By on May 6, 2010

Honda CRV, Toyota Rav4, Audi Quattro, VW Syncro, and the whole host of all-wheel drive cars, crossovers and CUVs: they all trace their roots back to this skinny and ugly little Subaru 4WD wagon. Is this the most revolutionary and influential modern car?

Talk about a most worthy Curbside Classic. I’ve been looking for one of these since starting this long strange trip. Not only is the GL/Leone wagon the granddaddy of all modern Subarus, it’s also the progenitor of the whole genre of popular-priced four wheel drive passenger cars. That was once a substantial category: four wheel drive was available on wide variety of sedans and wagons from Honda, Toyota, Nissan, VW, Audi, Volvo and even the lowly Ford Tempo, among others. And since they evolved into today’s CUVs/crossovers, we can rightfully say that this homely little car was the catalyst for an enormous revolution in the passenger car industry, perhaps the most significant one in recent decades. And if that’s not enough, this is a daily driver with over 300k miles on it. Worthy indeed!

The history of Subaru (see separate post) and how they came to build this car is fascinating. Its roots go back to the highly advanced Subaru 1000 of 1965, a very advanced design even for European standards, featuring a water cooled boxer four mounted ahead of the driven front wheels. Given the drive train layout, it was the easiest type of configuration to adapt to that purpose, sending power back by extending the output shaft of the transmission to the rear. A drive shaft and rear differential and axle shafts more or less accomplished the trick.

Of course, we need to acknowledge that Subaru’s four wheel drive system of the times was strictly a part-time arrangement, since it lacked a center differential. Therefore, it was not full-time AWD, which was rightfully pioneered by the AMC Eagle. But the Subaru was still the breakthrough 4WD passenger car, and there’s little doubt that its existence may have stimulated the Eagle to some degree or another. Not that anyone connected to it would ever likely acknowledge it.  But the fact that the Eagle came out five years after the Subaru 4WD wagon in 1975, and was clearly an evolutionary development of it cannot be denied.

For what it’s worth, Subaru’s part time arrangement was really quite satisfactory in practice, given that they already had superb traction with that engine hanging out in front of the drive wheels. There’s no comparison to what a standard RWD AMC Concord gained by AWD in traction.  The FWD Subarus were about as good as it got in that respect, comparable to that traction-master, the VW Beetle.

Nevertheless, the 4WD Subaru was a revelation, especially to the stereotypical back-to-the-land-or-small-towns types in places  like Vermont, Colorado, the North West, and anywhere where snow and rough roads were an issue. Subaru wagons were the typical replacement for the rusted out VWs that were finally giving up the ghost in those difficult environments. Of course, that has given Subaru a rather grossly exaggerated Birkenstock image, but the relatively higher levels of education and income of the Subaru demographic has held up through the decades. And obviously, they’re still huge in snow-belt and mountainous regions.

These little Subarus were truly the Billy Goats of cars; tough as nails, cheap to feed, and almost impossible to stop. Rust was the only thing that finally stopped them in their tracks, since snow and salt tend to go together. That probably explains why its taken me so long to find one. The tiny little boxer engine looks almost lost down there, and the fact that Subaru studied VW, Porsche and Corvair engines before designing theirs is obvious. The only question it raises is this: why the hell didn’t VW do the same thing, turning their boxers to the front and water cooling them? Today’s Golf would be just like an Impreza.

The tiny four started out with 1000 cc, and slowly grew through up to the final OHV version with 1600 cc. That’s what’s hiding under the spare here. The growling and throbbing of old Subaru engines is music to their fan’s ears. The owner of this one certainly loves these narrow-bodies; he own no less than eleven of them! Coupes, sedans, wagons; they’ve all come to him for a life extension. And they reward his appreciation with longevity: this one has over 300k on it.

The real goof ball originality-winner of this series of Subarus, which lasted through 1981, was the BRAT, which came out in 1977. I’ve seen a clapped out one on the streets here driven by a couple of kids, but haven’t caught up with it yet. It was a crazy attempt to jump into a market that nobody else had yet, the passenger-car based mini pickup, with 4WD no less. You got to hand it to Subaru for its gutsy ways.

