NPF: BEAT ON THE BRAT

When I need to make a joke about white trash – and believe me, the last 12 years spent in Indiana, Georgia, and central Illinois have made this necessary on more than one occasion – my go-to cultural reference point is the Chevrolet El Camino. If I'm feeling punchy I can sub in the Ford equivalent (the Ranchero) or, to test the depth of automotive knowledge of the intended audience, the El Camino's identical clone the GMC Caballero. I'm sure these were fine vehicles in their day and in some parts of the world the "ute" body style is quite popular (I'm looking at you, Australia). There is just something about the unholy wedding of a pointlessly large 1970s American sedan with the bed of a pickup truck, however, that screams "Both humans and animals have been conceived in the bed of this vehicle." If you see any of these vehicles on the road today, you can rest assured that the family of six shoehorned into its single bench seat is on the way to pick up some scratch-off tickets.

Is that mean? Yes. That is very mean. But for whatever reason, the Coupe Truck idea did not attract a very high class clientele in the American market.

Despite the jokes that they invite, there is something lovably silly about these vehicles. They look so ridiculous and mis-proportioned that it becomes endearing. Not so, however, with Japan's response to the late 70s/early 80s car-truck conglomeration craze: the Subaru BRAT. That's supposed to stand for "Bi-drive Recreational All-terrain Transporter", which lets you know right off the bat that nothing good is going to come of this. Basically Subaru designers hacksawed the rear end off a Leone sedan and made…this:

brat2

The best part, however, is that Subaru engineers and bean-counters collaborated to circumvent a 25% U.S. import tariff on trucks (the known in the auto industry as the "Chicken Tax"). They did this by classifying the BRAT as a passenger car, which they achieved by…bolting two seats into the exposed bed of the truck. Look at these and try to envision any scenario in which the "backseat" passengers would survive an accident. Or normal driving over 30 miles per hour.

brat

Note the plastic sled-type handles affixed to the seats. So your odds of remaining in the vehicle at speed were a function of grip strength. Awesome.

Fortunately Subaru forewent plans to weld the seats to the bed in favor of bolting them in place, so with ordinary tools a buyer could (and almost all immediately did) remove the seats. But in promotional photos, Subaru was legally obligated to play along with the conceit that this was a four-passenger car; hilarity ensued.

brat3

Yeah, good luck with that guys.

Like all horrible things from the 70s and 80s the BRAT is celebrated for its awkwardness by today's irony hungry hipsters. Jonny Lieberman at Motor Trend is polarizing – some people find his videos unwatchably annoying, while others appreciate his silly enthusiasm – but I would recommend giving his five-minute jaunt in the BRAT a viewing if you're bored. It's fun, it takes the car at face value, and if nothing else we learn that because the gearshift attaches to the transaxle through a crude hole cut directly into the floor of the cabin, illegal drugs can be slipped out of the vehicle during a traffic stop.

Subaru produced a more modern but equally ridiculous version called the Baja from 2002-2006 before finally admitting that the American market simply isn't, uh, ready for this type of car. However, given our fondness for all things retro it wouldn't be surprising to see some manufacturer resurrect this idea again in the future.

44 thoughts on “NPF: BEAT ON THE BRAT”

  • Here in Australia the Subaru was marketed as a "Brumby" (the Australian version of the feral Mustang horse) It didn't sell well here either, and it did not have to have those back seats – in fact they would be downright illegal here, as would a chintz sofa bolted to the rear floor be.

    The "ute" (short for "utility") was conceived here and its purpose was to provide a vehicle in which its sophisticated owner could "take the wife to church on Sunday and the pigs to market on Monday." Care was always taken by the sophisticated not to mix those two tasks up.

    How Americans could possibly find a concept like this ridiculous is beyond me,

  • Automobile design is going to continue to suck ass for a long time. There doesn't seem to be a single car in production that isn't a disgusting blob.

  • A Brat was almost my first car but it got all rusted through before I got my license. Had the bed seats and everything. My dad still has a Baja (he might be a little obsessed with Subarus).

    Now I drive an SVX, which is weird in a completely different way. Subaru used to make such weird, inexplicable cars that I honestly have no idea how they survived.

