Curbside Capsule: 1983-89 Subaru Sherpa – Carrying Its Weight

We remember the famous mountaineers like Sir Edmund Hillary but, apart from Tenzing Norgay, less well-known are the dedicated, dependable sherpas who complete the same ascent. So, too, with Subaru – we all know the Impreza and Legacy, even the GL/DL/Leone/Loyale that came before. Like the Sherpa people of Nepal, however, there’s a large number of local Subarus that go unnoticed by much of the world.

This is the Subaru Sherpa, known in the Japanese market as the Rex and in some other markets as the 600 or Mini Jumbo. As you can see by how two average-sized Aussie males appear to barely fit in it, this is no Jumbo. Measuring just 125.8 inches long and 54.9 inches wide, the Sherpa was a kei car and Subaru’s first with front-wheel-drive. The only engine offered here was a water-cooled, overhead cam 660cc two-cylinder four-stroke with 36hp and 39 ft-lbs. 0-60mph? Yes, but not much further than that.

I kid, of course. It hit 60mph in around 20 seconds, not bad considering a couple of rivals took around 30 seconds. Some rivals also had drum front brakes, the Sherpa receiving front discs. These weren’t complete ox carts, either, with rack-and-pinion steering and McPherson strut front suspension and trailing arms at the rear. They were light though – 1234 pounds – and they felt it, both in their remarkable manoeuvrability and also in their general, tinny feeling.

Don’t worry about these gents trying to wedge anybody in the back seat – there isn’t one. At least not in any Australian-market Sherpa, there isn’t. These, like the Daihatsu Handi and unimaginatively named Suzuki Hatch, took advantage of a tax loophole whereby they were classified as commercial vehicles and could therefore be priced lower purely because they were lacking rear seats.

The Australian government reclassified these as passenger car derivatives in the early 1980s, hiking the duty on them from 35 to 45 percent, but the Sherpa and its rivals continued to do a decent trade throughout the 1980s. Had they featured rear seats, they would’ve had a 57.5 percent duty slapped on them and been subject to Australian Design Rules that govern safety and emissions. That meant these cars got to skate out on having mandated safety features like side-impact beams.

Aussie magazines occasionally referred to the Sherpa and its rivals as “mini-vans”, which sounds hilarious now. Just one generation separates this Sherpa from the Subaru 360, called “cheap and ugly” by Malcolm Bricklin and, much more affectionately, “ladybug” by the Japanese.

Suzuki, Daihatsu and Subaru had this niche carved up between them but the Suzuki Hatch always seemed to be the most common. Sherpas here generally were the color of the hi-vis work attire of the featured car’s occupants. They’ve all largely disappeared from Aussie roads, though. Subaru brought the next-generation Rex here as the Fiori but it was short-lived and the whole segment eventually vanished.

In Japan, the Rex was available with four-wheel-drive and turbocharging but, of course, the desirable models were typically restricted to the home market. The Rex was stretched and widened, however, to create the Justy which was exported widely throughout the world.

While Subaru eventually stopped exporting kei cars, they never stopped making them. Trusty sherpas have continued to help Subaru ascend in the Japanese market, wearing unfamiliar, exotic names like Vivio and Pleo. They don’t get the glory but they’re just as reliable and dependable as bigger Subarus, even if we’re not familiar with them.

Photographed in Brisbane CBD, Queensland, Australia in October 2019. Additional photos courtesy of Turbo_J on Wikimedia Commons. 

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