Subaru 4WD wagons long ago became massively popular in places like Eugene (I happen to own one too). And it seems like only yesterday, these narrow-body Subies were still everywhere. No more. In fact , this car was in town from Portland for a knife show. And even the following generation is starting to get increasingly scarce. Time stands still not even for Subarus. But they keep cranking them out, although today’s Outback is a monster compared to one of these. But rarely has a car company cornered a segment of the market as successfully as Subaru. Thirty five years after the first 4WD wagon appeared here, both the original as well as its successors are still going strong. Not a bad track record.

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29 Comments on “Curbside Classic: The Revolutionary Four Wheel Drive 1977 Subaru Wagon (Leone)...”


  • avatar
    philadlj

    Well, they were ugly then, and they’re still ugly now. But I still love ‘em.

  • avatar
    pauldun170

    Try loading one up with friends and going up a hill on the highway.
    While most cars would flash to pass, in those old subbies you’d hit the hazzards and hope everyone would have pity on you and let you go by (which would require at least 5 minutes).

    At sub-45mph speeds, they were cool little shitboxes. Friend even used his to go hit the dunes.

  • avatar
    rocketrodeo

    Revolutionary and influential?

    Yes, I suppose there will always be a niche market for cramped, slow, ugly, cheap, noisy, and not particularly efficient crapboxes.

    • 0 avatar
      gslippy

      Pretty harsh statement, and although it’s true, I wouldn’t apply it to Subaru.

      You know, Subaru stands alongside Hyundai/Kia as the only ones gaining in sales last year, so I’d say their ‘niche’ market is growing substantially.

      This wagon was a great find, although I wouldn’t call it “the most revolutionary and influential modern car”. That might be true for Subaru’s products, but that distinction still has to go to the earliest Accord, Civic, Corolla, Camry, or Rabbit.

  • avatar
    dswilly

    One of the weird but cool features of these early Subies was the cyclops fog light that was behind the front grill badge – dead center. It may have appeared on the generation after this one.

  • avatar
    psarhjinian

    We need a comparison test between this an the AMC Eagle.

  • avatar
    Mr Carpenter

    The original boxer Subaru, the 1000, introduced around 1965 wasn’t actually based upon Corvair or VW technologies “borrowed” – but the Borgward Group’s later LLOYD front wheel drive, boxer, liquid cooled four cylinder cars were much more likely to have been used as inspiration.

    I own my first ever Subaru, a ’10 Legacy with CVT, and I like it.

    I also pulled 38 MPG on a journey (way above EPA) the other week, albeit in a 55 mph (or lower) speed zone area. My tankfull averaged over 32 MPG, however, including commuting and town driving. That’s the best I’ve done, but now it’s got 6000 miles, it’s broken in and I’m hopeful that MPG’s will continue to surprise and delight.

  • avatar
    snabster

    hah. Learned to drive stick on a Leone, although we just called it “Subaru”. Hated that car. And a friend of mine in high school had a Eagle beater, which was about 10x as cool. I guess my big fear was getting stuck with the Sub, although I did managed to kill the clutch within a year.

    My grandfather had this model, which my great-grandfather managed to burn by letting his pipe fall down.

    As a Audi 4000q driver, I’d like to say the Quattro is what started the four wheel drive trend. The suburu and eagle were just weird fits on the evolutionary tree.

    • 0 avatar
      Power6

      I think it was a combination of both, with a little bit of AWD sports car thrown in. Growing up in a Subaru/Audi family this is how I saw it unfold:

      Subaru showed us you didn’t need a truck just to have 4WD.
      Audi showed us AWD is better than part-time 4WD for most.
      Mitsubishi(and Audi kinda) showed us an AWD sports car can be fun.

      Later Subaru started with rally racing which has been a whole other niche for them. Things have changed lately as they always do, but for a brief time Mitsu and Subie had the closest thing to “race on Sunday sell on Monday” we have seen in a long time.

      I’ve always discounted the AMC Eagle, the way I saw it was just truck parts under a car body, which had already been done in countless back-yards years before. The constant-on AWD was more of a revolution for Jeep, it didn’t make the Eagle any more of a car, which it never really was IMO.

  • avatar
    newcarscostalot

    All these old Subaru wagons seem to last a long time. A friend of mine has a late eighties wagon that has over 250k and it still runs fine. It sure is loud on the inside! It must not have much in the way of sound deadening material.

