The Subaru nameplate is synonymous with the following; loud ear-splitting, flame throwing ‘burble’, dressed in a ‘blue suit and golden shoes’. That’s a summary of what many aficionados think and feel about Subaru cars. Being a self-confessed die-hard doesn’t make matters any easier, as I speak from the heart how this Japanese brand touched every facet of my life as a petrol head.
Subaru in Kenya
The Subaru story in Kenya traces its routes to the early 70’s when life was sweet and Kenya was trying to find its footing in the international arena. A Decade back, Subaru was founded as an arm of Fuji Heavy Industries, who were seasoned aircraft makers during the second world war, and it was its planes that were chosen for the suicide ‘Kamikaze’ mission to bomb Pearl Harbour in 1941.
Fast forward post world war, Japan was rebuilding, many of its military dependent industries began to build cars, and Fuji Heavy Industries wasn’t left behind, subsequently forming Subaru Motor Corporation in the early 60’s. They first built the ‘Subaru 1500’ mini hatchback, that was air-cooled and had initial low sales output.
The big break for Subaru came in the form of the Leone model in 1972 when they incorporated the first horizontally opposed engine paired to a symmetrical all-wheel drive layout. This engine layout was compact and allowed it to sit low on the engine bay, therefore allowing the greater centre of gravity. This furthermore allowed the introduction of a symmetrical all-wheel drive, famed for all weather grip and driveability.
Little was known about this small Japanese brand until the all-time greatest Safari Rally winner Shekhar Mehta got the franchise to distribute the vehicles in East Africa under ECTA motors.
Slowly Kenyans began to take notice of the Subaru Leone as a tough and reliable vehicle capable of handling the Kenyan terrain. Its symmetrical all-wheel-drive system was its key selling point, as it was the only small passenger car in the market equipped with four-wheel-drive.
Enter the early 80’s and big Japanese brands began to take a swing at Rallying with such notable entrants like the Toyota Celica and Nissan Silvia having relative success in the safari rally. Subaru began experimenting with the Leone RX Turbo with little success, as its chassis was ageing and not up to standard with the rest.
Subaru’s Big Break
The big break came in 1989 when Subaru launched the Legacy, an all-new model that was bigger than its predecessor. It had a stronger engine and chassis plus advanced symmetrical all-wheel drive. To this effect, Subaru formed Subaru Tecnica Internationale (STI) to unlock the potential of the Legacy.
The first test was to develop the Legacy for the 1990 World Rally Championship and hired Finnish driver Markku Allen and Kenyans Ian Duncan and Patrick Njiru to drive the car during the Safari Rally stage.
It so happened that the 1990 Safari Rally occurred during the Easter season and it had rained heavily. Toyota fielded its hot Celica ‘Flying sausage’, Lancia with its Delta 4 intergrale and Subaru brought in its new baby, the Legacy. The gruelling 1,200 kilometres took cars from Mombasa and back through treacherous terrain that exploited the physical limits of man and machine. Out of 70 entries, only 10 finished the rally. 7 of them being Legacy rally cars.
Of great interest was Patrick Njiru’s Legacy ‘Group N’ model, that was a basic road going legacy, only retrofitted with FIA safety kit, made it to the finish line, this illustrated how tough and reliable the vehicle was. That’s how Subaru began to rise to the top.
The Legacy continued to impress with further wins in 1991 and 1992 until it was disqualified for being too powerful. Subaru had begun to work on a smaller and faster version of the Legacy, code named as Impreza and was unveiled for the 1993 World Rally Championship season.
Subaru contracted the English motorsports group ‘Prodrive’ to further develop the Impreza as a formidable vehicle to win Championships. They had a secret weapon, a young Scottish driver by the name of Collin McRae was very quick and had no fear pushing to the limit. Once the Impreza WRC was unleashed it was unstoppable, winning the 1995, 1996 and 1998 championships.
All this happened when I was a young boy, and I can confess that Subaru inspired a whole generation of kids who grew up in the 90’s, and the spirit still lives till today. Several motorsports clubs have been formed by young men and women, holding drag races and events celebrating the heritage of the Subaru brand.