A few months later my boss offered me a deal: another rebuilt engine was already on the way (from the same shop as the previous two), so if I’d buy the car for $2,400, put it back together, then build it up and write the Budget Overlander article series for Expedition Portal it was mine.

This would be my first experience with anything more complicated than fluid changes or simple bolt-ons—I’d taken care of my other vehicles personally, but they never needed anything major so I didn’t have many automotive tools or much experience. If nothing else, I can thank the Forester for sending me tumbling down the rabbit hole towards at least shade-tree competence.

With the help of a mechanic friend working next door, and my first foray into the engine subforums, the Foz was bolted back together over two long weekends. The new engine ran great…for 500 miles.

Another favor-for-beer later and we had narrowed down the noise to a different location this time, where we discovered the driver’s side valve guide rod had snapped (cleanly) in half. We also discovered it was an incredibly easy 10-minute job to replace. Mechanical issues finally sorted it was time to flush the fluids one last time and dive into the fun stuff.

Fun bit of trivia: in some lookup systems, the Forester is actually considered a “truck” and finding parts for it requires the clerk behind the counter to search under “Subaru Trucks” rather than “Subaru” (where the Impreza, Legacy, Outback and others live). In practice, there’s a brand-spanning and decades-wide cross-reference of parts one can mix and match to achieve different results. Forester sits at the tallest end of these, with the stock suspension components being the 1" and 2" lift kits for the other models (and vice-versa, a WRX suspension makes the perfect fully-OE lowering kit on a Foz). These things are build like Legos.

With Fozzy being the tallest I’d have to turn to the aftermarket for a lift kit, and at the time, the only option was to import a set of Ironman springs from Australia. Fortunately my colleague had already sourced a set of 35mm lift springs, so I ordered up a set of KYB GR-2 not-shocks to help stiffen things up. Out came the spring compressors, a tool I did have on hand, along with my newly acquired “access” socket set and I tackled this strange thing known as “struts.” Doing it this way took from lunch until dusk. I’d later learn that you can just zip them apart/together with a rattle gun…these days I can rebuild a Subaru suspension in about an hour, two if the bolts to the A-arms are rusted stuck. :joy:

The new suspension was paired up with 215/70R16 all terrains, arguably the biggest tire you can fit without taking a hammer to the spring perches. I say arguably, because it turns out the 2-3mm of perch-to-tire clearance is a matter of slop in the bolts connecting the strut to the A-arm: for some it fits, for some it rubs. (Land the Foz hard enough after sending it airborne and it can start rubbing…but that’s a story for a later date.)

The combination raised the storm trooper up to a running ground clearance of 8.7 inches, the same as a Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk, while making it corner far better than it ever did stock. After a quick joyride down a back road with more than a few good jumps we also learned that, at least unloaded, the suspension combination simply would not bottom out.

Of course, being an “ExPo” build we had to throw a rooftop tent on it…


The Budget Overlander, Part II & III

Excerpt from the article: I have a confession to make: when I accepted this assignment I had serious doubts. Before this project I had never thought of a Subaru as anything more than gravel-flinging fun. I found the idea of a mere Forester attacking moderate trails laughable, and I pushed forward expecting to gain little more than a rally-inspired softroader. During a recent trip over the Mojave Road the little Foz shattered all doubts with it’s nimble capability. In the sand and washboard it was the speed demon we expected, cruising along comfortably at around 50mph. On the rocky hill climb after Fort Piute, a trail which rates nearly a 3* after recent storms, it was shockingly unstoppable. *using the Standard 1-5 Jeep Rating

It didn’t take long to realize the critical item missing that sets the street-biased Forester apart from a dirt-biased Cherokee Trailhawk, so the next order of business was skid plates. Only one name offered a comprehensive package at the time, Primitive Racing, so I called up Paul to order his thickest “full armor” package. This set of three 3/16th aluminum plates covers the rear differential and the transmission, with a massive front plate covering the entire engine area. For perhaps 25 pounds, everything that could leave you stranded is protected.

I tested that protection just a few short days after installation during a cannonball run down the Mojave Road. We were cruising upwards of 65mph and nailed a may-tag (a rock the size of a washing machine that may tag you, or may not). The above gouge in the front plate was the only damage. :open_mouth:

The brakes sucked. For some reason Subaru decided, not being a “performance” model, the early Foresters didn’t need much braking power nor disc brakes in the rear. Still held back by the “Budget” goal of the project and dissuaded by the internet’s insistence that a rear disc conversion would cost at least $800 and only help with “fade,” I took a chance on a relatively unknown Amazon Special pads+rotors kit from Power Stop for the front for about $125. The gamble paid off, I liked them so much I bought the same model for the rear when I finally did the disc conversion years later.

