Subaru Brat, circa 1978-1981
Subaru Brat, circa 1978-1981. Click image to enlarge

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By Jeff Burry

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Subaru Brat, 1978-1987

In 1977, Subaru was the fifth largest automotive importer supplying vehicles to North America, trailing the likes of Honda, Toyota, Nissan and Mazda. With the gas crisis still fresh in people’s minds, there was a surge of desire amongst the buying public for small, fuel-efficient pickups that could serve as dual-purpose vehicles.

Subaru introduced the BRAT at the perfect time. BRAT stands for Bi-drive Recreational All-terrain Transporter. The vehicle resembled a small pickup, but was actually more of a crossover vehicle, similar in design to the larger Chevrolet El Camino and Ford Ranchero. Its name comes from its on-the-fly all-wheel drive system that could be activated with the push of a button.

1985 Subaru Brat
1985 Subaru Brat. Click image to enlarge

The BRAT was first sold in North America as a 1978 model and was produced until 1987. Unlike the El Camino and Ranchero, the first generation Brat came with rear-facing seats located in the cargo bay. This unique feature enabled Subaru to designate the BRAT as a passenger vehicle, as opposed to a pickup, thus saving thousands of dollars in importation fees.

All BRATs came standard with the all-wheel drive system. From 1978 through to 1980, BRATs came standard with Subaru’s 1.6-litre four engine available with either a four-speed manual or a three-speed automatic transmission. There were also two trim levels available – the DL and the GL. The primary difference between the two models was the number of round front headlamps: the DL model had two while the GL model’s grille housed four.

In 1981, the displacement of the engine was increased to 1.8 litres, producing 73 horsepower. Transmission choices again were a four-speed manual or three-speed automatic. As with the 1978 through to 1980 models, the push of a button engaged the all-wheel drive system.

1982 Subaru Brat
1982 Subaru Brat
1982 Subaru Brat (top), photo courtesy; 1979 Subaru Brat (bottom), photo courtesy Click image to enlarge

In 1982 the round headlights were replaced with rectangular ones giving the BRAT a more updated look and the GL version was also outfitted with a dual-range transfer case (DL models still used a single-range version). For the 1983 and 1984 model years, one could also order a BRAT with an optional 1.8-litre turbo engine producing an impressive, but perhaps not “nail-biting,” 93 horsepower.

In terms of dimensions, the BRAT sat on a relatively short wheelbase of just 245.6 centimetres (96.7 inches) and was 442.4 centimetres (174.2 inches) in length. In comparison to pickups offered by other North American manufacturers it was small; however, next to other Japanese offerings, it was comparable in size.

Potential buyers of the BRAT also had a numerous range of colour choices, from Extra Black and Lake Blue to Lucent Grey and Moon Silver – 11 choices in all to suit every taste.

1985 Subaru Brat
1985 Subaru Brat
1985 Subaru Brat; bottom photo courtesy Click image to enlarge

As manufacturers started to focus on such things as safety, the two plastic jump seats in the rear of the BRAT were no longer available for the 1986 and 1987 model years. However, one other unique feature that was maintained throughout its brief production history was the placement of the spare tire, which was housed in the engine compartment.

Perhaps the most well-known celebrity to own a BRAT was former United States President Ronald Reagan, who owned a red 1978 model, apparently for working on his 688-acre ranch in Santa Barbara, California. The BRAT was sold along with the ranch in 1998 and later received a full restoration by Subaru of America, after which it was returned to the ranch for historical purposes.

Say what you will, the BRAT did offer North Americans a vehicle that stood out amongst the crowd, and it was the first cross-over vehicle, of sorts, that led the way for other automotive manufacturers to introduce such vehicles into the market. It was a go-anywhere, do-anything, fuel efficient “fun” 4×4 – part car, part truck.

Subaru Brat, circa 1982-1987
Subaru Brat, circa 1982-1987. Click image to enlarge

North Americans would have to wait another 16 years before Subaru would offer up a similar vehicle – the 2003 Subaru Baja (of which only 30,000 were sold), which was strangely similar to the BRAT of the late 70s early 80s. It was another attempt by Subaru to offer up a vehicle choice that would capture the hearts of a younger, more hip buying public.

Regardless of whether you are an automotive enthusiast, one cannot deny the uniqueness and simplicity that the BRAT had to offer. Today, these vehicles are few and far between and you either like them or you don’t.

You have to admire Subaru’s ingenuity, willingness and gumption (otherwise known as balls) to bring a vehicle like the BRAT into the marketplace. A total of 92,445 Subaru BRATs moved out of dealer showrooms and into owners’ driveways between 1978 and 1987 – no easy accomplishment and certainly worthy of an honourable mention.

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