Our Daydreaming Designer Imagines A Special Subaru From The Japanese Bubble Era

Subkalahari Top

Man, I love having access to a talented designer with some automotive training, but not so much, so there’s still that outsider’s freedom from convention and trends. I am, of course, referring to The Bishop, our designer who lets his imagination run wild from either his own perverse ideas, or bad ideas I feed him. This week, after making him design an Oldsmobile for literal old people last time, he’s gone back to something genuinely fun and vastly less depressing: imagining what a Bubble Era Subaru may have built if they’d been as inclined to try experimental “boutique cars” like Nissan and Honda and Mazda. The result is bittersweet, like all the best imaginary cars are, because while wonderful, we have to remember that, no they don’t exist. So, prepare accordingly, and meet the Subaru Kalahari.

Just so everyone is up to speed, when we talk about Bubble Era Japan we mean the period from about 1986 to 1991 when real estate and stock market speculation, cavalier lending, and loose government policies all conspired to make that period a really good time in Japan, with everyone flush with cash and carmakers feeling free to try all kinds of bonkers things, until it all came crashing down, because, you know, bubble.


But, before that bubble burst, we got incredible cars like Nissan’s Pike Factory quartet, the Be-1, Pao (you know, like mine!), Figaro, and S-Cargo, as well as cars like Mazda’s gullwing’d Autozam AZ-1 or Honda’s fun little Beat. These were all cars that were designed to be fun over everything else, built on tried-and-true platforms but highly experimental and open with body styles and character. It was a fun time for cars, with a significant but not-too-serious retro flair.Bistro


Subaru played a bit in this space as well, but a bit later than everyone else, with cars like the Vivo Bistro, a little city car with a lot of retro style, but, significantly, Subaru, despite their long history with four-wheel drive, never thought to adapt the retro-fun-car aesthetic to a genuine off-roader. But they could have, and that’s where The Bishop comes in.


This company later built cars with a third headlight under a doortires mounted on top of the engine and made a production four seater where two of the passengers sit outside the car?  NOW we’re talking a company (Subaru) that would have been crazy enough to make one of these stupid cars AND sell it here.

But what kind of stupid car?  If there is one area that the Pike cars and retro movement left underserved, it was off-roaders.  This was an area that needed to be addressed in a time when even the most retro 4WD available at the time (the Wrangler) was getting square headlights and a plasticky dashboard…ewww.  Is there a better company than Subaru to make this happen?

Of course, Subaru didn’t offer a true Jeep-like truck type vehicle as a basis, but neither did companies like Volkswagen or Citroen, and that didn’t stop them from creating scrappy little off-road vehicles.  In fact, it is car-based vehicles like the VW Kubelwagen/Thing and Citroen Mehari that would serve as inspiration for the Subaru retro Rover, and they had the perfect car to underpin it in the by-then-old Leone, a car already used to create the bonkers BRAT.

Presenting the alternate reality 1991 Subaru Kalahari, a pastiche of those aforementioned French and German buggies, though being a two-box four-door it does bear the greatest resemblance to a Gelandewagen or the Kübelwagen, ironically a car that years later power-hungry owners would stuff with Subaru flat fours to upgrade.  Coal rolling Ram owners and knobby tired Bronco drivers would bet this thing couldn’t off road, and I can assure you that would be a very bad bet.  If Soobie felt the need to add insult to injury they could even install a turbo or the flat six from the door-stop-shaped XT6.

Hot damn, that does look fun: a proper VW Thing/Mehari/Mini Moke-style off-road fun car, but this one would actually have four-wheel drive, something usually missing from this category of fun cars. And I could definitely see Subaru being able to pull this off. Let’s see what else The Bishop is thinking about the gloriously fictional Kalahari:

Paint will not be flat but will certainly be a powder-coat level minimal gloss in four colors like Olive Drab (above), Desert Tan, Faded Red, and a Pale Blue/Grey.  Honestly, it’s great to see that the latest Subaru Crosstrek is one of the FEW new cars that offers ACTUAL colors for buyers.

Another advantage of doing a Pike Off Roader is that, I think, as ‘trucks’ they would not be held to the more stringent safety standards of cars.  The tubular bumpers would need to be beefed up to be 2.5MPH units…note that the molded caps on the ends of tubes incorporate side marker lights.