  • The Subaru Brat was huge in Hawaii in the very late 1970s/early 1980s. Most of the roads were rural and the weather was fine for riding in the back. It was for people who didn't need a full-sized pickup truck (and people rode in the back of THOSE, too). Gas is always more expensive in Hawaii than the rest of the mainland and the Brat got excellent mileage–certainly moreso than those seats-8 monstrosities that idiots buy now to ride to Wal-mart in.

  • Wow, the second time in only a couple of hours I've read something about the Chicken Tax. (The first was in Walter Reuther's wiki page, which resulted from reading a recent Krugman post on the decline of the left and being inspired to try and find out what sixties talk shows used to feature labor union heads as regular guests. You know. For context.) It's kind of an interesting story, though, about the German and French imposition of tariffs on American chicken, which resulted in American retaliation against imported trucks (primarily Volkswagens) (brandy was also taxed, presumably to hit the French's exports, although perhaps Citroen was selling trucks as well).

  • @Talisker; I've never seen anything like that on American roads. Back in the 1990s through mid-2000s, my parents had an Isuzu pickup truck–a small one, with a tiny cab that seated two and a standard-sized pickup bed. That thing was amazing; parked like a car, got great gas mileage, yet you could lug a double bed in the pickup bed. They don't make that model anymore because it was entirely practical and didn't soothe anyone's penis-envy to own it.

  • Gordon Guano says:

    @Anonymouse: I have fond memories of my Isuzu P'up. The back fire every time I shifted up a gear, the way the exhaust pipe corroded and left a soot trail up the back window, the front door hanging off one hinge, and best of all, the way turning on the radio would kill the engine. But the little thing simply would not die, and as you point out, it got 30+ mpg and could carry a week's worth of firewood. Good times.

    In the rural VA town I grew up in, there was an influx of hippies in the 70s, and the culture clash is still working itself out. You see this manifest in a greater than usual number of Subaru station wagons. They're the best compromise of needing to haul stuff, all-wheel drive for back roads, and being decent on gas.

  • I'm amazed they got that thing past even the relatively lax safety standards of the time.

    In a rollover accident the rear passengers would have been decapitated.

    Yikes!

  • @Gordon Guano

    You have to be from Floyd. The New River Valley is the Subaru Capitol of the world.

  • My brother-in-law lives in rural Ohio and he has a Subaru wagon.

    We're on our second Audi wagon (same concept as the Subaru just a bit nicer).

    I had to search far and wide to find that A4 wagon. They're hard to come by in the states. In Germany it was every third car on the road.

  • Hey, relax guys! Those seats in the back? Forget about it. You have an accident in a ute at any kind of speed, everyone in the fuckin thing is dog meat.

  • Actually, those Rancheros and El Caminos were first produced back in the '50s, because those models became affordable used vehicles a decade later. Ask me how I know…

    And I believe those vehicles became semi-popular with surfers when vintage woodies started to become unaffordable or hard to find.

  • c u n d gulag says:

    We never had any cool cars in my family.

    My favorite, for a reason I'll explain later, was a hand-me-down '63 Chevy Impala station wagon, that my family bought off of a friend of my Mom's pianist.

    The car was designed, I think, to kill children.
    My sister and I could sleep in the back on long trips – yeah, THAT was safe!
    The dashboard was make of painted steel – no cushioning at all!
    And the car had NO seatbelts – what passed for a seatbelt back in those days, was your father's right arm.
    I bounced my head off of that dashboard a few times – which may help to explain some things.

    But my favorite thing about that car, was that it had one reliable way to make me laugh!

    If it was damp or rainy, the car never wanted to start.
    And so, every, and I mean EVERY, time when the car wouldn't start when it rained, my usually brilliant father did the same thing:
    He'd go and lift-up the hood.

    Forgetting that the distributor was located, for some idiotic reason, in the back of the engine – so that every time the car wouldn't start, he worsened the problem by dousing water from the hood on it.

    My sister and I used to watch him get out and go to the hood and lift it, and nudge one another the whole time, until he'd realized that he did it AGAIN!!!!! – and exclaim, with a loud, Russian-accented, "OH SHIT!!!!!"
    My Mom would lecture him on his language, and my sister and I would be in the back, ROFLOAO!!!!!

    My bald father was and early convert to hair-dryers.
    He kept one in that car at all times.

  • In anything built prior to 1964, in a front-end collision, the steering column will likely be pushed rearwards and become a spear through the chest.

    In 1964 padded dashboards, seat belts, and most importantly collapsible steering columns were mandated by the feds.

