Justy Little Project Car: Shifter Tips for Everyone, Sweet New Wheels for Me

Though my Subaru Justy’s cabin is surprisingly roomy and airy for such a small car and the pedals are well placed for podiatric gymnastics (I can make up words), the sloppy and vague shifter has always been something of a disappointment. The 4-wheel-drive system also wasn’t switching on. It might seem silly to work on these small problems when I have the elephant of low compression also looming in the garage, but after two years of fighting with an AMC Eagle’s clutch, I needed to establish some forward progress and eke out a little satisfaction from this project car before I could knock on the door to the engine party.

Unlike later Subarus, these cars have a selectable 4WD system. If you’re not aware, 4WD Subarus from the ’80s were not the full-time AWD cars of today. Many had a switch that allowed you to flip it from front to four-wheel drive. (Four-by was an option, actually. Subaru offered front-drive versions of their cars until the late ’90s, when the lineup switched to AWD only.) In this 4WD Justy, you select the drive type through a switch on the shifter. There are no hubs to lock or unlock; the system simply engages the center differential prop shaft to the rear wheels. When in 2WD, the rear axles and prop shaft are still spinning and adding mechanical drag.

The switch in my car wasn’t doing the job. No lights came on and only the front wheels spun. Before I went to the trouble of installing the new shifter (with button) that I had ordered, I wanted to test the system. So, as you see in the video above, I did. You can see the prop shaft spinning through the hole in the floor where the shifter normally lives.
The Justy uses a vacuum-operated actuator on the transaxle to switch the rear wheels on and off. The electric switch on the shifter goes to a couple of vacuum switches, both of which have a vacuum signal from the engine. If you’ve explored under the hood of most cars made in the last 25 years, you’ll have seen a similar device that opens a vacuum feed to your car’s charcoal canister. The device in the Justy that directs the vacuum for the 4WD system is two of those mounted on one bracket. No joke.
Anyway, giving a direct vacuum signal to one of the hoses going to the 4WD actuator confirmed that the system indeed does work. It also gave me a small surprise: the 4WD indicator light in the dash turns on from a sensor on the transaxle, not by simply flipping on the switch. This means a few things.
1. If the 4WD light isn’t on, you’re not in 4WD, regardless of the position of the switch.
2. I could, if I wanted, get rid of the switch and just work the system with a toggle in the dash and a standard industrial pneumatic valve and I wouldn’t lose the dash indicator.
Next, I needed to install those new Oilube bronze shifter bushings I had ordered a while back from Amazon. (I could also have ordered them from McMaster-Carr, part No. 5448T5.) When I test-fitted them on the original shoulder bolts, I saw that my problem ran deeper. The bolts were worn, too. Thankfully, they’re a standard part on McMaster-Carr , an industrial supply company (part No. 92981A325, a 10mm diameter x 35mm long shoulder bolt, M8 thread ). I ordered up a set, though I didn’t spring for the tight-tolerance shoulder bolts at $12 apiece. Maybe those would be even better, but I didn’t want to spend that much money and I wondered if the bushings would end up being a press fit.
Anyone who has a rod-operated shifter that has gone sloppy over the years can do the same thing as I did. In fact, if you’re one of the people who has been tempted to spend $40 on the Corksport shifter bushings for your Mazda Protege/MX3 or Ford Escort, all you have to do is take some measurements and order the right pieces on McMaster. I’m fairly certain those dimensions are the same as the Justy, actually.
When I had all the linkage out, I also noticed the rear support was pretty worn inside. It was just a rubber piece, so I ordered—also from McMaster—a bronze sleeve that was the proper diameter of the tail end of the shaft (part No. 6658K23). I was able to simply pop it inside the rubber support and eliminate another source of slop.
Installing the new shifter with the new switch meant removing the boot on the pivot ball. Of course, this kind of thing also isn’t available at your local Subaru dealer. But I took some measurements and compared them to universal tie rod end boots available at my local auto parts store. I deemed one close enough.
As I was about to finish this up, I noticed that the guy I sold my old Miata to was selling the wheels from it. They’re a set of steel Diamond Racing Wheels, 13×8 inch with a 5-inch backspace, 4×100 bolt pattern and Yokohama 888 tires in a thoroughly un-stance 225/45-13 size. Their overall diameter was a bit small for that Miata, frankly, but they’re perfect for the Justy.
After finishing work on the shifter—which feels superb now, precise and communicative—I installed those wheels and backed the Justy out of my garage for a quick photo shoot. It looks as badass as a Justy possibly could.
Of course, I cleaned the wheels, washed the car and gave it its first wax in probably decades only after taking these photos. Nobody’s perfect.
But taking care of Justy few little things made me feel a lot better about this as a project car and helped cement my certainty that selling the Eagle so I could focus on this was the right move. It also takes up a lot less room in my garage.
[Photos copyright 2015 Hooniverse/Alan Marcos Pinto Cesar]