[Editor’s Note: These caught my eye immediately. – JT]


I thought about the hood lifting around the tire instead of with it, but that gets complex.  The tire on the hood, of course, makes it heavy to lift, so like on VW products such as a Type 3 or 4, Porsche Boxster, and Audi A2, the items you need to access regularly (dipstick, washer filler) are behind a small flap in the fender in front of the driver’s side door so you don’t have to raise the hood anyway (the driver’s door secures the flat when it is shut).  Let’s face it…it’s a Soobie so you will never need to open the hood until the oil looks like a milkshake and you know it’s time to replace the head gaskets because Subaru.

There’s more fun stuff around back:

Let’s get a fake jerry can or two on back…I want to have the jack, tools, and first aid kid all in the fake can instead of stuffed somewhere in the rear cargo hold.  Note the tough looking license plate holder/tailgate latch with huge high intensity halogen reversing light.


This seems like exactly the kind of vehicle you’d want to take the top and doors off, but The Bishop has another idea:

I’ve kept trying to come up with different ways of easily removing doors…IT JUST CAN’T BE DONE quickly.  What if the Kalahari just had front opening driver and passenger doors that, if check straps were released, could pivot around 180 degrees and secure in place with rubber restraints like the hood straps on a Jeep?  So if the feeling comes over you, it’s not a half hour ordeal you’re looking at…just open the doors all the way, slide them forward slightly to clear the rear wheels, and snap them in place (the inner panels are body color so they would sort of blend in when facing out). I mean, I could add quick releases in case you wanted to totally remove all four doors…but what a pain.


The interior would be spartan, like a military vehicle, and would get a lot of inspiration from military hardware for dash controls, display, and switchgear:

Those lever switches it has are a great idea for things like climate controls, and combined with the surface-fuse-looking push buttons and simulated etched chrome descriptor plates (which are backlit at night) you get a pretty good miliary vehicle look.   There’s an ammo-box style latch for the glove box, and the radio has that signal corps “echo bravo calling foxtrot alpha, do you read me” look to it, and what looks like the microphone is a corded reading lamp.


The gear shift for the Hill Holder-clutched 5 Speed is very industrial looking, and the 4WD/2WD lever is a tough, spring-loaded thing that is pure theater since it just actuates a microswitch that is usually a little push button on the Leone or XT Coupe’s gear shift.

Dash Callouts


Accessories will be key, just like on the Pike cars, and in this case we could look at things like a hardtop to make it more carlike, or go the opposite direction and go into the whole outdoor lifestyle for sleeping, cooking, and living in the face of insects and rain.  Oh, and don’t forget that the hose-down front seats can pop out to lounge by the campfire.


I really love the idea of this thing, and feel like maybe Nissan sort of approached the look and feel of this with their not-Pike-but-almost car, the Nissan Rasheen. The Rasheen was even a four-wheel drive car as well, but a lot less, I suppose, hardcore than what The Bishop is imagining for the Kalahari.

Here’s The Bishop’s summation of this wonderful fever dream:

I mean, it looks like a Jeep or a VW Thing but drives like an A/C equipped, independently suspended compact sedan for people that don’t have DT’s tolerance for solid axles front and back.….while most buyers would never off road it, I don’t think that they wouldn’t be disappointed if they did.

Would it sell?  More than any of the other cars I’ve drawn so far, I think this dumb-assed thing would undeniably be an insane success.  Like the Pike cars, I see these being produced to the tune of about 30,000 units worldwide, a number which will undercut demand to the point that this will be gouged at 1989 Miata levels.. maybe even 50 percent over sticker price in some markets.  But we’ll never know, because it’s too late now….OR IS IT??

I kinda think he’s right… I bet this could have sold decently well. I think it still could, if Subaru decides they want to be a little bit bonkers again. But what do you think? That’s what matters, here, the collective Autopian opinions! So tell us, and I’ll let The Bishop know to get in here and discuss it all with you. He even went out of his way to change a detail in the main rendering of it, just for you:

“BTW, I did just notice that while the front door windows would be frameless roll down items, the rear wheel arch means there is no room for the rear door windows to roll all the way down, so I changed them to sliding windows in frames that would pop out (like rigid side curtains) for full-convertible driving (the body colored ‘roll bar’ between the front and rear doors stays in place).

Autopians are smart and nerd out on the details!!!”


