How Ronald Reagan Became A Secret Subaru Test DriverS

In Ronald Reagan's day, it wasn't smart for an American politician to be seen in a Japanese vehicle, but the soon-to-be-President quietly kept a quirky Subaru BRAT at his ranch in California under an agreement that the automaker would get progress reports from Reagan on the little truck's performance. Read about how this strange arrangement came to be in this report from Benjamin Preston exclusively for Jalopnik —Ed.

Subaru BRATs are cool, if somewhat quirky cars. Adapting the popular Subaru station wagon in 1978, Japanese engineers managed to smear a dollop of pickup truck utility onto a small car platform powered by a 67-hp flat four.

The odd little proto-SUV caught the eye of one of President Ronald Reagan's advisers that same year, not long before Reagan made his second presidential run. Richard V. Allen, a Japan expert who served as Reagan's National Security Advisor for a short time after the Gipper took over the White House in 1981, arranged through one of his contacts at Fuji Heavy Industries (the company of which Subaru is a subsidiary) for the car to be given to the then former California governor and failed 1976 presidential candidate.

The BRAT's circuitous entry into the U.S. market began a bit earlier, as Subaru devised a way around the "Chicken War" tariff — the residue of a Johnson-era trade dispute with West Germany that, to this day, levies a 25 percent tax on imported light trucks (for example, you may have noticed that the Turkish-assembled Ford Transit Connect undergoes a strange, and some would say wasteful, transformation when it lands on American shores). Subaru's solution was simple. The company installed a pair of plastic jump seats in the bed of each truck, instantly morphing it — in a regulatory sense, anyway — into a passenger vehicle.

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Allen got word that BRATs were being tested to destruction at a proving ground in the desert somewhere out west. He said his Fuji contact told him they were having trouble destroying the jump-seated warriors.

"I said, 'I have a friend with a ranch. You could give him one of the destructed ones and see how much longer he could use it,'" Allen recalls.

That's how a Subaru BRAT ended up at Reagan's ranch in the mountains west of Santa Barbara, Calif. (after being sprayed with a fresh coat of fire engine red paint). The only condition Subaru had was that the car's new owner file a report on its performance every six months, making Reagan a test driver of sorts for the company.

Rancho del Cielo was (and still is) an apt home for the BRAT, and for a time, Reagan was a big fan of the diminutive sport ute.

"It was a tough little dude on the ranch and Reagan loved it," Allen says.

But in 1980, a time when Japanese automakers were mopping Detroit's detritus from the factory floor, it was, among Reagan's crowd of campaign advisers, considered a political faux pas for the presidential hopeful to be seen in a Japanese car. That's why you'll never see pictures of a smiling Ronnie loading brush and fence posts into the BRAT's little bed (pictures of him smiling and doing ranch activities in other settings are plentiful).

"At the time, members of Congress were putting Japanese cars on the steps of the Capitol and smashing them with sledgehammers," says Allen, who had owned a Japanese car himself since 1971, but realized that for his boss, leaking such a fact to the press could be the presidential candidate's undoing.

Even after his presidency, Reagan spent a great deal of his time away from the Western White House — often at his home in Bel Aire, Calif. But the ranch caretaker, Lee Clearwater, and a pair of retired California Highway Patrol officers (one of whom, Barney Barnett, held the BRAT's title and filed its semiannual performance reports after the 1980 presidential race) used the presidentially jilted BRAT for ranch work and supply runs down the mountain into Santa Barbara and the Santa Ynez Valley. (The ranch, a collection of modest buildings and wooded hills, sits on a stunning 688-acre chunk of property straddling the mountains separating Santa Barbara County's south coast from its wine country.)

How Ronald Reagan Became A Secret Subaru Test DriverS

When the Young America's Foundation, a conservative student organization, bought the ranch to preserve the altar of Reaganism in 1998, the presidential Subaru was gone, having been transferred to someone else's ownership a year earlier. In 2003, the BRAT resurfaced on eBay, only to be snatched up by a gentleman in Georgia. YAF bought it from him a year later for an undisclosed amount. It was in rough shape after years of use as a ranch vehicle, but Allen stepped in again to arrange, through Subaru of America, a complete restoration.

As the years go by, BRATs are less and less common a sight, so good luck finding one that hasn't been thrashed to within an inch of being sent to the junk pile. The one sitting quietly in the tack shed at Rancho del Cielo might as well be brand new. Its interior vinyl has a refreshed new car smell, its engine and undercarriage are spotless and its white powder coated steel wagon wheels gleam beneath the California sun.

YAF leads tours of the ranch, so it's possible to see the BRAT, along with a host of other Ronnie memorabilia. Tours begin at the organization's headquarters in downtown Santa Barbara. There you will watch a video depicting Democratic presidents alongside images of economic woe and wounded American pride, and corresponding footage of Ronald Reagan bringing morning to America. You will also learn how the free world conquered communism, and look upon dozens of smiling portraits of the Gipper before being whisked off to the ranch in a Chevy Suburban.

YAF staffers say that Reagan spent a lot of time in Rancho del Cieolo's tack shed preparing for horseback rides and fence building expeditions. These days, the shed is silent, save when caretaker George Thompson comes in, making sure its contents are immaculate. Whether or not you're a fan of the departed 40th president, a trip up to his ranch is a worthwhile experience. Where else can you see a perfect BRAT on an even more perfect slice of coastal California mountaintop?


Benjamin Preston is a journalist and car enthusiast who has written for Petersen's 4Wheel & Offroad, The Santa Barbara Independent and on his personal blog. He's currently Associate Editor of the Telluride Daily Planet.

Photo Credit: Benjamin Preston