Besides the WRX and BRZ, we look back at Subaru's other significant models for its 70th birthday
CY Foong · Jul 20, 2023 05:00 PM
Considered a bit of an underdog compared to its richer and more popular Japanese peers, Subaru is turning 70 in 2023. Even though it was established in 1953 as Fuji Heavy Industries Ltd., the origins of Subaru began in 1917.
A century after the company first took off (this pun will eventually make sense), Fuji Heavy Industries renamed itself Subaru Corporation. However, before it became known more as a carmaker, Subaru started off in the aircraft industry.
1917-53: A flying start
Cikuhei Nakajima founded Japan’s first aircraft manufacturer, the Aircraft Research Laboratory in 1917 which would later bear his surname a year later. Nakajima himself was a naval officer and one of Japan’s first pilots prior to establishing his company.
In 1918, the Nakajima Type 1 biplane became the first Japanese-developed aircraft and a year later, the company would introduce the Nakajima Type 5 which would serve the Japanese army.
Fast forward to 1945, and Nakajima Aircraft had to transition to another business since the country was blasted by Oppenheimer’s creations. It reorganised itself to become Fuji Sangyo Co Ltd to focus on civilian goods.
One of its first products was the Fuji Rabbit scooter in 1946. Inspired by the Powell Streamliner scooters that were used by American servicemen after World War II, the Rabbit was made from spare aircraft parts but it became a huge success and was among the first vehicles to kickstart Japan’s economy.
In 1950, the company went through another structural reorganisation to divide itself into 12 separate companies. Five of those companies would merge together to form Fuji Heavy Industries three years later including Fuji Kogyo (scooter), Fuji Jidosha (coachbuilder), Omiya Fuji Kogyo (engine), Utsunomiya Sharyo (chassis), and Tokyo Fuji Sangyo (trading).
1953-66: A star was born
The result of the 5 companies merging together to form one new company saw its CEO at the time envisioning plans to enter the automotive industry. Just like the six stars that form an arrangement of the Pleiades star cluster, the name Subaru was decided to represent this merger and the rest became history.
Subaru’s first car was the Subaru 1500 which was launched in 1954. Codenamed P1, only 20 units were ever made though initial reception during its trial run was very positive. Sadly, when the Toyota Corona was introduced, Subaru pulled out from the automotive business and would lay dormant until 1958.
Since the 1500 made barely a splash in the Japanese automotive market, the Subaru 360 is widely considered to be the first proper Subaru model. Between 1958 and 1971, 392,000 units of the little kei car known as the “ladybug” were made and propelled Subaru to recognition.
Then in 1960, Subaru would launch its longest-running model, the Sambar which was based on the 360 and shared the same rear-engine, rear-wheel drive (RWD) layout. The Sambar was also the first kei truck to use a cabover design that is still the norm today.
1966-85: The kickstart
You can’t mention Subaru without all-wheel drive (AWD) or boxer engines and the one that initiated this tradition is the Subaru FF-1 which was introduced in 1966. Besides being the first Subaru with a flat engine, it was also one of Japan’s first front-wheel drive (FWD) cars.
In 1970, Subaru would introduce a larger 1.1-/1.3-litre flat-four to the FF-1 as well as its first four-wheel drive (4WD) model. The story goes that a Subaru dealership received a request from an electrical power supply company from the snowy, northern part of Japan to convert some existing FF-1 station wagons to 4WD.
The request seemed simple enough for the Subaru engineers as it only required the attachment of a driveshaft and a rear differential. The first two prototypes were seen in 1971 with the rear differential taken from a Nissan Bluebird 510 and later that year, the 4WD station wagons were delivered to the power company and the rest is history.
As Subaru began exporting overseas, the 4WD versions became a huge hit with those working in agriculture. In 1978, Subaru introduced the Subaru BRAT mainly for the American market as its competitor to the growing popularity of foreign-made light trucks.
In order to protect the gas-guzzling American motor industry, higher import taxes known as the “Chicken Tax” were enforced on light trucks but the BRAT had a couple of tricks on its bed. The pair of jumpseats in the truck’s bed meant the BRAT despite clearly looking like a truck was categorised as a passenger car in the States.
1985-2002: The Bubble Era
It is this kind of quirkiness that made Subaru the underdog that you can’t help but cheer on. The Subaru XT/Alcyone that was built between 1985 and 1991 was an aerodynamic sports car that signified its aerospace roots and came with optional 4WD as well as a flat-six engine.
Its successor, the Subaru Vehicle X or SVX for short came with only a flat-six engine, a glass housing that was inspired by fighter jets, and optional 4WD. Both models sold very poorly and contradicted the rest of Subaru’s lineup which were mainly farmer-friendly vehicles.
Even the kei cars it was producing were bonkers. While rivals went for a 3-cylinder engine configuration, Subaru went with 4 cylinders for its kei cars beginning with the final generation Rex all the way to the R1/R2.
It even bolted on a supercharger to the high-performance variants of its kei cars when everyone else stood by turbos. Perhaps it’s this kind of bold, brave decision that made Subaru really stand out back then.
These days, Subaru is more mainstream than it ever was but even with plain, standardised crossovers, the Star of Pleiades was a pioneer. Having introduced 4WD to regular vehicles, Subaru caught on to the recreational vehicle (RV) wave that swept through Japan in the early 1990s.
Its first crossover of sorts was the Legacy Outback which was introduced in 1994 and became a huge hit that would define the brand in the next decades. Around the same time, Subaru also introduced the Impreza Gravel Express which was based on the first-generation Impreza station wagon but this was exclusive to Japan.
A year later in 1995, Subaru unveiled the Streega concept at the Tokyo Motor Show and this SUV previewed the first-generation Forester which was launched two years later. The Forester became Subaru’s best-selling model and the golden goose that pushed the Star of Pleiades into the mainstream.
2002-present: Mainstream power
Even in the 2000s, Subaru was still quite bonkers when it came to its cars though this was only in a few select markets. The Subaru Baja became a spiritual successor to the BRAT but was essentially a Legacy Outback station wagon with an open bed and was mainly sold in North America.
Subaru continued producing and developing its own kei cars in the 2000s which saw the introduction of the cutest Scoob ever. The Subaru R1 was among the smallest kei cars made and even had an STi version with a supercharged 660-cc 4-cylinder engine.
Beyond just a brand most people would associate with rallying or as the joint partner in the development of the Toyota GR86/Subaru BRZ, Subaru is an innovator with technology that we see as common in today’s modern cars.
Subaru was among the pioneers of the CVT automatic transmission dating all the way to the 1980s in the Rex and the Justy. It was also among the pioneers in vehicle safety technology with the introduction of the stereo camera-enhanced EyeSight technology in 2008. Since then, more than 5 million vehicles with the ADAS suite have been sold worldwide.
Throughout its 70 years of existence, Subaru went through many highs and dramatic lows. It partnered with various carmakers throughout those years including Nissan, General Motors, Isuzu, and Toyota which also resulted in some dubious rebadges.