  • Gordon Guano says:

    @TomW, @sluggo: good call. I grew up on the Willis side, which is far more hillbilly than hippie. Dear FSM, did those hippies have some beautiful daughters in the early 90s…

  • @cu

    What is the statute of limitations an child endangerment? I don't know of anyone our age, whose folks wouldn't be looking at a stretch in the big house these days. :)

    I can remember my dad's words like it was yesterday " if you don't have every last bit of that lead paint scraped off the roof by sundown you get the belt"

    (just kidding folks)

  • c u n d gulag says:

    Major Kong,
    Back when I was in JHS and HS health classes, they used to show us the same horrible short film every year – "Ohio State Patrol."

    It was from the early 60's, and had footage from accidents, with the Ohio State Troopers talked to viewers about the dangers of not paying attention when you're driving, and drinking and driving.

    JAYZOOS!!!!!
    The footage was bloody and gruesome!
    It almost bordered on child abuse.
    But it was shown to make sure to shock you, and you warned you parents about the dangers of driving.
    And the teachers would never tell us in advance that the film was on the schedule for class the next day, because they knew kids would either call in sick, or skip that class.

    You saw one guy impaled, like you said, on a steering wheel, just shuddering until he died.
    And another guy in the grass, shaking and screaming from snapping his spine in a rollover accident.
    All sorts so brutal accidents, with dead bodies and all!
    BRUTAL!
    But effective.
    I remember that to this day, and it's over 40 years later.

    Sorry to go OT on everyone. It's just that Major Kong brought back a long suppressed memory.
    Now, I need a drink…
    BUT I WON'T DRIVE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • My wife used to know someone whose dad said it was always his "dream" to own an El Camino. Now every time I see one on the road I say, wistfully, "Ooh, an El Camino."

  • Back in the '80s in the San Francisco Bay Area, when I worked a few years in construction, nearly every roofing contractor I came across drove either a Ranchero or a an El Camino. It was almost as if the state's contractor licensing board required purchase of these vehicles as part of their approval.

    My parents bought a Brat after I had moved out of the house. Never had a chance to drive it, and one day while visiting I noticed its rear seats had ended up in the garden, perched among the flowers and the gnomes. A year or two later, the seats were gone.

    These days, though, here in the gentrified Sierra, Subarus are hugely popular, thanks in large part to their all-wheel drive. The company seems to be hitting mostly home runs for its fans. That said, I wouldn't mind picking up a still-running Brat — given its small size, it'd surely be useful when heading down narrow, brushy forest roads in search of trout or quail….

  • No one has ever beaten the Daihatsu pickup in the little pickup category. First saw them in Chu Lai in 1969. Saw two for sale just last year here in Lincoln NE.

    If you had a driver and a passenger they would be crowded and you could only fit two small trash cans in the bed of the truck but you'd never get stuck because you could just pick it up and slog it out of the mud onto firmer ground.

  • Death Panel Truck says:

    My cousin's grandfather had a sweet 1962 Falcon Ranchero, powered by Ford's indestructable 170 Special straight six. By 1978 it had only 35,000 original miles on the speedometer, because he rarely drove it anywhere further than a quarter-mile up the road and back to get his mail. My cousin used to borrow it occasionally. His grandfather let him drive it even though he was only 15. So what happened? My cousin lost control and rolled it into a plowed field. He didn't get hurt, but the passenger compartment was nearly smashed flat. What a waste of a great little car. I'd buy one in a minute if I could find one.

  • As mentioned up thread El Caminos and Rancheros were offered first in the 50s and the Ranchero came first. Both were built in different platforms over time and both are still produced in Australia by GM and Ford there, although both probably are doomed with the rest of Australian car production.

  • The more well off white trash used to drive a one ton dually crewcab with running boards, lights all over and a short cap covering the front ¼ of the box. Also huge CB whip antennas.

    I saw an Edsel pickup once, it was a '58 Ranchero with an Edsel front clip on it.

    The most useless one these days is the Chevy Avalanche or it's brother in fancy dress the Cadillac Escalade!! The Chevy Avalanche is Scott Brown's "truck", seems appropriate as he is faking it, so his "truck" might as well.