I was pretty sure the original battery from 2003 was still under the hood. The headlights would fade noticeably as the air conditioning cycled or if we used the air compressor. I have a long running relationship with Odyssey/DieHardPlatty batteries, and they make a cute little Group 35 to fit the stock cubby, so it seemed like the logical choice. (Hey, I’m used to dual Group 31s.)

Comms were easy—I just happened to have a Yaesu VX-8R sitting around with external mic and window-mount antenna, and it just happened to fit perfectly in the ash tray. It’s a solid pocket-sized quadband unit with dual transceivers and APRS built in, everything a ham-geek could want.

Of course, no “overland” build is complete without on-board water (:face_with_raised_eyebrow:), so to keep the editor happy while simultaneously reviewing new gear I went with a clever mating of Sceptre-clone water can and submersible Whale galley pump. It’s actually kind of a neat design, plug your can of water into a 12v outlet and you’ve got running water, but way over my needs when traveling light (the only way to travel in a Subaru).

I tossed Yakima’s system up top to haul my canoe and bikes (I still biked then, I still canoe now). Added to the budget build was the obligatory kit with the usual suspects: small comprehensive Adventure Medical first-aid, tire kit with air compressor, MAXTRAX, tools, extra fuel (2.5-gallon jerry can), etc. I also insisted on installing a base-line Pioneer X720BT to replace the horrid stock stereo.

Thus concluded the Forester’s respectable budget build years.


Clax had a lot going for him, there, for a while. And there’s certainly something to be said for overlanding light like this. Easier to fit in. Better fuel economy. Probably spend most of the time on highways and dirt roads anyway. A fun little scouting/recce vehicle.

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The yet-unnamed Foz had nice life for a few years after the Budget Overlander build serving as a daily for Dani, economical location scout, and a loaner when friends wanted to go overcamping (and didn’t have their own dirtable wheels).

It ran the Mojave Road in 24 hours, including 10 hours in camp and stops to explore all points-of-interest. The trip was drama free, at least from vehicle issues, save one unanticipated jump that sent us nose-diving into the opposite bank of a wash. That’s the fun of a light weight vehicle with minimal kit, they tend to just bounce off of things instead of breaking. The only damage was a slightly taco’d hood, thus hood pins.

Check engine? Yep, it’s there. The glowing amber on the tach hurt my Land Rover-adjusted brains for the first few months, but eventually became understood as a good omen and a sign that we’d make it back home. It stayed on for the entirety of the car’s life, codes simply double-checked at each oil change. It’s a Subaru.

By the end of that blitz Mojave trip the Foz had a name.

Sir Clax-a-Lot

The plastic bumpers were already pretty bad when we got the car, and didn’t last long under increasingly more difficult trail use. Clax was proving more and more that with a little momentum it could keep up with the big boys on pretty much any trail shy of an “8” so off came the bumpers, with anticipation of something high-clearance and thin tube-steel down the road.

It became something of an adored black sheep at Overland HQ, invited out on trips despite trolling the Jeeps, Land Rovers, and Toyotas in the group because of it’s ability to quickly scout ahead and get cameras into position. (Yep @Brian, that’s Chris stuck in the sand.)

Of course, back in camp the group would troll right back with their cold beer, gourmet meals, and big comfy sleeping quarters. Foresters just don’t work well for lots of gear or sleeping in/on, and the 2003 is particularly uncomfortable. Too short in stature for a sleeping platform, and with a lateral bar on the folded rear seats about two inches high running right across your back if you don’t platform, you’re screwed either way. This was the first and only trip where I’d bother to try it.

We even tackled Colorado’s Alpine Loop while on an anniversary trip, likely the last car through before they closed the gates for the winter of 2014/2015. Power was a noticeable issue at altitude. Clear Lake at 12,200-feet wasn’t too tough to get to (first photo), but Clax struggled to turn the little 215/70R16 ATs when we hit snow at 12,800 atop Engineer Pass. Yeah, an inch-high lip from the dirt to the top of the snow and it couldn’t turn the wheels to get up it. Thankfully we were the only car on the mountain, or it would have been horribly embarrassing.

