Curbside Classic: The Revolutionary Four Wheel Drive 1977 Subaru Wagon (Leone)

Paul Niedermeyer
by Paul Niedermeyer
curbside classic the revolutionary four wheel drive 1977 subaru wagon leone

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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2 of 29 comments
  • NotMyCircusNotMyMonkeys for that money, it had better be built by people listening to ABBA
  • Abrar Very easy and understanding explanation about brake paint
  • MaintenanceCosts We need cheaper batteries. This is a difficult proposition at $50k base/$60k as tested but would be pretty compelling at $40k base/$50k as tested.
  • Scott ?Wonder what Toyota will be using when they enter the market?
  • Fred The bigger issue is what happens to the other systems as demand dwindles? Will thet convert or will they just just shut down?