The Car Column

By John Baeke

For 25 years, our much-loved President Ronald Reagan and wife Nancy enjoyed living at their secluded California estate, Rancho del Cielo, a picturesque 688-acre ranch sitting atop the Santa Ynez Mountain range.

The unpretentious Reagan home, a 1,500-square-foot homestead adobe built in 1872, would serve as the Western White House. From there, the First Family and other VIPs including Margaret Thatcher, Mikhail Gorbachev and Queen Elizabeth could view the beautiful Santa Ynez Valley to the north and the majestic Channel Islands to the south. The grounds are covered with old-growth oaks and equestrian trails.

One of the few times the lil’ BRAT has recently turned a wheel. John Baeke photo.

Amid all this splendor, hiding like a hermit in the barn, is the president’s little brat — specifically, his 1978 Subaru BRAT.

Subaru BRATs were whimsical if not odd when they first arrived from Japan, and they remain so today. Their best feature might have been their timing. Landing on U.S. shores during the oil embargo meant their svelte 2,000-pound weight gave them a m.p.g. advantage over all other light utility competitors.

The front half of the BRAT was a car, but it barely had room for two adults. The back half was shaped like a pickup but barely had room for a bale of hay. In fact, the manufacturer called them neither car nor truck, but a “transporter.”

 You could bolt two plastic jump seats backwards in the truck bed for a scary ride, something we would not subject a dog to today. The BRAT had 4-wheel drive, suggesting it was built for off-roading, but with its very low clearance and toy-like tires, it likely could not pull through much more than an inch of snow.

The tiny 91 c.i.d. motor was of “flat” 4-cylinder configuration, something once made popular by Porsche. Yet at only 67 horsepower, a mild headwind would likely cause it to stall. These motors were long on sound, short on punch.

There was room for the tiny engine, spare tire and more under the hood of a BRAT. John Baeke photo.

The motor and spare tire were so small that they were stacked together under the hood. The body had psychedelic disco-era stripes on each side. So, if you were a Redondo Beach surfer dude in the 1970s, the BRAT was perfect for you …  but for a future American president?

I chuckle thinking how the lil’ BRAT must have struggled the first (and only?) time it was asked to climb to the Reagan Ranch atop rough Refugio Road.

The lil’ BRAT was an oxymoron for all that we have come to admire about our 40th president. Ronald Reagan had movie-star good looks. On the silver-screen his character battled our Japanese enemy. In life, he was tall and muscular; a “real man’s man.” The Secret Service nicknamed him “Rawhide.” He could not be intimidated or shaken. He loved hard, physical work yet spoke softly. He was humble, not flashy. He was literally the most powerful man in the world. He was a red-blooded American patriot. The lil’ BRAT was, well, none of these things!

It was during those frenetic years between Reagan’s California governorship and his U.S. presidency that personal advisors Richard Allen and Peter Hannaford gave the Subaru to their boss, a choice they may have later reconsidered.

In the years to follow, the president was advised to always keep the lil’ BRAT hidden away from the hypercritical lens of the press; the optics of the two together, much too risky. Why these men did not select something more logical and American, like a Ford Bronco or Chevy El Camino, may never be known.

In 1998, Nancy Reagan decided to say good-bye to Rancho del Cielo. Before selling the ranch, certain items were given away, including the lil’ BRAT. By that time, the car, err, truck, had fallen into disrepair. If not for its presidential provenance, the rusty car would have been declared worthless. Eventually, it found its way to a popular online auction company, and later into the appreciative hands of Marilyn Fisher, former ranch curator. She knew where the BRAT’s rightful place should be.

The ranch was purchased by the Young America’s Foundation, whose mission is to preserve the legacy and promote the ideals of Ronald Reagan through tours and education. Today, YAF operates Rancho del Cielo and the Reagan Ranch Center in Santa Barbara (see

In 2005, Subaru of America, with the generous help of many devoted Subaru BRAT owners (yes, they are out there) completely restored the president’s quirky lil’ BRAT to as-new condition. Not long thereafter, the car was given to YAF, who safely returned the president’s devoted lil’ BRAT to its original home inside the tack room at Rancho del Cielo.

History suggests that only a few of our chief executives of the last century had personal affection for a particular car. In some odd way, these cars seem to personify the character of their presidential owners. FDR had a custom-bodied Packard-12; Truman, a plain Ford Tudor sedan; JFK, a splashy Thunderbird convertible; and Bill Clinton, a jaunty Mustang. To this short list, add Ronald Reagan’s 1978 Subaru BRAT, a most unlikely pairing of man and machine.

However, considering the friendships President Reagan would famously develop with world leaders of a completely opposite nature, possibly his fondness for the unlikely lil’ BRAT makes complete sense.