Curbside Classic: 1979 Subaru Leone 4WD Wagon – The Prodigal Subie Returns

Subarus come in all shapes and sizes, as I’m sure we can all agree. But the shape and size that really helped the marque make its mark was the mid-sized wagon. Legacy, Forrester, Impreza – that’s what our mental image of Subaru is, by and large. Yet strangely enough, the one that started it all, the Subaru 1000, is very hard to come by in its native land. I’ve caught a glimpse of only one in three years; never managed to photograph it. But I did find the next best thing…

I’m not sure where this gorgeous Leone wagon came from originally. it’s certainly not a JDM version. The bumpers seem a little too small for a US-spec (though I could be wrong about that), though the side-markers do look pretty American. It could also hail from a bunch of other places – Korea, Europe, the Middle-East… It’s LHD though, so not the UK, NZ, Australia, Indonesia or Thailand.

If you’re going to import a Japanese car back into Japan, you might as well pick one that’s in perfect nick. And has A/C – an absolute necessity, especially with that sticky leatherette upholstery.

Nothing too fancy for the rare seat in this Subie. It reminds me of our family Corolla wagon (a MY 1980) in many ways: adequate but not overly generous legroom; no nonsense wind-up windows and zero frills or armrests. But then, the Leone was a couple rungs below a Cedric/Gloria or a Crown wagon.

Beige in and beige out, just like said Corolla was as well. But the resemblance ends there: Toyota’s grocery-getter was, by that generation, all squared up and ready to enter the ‘80s. This ’79 Subaru, on the other hand, is the final iteration of a body that first came out in late 1971, hence the Coke-bottlesque beltline.

I cannot decide whether early model cars like the one above are better-looking on balance, with their dainty chrome bumpers and somewhat tortured grille.

In Japan, the Leone range was pretty plethoric: the two coupés (a hardtop and a pillared one, top right and bottom right respectively) went on sale first, at the end of 1971; by April 1972, they were joined by two saloons (only the 4-door is pictured here, top left) and the unlikely star of the show, the van/wagon (bottom left), which could be had with its innovative transmission by the end of 1972. Initially, only the wagon was available with the famous 4WD badge; the saloon was only allowed to follow suit in 1975.

Base model JDM vans and saloons initially received a 1.1 litre flat-4 straight out of the Subaru 1000 they replaced, soon updated to a 1.2 litre. For their part, 4WD models, coupés, higher grade saloons and exports had a 1.4 litre engine. The 1.4 replaced the 1.2 and an 87hp 1.6 took over the higher reaches of the range in late 1975 – so that should be what’s in our feature car.

The mid-1977 major facelift generalized the bigger bumpers to all markets and brought about a completely different “American” face. And I quite like the latter change, but the chrome bumpers did look better. In a bid to sustain a modicum of interest in their JDM coupés, Subaru borrowed a name straight out of the Pontiac brochure in 1978. But by the summer of 1979, a completely new Leone took over.

The genesis story behind the Subaru 4WD wagon is one of those butterfly-effect accidents of fate. The Tohoku Electric Company, based in Sendai, used Mitsubishi-made Jeeps to access certain hard-to-reach maintenance and inspection sites, but found that they were too bulky, thirsty and generally difficult to operate compared to smaller cars. In 1968-69, someone at that company asked the local Subaru dealer if a part-time 4WD could be built using a Subaru 1000 light van. The 1000 was Japan’s only FWD mid-sized car at the time and Tohoku’s engineers correctly figured that it would be ideally suited to their needs because of that fact.

The Sendai Subaru dealer took 10 months to hand-build and test the prototype, which met the power company’s brief to a tee. They did send the car over to the mother ship, i.e. Fuji Heavy Industries HQ in Gunma, for an evaluation. Subaru HQ were impressed and decided to put the concept into regular production for the upcoming Leone, thinking it might garner some interest in Japan’s mountainous areas (which is about 80% of the country). It’s perhaps not coincidental that Suzuki also started producing 4x4s around this time – only theirs was a kei-sized Jeep, as opposed to Subaru’s more export-friendly approach.

The Leone was always designed as a FWD car with part-time 4WD. It’s unclear what rear end the Sendai prototype used, but Japanese sources claim that production cars were fitted with the Datsun 510 Bluebird’s IRS and driveshaft. Back in 1968, as part of the Japanese automotive sector’s government-led push for consolidation, Nissan took a 20% stake in Fuji Heavy Industries, so the Datsun parts bin was a logical choice. And it kept the costs reasonable.

It’s fair to say that Subaru were astounded by their 4WD wagon’s success. North America became converts almost immediately and the domestic market was also very keen. It helped that, having more or less stumbled upon this niche by mistake, Subaru found themselves without any serious competitors for the better part of a decade – at least on the aforementioned markets.

Of course, there are a few qualifiers to add here: the Subaru Leone claims to be the first mass-produced mid-sized unit-bodied car with 4WD capabilities, but there were a few forerunners. The crudest examples of these car-sized proto-4WDs simply married a car body with a 4×4 chassis, like the Moskvich 410 (1957-61; top right) and its GAZ-69 underpinnings. Some specialist companies modified production cars – in the ‘30s and ‘40s, Marmon-Herrington worked with Ford (top left). In the ’60, Sinpar did a similar thing with FWD Renaults. A much stranger French design of the period was the 2CV Sahara (1960-66; bottom left), with its two engines – one for each axle. And of course, Jensen (bottom right) pioneered the high-performance AWD coupé in 1966 with their sensational (and very expensive) FF.

Apart from anything else, none of these could be said to be “mass-produced”: a few hundred of each of those were made at most, except the Moskvich, which did crack the 10,000 unit mark, but was not exactly a great export success story. All versions of the Subaru Leone made between 1971 and 1979 came to 400,000 cars – a doubtless significant (but alas unknown) share of which were 4WD.

The fact that someone took the trouble of finding this Subaru overseas (plus my personal empirical observation over the past three years) tells us that there can’t be many first generation JDM Leones still around. Fender mirrors be damned, I’ll take the international version any day, especially in this condition.


Related posts:


Curbside Classic: 1975 Subaru 4WD Wagon (Leone) – The Revolutionary Four Wheel Drive Wagon That Started The Subaru Legacy, by PN

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

Cars Behind Bars: 1976 Subaru DL Wagon – Getting A Little Thin On Top, by Actually Mike

COAL: 1979 Subaru 1600 4WD Wagon – Snowpiercer, by Jim Brophy