Doomed: Subaru BRAT (1977-1987)

Imagine, if you can, a truck with factory-mounted seats in the bed and spotlights the size of a 747’s landing lights mounted on its T-topped roof.

If you know this truck, you also know why it’s no longer available. Such fun things are no longer allowed due to safety. But in 1977, there were roofless Broncos, K5 Blazers, and cars with beds.

You could buy all kinds of different stuff back in the day, and the Subaru BRAT was as different as it got.

BRAT, all caps, was short for Bi-Drive Recreational All-Terrain Transporter. It was superficially similar to other small import pickups of the ’70s, such as the Datsun 620 and similar models from Toyota (SR5), Mazda (B210), and Chevy (via Isuzu) Luv.

But unlike them, it was a four-seater with two of the four in the bed, facing the other way. The seats were made of all-weather plastic and far from the most comfortable, but the view was spectacular. Watching the world recede as you progressed is another one of many freedoms denied today, in the name of “safety.”

Subaru wasn’t “unconcerned” about “safety.” Grab handles to keep passengers from bouncing out of the bed were included. Though holding onto them made it harder to reach for a cold one in the cooler. That was another fun thing people did in pick-ups back in the day — before the Safety Cult put the kibosh on that, too.

The seats were actually a dodge of a federal edict known as the “chicken tax.” This was a retaliatory tariff of 25 percent applied to import-brand pickups manufactured outside the United States as a tit-for-tat for tariffs applied by foreign countries to American chicken exported outside the United States.

The “chicken tax” hit trucks with just two seats, which at the time was almost exclusively the small import models. These models didn’t offer the extended and crew cab configurations that are commonplace today.

By adding the extra seats in the bed, BRAT qualified as a passenger vehicle rather than a “light truck,” and thus, Subaru evaded the chicken tax on a happy technicality. The automaker was also able to sell the BRAT for less than other two-seater rivals that had the cost of the tax folded into their MSRP.

In 1977, the cost was $4,199 and did not include the optional removable T-tops. The price did include a spare tire mounted under the hood and a spring-loaded door that concealed a built-in footstep to facilitate getting into the bed.

The extra pair of seats did more than just help Subaru dodge an obnoxious tax. They made the BRAT much more practical as a people hauler that could also haul stuff. The extra seats in the back also endowed it with a snarky attitude that the more utilitarian compact pickups of the day couldn’t match.

The BRAT was also stylish—a striking contrast to other import trucks of the era, which weren’t. It borrowed themes from cars with beds, like the Chevy El Camino and Ford Ranchero, which had backward swooping C pillars and a car-like rake to their windshields.

They were, however, still cars and with only two seats, too.

While El Camino and Ranchero could carry mulch or sheetrock like a truck or even people, if they didn’t mind not having seats, they rode as low to the ground as the cars they were based on and did not offer four-wheel-drive.

The BRAT came standard with it.

Well, sort of — depending on your definition of 4WD.

Historically, “4WD” meant a vehicle — usually a truck — equipped with a system that let the driver engage the front wheels when the rear wheels began to slip. Most of the time, the rear wheels propelled the vehicle.

In the BRAT, it was the reverse.

It was based on a front-wheel-drive car, the Leone (Lion), which at the time was Subaru’s largest, fanciest car. It was also the car Subaru used to pioneer powering all four wheels in something that wasn’t a truck—a common thing in today’s cars but a very uncommon thing in the early 1970s, when cars were two-wheel-drive (either the front wheels or the rear wheels, but rarely all four of them).

Subaru was among the first to apply the principle to a car and then to a truck. The BRAT was basically a Leone with a different body — in the same way, that a modern Outback is basically a jacked-up Legacy. And in the same way, a modern Honda Ridgeline is actually a Honda Pilot with a bed.

It’s a common practice because it allows a car company to make more than just one vehicle using a single “platform,” or underlying chassis.

Semantics aside, all four of the BRAT’s wheels were powered. Or could be powered. Just like a 4WD truck, the Soobie’s 4WD could be disengaged when extra traction wasn’t needed and to save both wear and tear on the components as well as gas since it took less horsepower to power two rather than four wheels.

But there wasn’t much power to toggle.

