How Subaru became masters of AWD

Subaru ff-1 1300G Tohoku Power Company 02Subaru ff-1 1300G Tohoku Power Company 01

Today marks the fifth anniversary of the twin disasters — a magnitude 9.0 earthquake and devastating tsunami — that struck Japan off the coast of Tohoku in 2011. In remembrance, we are re-running a series of stories that relate to event’s aftermath. Another version of this article was published on July 9, 2015. Here it is with minor updates.

The story of how Subaru became masters of AWD is one of pure chance. In 1969, Tohoku Electric Power Co., northeast Japan’s power company, was looking for vehicles to replace their fleet of Land Cruisers (in some versions of this story, the vehicle is described as a “jeep-like” truck, which could refer to a Mitsubishi JH). Employees often had to venture into rugged and snowy terrain to repair power lines. The trucks were deemed too uncomfortable and inefficient, especially in winters, when their canvas tops would let cold air in.

1968 Subaru 1000 2Door Van Deluxe

Prior to this, 4WD vehicles were seen as the domain of trucks and trucks alone. From 1968-71 Jensen built 300 or so AWD Interceptors. These are considered the first passenger car use of AWD, but the Interceptor was a large, expensive GT. Subaru became the first automaker to apply AWD to everyday wagons, sedans, utes, and even coupes.

Fuji Heavy Industires was already ahead of the curve in employing front-wheel-drive with the ff-1. Most Japanese cars of its era and size were still rear-wheel-drive. Because the weight of their engines (and even spare tires) were located directly over the drive wheels, they garnered a reputation for superb traction and performed extraordinarily well in snow.

The fateful moment that put Subaru on a path to AWD dominance came when a Tohoku Electric manager walked in to a Subaru dealership in Miyagi Prefecture, asking if they would consider making the ff-1 wagon in AWD.

Subaru ff-1 1300G Tohoku Power Company 02Subaru Miyagi complied, modifying a handful of them to be fitted with propellor shafts, rear differentials and semi-trailing arms. The diffs and rear axle, in fact, were taken from a Datsun 510 wagon as Nissan owned 20 percent of Subaru at the time (which is also why modern Impreza diffs work so well with RWD Nissans in the aftermarket world). The AWD wagons had a 20mm higher ride height than the FF ones, and combined with the ff-1’s existing boxer motors the template for all modern Subarus was born.

Just eight custom-built AWD ff-1 1000 wagons were made and sold to Tohoku Electric. Subaru Miyagi brought a prototype to Fuji Heavy Industries, Subaru’s parent company, and they liked it so much that they decided to build it as a production model.

The model was nearing the end of its lifecycle, but Subaru built an ff-1 1300G prototype that was displayed at the Tokyo Motor Show in 1971 (lead photo). When the ff-1’s successor, the Leone (the JDM name for the DL/GL) wagon, debuted in 1972, AWD was offered straight from the factory.

The rest, as they say, is history. For many years only one of the original eight Tohoku Electric cars was known to exist. Sadly, our friends in the Japanese auto media informed us that the last surviving AWD ff-1 was destroyed in the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami of 2011.

Images courtesy of Subaru.

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27 Responses to How Subaru became masters of AWD

  1. Nigel says:

    So if this did not happen, we would not have the Impreza wagon…or Legacy.

    • Randy says:

      Or STi…

    • Lindsay Druett says:

      After World War II, Nakajima Aircraft Company, come Fuji Heavy Industries decided to get into the car manufactoring industry, which Ben Hsu could confirm where the other Japanese manufactorers were at post WWII.

      Up until the Subaru 1000, FHI were basically acting as subcontractors building cars for other car manufactorers while they still made their own aircraft. FHI at the time also producted the FA-200 Subaru Light Aircraft (from 1968-1986) which originally had the Avco Lycomings O-320 flat four engine, but they also had the O-360 engine.

      While they didn’t deploy the Lycomings engine into the cars for a number of good reasons, the idea of developing a horizontally oppossed engine became the most fundamental DNA of Subaru cars.

      Now it’s the other way round, they are now making their own cars while being subcractors building aircrafts, major clients include Airbus and Boeing (hopefully not building the avionics for the 737 MAX).

  2. Kuroneko says:

    A great read, and an even better bit of history. ありがとう!

  3. Kane says:

    Thats so awsome, i love subaru.

  4. wantyerknobbies says:

    Sadly they’ve fallen into the industry sickness that dictates each new model inevitably means an increase in both girth and ground clearance

    • Jd says:


      way taller roofs, huge doors for fat bastards = BAD

      Subaru has taken the specialness out of the outback sadly, it’s just a mom car now. Come drive my 2006 2.5 and you’ll see it has GOBS MORE PERFORMANCE AND VALUE.

      • Randy says:

        At this point, I’d call the Outback an SUV… Should’ve been the new Tribeca. Wasn’t crazy about the name, but whatever…

        “Outback” should’ve been a Legacy wagon, as original.

      • Ol Shel says:

        When I want to fit things inside my car, the high roof is FANTASTIC.

        I hate to tell you, but enthusiasts don’t buy enough performance cars to justify them. Sometimes, ya gotta pay the bills.

    • Grace Hopper says:

      Agreed. When I had to replace my 2000 Legacy GT, I went with the 2012 Impreza. Not sure why everyone thinks the cars need to get bigger. I bought a smaller car for a reason besides cost.

