The history of Subaru is very far from mainstream. Always operating slightly in the shadow of the Big Japanese manufacturers Subaru began life in 1953 as Fuji Heavy Industries in Tokyo. It was formed as an amalgamation of 6 engineering firms none of which had any real claim to automotive pedigree since they had all formed part of the giant Nakajima Aircraft Company. Not that this is any real handicap. Look at Bristol for example.
The name ‘Subaru’ in Japanese means ‘Pleades’ representing the 6 stars of the Taurus constellation. Logical given the 6 engineering companies which formed its bedrock. The first identifiable Subaru was the Rabbit motor scooter of 1956. In 1958 came the first recognisable car. this was the 360 which was powered by a rear mounted 356 cc flat twin air-cooled 2-stroke motor and possessed a 3 speed all-synchromesh gearbox. This latter was quite something for the late fifties when most British motorists would have died for synchromesh on the bottom gears of their chariots. Also on the menu was 4 wheel independent suspension by torsion bars. This was all heady stuff for a mini car in 1958 – a whole year before the introduction of the Issigonis marvel. Not surprisingly, given the hunger for mobility in post war Japan the 360 sold well in its home market and lasted all the way to 1971. Yet it was not so well received abroad; Canadian Malcolm Bricklin, he of the Bricklin sports car ,had a go with it in the US market in the same way Kjell Qvale was later to attempt to avoid defeat on the US market with British marques. Then came disaster. Recalling that this was the era of Nader and ‘Unsafe at any Speed’ the 360 bombed in the US thanks to Consumer Report and its arresting headline , ” The most Unsafe Car on the Market”.
Following this punishing debacle subsequent small Subarus were not exported. Among these was the R2, from 1970 – 2, with redesigned body and 4-speed gearbox. Then we had the front engined front wheel drive Rex which, phenomenal it is to recount, went all the way from 1972 -92. The Rex was endowed with a four stroke engine in in 1973 and went through several enlargements of swept volume , from 490 to 665 cc over the years.
Then came the dawning of the hatchback era. The 3 and 5 door hatches arrived in 1981 and forced induction by turbo charger boosted the Rex in 1984. Wickedly, 41 bhp became available at a head splitting 6000 rpm. Stressing the innovative nature of this manufacturer, always anxious to explore new paths, there was 4 wheel drive in 1986. In 1992, finally, the Rex gave way to the Vivio.
1966 was the year of the first full size Subaru, the FF1. it went through various iterations and capacities culminating in 1267 cc in 1970. the most powerful variant gave 80 bhp and 160 kph. Road and Track got hold of an example in 1971 and their testers were delighted with the increased engine size which they pronounced would promptly reduce the sales of the 1088 cc example to nothing. Aside from that it was an inoffensive sedan and not perhaps at the cutting edge in terms of what was available at the time. Then came Leone in 1972 proudly boasting a flat 4. It was a 1.6 -1.8 machine but the Leone name was not used by Subaru in Britain.
The most important technical development for Subaru came in 1973 with the application of 4 wheel drive to comparatively inoffensive looking vehicles which did not obviously bear the stamp of the farming 4 x 4. This gave Subaru an immediate market advantage. But mainstream market demands were not ignored, witness the Justy of 1984, a transverse 997 cc 55 bhp offering well into the established supermini class. Determined still to be different, this was offered with 3 cylinders. It was front wheel drive but the option of 4 wheel drive to be selected by the driver rather than being permanently engaged was a clear marketing coup. The transmission was by 5 speeds or by automatic continuous variable transmission (CVT) made courtesy of DAF patents. The 1189 cc engine of the Justy was unusual once again with its 3 valves per cylinder.
Then in 1985 came the XT otherwise known as the Alcyone, a sports coupe as 2 plus 2 with the humble 1800 floor pan. This was turbo charged and quite a goer but set much too high in ride height for the handling in any way to appeal to the press-on driver. This, in its day, had to contend with both the Mazda MX5 and Toyota Supra both of which appealed strongly to the sporting motorist. This model then came with a flat 6 and went up to 3.3 litres by the time of the Alcyone’s replacement , the SVX. The latter was a fast luxury coupe with permanent 4 wheel drive selling 24,000 copies before its 1997 demise.
Unusual little cars were not forgotten however and the Vivio which had replaced the Rex was once again of low swept volume (660 cc). Subaru had to be different , first by concealing the engine capacity in the name ( VI-VI-O) and then by giving it the maximum power allowed for a Japanese K class car. So there were growing pains for the manufacturer in two directions : four wheel drive and turbo charged tiddlers neither of which route was taken at that stage by any other manufacturer. So ‘innovative’ was undoubtedly the word.
The small hatch Justy lasted till 1995 and a certain amount of rechristening occurred for the European market.
The power theme continued with the Impreza. Ambitions for this model were plainly set by the Prodrive coupe with 2212 cc engine offering 280 bhp. This was the stage at which Subaru began to position itself in the hot area of the market, snatching some attention from rivals like the Mitsubishi EVO VI.
So dawned the Prodrive era. Prodrive was the UK based rally/racing arm of Subaru which began rallying with the Legacy but came to real prominence with the Impreza. With this came three manufacturers rally titles from 1995-7 and in 1995, famously, the late lamented Colin McRae became Britain’s first WRC champion. Not to be outdone the late Richard Burns almost repeated the feat in 1999 with five World rally victories. In 2000 Subaru earned 1st place in the manufacturers championship :so the rally seeds were sewn in homage to the adage, ‘Race on sunday, sell on Monday’.
Since then we have seen a progressive dilution of the boy racer image. There has been a shifting to mainstream models which by 2009 were not managing to excite the compilers of Auto annual reviews. A lack of corporate prioritising was becoming evident and it looked to some as though the dead hand of Toyota’s majority share holding might be asphyxiating the ability of Subaru adroitly to adjust to market trends. There have been stormier waters in between of course and Subaru, despite its market innovation has proved no stranger to corporate reality. In 1968 Fuji was after all linked with Nissan and the locations where car assembly took place was already beginning to diversify. Taiwan and New Zealand had by then acquired assembly facilities.
Bringing us firmly up to date there are excellent signs of positive movement. Some have managed to catch the proposed 2015 WRX on candid camera and it looks very much as though the electric Stella may hit the market quite soon. so, on current evidence, the corporate dead hand has yet to utterly stifle this highly adaptable young marque.
By motoringrumpole for Coventry University post grad Specialist Journalists (Automotive).