My Childhood Dream Car Was a Subaru 360. And I Drove It Across the U.S.
Before I can talk about the ordeal that was driving a 925lbs. 25hp car across the United States, let me give some back story about myself and this car, and why in desperation I decided to take it on a long, long drive some years ago.
When I was a kid I lived in Denver, Colorado. And in Denver, at the Subaru dealership on Broadway there was not one, but two Subaru 360 sedans on display in the show room. I was captivated the first time I saw them. I visited many times to look at them, took pictures, etc. I was in love with everything about the car. The history, the engineering, the amusing 1960s Japanese Kei car styling. It was as though somebody had taken all the elements of my favorite old cars and blended them together into one fascinating, tiny, package.
I found the Subaru 360 Driver’s Club, saved up my allowance, and watched the classifieds on their website. Eventually I found one - a yellow, Deluxe 360 sedan hiding out in Missoula Montana. It was my dream car. We brought it down to Denver, and I planned on restoring it. But being only 16 at the time, I didn’t really have the resources to work much on the car. By the time I moved out of my mom’s house at 18 I had gotten the engine to start, had rebuilt the brake master cylinder, and discovered that despite looking rather ugly, the car was basically mechanically sound - but it still needed some niggling little details sorted out - like having a muffler, or an alternator that charged the battery, or a working parking brake.
Fast forward a few years, I was living in Georgia, and the car was now sitting in the backyard of my alcoholic sociopathic step dad’s house - and the marriage between that man and my mother had just violently exploded into a million terribly shitty fragments. I moved the car to the backyard of a friend of a friend and said I would be back to get it out of their way next summer break. And I would be back. And I would be driving the Subaru from Denver, Colorado to Savannah, Georgia.
Necessity is the mother of desperate ideas, and since I had no money to have the car transported, nor could find anybody who would be willing to transport it so far, the only option I had really (at least in my mind at the time) was to go to Denver and drive the car back to where I was living in Georgia. Of course at this time I didn’t know that my life was about to get much worse where I was living, so it seemed like a reasonable idea.
The big major issue was finding some sort of alternator that would fit. The original generator was long gone, and the ancient alternator that had been swapped in to replace it many decades ago was dead. This meant finding something that could be made to fit, which was exasperating. Eventually after many visits to many different and not very helpful auto parts stores - I found an alternator with a hilariously protruding pulley (apparently from some sort of old Volkswagen) that I was able to make fit with some ingenious and sound engineering arrangement of bolts and nuts. It did work.
I took a couple of days to drive the car around the Denver neighbourhood where I was staying and there didn’t seem to be any other major issues other than the missing muffler and a leaky oil tank. I was sort of, half-assedly living my childhood dream. The Subaru was alive, and I was driving it, and it was glorious.
The Subaru 360 is simply a marvellous car. It debuted in 1958, a product of Fuji Heavy Industries. The first commercially successful Kei car in Japan. It was by Japanese standards of the time thoroughly modern and thoroughly original and Japanese. You have to remember that in the 1950s the Japanese motor industry was building cars that were mostly foreign designs (or copies of), Austins, Renaults, Jeeps, and so on. The subaru 360 though was like no other car in the world. It is to Japanese motoring history sort of what the 2cv is in French motoring history. It is the most Japanese of Japanese cars, and the most “of its era” of all Japanese cars. A quick run down of its specs shows that it made use of many of the latest engineering fads in motoring - torsion bar suspension (with coil springs too just for good measure), transverse engine mounting, air cooled rear mounted engine, finned aluminum brake drums, a fiberglass roof panel and an acrylic rear window to save weight. It had a bit of everything that was cool in 1958 - except for stupidly huge tail fins.
When it came to the U.S. about ten years later, the 356cc engine had been tuned up to 25hp and the 360 could reach speeds in excess of 60 mph! But - at its core the Subaru 360 was still meant to be a car used for trundling slowly over the unpaved roads of 1950s Japan. It was never intended for American highways and interstates. Even with its mighty 25hp the cruising speed was still a buzzy 50 mph. It was a failure in the U.S. marketplace, and its importer, Malcolm Bricklin went on to bigger and better things, like building the Bricklin SV-1, a car with such notable safety innovations as gull-wing doors that didn’t keep rain out of the inside of the car.
If I remember correctly, I set out in the morning, believing I could leisurely work my way across the States in about 4 days, and because the Subaru would drink so little gas the trip would cost me hardly any money. Well I was wrong. I had barely gotten out of denver onto a rural highway when the first unexpected problem showed up. The little Subaru kept stalling - the fuel line kept clogging with rust. In my test drives I never noticed it because I barely got the car above 30mph for more than a few seconds. But when approaching speeds of 40mph, gravity just couldn’t get the gas to flow into the carb fast enough with all those rust chips in the way. If I took the car over 30mph it would stall. I first tried disconnecting the fuel line at the carb and blowing through it. The gas seemed to flow fine, so I plugged the line in and started off again. But after about five miles it happened again. I went on like this, driving a couple miles, stalling, blowing the line clear and driving again for about an hour before I realized there was no way I could drive 1,800+ miles in this manner. I cleared out the dirt trap on the fuel control valve - it was full of rust particles, and started again. This seemed to work better, I must have driven for at least half an hour before the engine stalled again. And again the dirt trap was filled with rust. Lather rinse repeat. By the end of the first night I was still crawling across eastern Colorado.
