If you get a call from a South Jersey area code from a guy with a very generic name offering to buy the old Subaru you listed on Craigslist, think twice about selling. It might be highly collectable.
Nick works in communications for Subaru of America. He scours the internet, posing as Ryan, Chris, or Bob, and buys Subarus with a story. Once purchased, these historically significant cars end up in Subaru’s secret stash in a nondescript storage facility a few miles from the Subaru of America headquarters in New Jersey.
As Nick rolls open the garage door to reveal the cars amassed within, he warns me that the collection is in a state of disarray, and that space is tight. He’s been on a buying spree lately, picking up old Subarus all over the country on the automaker’s behalf. Why? It’s simple: he’s in charge of reconstructing the company’s history in America. The company was on the brink of collapsing in the region a number of times, so keeping cars for posterity wasn’t high on the list of corporate priorities back then. Now it falls within Nick’s purview to make up for lost time and lost cars.
And what cars they are. Recently in is an S202 from the headquarters in Japan; it is the only known one in America. And just the other day a completely rusted FF1, Subaru’s first true automobile, came in too. These two examples give just a taste of the variety in this group.
As for the FF1, the team is deciding on what sort of restoration treatment the car deserves.
After the mess warning, he goes on to tell me the collection was never really meant to be seen by the public, and it shows. Cars are crammed in tight; some completely restored, some needing major work. Dominick Infante, the head of product communications, says very few people even inside Subaru of America know about this treasure trove of automotive history, and very few journalists have ever been inside.
While we played automobile-sized Tetris with legendary rally cars like the 22B and a replica of the late Colin McCrae’s test car, Dominick explained that Subaru’s story in the country is that of extreme peaks and valleys. In the early ‘90s he explains, Subaru of America was the fastest growing stock in the world. While explosive growth dotted the company’s trajectory, it had also teetered on the brink of failure a number of times.
In 1952, the Allied occupation in Japan had ended. Intense post-war restoration efforts allowed Japan to emerge as the preeminent economic power in Asia. The stage was set for technology and innovation to lead Japan to a bright future, and a year later, five companies merged to form Fuji Heavy Industries, each company a star, uniting in the spirit of the Pleiades, the brightest star cluster visible in the night sky.
But it wasn’t until 1967 that young American businessmen Harvey Lamm and Malcolm Bricklin realized that a Japanese post-war innovation like the Fuji Rabbit scooter might sell well in America. The Rabbit started production in 1946, even before the Italian Vespa scooter that Hollywood made so famous. The Rabbit was the easiest way for the Japanese to navigate war torn roads in the midst of a time when the nation was buzzing with reconstruction and hope. By the time the first fleet of Rabbits were on a boat to America, Lamm and Bricklin were already working on getting Subaru’s first automobile, the Subaru 360, to American shores.
The 360 was powered by a 356cc engine that pushed it to 50mph in a pitiful 37 seconds. The “Ladybug,” as the Japanese nicknamed it, was perfect for Japan though, where narrow roads with small cars and low speed limits laced together the cities and countryside. It was also the perfect car to sidestep American automobile safety and import regulations, as the small engine and low weight allowed it to be classified as a “covered motorcycle.”
Bricklin’s freewheeling spirit was a perfect match for the 360, which was essentially a cheap, easy, and virtually tax-free way to get around. Bricklin was a visionary; at a time when massive, powerful domestic land yachts ruled the roads, he saw a segment of consumers needing something cheap and compact, an antithesis to the typical.
But despite this, the 360 was a complete flop. Dealers couldn’t move them, and Consumer Reports even deemed them “unacceptable.” Subaru of America had been born and almost died on the back of a single vehicle.
But, this was the late ‘60s after all, when a little American ingenuity went a long way. Bricklin had a wooden track built opposite Subaru’s office buildings on Route 41 in New Jersey, and repurposed the ignored 360s as go-karts. He charged a dollar per lap. Driving license or not, anyone could enjoy a spirited jaunt in a Subaru. These unorthodox marketing efforts didn’t save the dying company, but they certainly made a splash, cementing Bricklin’s reputation as a master showman.
Across the Pacific, a new Subaru, known as the 1000, seemed like a better fit for the American market. Even after the 360 flop, Bricklin stood by his vision and brought over the FF-1 update of the 1000. With four doors and an interior that Americans could actually fit in, it more or less saved the company, and Japanese cars started gaining a foothold in the American market in the early ‘70s. The $2,000 price tag, 29mpg rating, and shifting attitude towards autos from the East made the FF-1 an absolute success.