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  1. nanoop Avatar

    I always like it when people find out about standard and norm parts that just fit instead of unobtainium bits.Garage cred +1!
    I also envy US laws for wheels, there is no obvious source for street legal steelies here, and Diamond Racing has several nice ones for rather sane prices.

  2. Tanshanomi Avatar

    “It looks as badass as a Justy possibly could.”
    “…selling the Eagle so I could focus on this was the right move.”
    Agreed, on both counts!

  3. salguod Avatar

    1 – I love McMaster. They have one of the best websites on the planet. All shopping websites should be that usable.
    2 – I love that someone makes 45 series 13″ tires.

    1. Alan Cesar Avatar
      Alan Cesar

      Those Yokohamas are the only 13-inch street performance tires I can find anywhere. The other options are full slicks (mostly Hoosiers) or economy car sizes like 175/70-13.

      1. Kiefmo Avatar

        This is almost exactly why I stacked my 1980 Rabbit’s 13″ steelies in the corner of my garage and ordered 15″ steelies and tires from DTD, excepting in my case, the cost of those 13″ economy tires plus installation, disposal, etc, was nearly the same as buying the 195/55/R15 tires already mounted on 15×6 black steelies.
        They also matched the rusty Rabbit’s black vinyl top, and gave it an air of badassery.

    2. dead_elvis Avatar

      McMaster-Carr is pretty great – particularly for specialty hardware & various raw stock – but would it kill them to use actual photos instead of just drawings? It would make direct comparisons to stuff on Grainger easier. Conversely, Grainger could take a page from McMaster when it comes to listing specs & dimensions.

  4. wunno sev Avatar
    wunno sev

    the light representing what’s actually happening, vs what the controls are asking, was obviously a valuable lesson learned from Three Mile Island.
    “The valve was designed to close after venting a certain amount of pressure, but was unreliable. In fact, the Electromatic Relief Valve manufactured by Dresser Industries had a history of failures to close…The valve didn’t close this night, even though a poorly-designed indicator led operators to believe that it had. The light, which one operator described as perhaps the brightest light on the entire panel, indicated only what the valve had been commanded to do, not what it was actually doing. It remained dark, because the valve was commanded to close.”
    dunno why i like that story. never trust equipment without feedback, i guess.

  5. Fuhrman16 Avatar

    Why don’t more cars have door chimes like that?

    1. Alan Cesar Avatar
      Alan Cesar

      I’m glad you noticed! A friend of mine who spent a lot of time stationed in Okinawa told me that this door chime “sounds very JDM.” It’s one of the things that most companies change when importing to the US, but Subaru didn’t alter on the Justy.

    2. Maymar Avatar

      For some reason, I feel like my first Hyundai Accent had that chime, but not the second.
      Ima just go with some Hyundai at some point in history had that chime. That sounds right.

      1. Frank T. Cat Avatar
        Frank T. Cat

        probably a result of that car’s Mitsubishi heritage.

  6. Preludacris Avatar

    This thing looks awesome.

  7. Kiefmo Avatar

    I had a similar experience trying to find bolts to install the A/C compressor in my W126. It came to me without a compressor, and only one of the needed bolts, so I was on my own to figure out the length of the other two bolts, as they were the same diameter and thread pitch, but different lengths. I wound up finding one at Home Depot and the other (160mm long) at a local industrial parts supplier. That was a very long afternoon of calling and driving all over KC!

  8. WinstonSmith84 Avatar

    “There are no hubs to lock or unlock; the system simply engages the center differential.”
    I’m reasonably certain that there is no center differential. This is a strictly part-time system, and should only be used on surfaces where the tires can slip freely to prevent binding caused by differences in front and rear wheel speed while turning.

    1. Alan Cesar Avatar
      Alan Cesar

      You might be right. I’ll have to check that when I put it up on stands again.

  9. Xedicon Avatar

    Love this project! Those wheels look sweet!

  10. Bozi Avatar

    Awesome project! I am big fan of finding parts on your own and improving your car without going back to a factory part that may be inferior. Also, I feel like I should buy a Justy now