      • Steve says:

        Because too many people (especially in the US) equate $$$ to size. How many times have you bought a small car and been told, “for THAT much money you could have bought a ____!” where _____ is a full size pickup or sedan? When a big chunk of your customer base has that kind of mentality, as a manufacturer, what can you do? I don’t understand people who buy cars like they buy groceries…

        • jivecom says:

          So true. I’ve been told all about F150s and Silverados I could have had for the money I’ve spent on my would-be-Hilux, but those people fail to understand that what I wanted was a small, capable 4×4 truck. If I’d been in the market for a full-size I very likely still wouldn’t have bought one because I can’t parallel park something that’s 18 feet long, and I’ve yet to fill even my Pickup’s tiny little short bed with enough things to make me wish I had more space, so clearly I made the right choice for my needs. Plus I’d never feel comfortable 4 wheeling an old F150, again because of the size although I’m sure they can be capable, it’d go to waste on me

    • Lindsay Druett says:

      I disagree there. As Steve further down pointed out futher down, Subaru ultimately became masters of AWD. While they have produced, and are continuing to produce, vehicle models that will happily go off the road for a diversion or can deal with very adverse road conditions, which was actually what Tohoku Electric Power Co’s original operational requirement was, which the Outback, Forester, XV, and the American Acsent can do, and does, really well, clearly this isn’t the case with the Levorg, Legacy, or the Impressa’s, they are very much on road street cars that can handle well in any road surface condition, but stay on the road.

      Subaru have never not got into the 4WD market with the view of producing big off road vehicles like the Toyota Hilux, which is why they remarketed their vehicles as AWD vehicles.

  5. Randy says:

    How sweet would it be to have a decontented XV, to get the price down a few K? More like the “historical” wagons…

    Gotta wonder though, about the workload and travel conditions they had back in the day, if this was the preferred vehicle over Land Cruisers.

  6. Dave Yuan says:

    It was probably the best of both worlds. During non-snowy times of the year, a small car like the Subaru was probably a lot easier to live and work with than the LC. It’s a bit of a stroke of genius…and I do love the way it looks!

    Incidentally, Tomica used to make a diecast of Tohoku Electric’s Land Cruiser.

  7. Dylan says:

    Huh, never would’ve guessed that this is where AWD Subarus began. Very interesting

  8. HIDEKI KON says:

    Ben-san,Connichiwa! I’m HIDEKI from sendai city,Japan.Company name of TEPCO is wrong. TEPCO is abbreviation of Tokyo Electric Power Company ”東京電力”. The correct word is TOHOKU DENRYOKU”東北電力” or TOHOKU-EPCO .

    I saw 1st DL to 3rd GL(JDM name LEONE)4WD ESTATE VAN of TOHOKU EPCO a lot in old days in a hometown.Unfortunately,Only one FF-1 of TOHOKU-EPCO survivor was destroyed completely by a tsunami of March 11, 2011.Very sad.

  9. Scotty G says:

    This is maybe my favorite story of all time from the JNC folks. I had an older version bookmarked but it recently went bye-bye. Bummer-bummer. To say that I’m a Subaru fan is like saying that I need oxygen. Thanks for sharing this one.

    • Ben Hsu says:

      Can you do me a favor and try your bookmark again? The reason it didn’t work is because I moved the article to today, and the date in the URL got messed up. I just installed some software on the site to try to resolve that, but I’m not sure if it worked. Thanks!

  10. Steve says:

    sorry to be a bit pedantic, but this article isn’t about how Subaru became masters of AWD, but masters of 4WD.
    Subaru didn’t offer an AWD (or full-time 4WD as it was called) option until the 3rd generation Leone and Vortex/XT/Alcyone in the late 1980s.
    Prior to these models, the 4wd system was a simple locking mechanism that joined the front (internally inside the gearbox) propshaft to the rear tailshaft. There was no ability for these 2 shafts to spin at differing speeds like you can with a differential, so you could not drive on hard surfaces without the driveline binding up.
    The 3rd gen Leone, etc introduced as an option a mechanical centre differential (which could be locked) on the manual, and electronically controlled centre differential on the automatic as full-time 4wd.
    Subaru then refined the manual gearbox with a viscous hydraulic centre differential in the maual versions of the Legacy/Liberty which is still is use today in the AWD models.

    • Lindsay Druett says:

      Without a doubt, Subaru have brought this a long way, and they have innovated a lot of technology along the way, Subaru were the first to put 4WD into a production car, they were the first to develop on demand 4WD, this is back in the days when putting a vehicle into 4WD meant stopping the vehicle, getting out and locking the free wheel hubs. They then moved onto the full time 4WD which was originally done on the E4-AT transmission using multiplate transferr system, and then on a central differential with a viscous coupling system on the manuals. And they kept making more enhancements on the way, but also branded AWD as with the dynamics of how off roaders don’t handle roads well, Subaru pushed that point and used AWD as opposed to 4WD as part of telling that story. This story marks the beginning of a very exciting journey, after developing these cars and fulfilling the customers requirements, Subaru’s vision was that all car manufacturers will produce 4WDs (they didnt coin AWD term back then), and Subaru will, one day, only produce 4WD cars. All come from, what was then, an unusual business requirement from a customer. Cool piece of history.

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