It wasn’t only a hit on the streets though, as the FF-1 proved a worthy candidate on gravel as well. Jack Coyle transformed an FF-1 into a rally machine and entered it into the Baja 500 not once, but three times. The car ended up somewhere in a California junkyard and sat there for some time before it was slated to go to the crusher. According to Subaru’s senior parts specialist John Karpinski, a call came into headquarters saying a junkyard had found a car with “Subaru of America” on it. “They said it belonged to us, and we should come pick up,” he recounts. Karpinski wishes to restore the car to race-worthy condition and drive it alongside the long lineage of Subaru rally machines, putting the evolution of the marque’s rally efforts on full display.
As the late ‘70s bled into the early ‘80s, Subaru had climbed out of the valley and up to the peak. Even the President of the United States drove a Subaru—according to Karpinski, The Ronald Reagan Presidential Library reached out to Subaru to come help restore Reagan’s favorite set of wheels to tool around his ranch with: The Subaru BRAT. Reagan’s dalliance with the BRAT was a secret affair—surely a presidential candidate couldn’t be seen behind the wheel of something not built by his fellow countrymen—but at Rancho del Cielo the BRAT was a regular sight, although the car itself is a bit of an anomaly. The pickup bed features two plastic rearward facing seats, the product of a trade war that had taken places decades before.
In the early ‘60s, European nations began taxing American imported chickens as they accused the US of “dumping”—the practice of exporting surplus goods to foreign nations at below market rates. In response, Lyndon B. Johnson ordered a tax on all imported potato starch, dextrin, brandy, and for some reason, light trucks. Over time, the tax was lifted on everything but the light trucks. Subaru needed to find a way around the tax in order to maintain competitive pricing on the BRAT, and to do this, a set of plastic jump seats were bolted into the bed of the truck, complete with seat belts. These additional seats qualified the BRAT (short for “Bi-drive-Recreational All-terrain Transporter”) as a passenger vehicle rather than a truck.
The BRAT saw success, but not nearly the success of its enclosed counterpart, the GL wagon. Infante perfectly framed the car’s popularity by describing it as “The car Northeastern soccer moms would use to take the family skiing at Stowe on the weekends.” This is the car that launched a Subaru cult following in New England and the tri-state area. The GL often served moneyed suburban commuters as a “station car,” a secondary vehicle that was driven to the train station and back. Four-wheel drive and a successful marketing campaign featuring the US Ski Team helped the GL become somewhat of an ‘80s automotive legend. The quirky cyclops headlight didn’t hurt, either.
Subaru’s next venture wouldn’t be as auspicious.
In the early ‘90s, it seemed there wasn’t any design or performance limitation that couldn’t be exceeded with the best Japanese engineers working on the problem. Honda was high on the release of the NSX; Toyota found their stride with the Supra; and Nissan was wiping the floor on the world’s racing circuits with the R32 Skyline. It seemed like the perfect time for the “cheap and capable” Subaru to try their hand at something big. The 1985 Subaru XT, a wedge shaped, space age departure from the economical Subarus from before was a success, but Subaru should have been cautious about how they wanted to test the limits of both the market and their own innovation.
Enter the SVX, a Macbethian tragedy for the brand. The Giugiaro-designed tourer was released at what would now be in the mid-$40,000 price point at a time when the brand was known for a cheap way to sling mud on back roads in New Hampshire. It wasn’t just ahead of its time with innovations like a window-within-a-window and aerodynamic lines, it was ahead of the brand’s reputation. Infante explains to me that the SVX in the collection, wearing a purple fade paint job and raspy exhaust, once ferried around hopeful execs at the Indy Car World Series. A rolling showcase of Subaru’s incredible sense of innovation.
As each of the 3,859 SVXs sold in ‘93, a Subaru accountant would cringe as the company lost money. The SVX brought the brand to its deepest point in a valley of failure. Mass layoffs and a corporate restructuring kept the brand hanging on, barely.
Ironically the SVX is experiencing more popularity now among collectors than it ever did when it was sold new. Finding an SVX is difficult, as the the 3.3-liter flat-six found in these cars was a favorite among kit aircraft builders. The perfectly balanced boxer engine was often extracted from junked SVXs to find a second life in the sky.
I had spent the day watching the evolution of a brand unfold during a photoshoot in Subaru of America’s parking lot, and when the shoot was over, I had the chance to poke around inside the unattended storage facility. In the corner sat the fuselage-shaped X100, a reaction to the gas crisis. The three-wheeler was the brainchild of famed automotive designer Alex Tremulis.
Then it hit me. It’s these unheard of projects, or rather the spirit that drove them, that allowed Subaru to keep coming back from the dead, time after time. It’s the tenacity of the engineers trying to finagle a cheap econobox into breaking a land speed record (the Justy); it’s the freewheeling antics of late-‘60s businessmen like Bricklin selling laps in unsold cars that ultimately kept the brand alive, time after time.
Outside the garage sat prototype examples of the recently announced WRX STI Type RA and the BRZ tS; with a little luck they’ll be on display alongside their forebears in a proper museum a few decades from now. Or maybe they’ll end up wedged in the corner of Subaru’s legendary “attic.”