Cohort Classic: 1977 Subaru GL FWD Wagon – The Early Days of the Biggest Success Story In the Industry

Are you aware of just how successful Subaru has been in the US? As in, by far the fastest and most consistent growing  mainstream brand in the past couple of decades, with an unbroken string of 83 consecutive year-over-year monthly gains. Only Tesla can challenge that record in the past couple of years. Once a genuine outsider, it’s now the seventh largest brand in the land.

In 2018, Subaru will sell about 640k cars, and in the process likely tie Hyundai, beat Kia, tie Dodge and Chrysler together, beat VW by a 2:1 margin, and tie Mercedes and BMW combined. That’s a truly remarkable track record for what was once an little bit player out on the margins of the market. And it started in earnest in the mid-late 70s, with the GL, like this wagon shot and posted at the Cohort by William Oliver.

Of course it really started exactly 50 years ago, when Malcolm Bricklin started importing the tiny Subaru 360, and not to great effect. Even the ultimate salesman had trouble convincing Americans this was worth $1297.

But he hung in there, and then in 1970 convinced Subaru to let him bring over over Subaru’s quite brilliant FF-1, a development of the 1000 from 1966. It was sold as the Star in the US. This was a quantum leap from the two-stroke rear engine 360, and was as leading edge as anything coming out of Europe at the time.

The 1000 was quite radical for Japan at the time, and featured a beautifully-engineered boxer four driving the front wheels.

One of the recurring internet myths is that this engine was simply a copy of the Lloyd Arabella engine. Not so; although Subaru did very closely look at it and a few other European boxer engines before designing theirs, using what they saw as the best features of each of them. No shame in that. It was a very smooth-running engine, and quickly developed a rep as being a quite durable one too.

The Star evolved into 1200 and 1300, and in 1972, the new GL coupe was added to the US lineup. The GL was the first generation of the Leone, as it was called in the US. Its boxer now sported 1400cc.

Subaru continued to make steady if not spectacular inroads in the US market.

The 1974 energy crisis was a boon for the small Japanese cars like Subaru. As to truth in advertising, you can be the judge of that. If you’re wondering about Subaru’s styling at the time, blame Nissan, which then had a 20% ownership share and was quite involved with the styling of this generation. The similarities to Nissan’s own FWD Cherry/F-10 are not just coincidental.

Up to this time, Subaru was just another of so many Japanese brands invading America. But that all changed when Subaru decided to bring over their 4WD wagon. That started when Tohoku Electric Power Company asked Subaru to build them some four wheel drive versions of the 1000 wagon in 1970, to replace their elderly Jeeps.

The 4WD Subaru wagon instantly clicked with a certain segment of the population, as an anti-Jeep/Blazer/Bronco in snowy and mountainous parts of the country like Vermont, Colorado, California’s Sierras and the Pacific Northwest. It developed a cult following, and it’s really what allowed Subaru to survive in the face of ever more intense competition in the mainstream Japanese car segment. My tribute to that very significant milestone car is here.


But for some time yet, Subaru’s FWD cars were still the primary sellers. By the time this FWD GL was built, its had grown from 1.0L to 1.4 or 1.6L. Unlike the head gasket issues of the more recent generation of SOHC 2.5 L engines, these ohv fours became legendary for their durability.

Despite steadily growing sales of the 4WD versions, the mainstream FWD Subarus fell on hard times, especially with the introduction the larger, lower, longer and wider Legacy in 1989. Subaru’s decision to compete directly against the top-selling Camry and Accord did not go over successfully, and in 1991, Subaru seriously considered pulling out of the US market.

Subaru’s fortunes changed dramatically after it decided to sell only AWD cars in the US and introduced the brilliant Outback. The rest is history; really good history.

These narrow-body Subarus have become quite scarce, even here in Curbsidelandia. But this one in Ontario looks to be in most excellent condition, given the winters there. I’m not actually sure this is a ’77; it can get hard to tell these apart. Close, in any case.


If someone had told me back in the 70s that Subaru would someday be the seventh best selling brand in the US, I’d have thought they were nuts. The brand that was once derided for its Birkenstock-wearing, organic food-eating, yoga-doing owners has gone very mainstream. As have Birkenstocks, organic food and yoga. So who’s winning the culture wars automotive industry wars?