Flashback: 1958 Subaru 360

By: Joe Kenwright, Photography by: Paul Kane

Presented by

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Our fuel reserves may now be in better shape if we'd taken more notice of Japan's K-class cars

From Unique Cars #285, Apr/May 2008 

1958 Subaru 360

Tata’s January 2008 announcement of an Indian people’s car, the Nano, was greeted with such arrogance from the West that it bordered on paternalism. It seems that established automotive nations have forgotten all too quickly how basic and compromised any number of so-called ‘people’s cars’ from the world’s biggest manufacturers have been.

As mass vehicle ownership impacts on global fuel reserves and climate, it must be said that the Nano is more of a vehicle for its times than many "live today, tomorrow we die" efforts still emerging from mainstream auto manufacturers.

It’s also significant that the Nano’s manufacturer has just bought automotive icons Jaguar and Land Rover from Ford which could no longer afford to hang onto them. In this topsy-turvy world of declining fuel reserves, struggling automotive greats and a new order of manufacturers, no single company can afford to take the future for granted.

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Similar in concept and looks to another ‘people’s car’, the Beetle, 360 with suicide doors was pretty quirky even for its time

As more Australians not only face unsustainable fuel cost increases, there is also the potential for fuel rationing within the next decade. Sooner rather than later, world authorities will be forced to prioritise between using and recycling the world’s dwindling oil supplies for essential goods and services over burning it up for indulgent personal mobility.

The reality is that a quick survey of Australian peak hour traffic (as for most other developed nations) would show that a Tata Nano could just as easily satisfy Australian commuters as a full-sized vehicle. Remove easily-accessed and affordable fuel and the Nano could all too easily become the cool vehicle choice for its Western critics, compared to walking.

It’s in this context that the achievements of the Nano and vehicles like the 1960’s Subaru 360 must be viewed. It can also be humbling to recall some of the established industry’s mass market vehicles before judging the efforts of emerging nations.

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Basic 360 shows how far Subaru has come in 50 years

Ever driven an original 1920s Austin 7? Although it was slow and basic, it could certainly arrange a meeting with your maker faster than most of today’s vehicles. The Model T Ford was little better. Even compared to their contemporaries, both were far more compromised than the Nano.

Driven a 1950s Volkswagen Beetle? If you haven’t, be grateful you never had to face its feeble 6v headlights, suicide reserve fuel lever, basic transmission with no synchro on first, fuel tank between a crash and you, ‘flip it on its roof’ suspension and basic brakes. Yet it became one of Australia’s biggest sellers while the even more rudimentary Goggomobil found buyers here.

The Subaru 360, like the Tata Nano, was shaped by far more pressing concerns than price. Following WWII, Japan moved quickly from its agricultural roots to a heavily industrialised society. To avoid gridlock across its tiny, heavily populated island nation, Japanese authorities were forced to react. The response was a new class of vehicle that brought tax benefits and car access to owners who didn’t have the space to garage a full-sized vehicle off the street.

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Cheap and cheerful Subaru’s 360 was amongst the first K-class cars to arrive in this country

Along with the Mazda R360 and the later Carol, the Subaru 360 was one of the first K-cars to reach Australia although it took the first Honda Scamp to win mainstream local acceptance for this type of vehicle. The Kei-jidosha or K-class in 1955 defined a maximum length of 3.0m and an engine no larger than 360cc.

The 360 itself was a clever unitary four-seater design influenced by the Renault 750 built by Hino at the time as well as the Volkswagen Beetle and Fiat 500. It featured a fibreglass roof panel like the first Citroen DS19, swapped for folding canvas in the convertible version.

There was a charming Custom wagon and a half-roof commercial version with a roll-up rear window and side windows that dropped down the sides for easy access to the ute-like compartment behind the front seats.

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Rear-mounted, air-cooled 356cc two cylinder engine was upgraded to 422cc on later ‘Maia’ version (above)

Mechanical specification was closer to the Goggomobil of 1955, its inline two-stroke twin-cylinder engine transversely mounted between the rear wheels with a basic three-speed gearbox. Rear suspension was by swing axles with torsion bars while the independent front end featured trailing arms and torsion bars, both consistent with VW practice at the time.

