Classic Car of the Month: Subaru 360

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The first Subaru, the Subaru 360 was launched 50 years ago this month (March 1968). At that time, Japanese automobile manufacturers were working on developing small cars according to a plan calling for the production of a “people’s car” as advocated by Japan’s Ministry of International Trade and Industry. The Subaru 360 was developed in line with this concept. In those days, passenger cars were too expensive to be within the reach of most people. Building a small, affordable car that could perform well proved to be technologically tough, and many manufacturers were reluctant to tackle the problem. However, with its roots in aircraft manufacturing, the Company took up the challenge backed by its pride and prodigious technological strength. It beat the other manufacturers in developing a four-passenger, four-wheel minicar, the Subaru 360, which became a milestone in the history of Japan’s automobile industry. Because of its ladybug shape, the Subaru 360 was affectionately referred to as the Ladybird. For 11 years after its debut, the Subaru 360 enjoyed tremendous popularity. It finally went out of production in May 1970. The nameplate 360 derived from its tax-limited engine displacement: 356 cc.


The 360 featured an air-cooled, 2-stroke inline 2-cylinder 356 cc engine mounted transversely at the rear, and was introduced March 3, 1958. As with the two-stroke Saab 93s and other small two-stroke gas engines, oil was needed to be pre-mixed with gas, with the fuel tank lid serving as a measuring cup. In 1964, the “Subarumatic” lubrication system provided automatic mixing via an under-hood reservoir. Floor-mounted controls located between the driver and passenger seat included choke, heater and fuel cut-off — the latter to accommodate gravity fed fuel which obviated the need for a fuel pump. The initial production featured a full metal dash board and three-speed manual gearbox, while subsequent models featured a partially padded dash with an open glove compartment, pop-out rear quarter windows, split front bench seat, map pockets, a four-speed manual and optional three-speed-based ‘Autoclutch’ transmission[ — the latter which eliminated the clutch pedal and operated the clutch via an electromagnet.Final assembly included wheel alignment, brake testing, chassis dynometer, headlight testing, and high-pressure water spray testing.
In contrast to the Volkswagen Beetle, the 360 is much smaller, less powerful, and was not nearly as well accepted in the world marketplace. The body was of monocoque construction and used a lightweight fiberglass roof panel. In the post war period, more automobiles would switch to unibody construction, which is now the norm for passenger cars and even many light trucks. Many of the ideas came from engineers from the former Nakajima Aircraft Company, which became Fuji Heavy Industries. The “suicide doors” are hinged at the rear, which Consumer Reports remarked could and did result in a partially locked door pulling open in the wind during testing.


Equipped with a 3-speed manual transmission, the 360 had a top speed of 60 mph (96.6 km/h), and with a curb weight under 1000 pounds, the 360 was exempt from compliance with US safety regulations. Consumer Reports recorded a 0-60 time of about 37 seconds and reported 25–35 mpg‑US (9.4–6.7 L/100 km; 30–42 mpg‑imp), despite Subaru’s claimed 66 mpg‑US (3.6 L/100 km; 79 mpg‑imp). When introduced in 1958, the 360’s engine produced 16 hp (12 kW). By the end of production, power had increased to 25 hp (19 kW) with a 36 hp (27 kW) twin-carbureted engine optionally available, achieving 100 hp per liter. The performance and size limitations were largely the result of it having been engineered and designed for Japanese driving conditions, as the speed limits in Japan are realistically set at 40 km/h (24.9 mph) in urban areas, with average driving distances at 5–8 mi (8.0–12.9 km) per day.

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Several variants were produced, including a station wagon (called the Custom), a convertible, and two sport models known as 1) the Subaru Young S, which had a slightly upgraded (EK32 “F”) engine and transmission (4 gears instead of 3), bucket seats and a tachometer along with a black, white striped roof with a dent along the middle to put one’s surfboard, and 2) the Subaru Young SS, which had all the Young S enhancements, but also the EK32 “S” engine with chromed cylinders and dual BS32 Mikuni Solex carburetors, producing 36 hp (27 kW) – and 100 brake horsepower per litre.
From 1961 onwards, a flat-nosed truck and van called the Sambar were also produced using the 360’s engine, with arrangements similar to the Volkswagen Transporter in a smaller size. Many small businesses became very successful thanks to the pickup’s small size for tight streets, quickness, ease to drive and great fuel economy. In Japan between 1960 and 1966, an export version, known as the Subaru 450, increased the engine’s displacement to 423 cc using the Subaru EK51 series engine. This model was also given the name Subaru Maia. The Maia variant was the sole sedan model imported into Australia (approx. 35) in 1961 – along with approx. 38 Sambar vans and trucks.


A used car dealer in Ballarat, Victoria (Frank O’Brien) brought approximately 73 Subaru 360 vehicles into Australia in 1961. This was a mix of Maia sedans and Sambar vans and trucks. Unfortunately they suffered from overheating problems and although a solution was eventually found, it came too late, as the associated losses were too great for the dealership to cope with and further importations ceased. From 1968, approximately 10,000 were exported to the US, with an original price of $1,297. The 360 was imported to the United States by Malcolm Bricklin before he later manufactured his own cars. The Subaru 360 received notoriety in 1969, when Consumer Reports magazine branded the automobile “Not Acceptable” because of safety concerns and lack of power. Because the car weighed under 1000 pounds, it was exempt from normal safety standards, but it was reported that it fared badly in a test crash against a large American car with the bumper ending up in the passenger compartment of the Subaru. Sales soon collapsed, and there were various rumours of Subaru 360s being tossed overboard or being shredded to pieces. It was also reported that many 360s sat on dealers’ lots for two or three years without ever being purchased. The Subaru 360 was replaced by the less popular but more advanced R-2 which was quickly superseded by the long-lived Subaru Rex model.
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