Kenji Kita: The Visionary Behind Subaru

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The journey of Subaru from scooters to iconic cars is a tale of innovation and vision, spearheaded by Kenji Kita, the determined CEO of Fuji Heavy Industries. From its humble beginnings with the Rabbit scooter to the groundbreaking Subaru 360, Kita’s leadership transformed the company into a key player in the global automotive industry. His story takes us through the pivotal moments that shaped Subaru:

Early Life

Born in 1909 in Kanagawa Prefecture, Japan, Kita’s formative years were during a period of significant change and modernization in Japan, known as the Taisho era (1912-1926).

Kenji Kita was born into a family that valued education and hard work. His upbringing in a middle-class household in Kanagawa, an area close to Tokyo, likely exposed him to both traditional Japanese values and the influence of modernization and industrialization sweeping through Japan at the time.

The Taisho era emphasized modern science, technology, and ideas of democracy and individual rights. This period in Japanese history was known for encouraging more critical thinking, intellectual curiosity, and less rote learning compared to the previous Meiji era. This environment and the country’s rapid industrialization would have exposed Kita to a range of new ideas and technologies, fostering a mindset conducive to innovation and entrepreneurship.

This background influenced Kita, who showed an aptitude for mathematics, physics, and the sciences during his school years.

During the 1920s, the automotive industry was still in its infancy in Japan, but the importation and adaptation of Western technologies were creating a buzz around these new machines. Kita’s education and early experiences likely instilled in him qualities that would later define his career: a penchant for innovation, a commitment to quality, and an ability to adapt to changing circumstances.

Career Beginnings

Japan’s industrial expansion in the early 20th century was heavily focused on heavy industries such as steel, chemicals, and machinery. Kita’s early career was intertwined with this industrial boom.

Kita’s knack for leadership and engineering would have seen him take on roles that involved not just the technical aspects of manufacturing but also aspects of project and team management. This period was crucial in honing his skills in overseeing large-scale industrial projects, which would later be invaluable in his automotive endeavors.

His early career was not widely documented, but it was likely intertwined with this industrial boom, where he likely developed a knack for leadership, engineering, and the development of his business acumen.

Founding of Subaru

Following World War II, Japan faced immense reconstruction challenges. The country’s industrial infrastructure had been heavily damaged, and there was a pressing need to rebuild the economy and provide employment. This environment set the stage for Kenji Kita’s vision for a new kind of automobile company.

Kenji Kita’s Vision for a Japanese Car

Kita, who had acquired substantial experience in Japan’s industrial sector, recognized the growing need for personal transportation in the recovering nation. He envisioned creating a uniquely Japanese car that would be affordable, reliable, and suitable for the country’s specific needs.

Formation of Subaru

Subaru’s early days are quite a story. They actually started off making airplanes, including some notorious World War II torpedo bombers used in attacks like Pearl Harbor. This was under Nakajima Aircraft, which was part of a larger corporate group.

After the war, when the U.S., led by General Douglas MacArthur, stepped in to help rebuild Japan, big changes happened. MacArthur’s focus was on drafting a new constitution and breaking up the big corporate groups, called zaibatsu, which were deeply tied to Japan’s military.

Fuji Sangyo, a part of Nakajima, was broken into smaller companies, one of which, Fuji Heavy Industries, was formed in 1953 from six of these smaller entities. The formation of Subaru was part of this large corporate restructuring.

In 1953, Kita played a pivotal role in the formation of Fuji Heavy Industries (FHI), a result of the merger of five Japanese companies with interests in various sectors, including aviation, railways, and scooters. FHI was a conglomerate that sought to pool resources and expertise to enhance Japan’s industrial capabilities.

One part of this new Fuji Heavy Industries, Fuji Kogyo, started making a small motor scooter named the Rabbit from leftover aircraft parts back in 1948. Considering there were hardly any cars left in Japan after the war, Kita, who was the first president and CEO of Fuji Heavy Industries, saw a huge opportunity. Even though he wasn’t well-known outside Japan, he became one of the key figures in the post-war Japanese auto industry.

Naming the Automotive Division as Subaru

Within FHI, the automotive division was named Subaru, a name Kita personally chose. He was firm on one thing: “A Japanese car should have a Japanese name,” so he picked “Subaru.”

The word “Subaru” is the Japanese name for the Pleiades star cluster, symbolizing unity (as the stars are bound together in the sky) and ambition (reflecting Kita’s vision for the company). Subaru’s six-star logo mirrored the merger of six companies to form Fuji Heavy Industries.

This name also represented Kita’s aspiration to create a vehicle that would be accessible to the masses, akin to the visibility of the Pleiades cluster in the night sky.