The early BRATs came standard with a 1.6-liter iteration of Subaru’s “boxer” (horizontally opposed) four-cylinder engine that made 67 horsepower at your command via the standard four-speed manual or three-speed automatic transmission.

But then, it was 1977 and the quickest car on the road that year was a 6.6 liter Trans Am packing 200 hp, which on a power-per-liter basis wasn’t all that much more powerful than the Soobie’s 1.6-liter engine.

The TA was quicker but not by much. And it didn’t get 34 MPGs on the highway, which the Subaru did. The TA also didn’t have almost nine inches of ground clearance, as the BRAT had and, Smokey & The Bandit notwithstanding, couldn’t ford streams much less jump bridges.

The BRAT couldn’t jump bridges either, of course — at least, not without the assistance of Hal Needham (the stunt coordinator for Smokey & The Bandit, who totaled several brand-new Trans-Ams making those jumps). Fording streams was no problem, and not getting stuck was what this thing was all about. Especially later GL models, which featured Low range gearing, very much like a truck.

The BRAT helped establish Subaru as the go-anywhere brand, just not very quickly.

It did get a little quicker in 1981 when Subaru upped the underhood ante to 1.8 liters, which almost crossed the 100 hp threshold. A five-speed overdrive manual transmission eventually replaced the four-speed without overdrive, too. Later on, in ’83, a turbocharged and fuel-injected version of this engine was offered that did cross it. This version of the BRAT was only offered with an automatic transmission and the single-speed 4WD/AWD system, still driver-selectable.

The BRAT was a popular model for Subaru, but its days were numbered as the Safety Cult metastasized into a national religion.

Riding in the bed became illegal, and this effectively illegalized the BRAT or, at least, took away its signature selling point. Without the jump seats and experience of riding facing backward, the BRAT was just another small pick-up, like the rest.

It was dropped after the 1987 model year.

Subaru made an effort to revive the spirit of the BRAT in 2002 when it launched a BRAT-like vehicle called the Baja (no all caps because the name wasn’t an acronym). Instead of four seats with the two in the bed,  it had four doors, with the back seats inside and facing forward.

Just like every other car.

This explains why the Baja only existed for three years before it got dropped. Though not a bad vehicle (it shared its platform with the same-era Outback wagon), it was a nothing-special vehicle. By 2002, AWD or 4WD, whichever you prefer, was a common feature available in many new cars, and many of these, including the Outback, also offered generous ground clearance and the ability to ford streams and unplowed roads.

The Baja did have a bed, but without those seats, it was missing something—that certain something that makes the difference between a meal you remember and savor and just dinner.

The BRAT was something special, and we shall not see its like again.

Subaru BRAT Trivia:

  • The original 1977 BRAT came standard with radial tires, tinted glass, and a pushbutton radio. It was, after all, 1977.
  • Available colors included Crystal Blue, Plaza White, Mild Yellow, Brilliant Red, and Sprite green. BRAT was spelled out on the C pillars in vertically stacked block letter decals.
  • In addition to being one of the first vehicles of its type, a car-based utility vehicle with standard 4WD/AWD, the BRAT was also one of the first vehicles to come with more than a 12-month 12,000 standard warranty. Subaru included an 18 month/18,000 mile warranty with every BRAT sold.
  • Ronald Reagan was a BRAT owner. His 1978 model (restored since his death) is now a static display at his California ranch.
  • One of the reasons for the BRAT’s exceptional gas mileage (34 highway would be a good number today) was due to its exceptionally low curb weight, just over 2,000 lbs. To get a handle on just how light that is, consider the weight of its attempted successor, the Baja. Though roughly the same overall size, the Baja’s curb weight was a beefy 3,485 lbs or nearly twice the weight of the original ’77 BRAT, which explains why the Baja only managed 26 MPG on the highway. This is only 1 MPG more than the ’77 BRAT delivered in city driving.

The post is an excerpt from Eric Peters’ forthcoming book called Doomed.


Photo attribution: Jacob Frey 4A licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

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One Response to “Doomed: Subaru BRAT (1977-1987)”

  1. Chad says:

    Why call it “Doomed”? I think it had a fairly long ‘run’ and was a fine specimine (along
    with the Geo Tracker, ’60s Chero, Rampage/Scamp, Ford Durango, Zuki, etc, etc).