  • avatar

    Fantastic find! I can’t remember the last time I saw one of those out in the wild.

  • avatar
    educatordan

    My aunts second husband had a Loyale wagon from the mid 80s. Hard to kill save the rust. It was his go anywhere vehicle after high insurance rates caused him to sell his CJ-7. After they got divorced in the mid 90s he replaced it with a Legacy GT wagon. Man had a Legacy GT and a Harley Davidson, didn’t need a freaking $50,000 Ford with Harley decals to make him feel like a man.

  • avatar

    Another good one. Paul, I have a tagline for you:

    As seen in Eugene

  • avatar
    eastcoastcar

    Well, I already wrote about my ’77 wagon in an earlier Subaru feature here, but I will say that my ’77 wagon was a true mountain goat—Northern New York winters—it was great. We really used the car as its 4wd got us in and out of many tough snow situations. Glad to see this particular feature, reminding us of Subaru’s contribution. There was some mystique that this car was made by ‘Fuji Heavy Industries.’ I figured, well, if they can make ships and oil rigs, they probably know how to make a tough car. Almost, but close enough, and great in the north country.

    • 0 avatar
      newcarscostalot

      This is true! A friend of mine has owned more than one 4wd 80′s Subaru wagon and he says the same thing. He says snowy hills are no problem!

  • avatar
    jacksonbart

    My first car in HS was a dull yellow 1983 Subaru 2wheel drive, 3 speed auto wagon w/ 38,000 miles (5 yrs old). No A/C (which was a good thing otherwise it would have never made it up a hill), AM & FM radio and very nice vinyl seats. On cold upstate NY mornings (-10) it had a habit of if you started before you drove, which I always did so I had some heat, it would rev to the redline if you didn’t touch the gas peddle after she was started. Talk about lifter clatter, that thing was noisey going up hills on route 20. If you were brave to drive it high speed (55+mph) in the rain,the driver’s side wiper had a tendancy to over extend off the windshield, that’s how I discovered Rainx. The Wagon came in handy on the love life department though for a highschool kid.

    • 0 avatar
      MadHungarian

      Yup, had an ’80 wagon, same car as the ’83 basically, and got into the habit of switching the A/C off when merging onto the freeway. It made a big difference. Poor thing came to an untimely end when it was rear ended by an Econoline work van at about 35 mph.

  • avatar
    VanillaDude

    Having gone to university in Colorado, these things were common. I even owned an 1983 yellow wagon with all the options in it. It came with my first wife when both were new. This is what I learned about this era Subaru DL wagon.

    They were cramped and narrow. The beltline road over your shoulder and the interior doors were flat in an attempt to give you another inch of elbow room. The dashboards were high. The car had a series of irritating chimes, an orange fluorescent glowing dashboard lighting system, two twisty mini horns sprouting out of the instrument binnacle, and life with these cute sales gimmicks drove me nuts. The doors hadn’t any window frames, which helped you crawl out.

    With all that weight in front, steering was not good. There was nothing to help you think you could carve any mountain curves with them. The seats were Japanese beach chairs with a plaid interior fabric that glued onto your skin.

    It was expensive. With all the bells and whistles, this Subaru rolled off the showroom with a sticker of $8000, which was very steep in 1983. Market demand in Colorado allowed this $5000 car to have a steep mark-up. In summation, the car wasn’t worth it.

    It ran and ran, but I never learned to love it. I was always uncomfortable and claustrophobic in it. I prefered my Jeep CJ, my Falcon convertible and even my AMC Alliance to it. By 1987, both it, and my first wife, were traded in for something a lot easier to live with.

  • avatar
    Uncle Mellow

    The Ferguson company built a full-time 4 wheel drive hatchback concept car in the 60′s and touted it around the UK car industry , but nobody was interested. The VW factory was, of couse offerred to the British car industry in the late 40′s , but the Beetle was obviously rubbish so the whole deal was left with the Germans.
    Jensen used the Ferguson tech to build the Chrysler V8 powered “FF” in the 60′s , which was the first 4 wheel drive production car , and the first with ABS , although that term had not been invented yet. This car was very expensive and few were sold. The 2 wheel drive Inerceptor looked much the same , and was much cheaper.

