Crucial Cars: The Subaru BRAT

Depending on the country in which it was being sold, this vehicle went by several different names, including the 284, Brumby, Shifter, MV, and Targa. President Regan owned one. And even though a Japanese car manufacturer produced it, it was never actually available for sale in Japan, except as a gray-market import.

Welcome back to the Bi-drive Recreational All-terrain Transporter – better known as the Subaru BRAT.

Available in the U.S. for just seven years from 1978 to 1985, and in Europe, Australia, Latin America and New Zealand until 1994, BRAT's perhaps best-loved and most-recognized feature is its rear passenger seating – two unique, plastic, rear-facing seats welded into an open-air, carpet-lined cargo area. More on those seats later, and how their origin can be traced to President Johnson, and a tax on U.S. chickens.

Subaru BRAT

Source | Subaru Media


Based on Subaru's Leone four-wheel-drive station wagon, introduced in 1971, every BRAT came with all-wheel drive that could be turned on or off with the press of a button, and a manual transmission as standard features. A three-speed automatic transmission was optional. The early BRAT models featured Subaru's EA-71 engine – a 1.6-liter flat four that was well-known for being underpowered – while 1981 and later models used the EA-81, a 1.8-liter power plant that raised output from 67 hp to 73.

BRAT had two trim levels – DL and GL – with the models easily distinguished by GL's four headlights compared to the DL's two. The first three model years featured a single-range transfer case, with dual range being introduced on the GL model beginning in 1981.

A 93 hp, turbocharged engine became available with the 1983 model year, and turbo models came with the automatic transmission and push-button all-wheel drive as standard features.

cutaway view of a BRAT with labeled parts

Source | Subaru Media


Some of BRAT's unique features included a spare tire mounted under the hood (something that, in hindsight, undoubtedly would have shortened the spare's lifespan or even usability due to continuous exposure to excessive engine heat), an optional split T-top roof, and a hidden, spring-loaded door that served as a side step into BRAT's rear cargo area. And that brings us to BRAT's most unique feature.

BRAT was introduced mainly as a result of the Subaru then-president's insistence that the carmaker needed a model to compete with the growing popularity of small pickups with good gas mileage – think Chevy's Luv or 1970's-era Ford Couriers. Interestingly, BRAT looked more like a younger, smaller sibling to the then slowly fading Ford Ranchero or Chevy El Camino than it did to a compact truck.

BRAT's “cargo-area" couldn't compare to a compact pickup's because of an addition that appeared only in U.S. models and one that BRAT is best-known for: those two beloved, rear-facing plastic seats welded into the bed. The incomparable cargo area also was carpeted – further discouraging activities that drivers of “real" pickups wouldn't give a second thought to doing, including hauling a scoop of mulch home from the local landscaping supply or bags of leaking, stinking garbage to the dumpster.

a collection of BRAT vehicles

Source | Subaru Media


A 1963 tax on chickens is responsible for the inclusion of passenger seats in BRAT's bed. That year, France and West Germany levied a tax on chickens imported from America, and in retaliation, President Johnson imposed a 25 percent tariff on imported light trucks. As a money-saving end run around said penalty, Subaru added the two cargo-area seats and carpeting, enabling BRAT to qualify as a passenger or recreational vehicle, instead of a light truck, and as such subject to only about a three percent tariff compared to an imported light truck's 25 percent. Alas, the two rear-facing seats were discontinued in BRAT's final two North American model years, probably due to a rising number of lawsuits arising from passengers injured while seated there.


BRAT's U.S. sales were the strongest in 1978 and '79, its first two years of North American availability. With an MSRP of $5,299 and sales topping 22,000 vehicles each of those first two years, demand in the U.S. shrunk steadily from there as it faced rising competition from larger, more powerful U.S. pickup trucks. By 1985, U.S. sales of Subaru's quirky, sun- and fun-focused model had declined to just over 4,000 units. BRAT still retained a legion of fans, however, as evidenced in part by a 1978 BRAT in mint condition with just 2,500 original miles. At a 2018 classic auto auction, this brown beauty with black interior commanded a jaw-dropping price north of $46,000 when the hammer fell. Today, restorable BRATs can still be had easily for $1,000 to $2,000.

BRAT experienced a bit of a revival, or successor if you will, in 2003 with the debut of Subaru's Baja, an all-wheel drive, four-passenger, four-door vehicle featuring a cargo bed and roll bars that looked very BRAT-esque, albeit with the two rear passenger seats now tucked safely inside the vehicle – and forward-facing.

Carpeting, however, should still be pretty easy to add to the bed.

What do you think of the Subaru BRAT? Let us know in the comments.

Last updated July 31, 2020