The farmers choice
How Subaru eased into the World Rally Championship over the course of a decade.
When Subaru entered the European market in the late seventies with the Leone, they quickly gained popularity amongst farmers. Considering the Leone was a fairly cheap way to get 4WD, this isn't surprising and as a result they were regarded as farmers cars. This image only started to change in the nineties with their rally success. But don't be mistaken, the “farmers choice” found its way onto the stages as early as in the first WRC season.
The 1973 Press on Regardless Rally in the USA was an insignificant round of the WRC, Alpine Renault had already secured the Manufacturers title and the European teams didn't bother to show up. But for Subaru it was a milestone, their cars participated in a WRC event for the first time. The two Subaru Leone Coupes entered by the US importer were driven by Edgar Herrmann/Joe LeBeau and Wayne Forbush/Lewis Fine. The cars were homologated in Group 1, a class which allowed almost no modifications. Unlike other events the PoR Rally didn't distinguish between different FIA Groups and only based their classes on engine displacement. The Leone Coupes competed in the class up to 1,3 litres, in which they finished one-two. Throughout the seventies front wheel drive Subaru were entered by privateers occasionally.
Two time Safari winner Herrmann led teammate Forbush in a class that saw only four cars competing. (https://www.flickr.com/photos/hugo90/10523558774/in/photostream/)
In 1980 Noriyuki Koseki, the future founder of STI (Subaru Tecnica International), set up a small rally team, which evolved into a semi works team. Given that Subaru realistically only had the humble second generation Leone, fighting for overall honours was out of the question. For their first event, the 1980 Safari Rally a Leone 4WD hatchback was built up according to Group 1 regulations. Considering the Audi Quattro wasn't seen in a rally until 1981 the 4WD Subaru could be seen as a huge deal, but unlike later rally cars the Subaru wasn't full time 4WD, instead the rear axle was engaged manually with a lever like you would do in a tractor. It really was just a traction aid that hindered the cars dynamic capabilities.
Takeshi Hirabayashi/Aslam Khan in the Group 1 Leone hatchback on the 1980 Safari Rally. (https://forums.nasioc.com/forums/showthread.php?t=2676122&styleid=1)
Takeshi Hirabayashi and local co driver Aslam Khan actually finished the Safari Rally with the little hatchback, no mean feat as the unique open road rally was a notorious car breaker. A year later they returned to the Safari Rally with with three cars, two of those were more heavily modified Group 2 versions and reached the finish, while the Group 1 car retiered. The team was fully focused on the Safari Rally and didn't enter any other events until 1984. During this period various Leone versions were used as Group 2 cars. In 1982 station wagon and saloon variants were entered alongside the familiar hatchbacks and in 1983 the coupe version got a go at it as well. Usually Japanese or local Kenyan drivers were entrusted with the cars, but the team also managed to get racing decathlete Vic Elford to drive for them. By 1983 Group 2 cars were no longer eligible for points, which meant that the teams best result with their cars finishing fifth and seventh overall in the Safari Rally was in vain, it was time to move to Group A.
Yoshio Takaoka/Shigeo Sunahara finished an impressive fifth overall with the Group 2 Leone Coupe at the 1983 Safari Rally. (https://twitter.com/rsf_motorsport/status/1121736682875834368)
Koseki's team finally debuted their Group A Leone Coupe at the 1984 Rally Monte Carlo with Safari specialist Shekhar Mehta and his wife Yvonne Mehta in the co driver seat. Although it was a snowy event the 4WD Subaru got beaten by FWD Group A cars. It is worth mentioning that future Subaru factory driver Peter “Possum” Bourne had already entered his homebuilt Group A Leone Coupe in the 1983 Rally New Zealand with the help of the local importer and won his class. The second generation of Leone rally cars, were all pretty basic cars with a naturally aspirated four cylinder boxer engine and an agricultural drivetrain, which meant success was limited even though most of the time they were the only 4WD cars in their class.
The Group A Leone Coupe looked the same as its Group 2 predecessor. (http://www.automodellando.it/forum/topic.asp?rand=8599667&whichpage=50&TOPIC_ID=22783&)
In 1984 the third generation Leone was introduced, a year later the Leone RX Turbo Group A rally car followed. It was based on the saloon version and kept the simple drivetrain without a center differential but as the name suggests it was turbocharged. On the promising debut at the 1985 Safari Rally, the local pairing Carlo Vittuli/Robin Nixon won the Group A class and Possum Bourne/Michael Eggleton won at the 1985 Rally New Zealand with a private Leone RX Turbo. Clearly the new car had potential, but Subaru still didn't commit to a proper assault on the WRC. When the team returned to the Safari Rally in 1986, Bourne (co driven by Mike Fletcher) was part of the works team alongside the local pairings Mike Kirkland/Robin Nixon and Frank Tundo/Quentin Thomson who would score a one-two for the team.
Kirkland/Nixon on way to victory with the Leone RX Turbo Group A at the 1985 Safari Rally. (https://minkara.carview.co.jp/userid/2411778/blog/m201602/)
It seems Subaru failed to make hay while the sun was shining when Group A became the top class in 1987. From now on the Leone RX Turbo Group A would be up against much tougher competition. Nevertheless Subaru must have been hopeful as they entered more events. The single entry at the Rally Monte Carlo for Per Eklund/Dave Whittock finished 12th, a first sign that the Leone was outclassed. Even in 1987 the best Group A cars had between 250 and 300HP whereas the Leone had approximately 190HP and compared to the pocket rockets of Lancia and Mazda it was just to big. The Safari rally was notable as the team entered three Leone RX Turbo coupes, one of which was driven by former world champion Ari Vatanen (co driven by Christian Gilbert) who made his comeback, while Eklund/Whittock and Bourne/Kevin Lancaster were in the other two cars. All cars finished but the rally was generally disappointing considering previous Safari Rally results. In the future the team would use the mechanically identical saloons again. Subaru's best result to date came at Rally New Zealand when Bourne/Michael Eggleton finished third, albeit against limited competition. At the last factory outing of the year Bourne/Rodger Freeth were entered at the RAC Rally, but they retiered. Ultimately Subaru finished a dissapointing tenth in the 1987 manufacturers championship.
A Leone RX Turbo Coupe as used by the team in the 1987 Safari Rally. (https://www.drive2.com/l/6787132)
On the few outings in 1988 and 1989 the Leone RX Turbo Group A wouldn't even come close to a podium finish any more. The days where it was the only turbocharged 4WD Group A car were long gone, the newer cars usually had more sophisticated 4WD systems and more power. By 1990 the Leone was done with rallying, but not Subaru. As it seems this was just a prologue.