One of the big leaps to JNC popularity worldwide came as a result of the 1973 oil embargo. The crisis inspired designers, engineers, and entrepreneurs to think of ways to push the automobile’s fuel efficiency limits. One such person was no less than Alex Tremulis, designer of the Tucker 48, the Gyro-X, and bits and pieces of the Subaru BRAT. With the embargo, the time seemed right for Tremulis to execute an idea he’d long wanted to try: An extremely aerodynamic three-wheeled car. His dream, as he put it, was “eliminating the sadistic torture of innocent air.” With this idea in mind, he approached Subaru of America at their Technical Center in Garden Grove, California.
The meeting resulted in a green light from Harvey Lamm, Subaru of America’s CEO at the time. He envisioned a promotional cross-country tour with publicity stops along the way. The goal was to create a car that could cross the United States on one (relatively) normal tank of fuel. The agreed upon formula was 100 miles per gallon and a 25-gallon tank, in order to complete a 2,500-mile route from California to Florida.
Tremulis designed the exterior, using an old airplane wing tank he’d been saving as the basis for the body. The design and construction of the chassis and drivetrain was handed to Subaru engineer Ron Jones, who in turn brought in a talented fabricator by the name of John McCollister. Walt Biggers, director of Subaru’s Technical Center, oversaw the project.
Jones was directed to use as many off-the-shelf Subaru parts as possible. To that end, he utilized the engine, transmission, and rear suspension from the Rex, a kei jidosha not sold in America. Although aluminum wheels with a custom offset needed to be made in order to fit under the drivetrain under the body, the combination worked like a charm.
Much of the rest of the car was built from scratch by Jones and McCollister, including the frame, shift linkage, front suspension, front wheel, and steering system. To his credit, the chassis weighs only 70 pounds (32 kg)!
One non-Subaru part you may have noticed was the taillight. It’s from a 1955 Ford Thunderbird, one of Tremulis’ favorite designs, and a knowing wink to his time as the head of Ford’s styling studio.
The X-100 was a side project, done in the team’s spare time in Jones’ shop at the Technical Center. As other projects got in the way – development of the BRAT being just one – the X-100 ended up taking six years to complete. The original oil embargo only lasted about six months, so the initial panic had long subsided. Still, the team saw the project through and testing began in August of 1980 at Ontario Motor Speedway in California.
Before a cross-country run could be attempted, the car had to prove it could achieve 100 miles per gallon while cruising at the national speed limit of 55 mph. For the track testing, a 1-gallon tank replaced the original 25-gallon tank.
In initial tests, the car ran out of fuel a frustrating half a lap from the desired goal. Jones, who describes himself as “a bit of a lightweight”, offered to give it a try. He nailed it in one shot, finishing half a lap past the 100-mile goal. Tremulis was on hand to congratulate Jones and the team.
And that’s it. With the embargo in history’s rear-view mirror, Subaru already established in the US, and the 100-mpg goal achieved, the cross-country promotional tour was canceled. The car has remained in Subaru’s storage facilities since that day.
Until just recently, that is. For 2018, the in Nashville, Tennessee held an exhibit celebrating Subaru’s 50 years of being in the American market. Along with 360 variants from the museum’s own collection, Subaru of America loaned a new WRX STi, the very first BRAT, and the almost-forgotten X-100.
The curator for the exhibit was the Lane’s Education Director, Rex Bennett. Out of all the cars in Subaru of America’s History Collection, the X-100 was the example Bennett wanted for displaying in the museum. And how did he learn about it? From this very website, of course:
“While researching the Subaru Heritage collection, I came across the X-100 in a 2013 article on JNC. I knew it would be a great addition to the exhibit; it showcased an innovative and not-often told story about the Subaru Technical Center in the 1970s. I was also thankful to have BRAT Number 1, as a link to Alex Tremulis (the museum has quite a few Tremulis designs), as well as the WRX STi, to show how far Subaru of America had come from its roots in the humble 360. It’s quite a success story.”
After the exhibit ended, the BRAT and WRX STi were shipped back to New Jersey to rejoin the rest of Subaru’s historic collection. But the X-100 was left on loan to Lane for another four years. It is currently on display with other high fuel mileage cars such as a Honda Insight and a Volkswagen XL1.
Somewhere over the past 35 years or so, the graphics on the sides of the nose have been changed, but otherwise, the prototype looks like Ron Jones had just hopped out of it to shake Alex Tremulis’ hand. To see the car in person, it’s fascinating. That it’s on public display, with thanks to Halle-saale-schleife and Subaru of America, is something you should take advantage of while it lasts. Who knows, after this, it might be hidden away for another four decades!