By on March 22, 2017

Subaru STI bobsled

Most automotive advertising has little to nothing to do with the actual car. It’s usually about presenting an image or hawking brand identity and then loosely associating it with a vehicle — Mercedes’ current “Grow Up” campaign is a perfect, cringeworthy example. However, enthusiasts know that the best car ads feature incredible shenanigans and loads of life-or-death action.

Dave Chapelle mocked Mitsubishi for its pop-and-lock Eclipse spot, while Top Gear honored Land Rover for winching a Defender up the side of a dam. Keenly aware of this is Subaru, which, after sending Mark Higgins and a WRX STI around the Isle of Man TT course in 2014, brought both man and vehicle to the world’s oldest bobsled run in St. Moritz, Switzerland to record another automotive spectacle.

Unfortunately, Subaru is more than 50 years too late for this particular publicity stunt. Ford filmed an identical feature in the Italian Alps with the Cortina GT way back in 1964. It even named the car after the Cortina d’Ampezzo ski resort, where it later held the event. Subaru may be calling it “boxersledding” today, but it’s really just a rehash of Ford’s classic “auto-bobbing.” 

henry-taylor-ford-cortina

By the winter of 1964, the Cortina was already a force to be reckoned with in the world of European motorsport. Ford wanted to highlight its 200 Cortina-related victories but also wanted publicity for the car to boost sales. That December, some 19 men met in Italy to attempt to drive the Cortina down the resort’s Olympic bobsled run. Among them were championship drivers like Henry Taylor, Jim Clark, Vic Elford, Jack Sears, Colin Chapman, and Sir John Whitmore.

Taylor recounted the experience in a 1965 interview with The Chicago Tribune, stating, “Races like the Indianapolis 500 and rallies like the Monte Carlo can’t touch auto-bobbing for thrills and fun.”

Half a century later, Jeremy Hart floated a very similar concept to the marketing department at Subaru. One is forced to ask if Hart, who was also behind Jaguar’s high-wire crossing in London, was familiar with Ford’s auto-bobbing when he pitched his idea or if this was all just a massive coincidence. There’s plenty of overlap between the two capers. The two models even have similar rally-bred and family-friendly heritages.

Subaru STI bobsled

While the Cortina drivers were given little more than safety netting and helmets, Subaru handed the WRX over to Prodrive to equip it with the safety and performance modifications necessary for the Swiss stunt. Anticipating the likely event of a horrible crash, they replaced the STI’s glass with Perspex, gave it a fuel cell, new bumpers, an improved roll-cage, and reinforced just about every nook and cranny with steel. They also upgraded the suspension and swapped rally tires for Tungsten-tipped studded snow tires. Side mirrors were removed because Higgins would, assuredly, knock them off on his way down the icy road.

Unlike Ford’s stunt in Italy, a low-speed practice run on the Swiss bobsled track was impossible, as the WRX would likely destroy it on the first attempt. And, with above-average temperatures quickly turning it into slush, that worry turned into a guarantee. “It’s not something that we can practice. The ice is too soft, and we risk damaging the track on the first run through,” Higgins told AutoWeek in an interview. “It’s not like anything I’ve done before.”

“We’re doing this all on theoretical principles,” Hart said at the shoot.

Theoretical? There are 19 very old — or very dead — men that would disagree with that statement. The Fords hit similar 50 mph-plus speeds, keeled over in the turns, and were all heavily battered and bruised by the icy sides of the exceptionally narrow bobsled track.

None of this makes Subaru’s escapade any less spectacular to witness, though. Watching the STI shutter and bounce off of the high-banked edges of the course is actually more enthralling than the vintage Ford footage. However, being extremely late to a party — and then acting like you helped orchestrate it — does mar some of the glory they were hoping to incur.

[Images: Subaru; Ford]

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19 Comments on “Subaru ‘Invents’ Automotive Bobsledding 53 Years After Ford Did It With a Cortina...”


