This review of the Subaru Star makes an excellent counterpoint to the one of the 1970 Maverick we had here last week. The Maverick was held up as the poster boy of why the American car companies had not yet been able to compete effectively against the imports. The Star was everything the Maverick wasn’t: It was actually fun to drive, with its smooth, horizontally opposed four driving the front wheels, slick four-speed stick, four wheel independent suspension, light and small but space efficient body, bucket seats, 28 mpg average, etc..
After a false start with the unsuitable 360, the Star,a rather exceptionally advanced car from Japan at the time, pointed the way forward for Subaru, and its basic configuration is still the hallmark of their current cars.
The Star was essentially the same as the FF-1 1000, which had been sold here in modest numbers in the previous year or two. With the Star, Subaru began to get traction in the US, even though it was still some years away from its AWD versions, which really put Subaru on a path to success. The Star had a slightly larger 1088 cc version of the pushrod opposed-piston four, which was not a copy of any one engine, but a new design that did reflect aspects of several opposed engines that Subaru examined. It churned out 62 hp, enough to give the lightweight (1590 lb) sedan a sporty character and a fairly brisk (for its class) 0-60 time of 18 seconds.
There were two radiators but no fan; one was actually the heater core.
Torsion bars were used front and back , with the rears attached to individual trailing arms. The compact engine set so far forward allowed the spare to be located in the engine compartment, yielding a trunk that was larger than the much bigger Maverick’s.
The flat four was “unusually smooth” thanks to its inherent balance. It had “a virile note“, something still very evident in the sporting Subarus of today.
The front drums were mounted inboard, as was common in FWD cars of the time. They were adequate, but “perhaps its weakest point“.
The Star was a ball to drive, with surprisingly light steering for a FWD car. Despite the little bias-ply tires, “the car has surprisingly high limits”. And it’s not like that came at the expense of a decent ride; the Star had generous suspension travel, tackling a very rough dirt road with aplomb. The body structure was “mainly tight“.
The seating was great if one was not too tall, a not uncommon shortcoming on some Japanese cars then. The instrument panel was “well designed and trimmed“. The styling was clean and attractive, except perhaps for the overly-busy front end. R&T said the Star attracted more looks than one would have expected.
R&T predicted that the Star would be a success if it was properly promoted, had an adequate dealer network, and was reliable. That last issue turned out not to be an issue, and of course the Star is what started Subaru on its long road to success here.
These were not commonly seen except on the West Coast. But it’s been ages since I last saw one.
Curbside Classic: 1975 Subaru 4WD Wagon (Leone) – The Revolutionary Four Wheel Drive Wagon That Started The Subaru Legacy
Subaru had some terrifically clever DDB-level advertising for this car, aimed right at the Beetle. Too bad they spent the rest of their ’70s hawking weird if still decent amorphous blobs.
I wonder why they were so coy about engine cooling, referring to some secretive device that kicks in and magically negates the need for a cooling fan. Was it voodoo? Nope. They just used the heater blower, and diverted the hot air out through the righthand wheel well when it wasn’t needed in the cabin. This was the first article I’ve read that goes beyond “Look ma! No cooling fan!”, and confirms what I had already figured was going on. A heater circuit that can shed enough calories to do away with a fan out front means one thing: This car has one wicked heater! You should be able to get enough cabin heat for meat to be falling off the bone in just about any temperature.
The German Ford Taunus P4 had a similar arrangement.
That was the one that was designed in Detroit, but foisted on Ford Germany when FoMoCo lost their bravery.
There are a lot of oddities in the Subaru – torsion bars that run forwards under the engine to a crossmember, instead of being tied to the middle of the floor. Presumably in a collision, they stab the other vehicle to death…
Remember RUTH GORDON doing commercial WHOOP DE DO FOR MY SUBARU! Seriously doubt she drove one. Think maybe it was for a Subaru BRAT 🤔.
While Ruth Gordon did do a commercial for the Subaru Brat, the phrase, “Whoop de do for my Subaru!” was uttered by a different little old lady in a Midas Mufflers commercial touting that they offered mufflers for foreign cars.
I was an avid consumer of Road & Track in this era and remember well the 360, then this “real” car sold initially as the FF1000 and later the FF1 in 1100 and 1300 form. But I have no recollection of the Star name. Maybe it was only used briefly before going back to the alphanumeric designations, and then just alpha (DL and GL) along with Brat.
It’s tiny compared to the giant SUV’s and CUV’s Subaru sells now. Can’t imagine driving this in today’s truck heavy traffic. Who knew that vehicles would grow so much back in the days of “America needs more small cars”?
Versa, Kia Rio and Mitsu Mirage are last sub-compact cars available, now. Maybe forgetting some. Even sub-compact CUV’s are growing, like the HR-V.
