THE CAR THAT PUT SUBARU FIRMLY IN THE UK MARKET
It copied the Range Rover’s trick of blending off-road ability and on-road comfort for a fraction of the British 4x4’s price
If you were in the market for a small estate car back in 1977 nothing about Subaru Leone (renamed the 1600GL or 1800GLF in the UK) would have initially appeared unexceptional. The marque name would have been new to most British motorists, but Japanese cars were already a well-established aspect of UK motoring.
Virtually every High Street would have at least one Datsun, Toyota, Honda or Mazda, so the Subaru’s ornate and faintly transatlantic lines would have instantly branded it as ‘one of those Japanese cars’. And if the Subaru’s styling looked dated 39 years ago – the thick pillars and the sharp nose clearly marked it as an early 1970s design – the pleasant equipment levels were certainly an attraction.
Another bonus was the five-door estate version, for aside from the Morris Marina, all comparable British estate cars had a three-door configuration. In the company’s sales brochure were pictures of a 4WD estate that, tantalisingly, offered a switch from front-wheel to four-wheel drive that could be ‘made without declutching, without even slowing down’.
CAR magazine tested one in April 1979 and concluded that the Subaru’s ‘ugliness, and wastefully designed body notwithstanding, showed it was a serious 4WD, with ruggedness and ability far beyond its appearances’. Coming from CAR magazine of that time this was high praise indeed.
The Leone can trace is roots back to 1970, when a Subaru dealer in Japan was approached by a manager from the Tohoku Electric Power Company (TEPCO). Powerline maintenance teams often had to contend with deep snow, but the chap from TEPCO wanted an alternative to the company’s Toyota Land Cruisers which their drivers found cold and uncomfortable in regular use.
What the company really wanted was a light four-wheel drive estate car that was rugged but comfortable to use during the summer months. The response by Subaru’s manufacturer, Fuji Heavy Industries, was to dismantle the flat floor of an FF1 estate and connect a propshaft to the rear axle. Two prototypes were tested in 1971 and eight models went into production, five being used by TEPCO and three entering government service.
Compared with the standard wagons, the fourwheel drive versions had four inches more ground clearance than the standard model to accommodate the running gear, and the rear axle and differential were sourced from the Datsun 510 Bluebird.
The fact that the FF1’s engine and transmission layout proved adaptable to the conversion did not go unnoticed by Fuji Heavy Industries’ management when it was planning a replacement. The Leone of 1971 was a larger car with slightly awkward Nissaninfluenced lines (the older firm had taken a 20% share in Subaru in 1968), but following the FF1’s formula. The first model was a coupé, joined by a saloon the following year, but the major news in October 1972 was the 4WD Leone estate, launched