Subaru Manufacturer Profile & Rally History

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Subaru Home Country: Japan Japan

Subaru is the car arm of Fuji Heavy Industries and curiously the Subaru owners' registration documents in most countries will show Fuji Heavy Industries, and not Subaru, as the manufacturer. Fuji Heavy Industries was originally a conglomerate of 5 companies that were into heavy industries as iron works, shipyards, but most famous the Nakajima aircrafts. Today Fuji Heavy Industries seems to have run down all their original arms except aircraft repair and aircraft component engineering. In fact, to save confusion the company would be better off to cancel the "Heavy Industries" part of their name, but that would create a misunderstanding, as in fact Fuji Heavy Industries has nothing to do with the famous Fuji cameras. Although FHI was not originally a car manufacturer, today you could say FHI is Subaru and Subaru is FHI. And although you find projects where Subaru cooperated with GM daughters Saab and Suzuki or with Toyota, neither company owned more than 20% of FHI shares until now. When the company started making cars alongside their original Heavy Industries and Nakajima aircrafts, they were looking for a marketing name for their cars and came up at first with Mutsuraboshi, which means 6-stars. The name and brand logo was for some mystery reason chosen after the star cluster Pleiades. Other stories that it is one star per founding/daughter company appear to be a mix up with Mitsubishi, as the number of stars was never correct for FHI. When Fuji Heavy Industries started to market their cars internationally, the name was changed to Subaru. Subaru is a word game, as in double meaning. It is the name of the Pleiades in the Greek language while in the Japanese language Subaru means "united". The reason for this name change is simply to avoid people mistaking Mutsu-raboshi (6 stars) for Mitsu-bishi (3 diamonds).

Most important of all: Subaru is a unique, characterful manufacturer as their entire philosophy circles around 4 wheel drive and (lovely sounding) boxer engines. Therefore they are a niche manufacturer and it is surprising that it took them so long to discover rallying as a marketing tool for their unique and interesting niche. In fact (and totally undeservedly since you are hard pushed to find another car make with such strong character even back then) Subaru had an extremely conservative image before they hit the rally scene. Maybe the problem to position the brand is that 4x4 boxer cars are bound to be larger, heavy cars. In the case of Subaru they also offer tiny 3-cylinder cars that are a joke to any car fan, but compact B- and C-segment cars are missing in Subaru's range, a big gap. Indeed, tiny joke cars ignored for a moment, for a long time Subaru's program circled only around one main model, the Leone, which as the main model in many countries was simply the L-series or only identified by engine size. Often it was said Subaru 1800 or Subaru Sedan and you knew it could only be that model. When Subaru created an extreme looking coupé on the L-series platform, it was called the Alcyone, which is a star of the Pleiades, Subaru proudly referring back to the mystery origins of their brand name. In the early 1990s the L-series was replaced by 2 models: Legacy and Impreza. This was clearly a new era for Subaru, now with more than just one real car model, an old fashioned looking one at that, Subaru seemed to be taken more serious on many markets. But if L-Series or Legacy & Impreza, mainly for the niche they are serving, Subaru always had this big lack of B- and C-segment cars in their program. Then again, nice to have niche manufacturers, how boring would the world be if all did the same. And kudos to Subaru's marketing people, even if results are thin, rallying really changed their image. Against any fashion trend, over 60% of Subaru sales in Europe are in that blue metallic seen on Subaru works rally cars, need I say more?

First rally excursions however were heavily overshadowed by a lack of reliability and performance. The Subaru team around Noriyuki Koseki, the boss of Subaru Japan's STI = Subaru Tecnica International department, appeared for the first time in the WRC only in 1981. It was the Safari Rally and even with a 4-car team - turning into a 4-car nightmare with neither car posting top10 times nor being without big trouble. We didn't see them again until Safari 1982 and now even with a 7-car team and a star driver in the line up, Vic Elford, but the result hardly improved. In the next few years they had a number of exciting star drivers including Ari Vatanen, Per Eklund, Shekhar Mehta, Mike Kirkland, Possum Bourne and Harald Demuth, but even they could not change the lack of results.

The whole scenario changed completely in 1990, when Subaru launched the Legacy and handed their program over to the private, UK based team Prodrive. The Legacy proved competitive straight out of the box but it kept being slowed by problems. Indeed the pace of the new car seemed surprising, it raised many eyebrows with fastest stage times in the Acropolis and the RAC that year, but Subaru was denied a WRC event victory for another 3 years, until NZ 1993.