  • Lorenz Gude says:

    I remember well going with my pappy down to the grain mill in Deposit NY in 1944 in a 35 Ford pickup. Back then the little pickups were built on a sedan frame. It wasn't until after the war that the capitalists figured out they could sell more stuff if they designed light trucks on stronger chassis and made cars more comfortable. It worked a treat in the American market and sedan based pickups and sedan deliveries were soon replaced . But the Australian market wasn't big enough so they had to build both Utes and Panel Vans on car chassis. When I came here in the 70s the utes were entirely utilitarian – rubber floor mats with three in the tree, and a small in line six. Since then Australians have raised the Ute to a high art form with color coded accessories and designer roll bars, roo bars and drop dead wheels.Not for me, but I reckon that the old Brumby would be just about perfect for an old geezer like myself.

  • I had a 78 4wd Subaru wagon 20 years ago. Lots of fun in the winter, so I've always been drawn to the Brat figuring that that Subaru would be as reliable, and hopefully not as rustbuckety as the wagon, and I could haul stuff!. I scoured craigslist, but could not find any. Either people love them so much, they're not selling, or there are just not that many around.
    With regards to the El Camino, I rarely see one up here in NJ, but on various trips down south, FL, GA, NC, SC, , oh…my…God, they're a hit.

  • My friend (and lunch transportation) in high school drove his family's old El Camino. The gas gauge didn't work, so he would just fill it up about once every 3 days just in case. He and his dad would take it hunting, so they would drive through fields and stuff with it- it was barely holding together in the early 90s.
    Did you know that in Ohio, it is perfectly legal to transport people in the bed of a pickup truck as long as you don't go over 30 miles an hour? I got the question wrong twice on the OH drivers test- once on the practice test and once on the actual test because I didn't actually believe that was the law. I guess it's Ohio's way of thinning out the gene pool.

  • c u n d gulag says:

    Death Panel Truck,
    HOLY SHIT!!!!!!!

    Yup, that's it.
    I didn't even need to click on it – I WOULDN'T!!!!!!!! – I recognized the first sentence, about the movie not being made in Hollywood.

    Jayzoos!
    Why can't I remember something useful from those days, instead of crushed steel death road machines, and bleeding, screaming, and shuddering road-pizza?

  • I went to a Butthole Surfers concert where they ran footage of gruesome drivers' ed films in the background. I didn't stay too long at that concert.

    And yes, the bolted seats in the back of the BRAT are relatively safe, considering that many people used to load their friends and family in the back of their pickemup trucks like they was livestock. Many times in high school I remember a bunch of us piling into the bed of a pickup truck to go off somewhere. Yes, it was kind of dangerous, but if it was between going and not going, you assumed the risk and got in. Also, the Native Americans from the reservations and the pueblos used to pile everyone in the back of the truck to go into town to shop. Just a normal sight on I-25 or I-40.

  • @mothra: You wuss. You didn't even stick around for the part of the show where the project the penile surgery videos behind the band!

    And yeah, in the 1980s it was entirely OK to have kids riding around in the back of a pickup truck. Nowadays, that would get you a helicopter pursuit and probably a prison term. My brother and I sometimes wonder how we managed to survive to adulthood. Too dumb to die, I guess.

  • @Gordon Guano – It's a small world. I grew up on a farm about 30 miles from Floyd. Close enough that Floyd had a "reputation" for weirdos and hippies. I went through there a couple of years back and it seems like they've built a bit of a tourist industry on bluegrass music and that hippy legacy.

  • Xecky Gilchrist says:

    Mean or not, that impression of El Caminos is very much like mine (only I think of a different kind of dirtbag, more the pre-hairplug would-be-swinger type, for some reason.)

    IMO that class of vehicles has yet to be out-fuglied, and the 70s variants are the standing champeens – though the Chevy Avalanche sure gave it a try in the early 2000s.

  • I can recall when the average pickup truck from the "Big 3" really wasn't any larger than a full size sedan of the time.

    That was before "My truck's bigger than your truck" became a thing.

    My neighbor has something called a Toyota "Rock Warrior" that's too tall to fit through his garage door by at least a foot. I think my first apartment was smaller than this truck.

  • I remember seeing "Flesh, Metal and Glass" in Drivers Ed way back in the '70s. There may or may not be a connection between that and me never actually getting a license until my late twenties. My first husband bought me a Honda Elite scooter. Still don't have a license for four wheels.

  • Morley Bolero says:

    @c u n d gulag : When i was 15 we were obliged to watch those movies too, having somehow made their way to my high school in Flin Flon. Talk about traumatizing the audience.

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