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

Classic Car Weekly (UK) - - Forgotten Hero -

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

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