It was as well in 1993 that the smaller Impreza took over from the Legacy. Again the stage times were promising, the Impreza managed a 2nd place on its debut event, but it took until halfway through 1994 until it could win an event. 1995 was probably the most stunning season for Subaru. The season started off with a Monte Carlo win for Carlos Sainz. With two events to go Subaru was still 3rd out of 4 manufacturers entered in the WRC. But on that penultimate event Toyota was disqualified from the entire season and Subaru managed podium lock outs on both the last events of the year. Subaru won their first makes WRC title and followed this up with two more titles ahead of Ford and Mitsubishi. Subaru’s 3rd makes title happened in the new WRCar era, however before this era had a chance to improve competition. It has to be said that Subaru won their titles at the point when competition was at its weakest and in all those years they never actually managed to beat a serious Ford, Fiat/Lancia, Citroën and Peugeot team in a straight title fight. From now on the competition became stronger in quantity and quality and Subaru is fighting on to add a 4th makes title to their tally ever since the dull mid-1990s.

Update: Something went even more wrong since. I was overjoyed when in 2007 Subaru announced that the Impreza replacement was to be a hatchback. This sounds like a boxer turbo 4x4 C-segment car, brilliant! Despite extremely bad experiences by the author here rallying a gN Subaru for a season, this could actually be a car for me! But when the car was launched, something disturbed me initially. Before now you could love or hate Subaru, but you couldn’t deny they had huge character. But this new Impreza looked like a mini bus that could easily carry Mazda, Nissan or whatever logos. Indeed, even the datasheet confirms, despite it being a hatchback, it is actually longer than the old sedan, and it is nearly 100mm higher! This is more a mini bus or SUV or whatever style seems to fit some strange modern taste, but wasn’t Subaru about performance cars? Sure enough, when the new shape hit the rally stages in form of the Impreza WRC08, the drivers got never tired of complaining about the car’s handling, the results were worse than with the old car and 1.5 years later Subaru withdrew. A shame really, because their niche fitted perfectly to rallying. This is quite likely bad news far more for Subaru themselves than for rallying!

COLOURS & TYRES:

Subaru didn’t have a distinct house colour in early years and the Leone models often appeared in plain white. But Noriyuki Koseki’s STI business has the same house colour to the day: pink! And in the early days of the Legacy Subaru wasn’t shy to show that colour. You often had to wonder if you were at the right party, being surrounded by all these blokes in pink anoraks. On the cars the pink was a little easier on the eye once BP green was added. In the BRC and on the RAC Rally in 1991/92 the Legacy however appeared in Rothmans colours. But in 1993 one of the biggest sponsorship deals ever was pulled off. The sponsor was cigarette brand 555 and because of cigarette advertising restrictions the car was even named “Impreza 555” and the number plates often included “555”, so the name was still represented on events with cigarette advertisement restrictions. (Talking of funny tricks to get around cigarette advertising restrictions, this is a private car, but a well funny story: When Per Eklund competed a few events in ex-works Legacy "G87 VUD", he secured Camel sponsoring and playing with huge and very tiny letters he wrote on his yellow car: "i CAME1st in the...") The original 555 identity became so strong, even when Subaru lost the 555 sponsorship, they kept their distinct blue with yellow writing layout without any noticeable change. At first the 555 blue was not metallic, but so similar in shade to the metallic that this fact seems forgotten. The change to metallic however had nothing to do with the loss of 555 sponsoring. The metallic blue was introduced with the WRCar in 1997, when 555 still was sponsor. Only with the launch of the hatchback Impreza in 2008 Subaru replaced the yellow writing for white & silver. It's very nice to have such a distinct brand identity for so long, but ironically the "Subaru Rally Blue" clearly links back to 555 cigarettes and not to Subaru. Plus maybe they could have been a little more imaginative than - although nice and distinct colour choice - having basically a uni colour with letters for over a decade, lately we heard even of Subaru fans getting bored by it.

For tyres Subaru used Michelin at first but changed to Pirelli in 1994 and stayed with them near ever since, in some seasons even having exclusive use of Pirelli’s service.

REGISTRATIONS:

Well, first of all look at our general registrations guide. Noriyuki Koseki/STI cars display typical Japanese reg plates. Prodrive ones obviously use UK plates. Prodrive is based in Banbury, Oxfordshire and therefore the "works" cars were registered in Oxford. So in the UK reg system the 2nd & 3rd letter combination in the 3-letter-block would display BW, FC, (FD,) JO, (NX,) UD, (UE) or WL. (In around 1990 the Oxford registration area was extended to the north and some combinations of former reg area Dudley occasionally found their way onto Oxford cars, these are the codes in brackets. – Yes including the NX, the 1993 Elonex cars were privatised plates, but see i.e. Coen Vink’s Dutch Championship car H215 ENX.) However when private plates arrived for Prodrive, things started getting complicated as they try new variations nearly every season. The normal Oxford regs were valid until 555 sponsorship appeared in 1993, when private plates came into use as Prodrive seeked for reg plates displaying "555" as the number. This was an interesting game, as the 3-letter-block on the different cars would now be "SRT" = "Subaru Rally Team", "STE" = "Subaru Team Europe", "PRO" = "Prodrive", "BAT" = name of 555's mother company and "REP" = "Repsol", Sainz's personal sponsor. In 1993 the British Legacy's had sponsorship of computer firm Elonex and the two cars used here were registered "K44 LNX" & "K88 LNX", note the English pronunciation of these letters, say them fast! On the Rally Australia 1993 Prodrive used Australian plates as a one-off, simply for the possibility of using funny driver identifications, the regs were: "555MAC", "555ARI" & "PO555UM". Sadly the car with the lovely "PO555UM" plate was that in which Rodger Freeth lost his life. After Colin McRae won the driver's title in 1995, the 1996 Subarus displayed "N1 WRC" for Colin McRae and "N555 WRC" for Kenneth Eriksson. These regs were swapped between cars between every event!!!! Then on all Impreza WRC97 & WRC98 "normal" private plates were used with the 3-letter-block being "WRC". On the Impreza WRC99, P2000 & WRC01 they displayed "SRT" again. With the new UK reg system and the WRC02 things turned characterful but too much to list. Well, when these normal UK system regs were used on the 02 cars, shortcuts as driver initials were tried to incorporate, giving us reg plates as "PS02 SSS" to name just one example. For the WRC03 Prodrive found some old private plates, "S" the (backdated!) letter of year and 3-letter-block "WRT" reading "Subaru World Rally Team". Since then however works cars display letter codes "*C-WRC" or "*T-SRT" for mystery reasons with only the very first digit/letter identifying different cars of the same year.

Subaru Rally Cars

Model Class
Subaru Subaru Impreza  Group A
Subaru Subaru Impreza (22B)  World Rally Car
Subaru Subaru Impreza (44S)  World Rally Car
Subaru Subaru Impreza (GC)  Group N
Subaru Subaru Impreza (GD)  Group N
Subaru Subaru Impreza (GE)  Group N
Subaru Subaru Impreza (S14)  World Rally Car
Subaru Subaru Legacy  Group A
Subaru Subaru Legacy (BC)  Group N
Subaru Subaru Leone  Group A
Subaru Subaru Leone  Group 2
Subaru Subaru Leone 1800  Group A
Subaru Subaru Vivio  Group A

Rally Honour Roll

Year Class Place Manufacturer Events
2013 IRC Super 2000 5th. Subaru (104pts) 12

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2012 IRC Super 2000 4th. Subaru (162pts) 13

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2011 IRC Super 2000 3rd. Subaru (117pts) 11

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2010 IRC Super 2000 5th. Subaru (11pts) 12

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2008 WRC World Rally Car 3rd. Subaru (98pts) 15

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2007 WRC World Rally Car 3rd. Subaru (87pts) 16

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2006 WRC World Rally Car 3rd. Subaru (106pts) 16

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2005 WRC World Rally Car 4th. Subaru (97pts) 16

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2004 WRC World Rally Car 3rd. Subaru (122pts) 16

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2003 WRC World Rally Car 3rd. Subaru (109pts) 14

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2002 WRC World Rally Car 3rd. Subaru (67pts) 14

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2001 WRC World Rally Car 4th. Subaru (66pts) 14

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2000 WRC World Rally Car 3rd. Subaru (88pts) 14

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1999 WRC World Rally Car 2nd. Subaru (105pts) 14

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1998 WRC World Rally Car 3rd. Subaru (65pts) 13

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1997 WRC World Rally Car 1st. Subaru (114pts) 14

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1996 WRC Group A 1st. Subaru (401pts) 9

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1995 WRC Group A 1st. Subaru (350pts) 8

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1994 WRC Group A 2nd. Subaru (140pts) 10

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1993 WRC Group A 4th. Subaru (110pts) 13

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1992 WRC Group A 4th. Subaru (60pts) 14

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1991 WRC Group A 6th. Subaru (42pts) 14

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1990 WRC Group A 4th. Subaru (43pts) 13

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1989 WRC Group A 11th. Subaru (7pts) 13

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1988 WRC Group A 9th. Subaru (18pts) 13

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1987 WRC Group A 10th. Subaru (11pts) 13

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1986 WRC Group B 8th. Subaru (13pts) 13

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1985 WRC Group B 12th. Subaru (20pts) 12

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1984 WRC Group B 9th. Subaru (11pts) 12

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1983 WRC Open 8th. Subaru (13pts) 12

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1982 WRC Open 16th. Subaru (10pts) 12

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