  • avatar
    Jseis

    Ah yes, I recall my friend Mark and I slamming through the desert roads of Malheur County circa ’77 in his Screwbaru with dust pouring in as fast we could pour it out. With a sheet of plywood bolted to the roof it was the ultimate gas sippin canoe hauling off road wagon. I acquired an 83 GL 1500 (five speed, thank you) that was an easy 40 mpg corner squealing haul anything accident surviving wagon. Then there was the poor man’s Lancia Stratos…the 88 XT Coupe…that survived handily to 250K while returning 36 mpg and as well as dune, snow, and logging road adventure..and other happy adventures that shall remain nameless.

  • avatar
    obbop

    “…this homely little car…”

    Well!!!!

    I was a homely little kid then evolved into a homely big kid and that fact hasn’t crimped my life too greatly apart from constant yet subdued jeering and sundry thrown objects I have learned how to evade by excellent peripheral vision and honed reflexes.

    For general informative purposes the wrecking yard in the San Francisco Bay area had standing orders from customers to inform them when a BRAT arrived so the wanting ones could acquire the bed-mounted seats for placement in full-size USA pick-ups.

    Often, the purchaser was a grandparent who wanted a method to transport grand-kids in a relatively safer manner than lying loose within the bed.

    Personally, I think they just wanted to strap the tykes in securely, very securely, so that exhaust gasses sucked into the covered bed (with a topper or camper shell or whatever the bed-covering contraption is termed in your neck of the woods… typically camper shell in California while the upper midwest seems to prefer topper blah blah blah akin to the pop/soda/Coke nomenclatures scattered across the plains so often lacking that amber waves of grain stuff I heard about.

    This introspective moment has been brought to you by 98 percent lean disgruntledness.

    Thou art welcome.

  • avatar
    KitaIkki

    “why the hell didn’t VW do the same thing, turning their boxers to the front and water cooling them?”

    A similar thing happened on the motorcycle side. Honda introduced liquid-cooled boxer engines (the GoldWing 1000/1200/1500/1800) before BMW did. To this day all liquid-cooled BMW motorcycles feature inline engines, despite their signature air-cooled boxer twin.

  • avatar
    TheRedCar

    It’s really one of those brands that if you aren’t looking for it, they’ll blend into the scenery. We got our 1st Subaru in 05. On our first trip of the year to big snow area of Northern Lower Michigan I saw them everywhere all of the sudden. They’d been there all the time, but I’d never noticed before.

    Since it’s MI, There’s lots of trucks up there, but it seems like every third non-visitor car is a Subaru.

  • avatar
    FromBrazil

    Paul: “that has given Subaru a rather grossly exaggerated Birkenstock image, but the relatively higher levels of education and income of the Subaru demographic has held up through the decades”

    That expalins an earlier question I had (in another thread) asking why the Subaru never really gained any traction outside of US. Well, to put it bluntly, the rest of us are too poor. I can and will accept that as as answer.

    “why the hell didn’t VW do the same thing, turning their boxers to the front and water cooling them? Today’s Golf would be just like an Impreza”

    Bertel could probably enlighten us, but from my POV VW hasn’t developed squat since the time of the Beetle. Heck, to get a water cooled engine, instead of developing one themselves, they went and bought Audi. Nope, Volks has rarely been the hairbinger of things to come.

  • avatar

    great writeup! i drive by this subie on my daily pdx commute–was it visiting eugene when you saw it? when my brother photographed it for our car-spotting blog (http://oldparkedcars.blogspot.com/2010/06/1976-subaru-1600-4wd-wagon.html), the owner gave him a hell of a guilt trip for not asking first. i wonder who else has pulled over to shoot this car?

    parenthetically, i dare say the ’75 is uglier than the ’76: http://oldparkedcars.blogspot.com/2010/04/1975-subaru-dl-wagon.html

  • avatar
    dwightseabreez

    I found a 1977 4×4 wagon last year on crags list , it was in  fare shape other than some one smacked the rear lid and tail light. I’ll bump it out and get some new struts, I checked the compression, all good and four wheel all works great. This should be a fun little ride. Got it for eight hundred bucks.   : )


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