If this post seems to be lacking in technical details and loaded with reminiscence, that’s because it is. The aforementioned hood pins, the “bumpers delete,” and an upcycled pair of Hella foglamps were the only modifications made after the Budget Overlander project was done, it just didn’t need anything but oil…until…

Sifting through the library for these old build photos, it dawns on me just how much towing and recovery duty the Discovery has seen… :sunglasses:

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Tabula Rasa

In all fairness, Clax blew the radiator at the plastic/aluminum seam independent of the front-end damage that had occurred a few days prior…when Dani pulled into our driveway way too fast and slid into our steel fencing. With a new radiator on order we headed off to the U-Pick-It to ransack yet another nearly complete SG Forester. With so many of these things popping up in the junk yard, in such a small town no less, I’m not sure if it’s a point of pride or mark of insanity that I keep putting in the effort to keep this thing on the road.

With our conflicting schedules at the time, it was difficult being a one-car family so I took a pair of pliers to the old hood and fender, then skipped ahead to the headlights to make things street legal again. I’ve used headlight restoration kits a few times before, but the effects never seem to last. On a tip, I tried hitting it with clear coat this time—it’s still not as good as new lights, but did prevent yellowing and clouding for a couple of years.

Around the same time all of this repair work started, I left Overland International to work on a new pet project with @Brian: Adventurist Life. We had a very limited budget to get things rolling, and as the general goal was bringing adventure to the everyman, the ubiquitous and inexpensive Subaru seemed like the perfect platform for our first vehicle build. And so, I set about stripping away the “ExPo White” and putting an appropriate new color scheme on the junkyard-rescue body restoration parts.

Then I watched in slow motion as Dani backed the Discovery into that fresh first coat of clear, denting it and knocking it to the ground. I just can’t catch a break on this car…

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Man, I was just super excited to see that gen 2 Montero in the background until I remembered this all took place four plus years ago. Fezzik’s got needs and the local Montero crew has a good habit of picking things clean almost immediately.

Here’s to AL yellow. Coming soon to a build thread near you!

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Send me a list, I’m there every few weeks and will keep an eye out.

That’s awesome! Vicksburg roundabout on the way to DRV?

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Aye. I believe we topped off the tanks before peeling off the 10 for DRV.

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Let’s Cook…er Paint

We’d been joking that maybe she wouldn’t have hit the hood if it had been painted bright yellow when it hit me (pun intended?)—throwing a little bold yellow into the design would look fantastic on the magazine…and the car.

Lacking in both patience and time to have the car back together for looming events, I opted for killing two birds with one…rubber…and ran with a rattlecan bedliner hood blackout. This completely eliminated the need to pull the fresh (minor) dent and re-sand the hood, since it fell right smack in the middle of the black section, and completely eliminated glare when driving into the sunset/sunrise.

Seeing the new color scheme my buddy Matt over at MAXTRAX mentioned they were bringing in a new “Adventurist Yellow” color I might be interested in…

And the next day we were off to Desert Rendezvous for some fun in the Anza-Borrego desert with our co-conspirators, and to pick up some new wheels for Clax. (You didn’t really think I’d leave those silver steelies on there after all this work…)

Unfortunately, the paint issues continued. The first problem we ran into was an insanely fast, like two weeks fast, fading of that bold schoolbus yellow to something closer resembling a sun-bleached Post-it note. This is despite having put down two coats of color, and two coats of clear on top. Then, about a month after fading the paint shrunk, taking the factory paint underneath it with it as it cracked through to steel.

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Man…how does that even happen? That would have killed me after all the prep and work that went into it. It went from killer yellow jacket awesome to american cheese, grilled to death by the desert sun.

The description of a sun-bleached post-it note is great.


The only thing I can think is the yellow coat wasn’t fully cured before the clear went on, despite being 48-hours later. I’ll admit I’m a n00b when it comes to auto paint, but I didn’t have this issue on the Discovery’s hood.

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The Gloves Come Off

At this point I’d pretty much given up on making anything “nice” out of the car. Form was fucked, and I was done burning money and time trying to make it shiny, so my mindset shifted and I focused on function at all (cosmetic) cost. We had less than two weeks before the car needed to be at Overland Expo for Adventurist Life’s launch event, and still had fabrication work to get done, so the Foz became the test canvas as we threw bedliner and paint at it to hide the cracks and add livery for the show. There’s something just amazingly therapeutic about throwing splatters of paint at a car.

Chasing performance on a naturally-aspirated Subaru is first and foremost a weight saving game. After a recent tire/wheel change on the Discovery had it chirping second gear again (on 33s even :open_mouth:), I decided to re-double my efforts on trimming Clax’s unsprung weight. Enter the tidy-but-stout looking RS wheels, which naturally, I painted matte black to match the car. Between dumping the steelies and an upcoming tire swap I’d be dropping from a 208-pound tire/wheel combo to 168 pounds.