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30 Responses

  1. I LOVE THIS. That said, here’s my $0.02 if this were to be built today:

    1. More removable camping items – make the radio a self-contained (including speakers on the sides), removable, waterproof, bluetooth unit, include a removable console cooler ala Aztek, and maybe some solar panels (or mounting points for them?)

    2. Focus on sustainability – natural/recycled materials wherever possible (a current Subaru tenet)

    3. Preferably a thrifty hybrid like the Maverick – great mileage while keeping costs down and actually accessible to people. Although I know that Subie would just want to toss this on top of a Busy Forks (Soltara) EV chassis…

    4. Keep cost to a MINIMUM. This could be Subie’s Maverick – Something super practical and thrifty in a cool wrapper people actually want. Ford paved the way. People don’t want small thrifty CARS anymore. They want small thrifty cars pretending to be trucks.

    5. Keeping with the Maverick, add places for people to click in accessories they either buy or 3D print themselves, ALSO lots of exposed hardware!

    6. Lose the flappy door thing. I know it goes with the simple, cheap mantra, but, I just don’t see people driving around with the car’s body inside-out.

  2. As someone who drove ‘80s Subarus for some 17 years, I freakin love it! I >absolutelyevery< inch of mud holes for depth/obstructions!)

    About that spare tire; those boxers are not too tall, so maybe mount it on a strut-brace and cut a hole in the hood? On the brace so it doesn’t move with the motor as my EA81&-2s did

    1. Ok, was excited by this and skimmed too fast: you already thought about the tire mount. As far as design goes, I covet that dash. I would note that those old Roos were fairly flexible, so you’d have to be creative if this would have a removable top. Talked to a guy who cut the rear 1/2 of his wagon’s off after tree damage, and he planned to make it farm-only when the tags expired: said it was sorta scary up&down his twisty mountain.
      So, I think you would need the 6 cylinder cause it’ll be fairly heavy. Honestly, that my only nitpick: this checks the vast majority of boxes for me.
      Well done, sir!

      1. TOSSABL- agreed on the possible (inevitable) flex…at the very least, you can see that sheet metal between the front and back doors is actually a ‘roll hoop’ (can’t legally call it that) that connects under the fabric top. But this thing might need additional roll caging/structure under the top as well.

      2. TOSSABL- I think I’ve actually changed my mind and think the hood lifting around a fixed tire would make more sense. I’d also now like to drop the tire a little lower into the hood (as you mentioned, there is room) so as to allow for the inevitable flip-down windshield

        1. I didn’t even think of a drop-down windshield. Good catch!

          This really caught my imagination, and I’ve been wondering if those fenders would work with the tall front struts Roos have because I really love the look

          1. Oh, shit…those struts! I just helped my kid build a scale BRAT so I should have known. Need to change the front design a bit. If I got the tops of the towers about level with the fender tops it might work… that would raise the whole car but that’s ok. Maybe access covers on tops of the fenders? I just don’t want to develop a new suspension for a low production car

  3. Torch, your “feeding the designer ideas” comment just made me realize that this whole endeavor is “Mystery Science Theater” for car design – and I love it! I’m now imagining that you have The Bishop imprisoned on a 2CV-shaped space station with a wisecracking 8-bit RenderBot and a sentient 3D printer, trying to gradually drive him insane with each task more unreasonable and obscure than the last. Somehow, Bishop manages to foil your scheme at the last moment with a brilliant solution that both satisfies the design brief and subtly mocks his captor, allowing the Bishop to survive for one more week. Bravo, Bishop – we salute you in your lonely orbit.

    1. archimus- you should see some of the shit he sends my way…”what if Cessna and Vector’s Jerry Wiegert partnered to create…” or “what if Malcolm Bricklin and Zastava revived the Studebaker name…” I’ll be stuck on this space station forever….

  4. The window could go down in back the old Subaru way by dropping down until it reached the inner door limit, then the front continuing to pivot from that rear point, leaving the top of the retracted window with a forward angle of attack.

    1. Cerberus- I’d have to look at that but still not sure if it would still be able to totally roll down. Was going to allow it to not go all the way down like the rear windows on VW Rabbit Cabrios but just not feeling that.

      1. They didn’t totally roll down in the Subarus. The result of putting the windows down in a door that intersected with the cutline for the rear wheel was that the rearward end of the glass stuck up a few inches out of the door and the forward portion almost retracted all the way into the door, leaving the top of the glass with about a 15* negative AoA. I always thought it was a bit ridiculous, but clever and negated the ugly extra fixed window solution (also not a practical solution for the frameless doors real Subarus have).

