El Camino meets Impreza: A look at the divisive Subaru Brat
Models like the Chevrolet El Camino and Ford Ranchero (along with platform-mates like the pointless GMC Armadillo) are considered the ultimate in all-American muscle. These cars are the very definition of sport-utility vehicle, as they could fit hearty engines and beefy wheels onto the frames with truck beds, all the while retaining the sensibilities of a coupe. Simply put, there was nothing these cars couldn't do, as they were as competent at the drag strip as they were moving mulch.
However, because these trucks were really cars at heart – the El Caminos and Rancheros being reconfigured Chevelles and Torinos, respectively – they were somewhat limited when it came to being true sport-utility vehicles in the sense of the current connotation of the term. In a nutshell, if you tried taking one of these pickup cars off road, you'd get stuck in a ditch just as quickly as you would in your convertible.
Subaru decided that they could attempt to solve this problem by taking a whack at designing a model that took this all-American pickup car concept and gave it a uniquely Japanese spin. The automaker had been on the market here in the United States for some time but had only recently begun making headway in terms of mainstream sales when then-president of operations stateside Harvey Lamm decided to commission a prototype that would create a whole new segment.
In 1978, the company unveiled the Subaru Brat, which stands for Bi-drive Recreational All-terrain Transporter. This thing was smaller and less powerful than the El Camino or Ranchero, but it was certainly more competent – not to mention more ridiculous looking – than either when it came to tackling the elements.
The model had a few other supposed advantages over its American competition. For starters, to avoid what was then labeled a "Chicken Tax," Subaru had to make the car qualify as a passenger vehicle and not an imported light truck. So, the company bolted some cheap plastic rear-facing jump seats in the cargo area and, voila! It was now affordable for Subaru to bring the Brat to the U.S., where dozens of people actually bought the thing. One such customer was President Ronald Reagan, who drove his Brat from 1978 to 1998 – the restored model is now part of his museum in California.
These rear-facing seats posed a lot of problems for drivers, however, as they not only limited visibility significantly when looking out the rear, but they caused several fatalities when passengers strapped in would literally be ejected from the truck bed while drivers tested the Brat's off-road wiles.
Another drawback of this first-generation Brat was the fact that it was actually already a dated model when it entered the market. The Leone wago that this utility coupe was based off of had undergone a redesign for model year 1979, but the Brat retained the bodywork and the underpinnings of the previous generation model for years to come. It wasn't until 1982 that the model was finally redesigned, and customers had to wait another three years for the jump seats to wisely be discontinued.
There's more good than bad to say about the Brat really, as it was the quintessential classic Subaru. These cars weren't known for being comfy or flashy, as they were pretty much metal cages with great traction and suspensions. If you weren't expecting the comparably plush trimmings of the larger American pickup cars, then you certainly weren't disappointed with the Brat.
How do you like Subaru's execution of an American classic? Leave your thoughts below: