Subaru's rally legacy began in the most unlikely place (BAJA!)
Subaru's rallying legacy is renowned, as the dirt-throwing, all-wheel-drive turbo monsters of Group A, WRC, hill-climb and rallycross have won just about all there is to win. But did you know one of their first forays into off-road racing was the polar opposite of a WRC car?
Plucky Californian Subaru dealer Jack Coyle entered an FF-1 coupe, a naturally aspirated front-drive rally car, into the fearsome 1971 Baja 1000; already regarded as one of the most difficult off-road races of the time.
BAJA! For off-road racing fans the annual race from Ensenada to La Paz is Mecca, and the equal to the Monaco Grand Prix, Indy 500, US Nationals, or the Le Mans 24-hour. While there had been timed runs dating back to 1962 it wasn't until 1967 when Ed Pearlman co-founded the National Off Road Racing Association (NORRA) and made it an actual event that the legacy began.
The Baja 1000 and Baja 500 are very different races compared to traditional stage rallying. They're run flat-out through unforgiving, rough terrain full of brutal rocks, deep sand, tough hill climbs, deep ruts and 1000 other obstacles, both natural and man-made.
The other crazy part are the spectators who line the road. Many of us will have seen the footage of 1980s rally crowds, but that style of "hands on" spectating is still alive and well on the Baja Peninsula. And such a rough, unforgiving race would naturally see wild, unique race cars being constructed to take it on.
Cars like the Baja Boot (see above) revolutionised racing as they went harder and faster than off-road race vehicles. People would also grab cheap, cheerful and lightweight VW Beetles and modify them into the iconic Baja Bugs.
Soon they were being built into even more stripped down rails, built on tube frames and cable of blasting over the desert thanks to their tiny mass and reliable air-cooled power.
There have also been genuinely groundbreaking machines, like Parnelli Jones' "Big Oly" tube-frame Bronco. This open-top tube-frame monster which won the event and started the whole Trophy Truck style of truck!
Up against these featherweight fliers, the full-size Subaru FF-1 coupe didn't set the Baja world on fire. But, it did spark a determination at Subaru to taste off-road glory. And how good are those slot mags?!
Subaru were back at the Baja 500 in 1972 in a newer GL Coupe, built in Japan by Coyle's mates Koji Takaishi and Noriyuki Koseki. Koseki, an employee of Fuji Heavy Industries, must have been inspired by his Baja experience.
Koseki created the Subaru Rally Team a few years later in the mid-80s, entering a Group A-spec Subaru Leone RX Turbo into the hardcore, world-famous WRC Safari Rally. Then, in 1988 it was Koseki who established Subaru Technica International (otherwise known as STi), and then partnered up with Prodrive in 1989 to birth the Subaru World Rally Team.
An epic legacy, which all came about thanks to a San Bernadino Subaru dealer wanting to drive over rattlesnakes flat-out through washed-out rivers in the Mexican desert!