Development of the First Subaru Model

Subaru’s first challenge under Kita’s leadership was the development of its first car. The initial focus was on building a small, affordable vehicle that could navigate Japan’s often narrow and rough roads while being economical to operate and maintain. This led to the development of the Fuji P-1, unveiled in 1954.

The P-1 had a pretty standard design but stood out with its unitized body structure, wishbone-type front suspension, and a live rear axle with leaf springs. The engine, a 1.5-liter OHV inline-four, originally came from the Peugeot 202, but Fuji later tweaked and produced it themselves, naming it the Prince.

The P-1 only saw about 20 units made before it was renamed the Subaru 1500. It didn’t do too well due to funding issues, material shortages, and a weak dealer network, but Kita wasn’t put off. His leadership was instrumental in navigating these difficulties. He fostered a culture of innovation and adaptability, encouraging his engineers to find creative solutions to the problems they encountered.

The following model, the Subaru 360 microcar, gained popularity and even made its way to the U.S., following in the footsteps of other Japanese brands like Datsun and Toyota.

Establishing Subaru’s Identity

The early years of Subaru under Kita’s direction were about establishing the brand’s identity. Kita was determined to create vehicles distinct from foreign imports and other domestic offerings. This led to a focus on unique features such as compact designs, fuel efficiency, and, later, the development of all-wheel-drive technology, which would become a hallmark of the Subaru brand.

Retirement and Last Days

Developments Before Retirement

Before retiring as Fuji’s president in 1963, Kita green-lit another new model, the FF-1. This was the first Subaru with the now-signature horizontally opposed engine. This model eventually evolved into the Leone, complete with four-wheel drive – a huge hit for exports and the foundation for Subaru’s future cars.

Kita’s decision to step down was influenced by the changing dynamics of the automotive industry and the need for new leadership to navigate these shifts. He was succeeded by leaders who had been groomed under his mentorship, ensuring continuity in Subaru’s management and strategic approach.

Death

Kenji Kita passed away on October 13, 1999. The cause of his death was not widely publicized, in keeping with his family’s preference for privacy. He was 90 years old.

Afterhis death, Kita was remembered and honored for his substantial contributions to the automotive industry and his role in building Subaru into a globally recognized brand. Tributes from within Subaru and the wider automotive community highlighted his visionary leadership, his pioneering spirit, and his enduring impact on automobile engineering and design.

Legacy and Retirement

Innovation Under Kita’s Leadership

Kenji Kita’s tenure at Subaru was marked by a series of innovations that would define the brand:

  • Subaru 360 Launch: Perhaps the most significant achievement under Kita’s leadership was the introduction of the Subaru 360 in 1958. This small, affordable car was immensely popular in Japan and became known as the “people’s car.” Its success helped to establish Subaru as a significant player in the Japanese automotive industry.
  • All-Wheel Drive Technology: Kita was instrumental in pioneering all-wheel drive (AWD) use in passenger vehicles. This technology, initially developed for safety and performance in Japan’s varied terrain and weather conditions, became a defining characteristic of Subaru vehicles, setting them apart in the global market.
  • Boxer Engine: Subaru under Kita also popularized the use of the boxer engine layout in its vehicles. This engine design provided a lower center of gravity, which improved handling and stability, becoming a key feature in Subaru’s engineering approach.

Expansion and Growth

  • Global Expansion: Kita oversaw Subaru’s initial foray into international markets. This expansion was crucial for the brand’s global recognition and success, particularly in markets like the United States, where Subaru’s unique combination of AWD and boxer engines resonated with consumers.
  • Diversification of Models: Under his leadership, Subaru diversified its vehicle lineup, introducing models that catered to a wider range of consumer needs, including both passenger cars and, eventually, SUVs.

Legacy in the Automotive Industry

  • Visionary Leadership: Kita is remembered as a visionary leader who was not afraid to diverge from conventional automotive trends. His emphasis on compact, efficient cars and technological innovations like AWD and the boxer engine had a lasting impact on the industry.
  • Cultural Impact: The Subaru 360, in particular, had a significant cultural impact on Japan, symbolizing the nation’s post-war recovery and industrial prowess. Kita’s role in its development cemented his status as a key figure in Japan’s automotive history.

Conclusion

Kenji Kita’s tenure at Fuji Heavy Industries set the foundation for what Subaru is today. His insistence on a distinctly Japanese identity for the brand, symbolized by the name Subaru, and his pioneering efforts in car manufacturing paved the way for the company’s future successes. His vision not only shaped the company but also carved a path for Subaru in the competitive world of automotive manufacturing, leaving an indelible mark on the industry.

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