(first posted 4/16/2016) My task here can be a bit thankless. Other automotive journalists get invited to jet off to exotic sunny locales and luxuriate in fine hotels while driving the latest luxury and supercars, all on the manufacturer’s nickel. Me? I get invited to drive a Subaru 360. Is it a (literally) cruel hoax, because I’m 6’4″? (update: 6’3″ now; I’m shrinking). I’ve never even tried to fold myself into one of these, the smallest car ever sold in the United States, even when I was young and more limber. But I can’t exactly turn down the offer, can I? It’s all in the line of duty, for you, dear readers. Anyway, it must be karmic punishment for all the cruel things I’ve said about big American cars over the years, so here’s my chance to atone for all the Broughams I’ve dissed.
It all started out quite innocently, as I was tootling down Seventh Avenue past the Sports Car Shop. There, among Jaguars, Porsches, and owner Bob Macherione’s Alfa Spider Duetto, that was getting prepped for its first race of the season, sat this little white wart. I was in a bit of a hurry, and kept driving, but then something said: when are you going to see another Subaru 360 curbside? I shot one in a junkyard some years ago, and wrote up my CC on it here, but that car’s long gone. So I whipped around the block, parked, and started taking some quick shots for future reference, or to update my CC with them.
And the setting, with all of these exotic high performance cars surrounding it, made it even more compelling.
A quick summary: the Subaru 360 was one of the very first kei cars in postwar japan, and for some time, it was the most successful one. It really was Japan’s VW Beetle, in terms of making cars accessible to those that would never have dreamed of it. And for the conditions of highly urbanized Japan at the time, it worked well enough.
In the US? Not. That great serial huckster-shyster Malcom Bricklin needed something new to import after Fuji heavy Industries stopped building the Rabbit scooters he had been selling in the US. When he went to Japan to visit Fuji and saw the 360, he knew this was it; or more like the only option he had. He agreed to import 50,000 of them, and that turned out to be a disaster. And a foreshadowing of his future failures with his Bricklin car, the Yugo, and Chinese cars too.
A key factor in making this idea even more palatable (and less trouble) to Bricklin was that the 360 was exempt from US emission and safety standards of the time, due to weighing less than 1000 lbs.
But eventually all the 360s were all sold or disposed of one way or another, thanks to the seductive ads like the ones above. This one was apparently sold in Portland originally, so it’s spent its life in Oregon. Has it ever ventured out of state? Who would do that? These are city cars, pure an simple. According to various sources, the amble from 0-60 took anywhere from 37 to 56 seconds. I would soon have a chance to find out myself what a Subaru 360 is (in)capable of.
To put the 360’s size into numbers, here are its stats: wheelbase – 70.9″; length – 117.7″; width – 51.2′; height – 54.3″. And yet it has a bench seat in the front. Well, back in the day, folks would do all sorts of heroic things with their micro-cars, in Japan and Europe, like squeezing in a kid to sit in the middle.
Those dimensions are all just a bit smaller than the Fiat/Steyr-Puch 500, which was Europe’s take on the kei car. The fact that the Fiat arrived in 1957, one year before the Subaru 360, makes one wonder if there was some influence.
The 360’s size might work with the typically svelte and compact Japanese of the 1950s, unless you were a sumo wrestler, in which case it still worked; just night quite as well. The three other guys are just there to give a bit of a push to get the 360 going. Given that the 360 weighs 900 lbs empty, adding weight in the form of more passengers quickly compromises its already somewhat limited performance envelope.
Having put myself behind the wheel of quite a few small cars, I imagined that the front seat was probably doable, sort of. But looking into the back seat put that out of the question. It may not look that bad, but the scale is a lot smaller than what it may appear to be. Kids only need apply. I still have PTSD from having to ride in the back seat of my aunt’s Puch 500 when I was 15.
Since it was unlocked, I figured I’d at least try sitting in it. The suicide door, with its large cutout to the front, makes it somewhat easier than it would be otherwise. Still, it took a bit of re-arranging to fit, including ducking my head, which then did fit under the dome-shaped roof. The biggest problem were my legs.
Here’s an attempt with a selfie to show how my knees were right up against the dash, what there is of it, and practically brushing the steering wheel. And feet were also a problem: my size 13 shoes struggled to fit down into the very narrow tunnel where the tiniest three pedals ever used in a car reside very close to each other.
