Trailhead Classic: 1978 Subaru BRAT – Subie Doo

(first posted 12/6/2011)      Better a day off than an off day It’s always good to be able to take one’s father’s advice (as long as it’s good advice and you’re over forty). So we took it yesterday, frolicking in the sun at remote and deserted Tahkenitch Beach while Eugene was enshrouded in a gloomy valley fog. But there’s no getting away from Curbside Classics; as we returned to the trail head, what greets us but a gen1 BRAT. A nice ending indeed; I’ve been on the prowl for one of these since I started this endless treasure hunt almost three years ago. Fun’s over; time to go home and write it up.

Subaru has always been known for its go-it-alone ways, especially in the styling department. But the BRAT was pretty much in a league of its own. Based on the Leone (called just Subaru in the US) that first appeared in 1971, the BRAT (which ostensibly stands for Bi-drive Recreational All-terrain Transporter) made its presence first known for the MY 1978. And, yes, its arrival was duly noted; how could it not?

Actually, it’s creation wasn’t nearly as wacky as it might seem now. In fact, it was a rather clever move, and one that would pioneer a whole category: the ElCamino/Ranchero mini-me, but with a twist. By 1980, VW released its Rabbit-based pickup, and in 1982, Chrysler got into the crowded pool with the Dodge Rampage. Arriving in the depths of the second energy crises, these little utes seemed like a rather brilliant idea. Until gas prices started falling like a stone. By 1982, the VW’s tooling was shipped to Yugoslavia, and a year later or so, the Rampage just went off in a huff.

Each one had its unique qualities: the VW naturally was the most German: it had the longest bed, and diesel engines available.

The Rampage had a decidedly sporty quality, borrowing the front end sheet metal from the Omni 024/Charger.

But the BRAT had something the others didn’t, which undoubtedly was the key to its longevity: four wheel drive. The fact that it had the shortest bed of the three obviously didn’t hurt either, as the BRAT wasn’t really ever sold on its truckiness.

Here’s what the BRAT was really after: a cut of the Jeep CJ’s ever growing popularity in the late seventies. At least, that’s my take on it. The CJ was hot, and Jeep had it pretty much all to itself, except for the bigger SUVs. The Suzuki Samurai/SJ413 was still several years in the offing, not arriving in the US market until 1986.

The Jeep had grown ever bigger and heavier, and its thirst was prodigious. Jeep had/has fooled around with a more compact version seemingly forever. It eventually just gave that part of the market to the Samuarai and Rocky. But in the mid seventies, the gap below it was wide open.

Now I’m not saying the BRAT was a direct competitor, because it certainly wasn’t in key respects. But for many young people at the time, the Jeep was a lifestyle or image choice more than a serious off-roader (which is even more the case today). The BRAT fit the bill, more or less. And its gas bill was a lot easier on the wallet.

Obviously, the ute market was also in play with the BRAT, but with its tiny bed; well, I suppose there were some early organic farmers in Vermont who might have been all over the BRAT. But the key target demo was young guys; brats, in other words.

Oops; almost forgot: Ronald Reagan was an early BRAT adopter, buying one in 1978 for his beloved ranch above Santa Barbara. But a red one?? A couple of years ago, the Young America’s Foundation recovered it from some later owners (of course it was still going) and restored it to its pristine original condition (above). It now resides in the barn at his ranch.

Actually, it didn’t seem to get a lot of use by him, as he also had several Jeeps, and there are plenty of pictures of him driving those, but none with his BRAT. Maybe it would have seemed unpatriotic? Naw; Reagan was a confirmed free-trader…that is, until the 1981 “Voluntary” Export Restrictions, which placed a 1.68 million car per year cap on Japanese exports to the US. We’ll talk about the unintended effects of that another time. But maybe the BRAT went into hiding in 1981.

I’d like to get away from politics, but the BRAT is so deeply enmeshed in them.  Like its rear-facing back seats. What was that all about? The chicken tax, pure and simple. Back in 1963, Lyndon Johnson enacted a 25% tax on potato starch, dextrin, brandy and light trucks in retaliation to a tariff placed on US chicken by France and Germany. You’d think that might have been resolved decades ago, but it still goes on, and on, and on.

The chicken tax tanked sales of the VW Transporter Pickup. The traditional Japanese compact pickups got around it by having their beds built and added in the US. The Subaru, with its integral bed, had no such option. By adding two seats, the BRAT was now a passenger car, thus avoiding the tax. A tax scofflaw!  No wonder…

Enough! Let’s talk about engines, transmissions, and four wheel drive systems, anything but politics. The Subaru boxer started life as a 1000cc unit, back in 1966. It’s come a long way since. For the BRAT, its stage of development was at the 1600cc level, with a whopping 67 hp, and still with the very VW-esque OHV configuration. An 1800 cc unit soon joined the party.

Here’s one I shot in a similar vintage wagon. A compact little thing, with enough room left over for the spare tire. How handy indeed. Not like there was lots of space going begging anywhere else, especially in the wagon, since the rear differential meant less room for the gas tank. A tough little motor, according to its rep. And a raspy sounding one too. Weird: a boxer four is such a perfectly balanced engine, but it’s hard to tame its exhaust pulses. Maybe someone can explain.

These Subies were built well before the modern AWD era, so the rear axle was engaged as needed. Some models even had a two-speed transfer case. And for you real young-uns, prior to 1996, Subarus in the US were available with either FWD or 4WD/AWD. But the BRAT only came in 4WD. The BRAT was also never sold in its home market, but seems to have been developed mostly with the US in mind. Although a version called the Bramby was sold in Australia, as well as one called Subaru 284 (?) for the UK.

The first generation BRAT, also called a narrow-body, was built for three years, through 1980. Explains why they’re none too common anymore. The second generation sat on the wider-body Subaru platform, but I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the bed’s sheet metal pieces were re-used. There’s plenty of these around; this one looks ready for business.

But a combination of factors led to the BRAT’s demise, most of all the ascendancy of the Japanese 4WD pickups. By 1987, the BRAT was finished in the US, but supposedly they were built until 1993. For Australia, I assume. Who else?

Of course, every idea has to be recycled at least once, no matter how successful or not it was the first time. Enter the Subaru Baja, one of the great flops of the recent era. Seemed like a good idea at the time, eh?

Let’s just say that I see a whole of of Subaru wagons, with racks carrying sports gear of every sort. And I haven’t seen a Baja in ages…I better shoot one the next time I do. That way when its thirty years old, and I want to do its CC, I’ll have it in the files instead of worrying for three years if I’ll ever find one.