Greetings, Pleiads! Today we help Subaru celebrate 50 years in the automaking business. What’s that you say? How can Subaru be celebrating their 50th birthday when back in 2003, they already partied hearty and released a slew of 50th Anniversary edition cars? No, there isn’t a rally inspired AWD time machine lurking inside the company’s Shinjuku headquarters, although that would be awesome. 2003’s anniversary marked the formation of Subaru’s parent company, Fuji Heavy Industries, from the remnants of Nakajima Airplane.
Today, on the other hand, is the real deal. Half a century ago, Subaru announced that it would begin sales of a round little kei car, the Subaru 360, that would become one of the most iconic vehicles of its era.
At the time, very few Japanese families owned cars of their own. Available choices were either only suitable as commercial vehicles or, in the case of the Prince or Toyota Crown, priced for the wealthy in mind (note the connotations of royalty in the names). In an effort to get the masses on wheels, the Japanese government issued a standard for a “People’s Car” that could serve as an affordable passenger shuttle and qualify for the 360cc kei car class.
Enter the Subaru 360, a rear-engined little runabout with suicide doors and about 16hp. That, um, power came from a tiny air-cooled two-stroke mounted in the rear and displacing 356cc. That doesn’t sound like much, but the entire car only weighed 850lbs.
When you think of the modern Subaru formula, however, you think of three things: rallying chops, a boxer engine, and all wheel drive. Admittedly, the 360 had none of those qualities, but the company’s next offerings would soon rectify that.
Subaru’s second car was a compact called the 1000. Although they weren’t being very creative with the model names, they were entering it in some of Japan’s most grueling rallies. By 1968, it had won its class at the Japan Alpine Rally. Subaru also entered the US market officially in ‘68.
The following year Subaru began sales of the new FF-1, powered by a four-cylinder boxer engine. Front wheel drive was still considered new and exciting technology, and the FF-1 had the honor of being the first front wheel drive car from Japan, hence its name.
Subaru’s third and final distinguishing trait appeared in 1971, when an all wheel drive version of the FF-1 1300 was shown at the Tokyo Motor Show. The production system debuted in 1972 on the Leone wagon, known simply as the 4WD in the US. In particular, it was this feature that struck the loudest chord with customers, and AWD soon became synonymous with the brand.
The bright blue, dirt-kicking WRXs wouldn’t come into being until 1992, but you can definitely see that the roots were planted long ago. Compared to the other Japanese marques, Subaru is relatively young. And with a small model lineup, it normally doesn’t get a lot of ink on our pages, but today, we’re glad that we could give this innovative automaker some much-deserved attention. Happy Birthday, Sube!