  • avatar
    swiftfox4

    I did this with my 2003 Forester. One month after purchase I lost control and went up a curved, plowed snowbank. Came back down perfectly. If I had done that in my 94 Toyota pickup, there would have been damage. Still feel more at one with my Golf TDI than in the Forester, but the 2003 version of the Forester is better than today’s marshmallow (HT: Jalopnik).

  • avatar
    VW4motion

    The Cortina only went down the bobsled run and the Subaru went back up. Subaru making use of awd and studded tires is the kicker.

  • avatar
    OldManPants

    Finally, someone who really needs AWD.

  • avatar
    brn

    Interestingly, the Ford looked more controlled.

    It may have been going slower however.

  • avatar
    la834

    Subaru also thinks they “invented” the ‘sport utility wagon’ with the Outback, conveniently forgetting the AMC Eagle from 14 years earlier…

    • 0 avatar
      2manycars

      To be fair, Subaru did sell 4WD wagons for several years before the AMC Eagle debuted. However those early Subarus had a part-time 4WD system with no center differential. It had to be disengaged on pavement or you’d risk drivetrain damage.

      The Eagle’s claim to fame was its full time 4WD system (I guess what is now called all-wheel-drive) that could be used on dry pavement. In fact early Eagles could not even be switched out of 4WD. AMC definitely got their money’s worth out of that 1970 Hornet platform!

  • avatar
    Scott_314

    As a 37 year-old dad who is looking for a sporty car that is reasonably practical… this actually works. It gave me a smile and made me think its a nice car.

  • avatar
    05lgt

    Does anyone have full course footage of both down and up runs?

    • 0 avatar
      Matt Posky

      I don’t believe so. The Subaru film is actually one failed downhill attempt where the track was severely damaged halfway followed by a second run that began right before the banked horseshoe. It doesn’t technically cover the ground twice but it also didn’t make it all the way down at speed in one go. They also stopped and fiddled with the car between takes but ended up cutting it together to make it appear seamless.

      Also worth noting: the Fords only used a specific portion of the track due to safety concerns.

  • avatar
    Lou_BC

    I saw this Subaru video earlier today. It is impressive.

  • avatar
    dantes_inferno

    >Subaru ‘Invents’ Automotive Bobsledding 53 Years After Ford Did It With a Cortina

    Since Ford did this 53 years ago, by definition, Subaru didn’t invent jack when it comes to automotive bobsledding. Since the pool of originality dried up decades ago (as evidenced by the wave of original movie remakes), Subaru’s feat amounts to a remake with splashier special effects (driving uphill).

    The new media overhype machine is on full steam once again…

    smh

  • avatar
    stingray65

    I suspect the Cortina was easier to navigate because it is 8 inches narrower than the WRX. Cars may have gotten fatter than people who drive them over the last 50+ years.

  • avatar
    05lgt

    OK, went back and read the linked story, re-watched the video and have to ask: am I missing where they claimed to invent or first time anything other than this specific course? the quote about “theoretical principles” was in relation to taking the horseshoe with very short run up due to the course collapse during the first run …
    Manufactured outrage?

  • avatar
    SubaruPhile

    Car and Driver also covered this event:

    http://blog.caranddriver.com/following-in-portagos-skid-marks-mark-higgins-takes-on-the-olympia-bobsled-run-in-a-car/

  • avatar
    red60r

    There is also a Land Rover ad showing RangeRover on a mostly-melted ski run. “Vehicle modified to deactivate certain safety systems…”

    • 0 avatar
      Frank Williams

      And the ad showed them going downhill. If they wanted to prove something they should driven it uphill.

      An Audi ad from 1986 (and re-done in 2005) showed one of their cars driving UP a snow-covered ski jump.

  • avatar
    StarAZ

    I want to buy an STI, or at least a WRX, whenever I see something like this. I stop wanting one and start considering the Merc GLA45 AMG as soon as I sit inside a Subaru.
    I understand the challenges they face as a smaller automaker, but their flagship cars need modern technology.

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