OTOH the Chevy Trax seems to have morphed back into a compact wagon being 4 1/2 inches lower than the old model.
You think current Subarus are giants??
The 3 row Subaru Ascent is far from the “neat” small cars that they used to specialize. Ruth Gordon would have needed a ladder to get in the driver’s seat.
Willing to bet Ascent owners once had a small Subie compact and “just had to have” the huge SUV to “keep up with the Jones’s”.
Current Outback is nearly same size as 1998 Durango or even Explorer. Only the Impreza seems to still be a compact.
These small, light, manual shift cars are a lot of fun to toss around because they’re so light. Too bad they don’t make cars like this anymore.
I would love a go in one of these! Sounds like it was a genuinely good car for its day….
I was looking at Road & Track’s 1970 test of the Ford Pinto 1600 4-speed earlier. It was unable to achieve the 80 miles per hour they used to begin their braking tests, having a top speed of 78 miles per hour. This 1.1 liter car was 5 miles per hour faster, which was probably pretty important when there were still places without daytime speed limits in the United States.
I was the assistant to the service manager at a very large Datsun and BMW dealership that also sold Subaru until about 1975. The owners of the Datsun dealer franchise were advised that if they wanted to maintain that franchise, the Subaru franchise had to go.
I came to work there in 1976, and by then we only had one Subaru mechanic; Jose. He was from central America where Subaru cars were selling well. Jose was the only one of our mechanics who was willing to work on them, and he stayed busy.
About 1971 a cousin got married, and her husband traded a 67 Pontiac LeMans hardtop on a new Subaru. It has been so long, but it almost had to have been one of these. It was the first I had ever heard of the brand, and maybe my first really up-close experience with a Japanese car of any kind. Everything about it said thin and lightweight, but my cousin later said that it was a really reliable car for them.
The local Dodge dealer briefly held a Subaru franchise in the very late 1960s and early 1970s. These were therefore surprisingly numerous around our small town. The dealer gave up the franchise when Dodge began selling the Mitsubishi-sourced Colt.
The point about headroom is true. I found the Sube stand at the Detroit show around 72 or 73. The Sube, iirc, billed then as the FF-1G, was the only Japanese econobox I actually had adequate headroom in. I added the Sube brochure to the bag of goodies I collected. I remember the brochure talking about the two radiators and, what was described as “a clever device” that activates when the engine gets hot. That brochure was in the sizeable stack that I donated to the Gilmore Museum some years ago.
Durability in the Michigan climate was something else. I was working at a Radio Shack in a suburban mall during college, and saw one of this gen Sube driving through the parking lot around Christmas of 76. The rocker panels, or this no more than four year old car, had completely rusted away.
iirc, the next gen debuted in 74. There was a guy at work who was a diehard Sube fan by the end of the 70s. They still rusted, but I had another coworker who had rust coming through on the tops of the front fenders of his four year old Accord, and another whose Rabbit left a cloud of oil smoke everywhere it went.
Subaru had AWD cars before the AMC Eagle, by the way. Motor Trend tested a late 70’s Leone and tried to drive it like a Jeep CJ, but they realized was meant for wet/slick road traction not off road.
Am I not seeing a strong resemblance between the FF-1 and the Saab 90? I’d not noticed that before.
A question for the ages is whether Detroit only grudgingly made small cars in the 1960s and 70s. It seems the original Maverick fell into this category, but wasn’t the Corvair a labor of love on Ed Cole’s part?
For the Vega, Ed Cole personally directed development of the engine – which undoubtedly cost more to make than the engine Chevrolet Division had developed and wanted to use. GM dedicated an entire factory to the car, and gave it a unique platform shared with no other GM cars (at that time). Bill Mitchell gave it sharp styling that aped the very handsome second-generation Camaro.
If GM had “phoned it in,” the Vega would have been what the Chevette was – an overseas GM vehicle federalized for sale in the U.S., with Chevrolet styling cues slapped on to the basic shape.
The irony here is that it would have been better for Chevrolet, its dealers and the customers if GM had phoned it in.
I miss this era of Subaru. They operated in a similar vein to SAAB or Citroën, where their engineering didn’t always follow the same tried and true recipes that most other manufacturers employed. While this didn’t always net a better result, it showed that there were more ways to approach a problem than what has already been done before. Looking at the elegant simplicity of a 2CV suspension system, which made a car that looked like it should punish you like you’re riding a paint shaker, instead float over bumps like they weren’t there at all while providing enough articulation that you could take it off road. And Subaru bringing four wheel drive to an economical and affordable car, making them a go to in my northwestern Montana hometown.
Once they committed to going mainstream with the Legacy, Subaru gradually melded into just another car. Sure, they’ve hung on to the boxer engines and full time 4wd, but it’s no longer interesting enough to actually want to lift the hood and see how they did it.