I was recently invited to the home of a guy who owns two Subaru BRATs. This is like getting invited to dinner with the president: you must say yes, even if it means you have to reschedule your life-saving heart transplant.
And this is how I found myself cruising around suburban New Jersey last weekend in a 1970s Subaru pickup truck with 67 horsepower.
Yes, ladies and gentlemen, that’s right: I can now confidently tell you what it’s like to drive a Subaru BRAT. You’d know this if you followed me on Twitter, because I posted several pictures of my BRAT encounter, including one where I’m sitting in the back like it’s a living room recliner. But you wouldn’t know the details: how the BRAT drives, how it sounds, how it feels, how it smells, how it looks when it gets out of bed in the morning. And that’s what I’m here to tell you in today’s column and show you in today’s video.
But before we get into all that, a little BRAT history for those of you who thought Subaru’s automotive production was limited to a) safe, durable all-wheel drive family vehicles, and b) head gaskets made of cardboard.
Here’s the situation: back in the 1970s and 1980s, everyone had a small pickup truck. Mazda had one. Ford had one. Toyota had one. Nissan had one. Chevy had one. The market was ripe then for small pickups, much like it is ripe now for compact crossovers with identical styling.
So Subaru decided they wanted to get in on this whole small pickup thing. Only, there was a problem: Subaru didn’t have quite as much money as these other automakers, on account of the fact that, a few years earlier, their entire product lineup was limited to a microcar the size of a refrigerator.
So what Subaru did was, they hacked the rear end off an existing station wagon, and VOILA! The BRAT was born. And not only was it born, but it flourished: it was sold in the U.S. for about a decade and it became successful in many markets around the world, including Australia, where it was called – I swear this is true – the Subaru Brumby.
Before we get into the driving experience, a few other BRAT tidbits that you can recite to your spouse tonight over a pleasant meal. Number one: the name “BRAT” is actually an acronym for “Bi-drive Recreational All-terrain Transport,” with “bi-drive” being Subaru’s name for 4-wheel drive at the time. After considerable thought, I believe this is the worst automotive acronym ever conceived; so bad that it’s on the level of those classroom acronyms where the teacher is so desperate to make “SHARE” work that “H” becomes something like “Have a great day.”
Another excellent BRAT tidbit: it has seats in the back. That’s right: mounted right behind the partition between the cabin and the bed are two rear-facing seats, which include both a) seat belts, and b) pistol grip handles that makes them look like ejector seats. Which, if you got in a collision, they were.
Why the seats? Well, back in the 1970s (and still today), the U.S. government had imposed a steep tariff on imported pickup trucks known as the “Chicken Tax.” So what Subaru did was, they added two seats to the back of the BRAT, thus transforming the truck from a two-seater to a four-seater. In the eyes of the tax man, this changed the BRAT from a pickup to a regular ol’ family vehicle – and it meant Subaru didn’t have to pay the tariff. I swear this is true.
And our final amazing BRAT tidbit? That would be the BRAT’s most famous owner, Ronald Reagan, or “LBJ,” as he was known to his legions of admirers (who themselves were known as “Trekkies”). President Reagan owned a BRAT at his ranch, the famous Neverland Ranch in California, and occasionally used it to transport llamas. Because of its foreign manufacture, the BRAT was considered politically incorrect during his presidency, and so, to hide it from the media, he placed it inside a pillowcase.
(EDITOR’S NOTE: The previous paragraph contains some exaggeration. The only true facts I can find are that a) Ronald Reagan owned a Subaru BRAT, and b) Ronald Reagan was a living person.)
So now that we’ve gotten all that out of the way, what was the BRAT like to drive?
Well, the BRAT-infested house I visited contained two different models: a first-generation model from the late 1970s and a second-generation model from the mid-1980s. If I had to sum up these two vehicles in one memorable quotation, I would call the second-generation BRAT “fairly normal,” and the first-generation BRAT “slower than some varieties of dog.”
Speed wasn’t my only issue with the first-generation BRAT, although it was a big one: the thing boasts just 67 horsepower. But it’s also incredibly cramped inside. When I get into a modern pickup truck, I am used to being able to “spread out” in the sense that I could climb into a pickup with three adult polar bears and nobody would be touching. In the BRAT, it isn’t like that. It’s more like you have to fold yourself into an area no larger than a bedside table.
And so, as I was diving down the street in the first-generation BRAT, I was getting a little nervous. Nervous that I would not be able to keep up with traffic. Nervous that I would not be able to stop like I can in a normal car. Nervous that I would get into an accident, and they wouldn’t find anything larger than my clip-on microphone.
In a normal BRAT, you would also get nervous about, say, making a turn, and having the rear half of the BRAT just staying behind at the intersection. This is because most BRAT models have been overtaken by rust, in the sense that you can now see through them in places where you couldn’t when they left the factory.
But not the BRATs I drove. These were perfect. And in fact, when I climbed into the second-generation model, I couldn’t help but think that it was surprisingly normal. While horsepower only went up to about 80 in the BRAT’s later years, the interior was larger, the center control stack was more modern, the driving position had improved, and the driving experience was impressively unremarkable. There I was, driving around in a station wagon that had its rear end cut off, and it actually felt solid. I felt confident in it. It felt… exactly how you’d expect a Subaru pickup truck to feel.
And so, with my faith in the BRAT growing, I asked the owner if he could drive me around for a bit while I rode in the back seats.
“I’m sorry, I can’t,” he told me. “In order to get insurance on these, I had to sign an affidavit with my insurance company promising no one would ever ride in the back seats.”
Yes, ladies and gentlemen, that’s right: although the seats are still there and still functional, they can no longer be used. The four-seater BRAT has been transformed back into a two-seater. Someone alert the tax authorities.
@DougDeMuro is the author of Plays With Cars. He owned an E63 AMG wagon and once tried to evade police at the Tail of the Dragon using a pontoon boat. (It didn’t work.) He worked as a manager for Porsche Cars North America before quitting to become a writer, largely because it meant he no longer had to wear pants. Also, he wrote this entire bio himself in the third person.