Family builds business around love of cars

Posted: Thursday, May 27, 2004

The two critters parked along the Kenai Spur Highway on the outskirts of Soldotna in front of AAA Auto are not gargantuan ladybugs recently landed from the planet Retro, they're 1960s era Subarus recently arrived from the Lower 48.

The vintage autos, one blue and one white, are 360s, the first model Subaru produced, and look like the mousy cousins on the goofy side of the Volkswagen Beetle family. The little cars have rounded bodies and rear-mounted engines, like a VW bug, but are smaller and look even more like a tin can. The suicide doors hinged at the rear door jam, instead of the front only add to the vehicle's odd appearance and air of vulnerability.

The 360s' quirky looks and pill-box size are exactly what Don and Karen Boston find attractive. That and the fact that they're Subarus.

The Bostons are Subaru junkies. They each own a 1990 Subaru Legacy and their son, Walter, owns a 1985 Subaru Brat (Bi-drive Recreational All-terrain Transporter). The family picked up the 360s on a recent trip to Montana and Illinois, but the heart of the family's devotion to the brand is their business. The couple has operated an auto repair shop specializing in Subarus for 15 years.

Before his conversion to the ranks of the Subaru faithful, Don Boston worked as a diesel mechanic and maintenance engineer on a salvage ship. He maintained and repaired the cranes and engines of the 132-foot salvage vessel Redeemer, based in Dutch Harbor in the Aleutian Islands. He also worked as an auto mechanic. As he gained experience working on Subarus, Boston came to admire the thoughtful way the Japanese manufacturer put its vehicles together as compared to some other makers.

"I used to work on everything under the sun and every time I worked on a Subaru, it was like, 'Wow!'" he said. "The engineering on a Subaru is like it's supposed to be. They're made to be fixed when they break, which is just the opposite of a lot of cars."

 

Karen Boston paints over "AAA Subaru" on a sign outside her family's auto repair shop on the Kenai Spur Highway in Soldotna. The Bostons are changing the name of their business to AAA Auto for legal reasons.

Photo by Mark Harrison

Don is a firm believer that if a Subaru engine is properly maintained, chances are it won't break for a long time. It's not unusual for him to see one of the all-wheel drive vehicles come in for an oil change with more than 300,000 miles on the engine, running perfectly.

"If you change the oil in them, they'll last until the bodies fall off around them," he said.

What started out as admiration, blossomed over the years into infatuation.

"I love Subarus. I love working on them, especially the hard problems," Boston said.

The Bostons ran their shop in Anchorage for a dozen years under the name AAA Subaru, before moving to the relative quiet of Soldotna.

"The city got too big for us, so we brought the shop down here," Boston said.

The family had operated as AAA Subaru in a service station on the Spur Highway for nearly two years, before changing the shop's name this week to AAA Auto, for legal reasons. Two months ago, the Bostons were contacted by lawyers for Subaru of America and advised that, since they're not officially affiliated with the company, they were in violation of trademark laws and would have to remove the Subaru name from the name of their business.

"A lawyer from the East Coast called us and said we couldn't use the name anymore," Boston said.

The family also was told they could no longer use the slogan, "Subarus wanted dead or alive," to advertise the fact that they buy Subarus, running or not, which Don fixes and cleans up, then resells. They could, however, use the less catchy, "We buy Subaru manufactured vehicles."

Don Boston would rather not change the family business's name, but said he doesn't hold anything against the manufacturer for protecting its trademark.

"You just have to roll with the punches," he said.

Karen Boston finds humor in the situation.

"We're a little shop in Soldotna and we get in trouble with a company in Japan," she said with a grin, as she shook her head.

The Bostons have yet to change all their shop's signs and are still negotiating to keep the "wanted dead or alive."

As AAA Subaru, the shop had always serviced and repaired all makes of automobiles, so the name change to AAA Auto is appropriate. However, the Bostons are concerned their business' name no longer reflects their shop's specialization. To let people know a change of name doesn't mean a change of heart, the family has big plans for the little 360s one of which was once owned by 1970s motorcycle dare-devil Evel Knievel.

"We're going to drive them in parades and park them out front, so people will stop by and say, 'What's that?'" said Karen Boston.

The little Subarus were parked off to the side of the shop Monday morning and hadn't been cleaned up or parked facing the highway yet, but they were already working their magic. A gray-haired man poked his head in the shop's office door and wanted to know all about the little oddities.

"They've got to be the tiniest cars I've seen in my life," he said in awe, before bounding off for a closer look.



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