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RETRO DRIVE: Subaru 360

1 January 2017

Cheap and Ugly Does It?

In 1958, Subaru produced its first automobile. It was tiny, weighed practically nothing and had no power. Perfect, then, for the US market.

The Subaru 360 was what’s known as a ‘Kei Car’, a small vehicle designed for a crowded Japanese city. The country had a bunch of regulations that needed to be complied with in order for a vehicle to be designated a Kei car, but if adhered to, all sorts of tax and insurance benefits followed. The 360 was small: less than 3m long, 1.3m wide and 1.4m high. It was powered by a 356cc engine and had a curb weight of 410kg. It was quickly nicknamed the Ladybug in Japan and was a huge hit. During its 12-year production run, about 392 000 of these little cars were sold.

Having enjoyed great success at home, in 1968 Subaru did what one assumes must have seemed like a good idea at the time: It shipped the 360 to the US. Let’s consider what the 360 was up against. The Chevrolet Camaro was released at that time, and is a good example of your typical US muscle car. It was a 4.7m long and 1.8m wide. Engine options at launch were a 3.8-litre or 5.5-litre, though you would eventually be able to buy this car with a 6.5-litre and even a seven-litre.  Unsurprisingly, the 360 wasn’t a success. All told, about 10 000 little cars were imported and marketed under the tagline “Cheap and Ugly Does It”. It was probably hoped that the 360 would follow in the footsteps of the VW Beetle, but as it turned out, cheap and ugly did not do it.

People thought the car was too small and underpowered, and they had some very understandable concerns regarding what would happen if a 360 collided with your typical American automobile. Consumer Reports said the 360 was “not acceptable”, and called it “the most unsafe car on the market”. Today, though, circumstances are very different. Subaru is now having considerable success in the US. It sold 582 675 in the Unites States last year, and is on track to sell even more in 2016. Volkswagen, just for comparison, sold 349 440 vehicles in 2015. The 360 is also a bit of a collector’s item these days, especially among hardcore Subaru fans.

This particular example belongs to Chris Grobler of Subaru Centurion. He purchased the vehicle for R60 000 two years ago, and spent another R30 000 restoring it. It had a lot of rust when Chris bought it, but Jose Ferreira from Italian Panelbeaters helped bring it back to life. Although it hasn’t officially been put against the clock yet, Chris estimates its 0–100km/h time at around 35 seconds. “You can increase its speed, though,” quips Chris. “By dropping it down a mineshaft.” The 360 runs perfectly and still has its original engine. “The only issue is that the two-stroke carburettor has to be cleaned regularly, since it has a tendency to clog,” says Chris.

Manufacturer Subaru
Model 360
Years available 1958 – 1971
Layout Rear-engine, monocoque body
Engine Subaru EK31, straight-twin, two-stroke
Capacity 356cc
Fuel system Carburetted
Power 12 kW
Transmission 3-speed manual
Curb weight 410kg

Text: GG van Rooyen