Junkyard Classic: Subaru 360 – It All Started With This Little Wart

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Subaru has not only survived the forces that have sent some of the smaller Japanese makers into retreat, but even prospered. And this is the car that started it all for Subaru in the US, thanks to Malcolm Bricklin, a serial entrepreneur/huckster who got the rights to import this tiny kei car in 1968 and managed to sell 10,000 of them to unsuspecting Americans for $1297. That was several hundred bucks cheaper than a VW, and the Subaru’s mini-bug looks might have fooled buyers into thinking they were getting a cut-rate Beetle, but there was a world of difference between the two.

Subaru 360 ad

For one, the Subaru 360 was already pretty long on tooth by the time Bricklin sent it stateside in 1968 or so. It first appeared in Japan back in 1958, only a few years after the kei car class was was upped to a maximum of 360cc (it had been 150cc). The Subaru 360 and the Suzuki Suzilight were two of the original exponents of the class, given that Toyota and Nissan were pushed into the larger sizes by the all-powerful Ministry of Trade and Industry (MITI).

subaru 360_1958_sumo

It’s hard to put the 360’s size in perspective except when it’s next to a modern car, or being driven by a sumo wrestler. I’d like to see the other three get in too, and watch it take off.

Here’s a few stats that might help too: wheelbase: 70.9″ (1801mm); length: 117.7″ (2990mm), width: 51″ (1300mm); weight: 900lbs (410 kg).

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I remember these buzz-bombs still running around and polluting LA’s smoggy skies after I arrived there in 1976. I wish I could remember when I saw the last one being driven though. I’ve long given up finding one curbside, so am forced to revert to the junkyard, in this case behind Gary’s Subaru garage, Eugene’s long-time Subaru specialist.

subaru 360_dealer-ad_58image source: John Lloyd

Bricklin got his start in business in 1965 when he began importing the Fuji Rabbit, a scooter made by Fuji Industries, which also made the 360. Seeing the Japanese car boom taking off in California, he soon made a deal to be the exclusive importer and distributor of Subaru cars. Subaru of America was soon drumming up other new dealers.

Subaru 360 ad 2

There’s lots of detail in this ad, with one notable exception: performance, or the lack of it. The 360 took almost a full minute (54 seconds) to huff and puff  from zero to sixty. It was one of the reasons that Consumer’s Reports gave it an Unacceptable rating.

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But this one undoubtedly was much faster, thanks to its aftermarket big-bore dual exhaust. Or at least sounded that way. Those pipes are probably as big in diameter as the 360’s cylinders.

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Looks like the exhaust was the extent of any attempts to up the power of this little two-stroke twin, rated at 20 or 25 hp, depending on the source. There was a 36 hp twin-carb version, but I’m not sure those made it to the US.

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Here’s a closer look down that cooling duct, where the two finned cylinders are hiding. Looks just like a Yamaha or Suzuki twin of the era.

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Here’s a view into its spartan interior. Bricklin miscalculated with the 360; Americans could embrace the VW Beetle, but not really anything much smaller. The Beetle was America’s Kei car; thank you. The result was that Subaru 360 sales languished, and some were seen on dealer lots for several years before they finally found owners. Bricklin’s venture looked like it would go the way of so many others of his: The Bricklin car, Yugo, Bertone, the EV Warrior, and his most recent, Visionary Vehicles. Quite the track record. But he probably managed to make some money for himself on most of them, somehow.

Subaru 1000

What bailed Bricklin out was Subaru’s highly advanced new car, the FWD Subaru 1000, that laid the foundation of all modern Subarus with its boxer four ahead of the front axle line. Thanks to the 1000, the subsequent FF Star, and most of all the Leone series of cars and four-wheel drive versions (CC here), Subaru of America prospered. In 1984, Fuji finally bought Bricklin and his partner out, for some very serious money. And he’s been trying to replay that success ever since.

Subaru 360 fq

Sam Perkinson did find this cute yellow 360 and posted it at the Cohort. It appears to be at a car show. Needless to say, the 360 has a cultivated quite a cult following, and I suspect the  junkyard 360 I’ve showed here is quite likely in someone’s shop getting restored. It deserves it. Even if Americans didn’t embrace kei cars then, it’s never too late.

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Note to those that find their way here via a Google search: This car is no longer there, so please no e-mail inquiries to me about buying it.