For a first-generation kei car, the Subaru 360 has had quite a lot of exposure on CC. That is chiefly thanks to the fact that a few thousands of these curious little critters had a short-lived stint as the cheapest (and tiniest) import in the United States, courtesy of the infamous Mr Bricklin. But you already know that side of the story – if you don’t, check out this post by Paul, not to mention the others listed at the end of this one. Today, let us explore the Subaru 360 mythos from the Japanese perspective.
The Subaru 360 was not the first four-wheeled vehicle to bear that marque’s name and star-studded logo, but it was the first one that sold. Subaru was a brand name devised by Fuji Heavy Industries (FHI), itself formerly known as the Nakajima Aircraft Company, which was, alongside Mitsubishi and Kawasaki, one of Japan’s three major plane-makers. After the Second World War, the company necessarily needed to diversify its wares (and decided to change its name), although they did keep a defense / aircraft arm active to the present day.
In 1946, Nakajima/FHI started building railway cars and trams, bus bodies, as well as the Rabbit scooter, based on the American Powell design. The scooters sold like hotcakes and, by 1949, FHI had moved to manufacturing complete buses – rear-engined and unit-bodied, quite avant-garde for Japan. The advent of the Korean War helped reverse the breaking up of the conglomerates that had been initiated after 1945. FHI stayed more or less intact, though one branch, the Nakajima Tokyo works, did break away and evolve into Prince Motors, later merged with Nissan. Most of the other ex-Nakajima factories, located in the Gunma and Saitama prefectures, formally re-coalesced under the FHI umbrella by 1955.
All the while, the company having tried its hand at all manners of automotive contraption known to man bar one, a prototype car was devised. It was a pretty traditional-looking affair with a Peugeot-derived 1.5 litre OHV engine in front driving the rear wheels, but the aircraft influence was felt in its monocoque construction. Twenty cars bearing the name Subaru P-1 were made in 1954-55 and evaluated – some were even used as taxis – but for various reasons, the car was stillborn. Undeterred, FHI switched their automotive focus to the newly-redefined kei class.
In 1954, the Japanese government changed the parameters for the kei class vehicles, which were subject to much less tax than larger ones. Engine capacity grew from 150cc to 360cc and maximum length stretched to 3 meters – just enough to squeeze four passengers and a (puny) engine. Said engine was soon developed by the FHI engineers out of existing scooter technology – that much was pretty straightforward. But the rest of the car needed a lot more thought.
The only 360cc four-wheeled kei car in the mid-‘50s was the Suzuki Suzulight. It was basically a reverse-engineered Lloyd 400, perched on thin 12-inch wheels. Nearly all sales made full use of a tax loophole that made sedans delivery, i.e. sans back seat, cheaper to purchase (folks would buy the back seat separately and bolt it on afterward). The Suzulight was not immediately very successful though, as it was not deemed sturdy enough for Japan’s then mostly unpaved road network. Most other kei-class vehicles were three-wheeler vans.
Subaru’s inspiration was also German, but they opted for the Volkswagen model. Certain key aspects of the VW Type 1 were retained with few changes, including a four (cramped) seat configuration, a rear-mounted air-cooled engine, a floor-mounted gear shifter, all-independent suspension with a swing axle rear end and torsion bars all around, a two-door streamlined shape…
But in many other ways, the Japanese engineers had to adopt solutions that were markedly different: the engine was a two-stroke parallel twin; both the front and rear torsion bar suspension included a single central coil spring to improve comfort and increase suspension travel; the body was monocoque and the roof and backlight were fiberglass – allowing for a lighter package and a excellent rear visibility. Furthermore, Subaru had to work directly with Bridgestone to create the first 10-inch bias-ply tyres ever made in Japan.
All of these commendably forward-thinking features were mixed with a few more questionable ones, such as the absence of a fuel gauge (well, there was one, but it was on the fuel filler situated atop the engine…) or the positively old-fashioned suicide doors. Not that Subaru were the only ones sticking with those on the JDM (see the Mitsubishi Minica, the Daihatsu Midget or the Mazda K360), but still, for a car designed in the late ‘50s, this was an odd choice.
Overall, the Subaru 360 was made to be a lot lighter (not to say flimsier) than the Beetle ever was, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t up to the task. From the get-go, when the car was launched in the spring of 1958, the Subaru was reputed as quite reliable and subject to few teething problems, at least in Japan. This may have been the company’s first true series-made car, but the same factories were putting together aircraft, scooters and buses, so workmanship was better than most. The parallel twin’s initial 16hp was sufficient to propel the 385kg Subaru to just over 80kph, which was deemed good enough.
Early cars (top left) can easily be identified by their low headlights, split bumper, small turn signals front and rear and single central stop light. Very soon after the initial launch, Subaru created variants, starting in 1959 with the Deluxe and the Convertible (top right). Utility models were also a high priority, so Subaru quickly filled that niche in 1960 with the strange Commercial (bottom left), with its hinged back windows and half-open roof. That was replaced by the far more successful Custom wagon in 1963 (bottom right).