Next up: prototype aluminum rock rails to prevent (or repair) torn-up pinch welds on the car. These rails provide multiple additional benefits: protecting the doors with a slightly protruding step rail, aiding in overcoming obstacles by allowing the car to “sled” down them, stiffening up the chassis for more confident on-road cornering, and providing a solid jacking point along the length of the otherwise completely lacking SG chassis. These attach quite easily by removing the plastic trim, enlarging the stock holes, and adding rivnuts. I’ve debated whether or not to further refine the design and bring it to market simply because they’re too easy to fabricate and off-road Subie guys are cheap (yep, including me).

Scoobaru…it wouldn’t be one of my builds if I didn’t troll at least a little. What started as a $140 gag to draw attention at Overland Expo yielded a substantially noticeable performance boost, according to the butt-dyno. Installation was straightforward: removing the factory intake revealed appropriately sized holes in the chassis in exactly the correct location—almost like Subaru wanted the Foz to have a snorkel. The snorkel itself is actually for a '99 Pajero Diesel and mates up to the fender contour perfectly. With a little careful heating and bending of the vertical section it matched up to the A-pillar like it was stock.

And with just enough time to splash a little mud on it for effect, we were off to OX 2016 West.

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We returned from Overland Expo heavier on gear—the extra flare all over the Foz had done it’s job drawing attention from both consumers and industry, and both Bomber and Equipt gifted a few items to mount an Eezi-Awn awning to our current crossbar setup. (Note: Bomber is out of business.)

The MAXTRAX mounts were custom made, literally just 1/8th aluminum flat bar bent to the correct shape with standard-issue MAXTRAX pins clamping them to the bars. KISS.

Darth Foz

I’m sure it goes without saying we had no intention of running that two-tone grunge look for any length of time. Shortly after getting home I set about finishing the job I’d started: making Clax impervious to paint damage. It was time to go full #battlewagon on it. Duplicolor’s “Bed Armor” is awesome to work with—mask what you don’t want black and spray away in your driveway. Any dust, bugs, leaves, or other debris that fall on it before it cures can just be scrubbed away without any ill effect. It never needs washed, just rinsed with a pressure washer as desired and resprayed whenever it feels a little too grey (4 cans will do a Forester, every couple years).

As an aside: if you’re wondering just how bad the insulation was in a 2003 Forester, the interior temperature actually went down after covering the white Clax in black bedliner due to the extra insulating properties of the bedliner. Ridiculous. (Yes, 2004+ are far better insulated, and more comfortable.)

As winter approached we threw out the rear drum brakes in favor of a pair of WRX disc brakes (the fronts are already identical to a WRX), and wrapped the wheels in lighter and far grippier 225/60R16 Firestone Winterforce tires (original, not “2”…2 is garbage). We liked them so much we wound up running them all season for the next few years…it’s the next best thing to gravel tires, right?

The internet says converting a drummed Forester to rear discs is a ton of work, expensive on parts, and not worth the effort. The hardest part is pulling the rear seat so you can move the carpet and replace the e-brake yoke since the discs use a shorter cable. All of the parts, save new rotors/pads, can be pulled from practically any Impreza-based chassis from 2000-2009 (Impreza, WRX, Forester): knuckles, calipers and related hardware, e-brake yoke, brake valve from under the hood. That’s it, everything is plug and play, the ABS computer is programmed the same regardless of disc or drum. Do the swap when you’re performing planned brake maintenance and it only costs an extra hour and maybe $100 more in parts. Bonus: the swap converts you to the easily user-replaceable Impreza-style rear wheel bearings that don’t fail every 100,000 miles.

To help stiffen things up even further, a Whiteline strut tower brace was added out back with plans for an additional one up front in the near future (along with swaybars and additional bracing). The rear brace’s proximity to the rear seats also made it the perfect place to slip an Eezi-Awn medium-size table, which sits snug enough to be rattle free with or without the carry bag. (The medium is dinner-table height and sized for two.)

It didn’t take long for us to realize two things: 1) Clax rarely sits in one place long enough to make an awning worth while, and 2) if you’re going slow enough in a Subaru to need MAXTRAX you’re going too slow. Around the same time the course of my career shifted more towards photography and my rigid schedule became completely flexible, so Dani no longer needed a dedicated commuter. The awning was pulled and sold at the next Desert Rendezvous along with the MAXTRAX a short while later. It was the right move—with a naked roof Clax was the perfect vehicle for hauling the canoe again, and could easily handle any other oversize gear we frequently needed to move. Clax was officially the “camera car” again, an indispensable tool for scouting locations and providing logistical support on client shoots.

