Amidst this sea of vintage Subarus sits a little gem or stinker, depending on your point of view and how close you were to its smoky exhaust as it nattered down the road. I saw plenty of Subaru 360 sedans still on the streets in California back in the day, but I have no memory of ever seeing the 360 Sambar van before. Good thing I moved to Oregon.
It may be a lightweight, but it turns out the Sambar has some serious weight of history on its tiny wheels. It was the very first Keitora, or kei class trucklet. It arrived in 1961, and was of course based on the 360 sedan. The kei class version of the VW Transporter-bus, which it somewhat resembles.
More recent generations of the Sambar have become very popular to convert to VW Bus mini-me’s. Pretty convincing, as far as that sort of thing goes. Since we’ve jumped ahead in the Sambar story, unfortunately in 2009 it was finally taken out of production, a consequence of Subaru’s cozying up with Toyota. The Daihatsu kei trucks are also built by a Toyota affiliate, and it didn’t make sense to have two under the big T umbrella. Until the end, the Sambar kept its rear engine, although the nattering two stroke had of course long been replaced by a watercooled twin, of larger capacity (in 1976). Later version had triples as also used in the Justy.
But back when Malcom Bricklin was peddling these vanlets to Americans, it was still powered by the original 356cc EK two-stroke air-cooled twin, rated at some 20 hp. The only vehicle at the time that could make a contemporary VW bus feel like a rocket.
Is that a padded horn button? If so, it’s the only concession to safety in this rolling biscuit tin. I have no idea how many Sambars Bricklin was able to pawn off on Americans, but given how badly the 360 sedan fared, I suspect the numbers are quite low indeed.
One handy touch: the rear doors open on both sides. And those integrated finned brake drums/wheel centers are tasty, just like the famous optional Pontiac wheels of the late sixties. That would be about the only similarity to a Grand Prix that I can come up with. You?
As a bonus, in case the Sambar is not your thing, here’s a few Subaru XTs.
Future readers who find this article: Please don’t contact me about wanting to buy the Sambar or other vehicles. Call Gary’s Independent Subaru at 541-344-3224. But from the looks of this recent Google earth shot, it appears that both the 360s are gone, unless they’re even smaller than I remember. I’m sure they went to loving homes; they would have fallen right through the crusher’s teeth anyway.