Subaru Outback Timing Belt Fun


Nov 28, 2015
I've had fun the past few days doing car stuff I'd never done in the past. I learned LOTS, and didn't even ruin the car in the process!

We're a Subaru family, having owned Subies since we bought a Legacy Outback wagon back in 1999. I still remember how amazed my wife and I were when we drove that Outback right UP a snow covered hill with no hesitation or sliding. I'll be almost as amazed if our 2013 Forester & 2013 Outback don't have the engine head gasket failures (poor design/engineering/quality/piss-poor Subaru acceptance of responsibility for their incompetence) that have cost us $$$ & frustration with our 1999 Outback, 2003 WRX, and 2007 Outback. Our son's 2010 Forester was made with the older style (pre-2012) engine/head gaskets, so it may or may not have this problem...we'll see. Despite the head gasket problems, Subies work VERY well in the snow, plus they have lots of space inside for hauling stuff, so we keep buying & driving them. We recently bought our 6th Subie (My wife's 2013 Outback). I've got a 2013 Forester, and our son has the 2010 Forester. We kept the 1999 Outback as a "spare" car, and also use it to haul dogs around (stray dog hair...what stray dog hair?!). It's rusty, the exhaust rattles, but it still runs.

Anyhoo, the 1999 Outback has ~201,000 miles on the odometer. It was overdue for some maintenance. The car is only worth about $750-1000 at best, and the needed maintenance would probably cost almost that much. served as a guinea pig for my first time in changing an engine timing belt. With the type of engine used in this Subie ("interference"), if the timing belt broke, unpleasant things would happen. "Unpleasant" = pistons crashing into delicate metal valves, bending/breaking things. You're supposed to change the timing belts every 105,000 miles or so. It was overdue (last changed at ~95,000 miles), and living on borrowed time.

After ordering the parts I needed, along with some inexpensive parts I didn't need but THOUGHT that I needed from, I reviewed the factory service manual plus a bunch of walk-throughs on Subaru-related websites.

I jacked the car up & put it on jack stands, and placed wheel chocks behind the rear wheels. Being allergic to heavy steel things crunching down on me, I wanted it to be niiiice & stable.

Tearing things down wasn't too bad. I was able to drain the coolant & remove the radiator (first time!), radiator hoses, and thermostat with no hassles. I finally know where a car thermostat is & what it looks like! Removing the timing belt was relatively easy once I broke loose the crankshaft pulley bolt (that puppy is torqued down to ~130 ft-lbs, which is pretty tight even with a cheater bar).

I went ahead & changed the oil, oil filter, and spark plugs while I was at it. Changing the rear plugs was a pain, since Subaru gives you a generous 1.5-2" of clearance between the engine & inside of the engine rails to fit your tools & fingers.

I removed the old water pump & installed a new one (a good idea with each timing belt change). No major hassles there, although it was a tight fit. The back plate to the oil pumps on a lot of the old Subies tend to come unscrewed, causing oil leaks. I pulled the oil pump & found all the screws nice & tight. I cleaned the mating surfaces, applied sealer, changed out a rubber o-ring on the engine block, and reinstalled the oil pump. I also replaced something called the Neutral Safety Switch on the manual transmission. This is a thumb sized part that tells your car when the manual transmission is in neutral. This year's Outback had a tendency to have the switch fail (causing, strangely enough, a P1507 Check Engine Light for the idle air control valve).

OK...the "easy" part was over. Now I had "fun" installing the new timing belt.

Timing belts are pretty big...about 3-4 foot in diameter for this car, with lots of teeth on the inside of the belt. This belt controls WHEN valves open & close inside the engine as fuel is squirted into the cylinder & again when exhaust is vented from each cylinder during its thousands of RPMs per minute. It also drives your oil pump & water pump, keeping the engine happy.

The engine is a bit "picky" on how it wants the belt to be installed. You've got to rotate the main crankshaft until it's at just the right position, and also rotate the 4 camshafts (they drive the opening/closing of the valves) until they're also in just the right position. Subaru puts little marks on the crankshaft sprocket, and each of the camshafts to help you line things up. Unfortunately, they also put extra marks on those parts as part of a secret ritual known only to Subaru engineers. If you're not careful, you'll line things up using the wrong marks, possibly killing your engine. It's also fun that two of the cams are spring loaded when they're set at the correct position. Just when you get them in the right orientation, they tend to SPIN out of position. I eventually figured out how to use breaker bars & sockets to hold the cams in position.

I installed the belt yesterday, lining up all the little marks just so, counting the number of teeth on the belt from point A to B, B to C, and so on. I put it all back together, added oil to the engine, added new coolant (including a bottle of the Subaru Cooling System Conditioner), and got ready to start it up (with some trepidation, I might add).

And now for a sarcastic vitriolic non-musical interlude from our sponsor....