The scooter-derived engine was encased in a cooling shroud with a fan on the left side that forced fresh air drawn from behind the left rear pillar through the cooling fins before expelling it through the engine compartment. Attention to detail included separate cold air feeds to the engine cooling fan and air cleaner missing on the featured car.

Early models required drivers to mix their own fuel hence a fuel tank cap that doubled as a measuring cup. These early versions had headlights that looked like paint tins attached to the front guards hence the nickname ‘ladybird’. The basic dash was not unlike an early Fiat 500 while storage was under the rear seats as the spare wheel and battery filled the front. Despite the 360’s tiny 10inch wheels, the ride was surprisingly smooth with a reasonable balance of economy and performance from its 15-18kW engines.

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The first facelift in 1963 added the recessed headlights of our featured car and more elaborate interior while the 1967 upgrade added a self-mixing ‘Subarumatic’ fuel system. A bigger 422cc version called the K212 Maia, which arrived around the same time as the first styling upgrade, was exported to Australia and the US. Although sportier twin-carburettor SS versions with sports stripe options followed, the Honda Scamp’s 1966 arrival in Japan marked the beginning of the end.

By 1970, Subaru had face-lifted the 360 with the boxier R-2, a model replaced by the more modern Rex in 1972. It would take until 1982, a wait of almost 20 years before the baby Subaru returned to Oz as the second Rex series badged as a Sherpa at a time when Daihatsu and Suzuki were also actively selling various ‘K-cars’, including the Suzuki Mighty Boy.

The Subaru 360 enjoys particular notoriety when a half-serious attempt to sell it in the US almost succeeded. Malcolm Bricklin, infamous for his Bricklin sports car, ran a chain of successful hardware stores which underpinned a clearance sale of liquidated Lambretta scooters. After replacing the Lambrettas with Rabbit scooters from Subaru, Bricklin took on the 360 passenger car when Subaru left the scooter business.

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At two-thirds the price of a VW Beetle with half the running costs and similar performance, the Subaru 360’s exquisite quality and quirkiness helped generate 10,000 exports. That was before a US consumer body slammed a 2000kg Cadillac into a Subaru 360 leaving Americans predictably shocked by the results. Sales stalled and rumour has it that remaining stocks had to be dumped in the ocean.

It is no coincidence that Indian families, faced with the prospect of abandoning rickety human-drawn rickshaws, cumbersome bullock drays, overloaded buses, three-wheeled scooter cars and motor scooters used as five-passenger family transport, are drawn to the Tata Nano like a moth to a flame.

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In 1969, no one questioned whether the Cadillac at five times the weight of the baby Subaru, was the guilty party that should have been shoved into the sea. As an indicator of how much the landscape has changed, a similar consumer test today is more likely to generate a call to ban the Cadillac.

HUMBLE BEGINNINGS

Subaru has its origins in the Nakajima Aeronautical Research Laboratory founded in 1917 by Chikuhei Nakajima. After this led to the deadly Zero fighter plane, occupying forces split up the company’s 12 divisions following WWII.

Five of these divisions were later consolidated under Fuji Heavy Industries before a new car-making arm emerged from this conglomerate in 1953. The Japanese word for the six star Pleiades cluster in the Taurus constellation gave Subaru its badge and name.

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The company’s first Rabbit motor scooter was built from leftover aircraft parts hence the precision engineering that became a Subaru hallmark. Although Subaru developed a modern unitary construction sedan in 1954, funding dried-up before a sales network could be established placing Fuji’s automotive ambitions on hold for another four years.

When Japan’s new K-class provided the perfect context for Subaru’s weight-saving aviation background, Subaru never looked back after the 360’s successful 1958 debut

I OWN ONE!

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Our featured Subaru 360 is owned by West Australian Peter Briggs and at the time of writing was on display at the Fremantle Motor Museum, which faced closure due to the non-renewal of its lease on the heritage-listed building at Victoria Quay. According to the Museum, it is one of 35 cars imported to Australia from 1960-64 and one of a handful that survive Down Under. In America they were known as ‘jelly bean’ cars because of their very bright colours, although this one has more subdued paintwork. While it has seen better days, the quirky little Subaru with its air-cooled, rear-mounted engine still gets along at a reasonable pace, despite just 16bhp (12kW).

 

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