For whatever reason, Subaru thought a slightly bigger engine might tempt some clients, so they launched the 450 Deluxe (top left) in 1960. It was a complete flop – just over 1500 units were made – and was retired in 1966, but not before Subaru devised a Sports roadster from it in 1961 (top right), which ended up not going to production. The 1960-66 Sambar kei truck (bottom left), on the other hand, was a major success for Subaru – one that lived on for many generations. By the 360’s final years, Subaru sought to rekindle interest in the car by launching the 1968-70 Young SS (bottom right), which had go-faster stripes and, thanks to a twin-carb 36hp engine, was reputed to reach 120kph.
Top speed was never going to be the 360’s strong suit. Instead, Subaru emphasized the car’s fuel economy, which was pretty amazing, as well as its peppiness, which makes it still usable in present-day city traffic. The ride was reputed to be the smoothest available on the first generations of 360cc kei cars, too.
Price-wise, the Subaru was not cheap, but then cars were expensive items in ’60s Japan. These cost around ¥400,000 in the early ‘60s, at a time when monthly salaries were in the ¥20-50k range. Non-kei economy cars like the Mitsubishi 500 or the Hino 4CV were only marginally more expensive. But the key to the kei was the tax, which coupled with the outstanding fuel economy made the Subaru a much sounder proposition. That explains why Subaru kept making them for so long, why they shifted close to 400,000 units (mostly for the JDM) and why the 360, far more than any of its rivals, is seen as a ‘60s icon here.
In 1964, the 360 got its first facelift, which included the repositioning of the headlights a bit higher, as well as combination stop lights / turn signals at the rear. Power was gradually increased over the years to 18, 20, 23 and up to 25hp. The Deluxe version soon became the top-selling one, yet even as the rest of the kei car and truck field really started to become crowded, the 360 and the Sambar kept their advantage, now augmented by a comparatively cheaper MRSP and a more solid dealer network. A “Super Deluxe” version even joined the range, sporting bumper-mounted fog lights.
In late 1967, the rear lights got much bigger and almost angular. The transmission, hitherto a three-speed, received an “Over-Top” gear – because calling it a fourth speed would have been too obvious, I guess. Period adverts started getting more in-your-face, as we can see. The times they were a-changing.
The added power and attempt at an image revamp were done to buy Subaru some time. The 360 was getting old and the brilliant Honda N360’s success was impossible to ignore. Even the Sambar had already ticked over to generation two, and the 360’s successor was clearly in the works. Still, the ever-resourceful FHI corporation managed to find a new market to conquer…
On that score, it’s unclear to me why the 10,000 or so Subarus that crossed the Pacific sometime in 1968-69 had the small taillamps of the 1964-67 models, but that might be because Subaru had one “export grade” version.
The same taillights appeared on the 360’s successor, the R2, launched in August 1969. This naturally meant that the 360 was on borrowed time and, as expected, production of Subaru’s first model was halted in April 1970, 13 years after it first appeared.
Our feature car is not a Young SS, but a modest late-model Deluxe. That means the rear end is pushed by 25hp (gross) only. That’s still enough to claim a top speed of 110kph – just over 60mph. I’m guessing that’s only feasible with a tailwind, on a slight incline and with just one passenger, and a pretty slim one at that.
The ladybird theme is strong with this one, which make me wonder whether these are nicknamed as such here. Not coincidentally perhaps, the VW Type 1 is nicknamed ladybird (Coccinelle) in French. That might be the very insect associated with the Subaru 360 in its home country… Our feature car does not have a radio, but some do. Can’t imagine it could be too easy to hear anything over the engine, transmission and wind noise…
From the US / outside point of view, the Subaru 360 looks amateurish and ludicrously small, which it was for the US market of the late ‘60s. But in its own market, it was a great success and it established its maker as one of the great Japanese car companies. The engineering was solid, too: the parallel twin, modified with water-cooling, four-stroke, a larger displacement and ultimately turbocharging, lasted all the way till 1990 in the tail of the Sambar.
Sorry this post got so long, but sometimes, the tiniest of cars call for a deep dive in their maker’s history. The Subaru 360 is the only kei car of its generation that is still seen on the streets on rare occasions, which is telling. Notwithstanding the bizarre esthetics, the rear-hinged doors and the Bricklin brouhaha – which got Subaru of America started, if nothing else – the 360 was the closest thing Japan ever got to a home-grown Beetle, Fiat 500 or 2CV, only even smaller. But then as the old proverb goes, if you think you’re too small to make a difference, you’ve never spent the night with a mosquito. Or a ladybird.
COAL: 1969 Subaru 360 – Really, BY Michael Ionno