Japan’s People’s Car: The 1958 Subaru 360

In 1958, Fuji Heavy Industries in Japan launched their Subaru automobile division, and taking a page from 1930’s Germany where Hitler envisioned a low cost cheap car that every German could afford, Subaru’s mission was  to develop a cheap no-frills automobile that had a very low cost, was easy to park, and was very economical on gas. The result was the 1958 Subaru 360. This line of small automobiles lasted from 1958 until 1971. In 1969, Subaru made a venture into the U.S. market selling these little cars for just $1297.

But, the cars were not without some major issues. They were very cheaply built for one thing. And the cars used a two stroke engine design of 356cc in japan and 423cc in North America that had very anemic acceleration. CONSUMER REPORTS tested a  Subaru 360 that took all of 37 seconds to go from 0-60. That’s nothing like any hot rod could do. And Subaru apparently really overstated the fuel economy of the cars, claiming up to 66mpg, when CONSUMER REPORTS actually found the fuel economy more like 25-35mpg, because two stroke engines are notorious for swallowing gas. Two stroke engines produce more power for their size than comparable four stroke engines, and are far simplier in design, but at the cost of good fuel mileage and also producing high hydrocarbon emissions from burning oil to lubricate the engine. A motorcycle with a two stroke engine could produce more air pollution than a big city bus run on diesel or gasoline. A two stroke automobile could be much worse yet. Yet, two stroke engines have their fans because of the power type produce from small engines, but pollution wary government watchdogs have long had their eyes trained at ending two stroke engines for good to clean the air.

The lowly Subaru 360, as bad as it was, did provide the upstart auto brand with their first automobile. Thankfully, today the modern Subaru cars are much better than this car.  But, Subaru seemed to be obsessed with producing cars that seemed to mimic German cars.  The little Subaru 360 looked much like a pint-sized ripoff of the VW, which of course was a ripoff of the 1930’s Tatra T97 to begin with. And each imitation of the old Czech  automobile didn’t get better; they got decidedly worse. Then came the later generations of Subaru automobiles with that front mounted “pancake” style four cylinder engine that sure seemed like a front mounted ripoff of the old Tatra and VW designs. But, Subaru did a very good job on producing a decent quality engine with their version of the “pancake” four engines, where some VW buses and cars actually have a few Subaru engine swaps in them. The Subaru engines are far more dependable and offer a little better power than the VW engines.  One custom VW bug owner converted his old 36 horsepower bug with a 300hp Subaru turbocharged engine. Well, that’s a step up in the right direction, but he stuck $75,000 into this custom.

Today, Subaru has become a respected brand, a far cry from their early days of building outright trash like the old 360 cars. But, hey everyone has to start somewhere. And when your first car is the Subaru 360, then anything else is moving on up….

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