Half-century up for Subaru Boxer engines


The first Subaru to be fitted with what is now called a Boxer engine
GOING SIDEWAYS: The first Subaru to be fitted with what is now called a Boxer engine. Image: Subaru

Are you a Scooby fan? There are thousands of them in South Africa who swear by the brand and for whom a Sunday blast is more a religious experience than just a fun drive in the country.

Well, 2016 is the 50th anniversary of the creation of the brand’s now almost mythical Boxer engine, so named and copyrifghted for its engine bores being horizontal rather than vertical or arranged in a V-configuration thought the original was made by a German way more than a century ago.

The pistons therein move back and forth in horizontally, rather like two boxers duking it out in a ring that is actually a square.

The first Subaru to be fitted with what is now called a Boxer engine
THE WORKING BITS: The inside of a modern Subaru Boxer engine is a work of art. Image: Subaru

Just as confusing… but still a hallmark of products from Fuji Heavy Industries in Japan and the same as BMW motorcycle engines – also ‘boxer’ units. Porsche also uses such engines.

The concept was, however, created by that Adam of the automobile, Karl Friedrich Benz, way back in 1897,  called the ‘contra’ engine for an obvious reason and first used as a two-cylinder from 1899 in passenger and racing cars. It was last used in a five-ton truck with a huge output of… a mere 10kW!

Subaru’s signature boxer engine was introduced on the Subaru 1000 small car – today it would be called ‘a compact’ – on May 14, 1966 – that bears no resemblance at all to the brand more recent products.

Subaru Boxer engine
PERFECT PACKING: You’re looking at an engine with a history going back way more than a century – a 2016 Subaru Boxer engine. Image Subaru

It was, then, just another Japanese car: mostly scorned by major contemporary automobile manufacturers and their customers at a time when ‘Made in Japan’ meant cheap, plastic, unreliable; when Germany and Japanese products were disliked for those nations’ actions during the Second World War.

FHI – and eventually the Boxer engine – was created under the wing Nakajima Aircraft Company, then Asia’s largest aircraft manufacturer. Since then, Subaru says, “it has striven to maximise the advantages of the engines, continuously improving them to the point where today (2016) every Subaru sold in South Africa has one”.

Boxer production over the past half-century exceeds 16-million – but what’s so special about them? The 16-millionth was a 2.5-litre for Legacy and Outback units.


Well, the opposed pistons cancel the inertial force of each other. “The result,” Subaru says, “is reduced vibration, superb rotational balance and engine smoothness right through the rev range.

“The now copyrighted Boxer engines are mounted in line with the drivetrain for a maximum power-transfer.”

This is the rugged Forester SUV - formidable for off-road driving. Image: Subaru
A MODERN SUBARU: This is the rugged Forester SUV – formidable for off-road driving. Image: Subaru

Subaru did, however, also produce conventional perpendicular engines though these require more drivetrain components to transfer power and so reduce their fuel-efficiency.

Subaru is also known for its all-wheel drive systems – marketed and copyrighted as Subaru Symmetrical All-Wheel Drive – which, the automaker asserts, “deliver excellent performance, stability at high speed and brisk cornering”.


Being flat, the engine can be mounted way down in its bay to greatly lower the host car’s centre of gravity, further contributing to stability, handling response and flat and confident cornering.

For this reason Subaru is officially (IIHS Top Safety Picks) the overall safest brand in the US and hs been since 2010 and the only automobile brand apart from Porsche to use boxer engine propulsion.

Happy 60th, Subaru Boxer, and may retirement be many decades away.

For more information on Subaru products, visit their South African website.

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