Big, round-numbered birthdays for automakers don't always coincide with the best of times for those companies. So it's nice when things work out.
For Subaru of America, which is celebrating 50 years in business, this is a terrific time. It's not only a time to commemorate the company, it's an opportunity to contemplate what has made it so successful.
Two brash young entrepreneurs, Malcolm Bricklin and Harvey Lamm, built a business by dint of hard work and iron will, with limited resources and limited support, at first, from the maker of Subarus in Japan, Fuji Heavy Industries.
As independent operators, rather than a unit of a Japanese parent, Bricklin and Lamm and their early colleagues had to think and fend for themselves. As a result, Subaru of America operated with more entrepreneurial zest than its Japanese import peers. Today, dexterity and determination are part of the company's DNA.
The independence paid off in products, technology and marketing geared toward American buyers, a focus that has really paid off in the past decade, during which Subaru has passed 10 brands in the U.S. sales rankings.
Subaru's success has also come from some big decisions over the years, such as making a commitment to all-wheel drive, and lots of little ones, such as making interiors roomy and emphasizing driver visibility. Japanese engineers have developed vehicles for function first and form later.
There's been a dedication to a slightly quirky, outdoorsy niche that prizes function over high-tech glitz and plush interiors. Subaru has developed it to the point where it is no longer a niche. It is a huge, welcoming audience of loyal, upscale, active buyers who pride themselves on separating what counts from what's merely fashionable.
The Subaru of America story is also a people story, from Lamm and Bricklin through to the guy who has been leading the company during its golden age, Tom Doll. From the day Doll gave out his cellphone number to all his dealers at a National Automobile Dealers Association convention, he has been a hero to his retailers. He's probably the most dealer-appreciated car executive in the U.S. auto industry today.
Anniversaries of auto companies are always fun, but they're usually just about the number. Subaru of America's birthday is way more than that.