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Subaru Cars

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Chikuhei Nakajima founded the forerunner to the company known today as Fuji Heavy Industries—the parent corporation of Subaru—in 1917. Born in January of 1884, Nakajima was an officer in the Japanese Navy, an accomplished pilot, an aerial warfare tactical expert, and a naval engineer. Trained to fly by Glen Curtiss, one of the pioneers of the American aviation industry, Nakajima was also the third Japanese person in history to get a pilot’s license.

Upon resigning from the military in 1917, Nakajima partnered with Seibei Kawanishito to form Nihon Hikoki Seisakusho KK (Japanese Aeroplane Manufacturing Work Co. Ltd). The pair worked together until 1919, when Kawanishito left. Nakashima then changed the name of the company to the Nakajima Aircraft Company, just in time to get an order for 20 aircraft from the Japanese military.

They liked his work.

Nakashima Aircraft went on to become the primary producer of military aircraft for Japan during World War II. Unfortunately though, after the war, given Nakijima produced only aircraft, he found himself potentially out of business. Aircraft manufacturing was one of the things Japan promised to give up as one of the conditions of its surrender to Allied forces. Undaunted however, Nakajima reorganized his company and branched out, creating the Fuji Rabbit motor scooter from surplus aircraft parts.

With the new business came a new name, Fuji Sangyo Co, Ltd.

By 1955, Fuji Sangyo Co, Ltd. had completed a merger with Fuji Kogyo, a scooter manufacturer; coachbuilders Fuji Jidosha; engine manufacturers Omiya Fuji Kogyo; chassis builders Utsunomiya Sharyo; and the Tokyo Fuji Dangyo trading company, to form the company known today as Fuji Heavy Industries. The stars in the Subaru logo represent this merger. Each of the smaller stars represents one of the merged entities, while the largest star represents what they became. BTW, it also ties in with the name “Subaru”, which is the Japanese name for the Pleiades—the star cluster known as the seven sisters.

The first Subaru automobile to be produced was the Subaru 1500, which was developed under the codename P-1. Unveiled in 1954, only 20 examples of it were created because of supplier issues. The next model was the 1958 Subaru 360. Widely acknowledged to be the first of the mass-produce Subaru cars, the 360 was nicknamed the “Ladybug” because of its shape. Also known as the Japanese “people’s car” because it was designed specifically to be affordable, the Subaru 360 went on to become one of the most popular cars in Japan—and one of the smallest cars in the world to develop a significant fanbase. With gradual increases in engine displacement, Subaru kept the model in production until 1971.

The origins of Subaru of America go back to 1965, when Malcolm Bricklin started selling franchises in the United States for Fuji Rabbit motor scooters and the Subaru 360 automobiles. Bricklin had made a fortune growing his father’s building supply business into a franchised chain. Eventually founding his own self-named automobile company, Bricklin’s early success in the auto industry came from introducing offshore brands into the U.S.  market. These included Fiat and Zastava—in addition to Subaru.

Bricklin and his partner, Harvey Lamm, formed Subaru of America, Inc. to sell Subaru franchises in 1968 in Philadelphia. The company moved to Cherry Hill, New Jersey in 1986 when Fuji Heavy Industries acquired ownership to manage distribution of its products in the United States. Subaru of America’s headquarters remains in that town to this day.

One of the first Japanese manufacturers to build cars in the United States, Fuji opened its Lafayette, Indiana factory in partnership with Isuzu in 1989. The venture was called Subaru-Isuzu Automotive, Inc. When Isuzu’s fortunes in this country went awry, it sold its stake in the factory to Fuji for $1 in 2001. The facility was then renamed Subaru of Indiana Automotive, Inc.

Well-known for outfitting the vast majority of its vehicles with all-wheel drive, the first Subaru model to come so-equipped was the 1971 Subaru DL/GL (also known as the Leone in the Japanese market). The forerunner to today’s Legacy automobiles, the DL/GL was initially offered in a front-drive configuration only. In 1972, the car’s station wagon variant got four-wheel drive, but that version did not come to the United States until 1974, as a 1975 model.

Thus Subaru became the first car company to offer an affordable four-wheel drive model. This fact was exploited as a point of pride for the company in its marketing campaigns and it worked. The Subaru DL/GL went on to become the best-selling four-wheel drive model on the market. Skiers, in addition to people who enjoyed fishing, camping, and other outdoor sports heavily favored the Subaru cars. Following the DL/GL with the tough little Subaru Brat car-based pickup (based on the DL/GL platform) was another solid move. The Brat developed an almost cult-like following almost from the moment it went on sale.

Having made its bones with quirky, but robust automobiles, Subaru cashed in on the SUV boom by raising its Legacy station wagon up a couple of inches on its suspension system, outfitting it with some offroad hardware, and dubbing it the Subaru Outback. Hiring Australian action film actor Paul Hogan’s “Crocodile Dundee” character to pitch the model with his “down under” charm worked like a —well—charm. Anointed with the title of “The World’s First Sport Utility Wagon”, sales of that model took off as well.

All of this success enabled Subaru to pursue motorsports. Deftly leveraging its notoriety for all-wheel drive vehicles by going into World Rally Championship competition, Subaru won the manufacturer’s championship three years straight between 1995 and 1997. And, in the process, created another cult favorite—the Impreza WRX. A street version of the car was offered nearly everywhere in the world except the United States at the time. This of course created intense desire for the model when it was finally brought to America for the 2000 model year.

Currently Subaru’s American lineup includes a rear-drive sports car (developed in conjunction with Toyota) called the BRZ, Impreza, Legacy, Forester, XV, Crosstrek, Outback, and Tribeca. All of which are offered with all-wheel drive—save the BRZ.