Loaded 4X4’s post a fortnight ago about River Cottage Australia’s mighty Brumby being offered up for sale bought a tear to my eye. You see I’ve always had a soft spot for Subies. I’ve driven a lot of them over the years and my kids first 4WDs were Subarus, my son with his L-Series wagons and my daughter had a Brumby.
Daughter’s Brumby was a bright red special-edition, the one with the pop-out glass roof panels and very original. It made an ideal first car, all her mates at school thought it was pretty trendy and it turned out to be very useful too, as all utes are, pressed into all sorts of jobs at short notice.
Brumbies hailed from the time Japanese made indestructible cars, you’ll remember that period when stuff was simple and utterly dependable. The formula was a good one, extending Subaru’s Leone wagon platform into a market sector they hadn’t serviced before from 1978 and haven’t since they abandoned the vehicle in 1994.
The drivetrain was classic Subaru, front-wheel-drive around town with a part-time transfer case enabling HIGH range engagement on the move and LOW range once stationary. Whilst the LOW range reduction wasn’t great, it was still useful. The motors were bulletproof, a flat-four in the Subaru “boxer” fashion that started out as a 1.6 litre and ended in the 1.8 litre form, a naturally aspirated petrol.
Ours was the EA81, the 1.8 litre jigger coupled up to a four-speed gearbox. Sadly the five-speed transmission seen in the wagon range never made it into the utes, which would have made gearshift points a lot more logical, because on the highway the four-speeder often caught you out when contemplating overtaking. A down-change into third and you’d have to rev the ring out of it to build the required speed, something the motor was happy doing, as peak kilowatts (a modest 61) arrived at a heady 5,200rpm.
The USA version was called the BRAT (that is Bi-Drive – the B, Recreational –the R, All-terrain – the A, Transporter – the T). I like that name a lot more than Brumby and it says something about the creation of the vehicle in the first place. Legend has it that Subaru America wanted a vehicle in its line-up to go head-to-head with Toyota, Nissan, Mazda and Mitsubishi’s small 2WD trucks and the Ford Ranchero and Chev El Camino 2WD utes of the day. The ace up the Subaru’s sleeve was the 4WD system from the Leone. That appealed to a lot more purchasers than the 2WD offerings from the others and gave Subaru a nice niche position, of go anywhere, anytime, very brat-like!
Brat’s came with all sorts of refinements like automatic transmissions (albeit losing LOW range and a three-speeder at that), turbocharging, power steering and improved interior comforts in trim levels and features not seen on Aussie delivered vehicles. How about boasting a cassette player along with the AM radio and rear-facing jump seats in the tub, installed behind the rear window! Brats were also the choice of American Presidents, with Ronald Reagan owning one on his California ranch.
On road the Brumby scooted along OK, the engine was brilliantly flexible and almost diesel-like in lugging along at a snail-pace in the wrong gear with little complaint. With a GVM around 1,600kgs and a payload in the tub of 400kgs it wasn’t particularly heavy, so there wasn’t a whole lot of mass to push around.
Being a lightweight, power-steering wasn’t deemed a necessity and it’s true that a Brumby with brand new tyres and inflated to placarded pressures steers pretty nicely, one with tyres that are worn doesn’t. I remember seeing daughter doing parks in the city and cursing the steering load at or near standstill. Once moving however things improved quickly.
Off-road its domain is a made track where clearance isn’t tricky. With maybe 180mm underneath it doesn’t take much to connect with the crown of a track, so some care is required to maintain forward progress. I’ve seen plenty of lifted Brumbies and for that matter L-Series wagons that go places that the heavier trucks won’t, thanks to their light weight, a bit like a modern day Suzuki Jimny. With some suspension manipulation (with CV angles stretched to the max) and 14” wheels instead of the stock 13”, you’ll put any standard ute or wagon’s clearance today in the shade. Sadly that lift pretty much took all the droop angle out of the suspension so getting “diagonalled” was pretty easy, requiring a bit more skill behind the wheel and perfect placement.
Ditching the standard points ignition with an electronic distributor, adding a Weber carb, extractors and if you had the inclination, a turbo from a later wagon variant, you could make a Brumby fly and the sound from that bigger exhaust is every bit as good as a WRX!
Whilst we would have liked to go down that path, our custodian time with the vehicle was more about preservation and enjoying the Brumby for what it is, a small ute with plenty of spunk! I’m not the first one to encourage Subaru to have a think about reintroducing the Brumby or Brat to its portfolio. No-one does small 4WD utes anymore, so there’s a yawning great big hole just screaming out to be filled and a chopped Forester could be just the ticket.
More: David Wilson