Friday April 13, 2018
The gulf between a 1992 Impreza and their original Subaru of 1958 would initially appear to be wider than the Grand Canyon, yet despite the former being an acclaimed sports saloon and the latter being barely able to achieve 50 mph in 37 seconds; both were the ideal cars for their respective eras. When Fuji Heavy Industries introduced the Subaru 360 in March 1958, it was the latest entry in the “Kei Jidosha” (“Light Automobile”) market sector which the government instigated three years earlier. There were tax concessions for vehicles with an engine under 360 cc and under 9 feet 10 inches in length, and Fuji’s innovative response was a design that featured a transversely mounted 2-stroke air-cooled 356cc power plant at the rear, rack and pinion steering and a GRP roof to help ensure that the weight remained under 900lbs.
Furthermore, it was a creation of the Japanese motor industry rather than a locally-built Austin A55 Cambridge Mk. I (Nissan) or Hillman Minx (Isuzu) – and that distinctive coachwork had an appeal of its own. Within a few years, the “Ladybird” became the first new car of thousands of families across the country. Owners soon learned to keep a close watch on the lever marked “F” for fuel as the Subaru lacked a pump and was fitted with a gravity-fed system while the fuel filler cap served as a measuring cup for the petrol/oil mixture. The cabin was best described as “minimalist” although a vent ahead of the front windshield that admitted fresh air and the occasional irate wasp was a welcome device for summer motoring. Such idiosyncrasies were all a part of the 360 experience, the all-independent suspension was remarkably sophisticated, and there was sufficient performance for rural and urban motorists alike.
In October 1960 the new 450 variant was powered by a 23bhp 423cc unit and the range was further expanded with a choice of body styles; the “Convertible” with the canvas roof and the “Custom” estate were especially beguiling. By 1967 there was the brilliantly named “Subarumatic” lubrication system while the 1968 “Young S” (an even more splendid name) boasted twin carburettors, a rev counter and a stripe on the bonnet. The later 360s also features a four-speed gearbox, winding windows and a (marginally) more elaborate instrument display.
British motorists were never offered the delights of the Subaru but in 1961, the 450 was sold in Australia as the “Maia”. Despite the brochure promising that ‘the first time you see the Maia, you will be enthralled by its beautiful lines’ Frank O’Brien of Ballarat in Victoria imported just 72 pale blue Subarus. Wheels magazine praised the ‘fine rack and pinion steering box’, the ‘outstanding’ suspension and stated that road holding was its ‘finest feature’ but the average Holden driver remained unconvinced by such sales claims as ‘you will be thrilled by its superb accelerative power’.
Seven years later the 360 was offered to United States motorists under the memorable slogan ‘Cheap and Ugly Does It’ and by 1969 some 6,000 were believed to have found a home. Alas, in April of that year Consumer Reports billed it as ‘The Most Unsafe Car in America’, noting how a rear-hinged door of their test car flew open at 20 mph and other issues. Many Subaru owners are still displeased by the report although it is still better not to even try to think of a 360 on the freeway if you wish to avoid having nightmares.
The 360 ceased production in 1971 and it would be fair to say that the 392,000 examples had transformed motoring in Japan. Two years ago, the country’s Society of Mechanical Engineers declared the original Subaru to be a “Mechanical Engineering Heritage” item – an accolade that the 360 richly deserved. It was, quite simply, a car that helped to bring about mass car ownership to an entire nation.