  5. I think you have totally missed the mark. Subaru’s expression of bubble era nostalgia would have better been served by an AWD Vespaish looking moped. Maybe throw in a side car for the dog or the same sex partner.

  6. A Subelwagen? Count me in!

    Actually, I was sold when I saw real controls included in the interior design. I have never been comfortable with touchscreens or tiny pushbuttons that require a display of some sort to verify their position. Would love to see the instruments; something Stewart-Warner-y or plain ol’ mil-spec, perhaps?

    A little more imagination is needed color-wise, though. Those are all nice hues, but this thing would absolutely ROCK everything from Musou Black to Kandy Tahitian Orange, with maybe a cork surface (or DiNoc) thrown in for extra nuttiness (ind individuality) points.

    This really works! You know why? Because the designer isn’t re-imagining an existing vehicle (“This is my take on a 2023 Subaru 360, y’all!”) but is using existing subsurface bits in a new and fresh way. Just like Subaru could if they would.

  7. Sorry but I can’t reconcile the VW’ness of this type 181 design with it being a subaru… maybe if it were a custom early model subaru brat design instead with your nice new interior treatment.

    1. B10- I fully understand, but I was inspired by the fact that people today are putting Subaru flat fours as upgrades into all manner of rear engined VW, including 181/Things, so this is kind of the reverse. I would dearly love to see VW themselves make a retro Kubelwagen but, let’s face it, it’s taken them like two decades to come up with a retro Type 2 Bus. There is also G Wagen in the styling, and I used early models of that as an influence as well (versions before it became a commuter car for Kardashians), but with separate headlamps ala 2CV.

  8. Still waiting for Torch to challenge the bishop to design a 2023 Yugo GVX… And a hot hatch variant – the GVX-TT. What about a 2023 Geo Metro too? With 3, 4 and 5-door variants, a convertible and a hot hatch. If the vee-dub rabbit pickup set the world on fire in the 80’s, so could a GVX or metro pickup too… Since we’re hot-hatching them, you could also give the pickup variants a treatment akin to the GMC Syclone too for gits and shiggles.

    In this day and age, nothing is off the table… If you would have told me 25 years ago that Buick would resort to making primarily SUV’s and shoving high-torque turbo-3’s in them, I would have laughed so hard and told you that your doctor must be prescribing you the really good shit. However, such a dystopian future is already here my friends. Maybe that Buick L3T is just what the metro family needs, but is a single turbo enough here?

  9. First one I really liked. However I would suggest instead of an ammo box handle for the glove box use a removable ammo box as the entire glove box. I like the spare tire on the hood looks but really bad for visibility and access so mount on a bar in back of the tailgate or on the side opening tailgate ala Isuzu Amigo. Maybe on the roof but that creates other issues.

  10. I love the concept, the details and the proposed mechanicals. Everything except the big picture. It’s way too similar to a VW Thing with Jeep fenders and a G-Wagen cabin, and not either unique enough or Subaru enough. It’s too much of an amalgam of other cars.

    Put curved surfaces on the fenders like an old 360. Give it the looks of a 450 or a version of the oddball chrome tombstone grille on the “Dias Classic” models of the Sambar. Make it fake aero-angular like the XT. Just do anything truly unique with the outer panels.

    Just like the Nissan Be-1 was too much like a Renault 5 to be nearly as lovable as the Pao, Figaro and S Cargo, this is too much like other things already out there. The fun bubble era cars were borderline outrageous. This isn’t quite there.

  11. Do I even need to say with the New Escapism™ movement (i.e. “van life”) that’s gripping the populace these days, that this thing would be a homerun?

    I guess so, because here I am, saying it.

    It covers the bases for people signaling an active lifestyle, living it, or ignoring it altogether. It looks cool, with great features in a small package, and does indeed remind me of a Bubble Era Japanese export. I also believe nostalgia is strong and this would sell if only for that reason. But I also believe safety regs would also make it a stillbirth.

    1. Man With A Reliable Jeep- understood on the safety regulations, but don’t forget that this would be released around the time when they were still offering the Suzuki Samurai, which makes this Subaru thing look like a W123 Benz by comparison.

      Glad you like the concept!

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