In 2004, when Subaru saw that a huge number of their 1999-2002 cars were experiencing head gasket failures, they came out with a bandaid fix...errr...ummm...Service Campaign. Yeah, that's the ticket...a Service Campaign. Their word-spinning damage control professionals (in an attempt to insulate Subaru Corporate from expenses resulting from their inadequate engineering/design) stated that their crappy head gaskets might fail as "the result of normal relative thermal expansion and contraction variations of engine parts."'s due to normal expansion/contraction of engine parts. Nothing abnormal here...move along, little customer.

Rather than addressing true root cause (poor design/engineering/quality), they ask their customers & service professionals to add a container of Subaru Cooling System Conditioner to the radiator with each coolant change. As it turns out, this stuff is made in England and is sold under the name Holts RADweld. It's a product designed to fix leaking radiators, and contains a resin solution, borax, and ground up linseed meal (aka flax seeds). What an engineering solution! As a customer & former engineer (now ICU RN), this seems less than adequate (to be polite).

Back to our show...

So I nervously started up the engine. Crank...crank...crank...and it started...and shook...and rattled...and idled very roughly & threatened to stall unless I kept the gas pedal applied.

Oops. That didn't sound good. At this point, I was not happy, and was afraid that I might have munged things up pretty badly. So I shut it down, let it cool off, and tore it all down again.

The tear-down went MUCH quicker this time. The car sat overnight.

I reinstalled the belt the next morning, taking extra special care to line up all the little marks & count teeth. Multiple times. I also used a digital camera (stuffed between the empty spot where the radiator sits & the engine) to take digital photos of the bottom cams. Even though I had used a little mirror & flashlight to see how things were aligned the previous day, it looks like things were out of alignment by a tooth or two (which would result in the very rough idle). The digital photos let me really SEE if things were lines up.

So I put it all back together and was juuuust about to add coolant to the radiator, when I saw a part sitting on my garage floor. This part, a piece of stamped sheet metal, was supposed to be installed on the engine above the crankshaft sprocket to help hold the timing belt in place.

Tear-down #3...I didn't have to remove the belt this time, just tear things down enough to remove the timing belt cover.

Then I put it all back together (even faster than before), and added coolant.

It started right up & idled smoothly. No crunching/ticking noises of trashed valves. Just like it was supposed to be. Simple, right?

I doubt that it will be "simple" the next time I replace a timing belt, but it should be simpler. At least I learned a lot over the past few days. Learning is good.

...replaced timing belt, tensioner, 3 idler pulleys, water pump (Aisin), removed/inspected oil pump back plate screws, resealed/reinstalled oil pump & o-ring seal, replaced front crankshaft oil seal, replaced spark plugs, replaced AC & alternator belts, replaced antifreeze with 50/50 PEAK/distilled water, added Subaru cooling system conditioner additive, changed upper & lower radiator hoses, thermostat, changed oil & filter, replaced manual transmission neutral safety switch...
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Nov 28, 2015
Years ago, I had a 1986 Toyota Celica that needed a short block (basically half the engine) replaced about a week or two after I bought the car. A wrist pin sheared, and the cylinder got chewed up. That car also had the #1 connecting rod bearing fail 3 or 4 times (requiring an engine tear-down/repair). After the first or second time, I bought an extended warranty. That warranty also paid for a failed AC compressor. The Celica engine was a non-interference type, meaning that the engine itself wasn't damaged when the timing belt broke. I also had the TB either break or slip off the engine innards multiple times (bringing the car to a complete stop). After about the third time, the stealership told me that they'd found the problem. A gear (?crankshaft sprocket or TB geared idler?) was out of spec, and was throwing the belt after some period of use. They actually had the gonads to ask me to pay for a replacement gear. I basically told them NO, and that they & one other stealership had done all the service on my car. I told them to work things out between themselves, and they did just that (at no cost to me).


Ewe turn me on
Dec 9, 2015
Up Norf
My VW TDI is a real pain!!
That DOHC subaru doesnt look like fun but you can get in there to work, I have done the single cam Subaru, very easy.
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Well-Known Member
Here is a website where you can view and print factory service manuals for various Japanese cars, including Subaru, for free. The url posted below is for the 2013 Subaru Outback. However, you can drill down to other makes and models as well. Outback/2013/USDM Legacy FSM 2013 (BM-BR)/Legacy - Outback/2013/

There is also a helpful forum that describes the differences between the various generations of Subaru Outbacks and other Subaru models.
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Well-Known Member
Jan 28, 2014
SW Ontario
I had a couple Subaru's from the late 70's years back , no TB or any other crap just a simple 4 cyl boxer engine with OHV and push rods .
Had to replace clutches and the like or pull the engine for some reasons I don't recall but I could have the engine out in 45 minutes . Awesome cars to work on back then .

Good job doing those timing belts , not a job for the faint of heart !!
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