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Our International Editor was notably pleased with himself when he presented his latest Prime Find to the world last week. He’d come up with a “quintessential Japanese saloon” in the form of a very brown 1979 Toyota Carina, found hiding all the way up the top end of Sweden. Now, whilst I admit that was a great find, I didn’t want to be outdone. However, having excelled myself with an ice cream van a few weeks ago, it was hard to know where to go next. To be honest, brown and Japanese can be quite a rich seam but rather than seeking quintessence, I’ve gone the opposite route. I’m thinking untypical, unconventional and certainly imperfect.

There was a time in the late 1990s when Subarus were everywhere. In possibly the last real example of motorsport actually having a noticeable effect on car sales, the exploits of the Subaru World Rally Team almost single-handedly lifted the profile of the Japanese brand from farmer’s transport to desirable badge of winners. By the time Colin McRae brought his Impreza home to win the RAC Rally and 1995 Driver’s Championship ahead of teammate Carlos Sainz, the six visible stars of the Subaru logo shone brightly. It was the start of a wave which the firm would ride for another ten years, until fashions changed and the sound of an approaching flat four burble became more likely to signal the arrival of a wrong ‘un from the rough end of the housing estate than a discerning enthusiast. Whisper it, but I’m no fan of the road trim Impreza WRX anyway. Having spent quite a lot of time with both I’ll put my hat into the Mitsubishi Evo ring in preference, but they’re both just one trick turbo ponies really…

But back to the script. The point is that Subaru’s sudden explosion of recognition was remarkable considering where they were positioned just a decade before. Subaru didn’t even import cars to the UK before 1977. The 1980s GL estates and the 284 – better known as the “Brat” – pickups sold steadily to agricultural types before they had a shot at the functional luxury market with the Legacy, which sold steadily to agricultural types. It wasn’t that long ago that you’d still see such models stalking the lanes near where I live, usually with hay trapped in the tailgate seals or a sheep in the back. Sometimes you’d also see the pickups. But Subaru’s history in the UK didn’t go much beyond that. We never got the mad rear-engined 360 kei-car, or the boxer powered 1000 saloon. The first model to land on these shores was the first generation DL (known elsewhere as the Leone), but you can be forgiven for forgetting.

The Leone made its world debut in June 1971, just in time to gain exposure at the Winter Olympics in Sapporo. At the time, a comfortable 4WD passenger car was a virtually unknown concept and it tapped into a niche market. Much cheaper than a Jeep Grand Wagoneer or Range Rover, the Leone appealed to a different set of buyers and Subaru made a big play of its affordability in their marketing. Originally equipped with either a 1.2 or 1.4 litre flat-four, carburettor OHV engine, a more useful 1.6 litre variant was added in 1976. Leones were available with a choice of four and five speed manual transmissions, with a three-speed automatic optional from 1975. Some early models had drum brakes at the front but these were soon upgraded to discs with drums retained only at the rear. The handbrake locked the fronts however, which always seems a pointless disadvantage to me. The range was restyled in 1977, but retained its unconventional and very Japanese appearance. While the two door coupé isn’t bad, the four door saloon certainly isn’t a looker in the conventional sense. You could take the position that from the rear three quarters view in particular, it’s downright awkward, but taste is a personal thing I suppose.

Regardless of some peculiar styling quirks, Subaru established itself worldwide, with particular success in America. The Leone was apparently the official car of the US Ski Team from 1975 to 1994. I actually fact checked that twice considering it sounded so unlikely. Given the openly anti-Japanese sentiment amongst the American auto makers, unions, employees, families of employees and distant relatives of employees at the time, it was quite a coup. AMC launched the Eagle but couldn’t wrestle the honour back. If you wanted to ski down mountains, the best car to drive back up them remained Japanese. The Leone family went on to become the world’s top-selling 4WD passenger car (an admittedly small category) and paved the way for the small Subaru brand to grow into a slightly larger small brand.

Finding an early Subaru survivor in Europe is a difficult task, and given that UK sales only started in 1977 you’ll have an even harder job searching on this little island. Still, if you must have a brown Japanese classic motor, you should really aim high and you might just get lucky. The Subaru Custom is a particularly obscure DL variant but we’ve found one for sale on Car and Classic, and it’s our Prime Find this week. So rare is this model that when I performed an internet search for “Subaru Custom 1600”, the only relevant hits returned this actual car when it was previously for sale 10 years ago. It was road legal back then and had apparently been sourced from a family who had only used it as an occasional runabout. Ten years on, the DVLA records show that it was never put in for an MOT after October 2009, but the only advisories at the time were for front panel corrosion and a frilly off side front inner wheel arch. It looks to be in similar condition today which implies it’s at least been stored out of the rain. The vendor’s photographs show a few areas of concern where a good poke about would be prudent, but the seller admits it needs restoration and is selling the car as a project. It looks to be generally together though, which could be important if a quick call to the parts desk at your local Subaru dealer doesn’t immediately yield all you need. Here are a few photographs which we’re borrowed from the vendor’s advert:

Basically, if you want a Subaru Custom 5 Speed; this is it. We certainly hope someone will feel tempted to give it a new and loving home. The asking price is £2,495 equating to approximately Euro 2,750 and for that you’ll get what’s believed to be the only one in the UK. You might consider it to be brilliantly gopping or a fine groove machine, but either way, individuality can be yours and you’ll soon have your witty ad libs practiced for when people ask you what it is. It makes a Toyota Carina look positively common…

Here you have a link to the full advert: 1979 Subaru Custom


With our Saturday instalment of Prime Find of the Week, we’re offering our services to the classic car community, by passing on our favourite classic car for sale from the week that passed. This top-tip might help a first-time-buyer to own his first classic, or it could even be the perfect motivation for a multiple-classic-car-owner to expand his garage with something different. We’ll let us inspire by anything from a cheap project to a stunning concours exotic, and hope that you will do the same.
Just remember – Any Classic is Better than No Classic! We obviously invite our readers to help prospective buyers with your views and maybe even experiences of any given model we feature. Further to that, if you stumble across a classic which you feel we ought to feature as Prime Find of the Week, then please send us a link to

2 Responses

  1. Claus Ebberfeld

    From the headline I actually thought it was called a Subaru Scarcity, which would have been some name.

    Instead I learned by clicking the link that even the seller himself calls the car a project. At that point I ran away and never looked back.

  2. Anders Bilidt

    Phwoooaar…. that is indeed an oddity you’ve found for us this Saturday Dave.

    Back when I lived in Hong Kong, there was often a very clean and tidy example of exactly such a four-door Leone saloon which would often join us on our Sunday Morning Drives. It was beige and kitted out with a set of rare Japanese period alloys. Like you say Dave, it’s a little challenged in the looks department, but I still couldn’t keep myself from liking it. So much so in fact, that I enquired once or twice about buying it. But sadly, it wasn’t for sale. It would have made for a cool Nippon garage together with my ’77 Toyota Trueno 1600GT.

    Back to this particular Subaru. While I don’t share Claus’s fear of projects, I just can’t possibly take on any more projects right now! There are currently three on the go and my account is draining rapidly. I’m just happy it’s not the 4WD estate version as that might just have proven too tempting for me. Just hope someone else will give this Japanese rarity the tic it deserves…


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