By nature many of those shoots required getting out into the wilderness (or returning) in the dark so we could take advantage of those morning/evening golden hours each day. It was time to start taking lighting seriously. Above you can see how bad the stock high-beams + upgraded foglights (yellows) are compared to the tiny little two-inch Element LED ditch lights we added (white). (No link, Element is now defunct as well. :frowning:)

We also moved over a pair of Lightforce LED180 driving lights from the Discovery to aid in forward facing visibility (discontinued, but LF is alive and well). Fogs and the regular headlights were kept as-is for 50-state-legal highway use.

…and that was the last time Sir Clax-a-Lot would be seen, alive…


I woke to the sound of the front door opening far too early in the morning. It was still dark out, or perhaps the insulated black-out curtains were still drawn shut…no, definitely still dark out. 04:30 on February the 21st, 2019. Bitterness still weighed heavy on my mind from a brief one-sided argument, no, a scolding I’d been giving about the importance of sleep just a few short hours earlier.

It had been snowing for days and there was talk of closing down the town for safety—native and long-term residents of Prescott are a hardy bunch, but there’s far too many recent California transplants here for a late-winter storm to be business as usual. I rolled over to see a string of unread texts on my phone ending with a comment about the county sheriff bringing Dani home. Too tired to care about the rest, I asked if she was ok then rolled over and went back to sleep.

It was afternoon when I woke again and groggily peered from the kitchen window at a solitary vehicle half-buried under a foot of fresh powder. Where was my Forester? It took a few tics before I remembered the texts and brief morning conversation where exactly what I had warned would happen…happened.

Somewhere in the first post I believe I mentioned statistics? You know the one about sleep deprivation, and that other one about most accidents occurring a block or two from home? Too exhausted, too inexperienced, and too fast she’d been driving in the “invincible AWD Winterforce-clad rally car” when one of those idiot California transplants decided to end her commute by tossing out a Honda Civic in front of her. Reactions were exaggerated, traction was lost, steel was crushed, and airbags deployed—there’s simply no amount of three-peak mountain snowflake you can apply to make up for alertness and experience. Too exhausted to think and unable to reach me she’d forgotten about AAA SuperPlat-nummm’s 400 free towing miles, left the car there for the government schleps, and gotten a ride back home.

It would snow non-stop for another two days keeping her work, the impound yard, and the majority of town closed.

164,192.7 miles

Full Circle

Look at that poor little Foz all locked up like an abandoned puppy. I was again floating somewhere between pity and being past the point of caring. Were it not for the daily storage fees that would start to accumulate I might have left it there to rot and walked away. But, the towing guys were actually pretty cool about things and were keeping all but the actual recovery off the books until the end of the day (thus “start accumulating”).

I needed moral support this time. I did not need to see Clax on a flatbed behind the Discovery for the umpteenth time, so I called a fellow adventurist and Subaru enthusiast friend with a sweet 60-Series Land Cruiser for some cheap entertainment on his day off. As it turned out the car started and drove just fine, at least in this climate, with electric fans clattering away inside of an empty radiator. Considering she was only a block away Dani could have just driven it home and saved me $500 of recovery and trailer rental. I cut away the airbag and pulled it up on the trailer under it’s own power.

Back at home I spent a few hours inspecting the damage starting with prying another pair of ruined headlights off. No big deal, SG5’s hit the local junkyard with intact lights all the time, right? Next I popped the pins and jimmied the hood open find the Lightforce LEDs just about fully intact—wow, when the Aussies say something is tough. Flattened bumper, I was planning a custom bumper anyhow. A/C condenser…pain in the ass, but a high probability of a solid U-Pick replacement. Radiators are cheap new. Timing-belt cover? Meh, it’d be due for another timing belt in 30,000 anyhow. Yet another hood, that makes three in the pile waiting for the next scrap-metal run. That so-called “radiator support” though, aka the entire front clip, dozens of spot welds in folded sheet metal needing to be carefully cut then re-welded with a new piece. I suppose this is where I’d be telling someone suck it up, the end result will be worth it.

Then I pulled the miraculously untouched outer fenders, spotted the fresh cracks running completely through the structure where the cabin “egg” mates with the engine bay, and decided I was better off going out for a drink.

She’s broke her back. She’ll never jump again. – Colonel Saul Tigh


What happened to Bomber?

When I talked to him last year, he was expanding into a larger retail space and importing LHD Troopys from France. Now the site is dead and “what happened to Bomber” returns BBB (scam in its own right) complaints about not shipping orders.

Josh was a good guy in my book. Doesn’t seem like the kind of guy who would pull any funny business.