Many of you might be familiar with the Subaru 360 primarily from seeing and reading about it online or in print but honestly, have you ever met someone who bought one of these because they were looking for a daily driver? Someone had to buy them and drive them back in the days before they were “collectible” and one of those misguided people was me.
Because of the sale and rapid demise of my Renault 8 I returned home from University after my freshman year to no car. It was May, 1976. To be honest I really did not need a car. I was working at the same local bike shop where I had wrenched my way through high school and commuting to and from work by bike. Yet something in me must have been hankering for motorized transport as I somehow convinced my boss, Rocky, that he should buy an inexpensive car for me to use during what would turn out to be my last summer in Marion, Ohio.
Thanks to his misguided generosity I soon found myself shopping for practical used transportation that held out some possibility of retaining its value for three months or so. My primary research tool was the classified section of the local newspaper (The Marion Star, whose original founder and editor had been President Warren Harding!). I looked at but rejected a Volkswagen Thing and perhaps that got me thinking about the classic curved profile of its sibling the Beetle. Always one to zig when others zag I went with that shape but in the form of a 1969 Subaru 360. Really.
The story of the Subaru 360 being sold in the United States begins in 1945. Most citizens in post-World War II Japan, like those in Europe, could not afford conventional full size cars. Manufacturers responded in the immediate post war period by creating more models of microcars than had ever been seen before or since. While there are various definitions of what exactly constitutes a microcar all have comparatively small displacement engines. In Japan a combination of taxation policies and parking regulations eventually led to a class of cars that exist to this day, the Kei car. While Kei contemporary cars feature engines up to 660 cc, the maximum allowed displacement during the Subaru 360 era was, surprise, just under 360 cc.
Fuji Heavy Industries had formerly been an aircraft manufacturer but after WWII migrated toward ground-based transportation including scooters and eventually cars through its newly created automotive division, Subaru. The 360 was first manufactured in 1958. Production ended in 1971 after production of 392,000 cars which collectively had 784,000 rear-hinged “suicide” doors.
In the United States entrepreneur Malcolm Bricklin, having recently sold his interest in a chain of hardware stores he had started, was looking for a new venture. He traveled to Japan to explore purchasing scooters from Fuji Heavy Industries but ended up instead entering into an agreement to be the exclusive importer of the Subaru 360 to the United States.
The diminutive rear engine Subaru, at just over 900 pounds and with a length of 118 inches, was small enough to drive right through existing US safety and emission loopholes though it would have done so slowly with its air-cooled two cycle engine producing only 25 hp.
To put the Subaru’s size into perspective the original Mini weighed over 400 pounds more and was slightly longer at 120 inches. Either car could park within the wheelbase of the current Chevy Suburban with inches to spare.
Like the Mini, the Subaru 360 seated four and was surprisingly roomy even in the back. As a passenger I would not want to sit back there for a long trip but, frankly, that would never be an issue as the woefully under powered car was not suitable for extended travel at highway speeds even in the era of 55 mph speed limits.
Bricklin and a partner formed Subaru of America to market the car to an unsuspecting public. Ten thousand Subaru 360’s were imported in 1968 and 1969 selling originally for $1,297. Bricklin’s ads called the car “Cheap and Ugly”.
In 1969 Consumer Reports deemed the car “Not Acceptable” as its safety testing showed that the little Kei would be knocked out in the first round of a fight by American cars averaging more than three times its weight. The 1970’s were well underway before the last of the 10,000 cars imported to the US would be sold. Fuji Heavy Industries would go on to take control of Subaru of America allowing Subaru to morph into the now only slightly quirky brand that encourages us to Share the Love. Bricklin went on to create and manufacture the Bricklin SV-1 sports car and to import the Fiat-derived Yugo from Yugoslavia. These and other automotive career hijinks demonstrate that he is a man that does not let reality dampen his interminable automotive optimism.
Meanwhile back in Ohio my 360 was delivering many miles per gallon (Subaru ads claimed up to 66 mpg; I was averaging in the high 30’s) and massive grins per mile. Mechanically it ranks as one of the most trouble-free cars I have ever owned. I do not recall any repairs during my brief tenure with the Subie. I did have it tuned up replacing plugs, points and distributor cap. I kept the old distributor cap on my desk as a pencil holder. I also recall buying two cycle oil to keep the little lump lubricated. We determined that oil designed for marine use was best so I would periodically go to Bargain City, Marion’s preeminent discount retailer in the days before Walmart, to purchase it. Conveniently it was not necessary to manually mix the gas and oil. Instead oil was fed from a small storage reservoir in the engine compartment that one had to remember to top up when fueling. The fuel tank was located above the engine and gas was gravity fed to the carburetor negating the need for a fuel pump.
My partner in crime that summer was gal pal Cindy, the “Granddaughter of the Guy Who Invented the Klondike Bar”.
You might think such a girl would be above hanging out with a guy who drove a Subaru 360 but it turned out her pedigree was more honorific than financial. She proved to be a competent and entertaining co-pilot. With her in the passenger seat I recall driving the 360 around town flat out which was really the only way you could drive it if you wanted to keep up with traffic even at urban speeds. Naturally I had to do a 0 to 60 test and I recorded a time of 42 seconds.
The Subaru had a three speed transmission with a dog leg layout. First gear was lower left, second was upper right and third was lower right. If I allowed my hand to linger on the shift knob in high gear Cindy’s nearby presence rewarded me with the tingling sensations a teenage male experiences when he is in close proximity to a lass’ knee.
Cindy had not previously learned to “drive stick” so on occasion we would switch seats to afford her the opportunity to practice. She proved adept at shifting and equally adept at flinging the Subaru around corners. Every corner felt exciting “at speed” though in reality I doubt we were actually cornering much faster than is normal in a “real” car. There was a good amount of body roll and it often felt like the little 10” wheels up front were going to break away but with so little weight and power that proved to be impossible.
Parking was never an issue and we would go out of our way to look for spaces so small that even the 360 could not be parallel parked. Instead I would back the rear end into the space, open the rear hinged door, get out of the car and lift the front of the car by its bumper allowing me to bounce it into the space.
The Subaru was a hard top but the roof was a fiberglass panel held in place by the same sort of rubber gasket used on windshields of that era. I discovered that by pulling out the rubber locking strip the roof and rear window could be easily removed in a few minutes allowing for al fresco motoring. An added benefit was that one could approach the car from the rear and easily step from the bumper to the rear seat. This mode of entry proved popular with my back seat passengers on clear Summer nights.
Like all Summers this one ended too fast. As the days grew shorter I left the Subaru 360 behind with Rocky and returned to school in Philadelphia where I had a daily reminder of my time with the 360. Did I mentioned that there were van and truck versions of the 360 going by the name Sambar? The van configuration stood just over 60” tall.
Outside my dorm an innovative hot dog vendor operated out of a converted Sambar van. Taking into account ground clearance the inside height of the van must have been under 54”. I hope that vendor had a good set of knee pads.