As I sat there taking it in, wondering if I could extricate myself again, and imagining actually driving it, Sports Car Shop owner Bob Marchionne walks up and says “hey Paul, you should take it for a spin”. Whoa! All the exotic cars I’ve sat in at his shop and shot over the years, but never has he offered to let me drive one. I wonder why now, with the 360? Hmmm. “Of course!”
The first step was to get it started. The 360 has a twin cylinder 356 cc two-stroke, rated at 25 hp, less than many riding mowers today. But given that the VW Beetle had only 40 hp until 1966, and weighed some 75% more, on paper, the 360 wasn’t quite as badly underpowered as it might initially seem.
This 360 was very reluctant to start. It cranked very quickly, but Bob had been told not to use the choke, and just kept pumping the pedal. On the third very long try (it must have a 12V battery), one of the cylinders started to fire, barely, and some white-blue smoke came out as the engine spun a bit faster. But when Bob cut the starter, it wouldn’t keep running.
But on the fourth attempt, it finally came to life, with a very dramatic plume of smoke. I wish I’d caught the startup on video, but was too engrossed (engulfed, actually). But here it is, warming up for my drive. I sure hope I don’t stall it in the 5:15 PM rush hour traffic I’m about to throw it and me into.
I got in, released the handbrake, and put it into first gear, which is down on the left, like a three-speed. And what the hell is “OT”. Presumably it’s fourth gear, but how did it come to be labeled “OT”? “Over the Top”? “Over Time”? “Oh shit Time”, for what it feels like to get this thing into top gear on an American freeway?
Bob suggested a brief little loop skirting in front of Skinner Butte. The Sports Car Shop is on the busiest thoroughfare in downtown Eugene, a four lane one-way street. I needed to cut across all four lanes instantly, and then turn right at the corner; a good challenge with which to start this drive. As the light changed down the block, I saw and took my chance. the question was whether I would need second gear to get across the four lanes.
I made the right turn, down Lincoln, and suddenly realized I needed to document this on video. But here I was alone, driving a very strange car, and no videographer aboard. Oh well…I’m a DIY kind of guy. So by the time I was in second gear half way down the block, I whipped out my iPhone and started shooting. Not so well, in this first short burst. I think I stayed in second the whole block; it’s either shoot or shift, with my right hand.
The challenge of manipulating the three minute pedals with my size 13s was probably the biggest one of this undertaking. Otherwise; well, I’ve driven a lot of odd vehicles in my time, and the Subaru was just…a lot smaller. It feels like one’s feet are right at the front of the car, but in this case it’s closer to the truth than an illusion. The steering is very quick, light and direct, as one might expect. The shift linkage is terrible though; very vague and with lots of friction. Maybe it’s not working quite like it should? Or maybe it’s just how it is. The tiny finned drum brakes were quite adequate for my limited purposes. Bob did suggest that I not take it up Skinner Butte, although I’m regretting that now.
As I turned right on Shelton McMurphy Boulevard, I decided I could try and do both somehow, as this was too fast of a street to stay in first, or second. So I pulled over right after the turn, turned on the camera, and took off. I’m not sure what’s going on in the first few seconds, but then I pull away and execute two shifts, while presumably passing the camera back and forth between my hands. Or something like that. Sadly, I was too distracted to get into “OT”, but I was running out of street.
I took this route because this stretch of road is pretty quiet, even at rush hour. That can’t be said of the rest of my little loop, and of course rush hour in Eugene is all relative, but the rest of my trip back was in bumper to bumper traffic. And I mean that quite literally, as in seeing bumpers of big pickups and SUVs at near face-level, and thinking about how the 360 is more like driving a riding mower through traffic than an actual car. But one with a cab, so to speak. My god; these cars are all so huge! And so menacing.
I definitely got a few stares as I wended my way down seventh Avenue. Was it the car, or the little plume of smoke it was trailing behind? Eugene is very eco-conscious…I didn’t want to raise anyone’s ire for my brief little shot at polluting the planet.
A few more impressions, and perhaps the most important one: the 360 is not as deadly slow as one might think, in town anyway. The little two-stroke mill pulls quite well through the gears, and keeping up with…the rush hour traffic was no problem. Seriously, it gets one there, up to about 35 or so, anyway. Did anyone ever go faster in Tokyo back in the day?
Well, the top speed is supposedly closer to 60 or so, depending on tune and such. This particularly well-tuned example almost hits 70 in this video. Yowza! Sorry to disappoint you all, but unfortunately that just wasn’t quite in the works for me, this time anyway. But I’d have been happy to try.
More Subaru 360 at CC:
COAL: Subaru 360 – Really! by Michael Ionno