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.
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 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), debuted in 1971, 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.