Luckily there was nobody around for miles and the terrain was flat, so scooting about at moped-level speeds in the Subaru was not as stressful as it might have been. But I would need to make up time now. I needed to figure out how to fix the little 360 and get across the U.S. as fast as possible. The next morning I loitered around a gas station in western Kansas. I had cleared the dirt trap again, but noticed some other problems, and some leaks and I didn’t have any of the appropriate tools to tighten and tune things. I am forever grateful to a fellow car nut for helping me out here.
I saw a man pull up, on his trailer was an ancient Corvette looking like it had just been rescued from a collapsed barn. I approached somebody who was obviously a fellow car nut (though of a very different sort) and admired his find, and asked if maybe he had some tools I could borrow for a minute to sort out a few parts on my archaic Subaru. He loved the 360 and couldn’t believe I was driving it cross country. But he also found after rummaging through his truck that he didn’t bring any tools with him. In a supreme act of kindness to a fellow enthusiast he went into the station and returned with an el-cheapo wrench set, for me, to keep. It was the first act of honest kindness from a complete stranger I was to experience on my trip. I have to mention that at this moment it was sunday and I was waiting for my last paycheck to clear. I was completely broke until the next day - so even a no-brand gas station tool kit was a miracle for me.
Next, in a sensible act of complete insanity I decided to see if my fiddling with the car worked - by accelerating onto the interstate and into a full blown thunderstorm. The fuel seemed to be flowing o.k. enough now for me to maintain the 45mph minimum - but I couldn’t see anything because the petrified windshield wipers were sort of just hopping over the rain instead of sweeping it away. I had to pull over at the next exit. Obviously I was not going to find the tiny wiper blades a 1969 Subaru 360 needs at a modern gas station. So I took one of the old ones off and matched it up with a wiper that was twice as long. Then I cut the big wiper blade in half, et voila - two subaru 360 sized blades! The parts are still available for these cars, sometimes you just have to make them out of larger parts.
Surprisingly the Subaru 360 is remarkably well behaved at highway speeds. The soft suspension makes up for the small wheels, and despite the light weight the car seems well planted on the road, even in the stormy weather I encountered. The only really hairy part is accelerating up to highway speed which can be impossible really if the on ramp is going up a grade. You will be far more worried about other cars than your own, and I’ve driven larger cars that seemed less stable than the tiny 360.
There were several ongoing problems with the car, but two of them overlapped hiding some of the causes. The car had very uneven performance. Sometimes it was capable of zipping up to a terrifying 65 mph, and other times it struggled to make 50 mph even on a perfectly flat road. I assumed it must still be a fuel delivery problem, but eventually no more rust appeared in the tank’s dirt trap. I even bought a bucket and drained the entire tank, replaced the fuel filter, trap screen, and tested the fuel flow again - everything was flowing fine, but mysterious intermittent performance problems remained. And when you only have 25hp any sort of loss of power is critical. The pre-muffler was coming loose by the time I got into Missouri so with the help of another kind car nut I was escorted to a car shop that would weld up the cracks in it for a nominal fee. As the car sat outside of their shop the town’s mayor jogged up and looked over the tiny car. They all seemed thoroughly amused by its presence and the the idea that I had driven it so far.
I decided now that I was in a busier state I should keep off the interstate and stick to back roads and highways - only to find very quickly this was a terrible idea. Counter intuitively, the interstate is probably the safest place to drive a 25hp microcar. The thing is the interstate has a passing lane, so people can get around your slowmobile. It also usually has a broad shoulder so you can pull over and let people pass your slowmobile. It’s also gently graded and has a posted minimum speed limit of 45 mph that your slowmobile can usually maintain granted there’s not a headwind stronger than 3 mph. It’s also mostly straight so other drivers can see your horrendously, dangerously small car easier. After getting hopelessly lost on Missouri’s highways and encountering absurdly steep hills - I made a run back for the interstates.
By now the intermittent performance problem seemed to become permanent. I checked the fuel flow again. I checked the plugs, the tire pressure, the carb, I jettisoned all extra weight - but the car just wouldn’t go over 50. By now I had been on the road for five days. Sleeping in the Subaru, spending way more money than I had planned to because of wasted fuel, leaking oil , fixing various electrical problems, and I was just about broke again - but with no more money coming. I had a few more encounters with friendly folks who helped me find auto parts stores - but nobody could seem to figure out what the problem was. I was getting desperate to get back to my girlfriend and my room, and my job - but the little Subaru just wouldn’t go. And with the mountains coming up on my way to Georgia I needed all 25 of those little Japanese ponies to keep me going.
I looked for a problem everywhere, even taking the top end of the engine apart to see if the exhaust ports had clogged, or the rings had carboned up. But nothing - until I got a response to a call for help on the Japanese Nostalgic Car forums - my girlfriend relayed the responses to me by phone since my laptop was dead now. Somebody suggested it could be the distributor. So I even took the distributor apart. And there was the problem. The advance weights were stuck. I didn’t have any means to clean them so I just put a couple drops of oil on them and worked them until they moved freely. Then I put the distributor back together - and lacking a timing light - set the points by looking at them through a magnifying lens to see when the gap opened. Amazingly it worked. The car was back to life. With all of its power restored I zoomed up the Appalachian mountains in second gear, and even big rig drivers had to recognize that here was a truly slow vehicle. Maybe I fulfilled some of their dreams to pass a car while going up hill. Or maybe it was just really annoying. In any event I made it to Savannah.
And when I got back - I lost my job, my girlfriend, my room, I no longer had a family home in Colorado, and I had to drop out of school. I sold my main car, a 1982 Toyota Tercel which I loved dearly, and finally, and extremely reluctantly, I put my dream car, my 1969 Subaru 360, that I had done so much for in a vain effort to keep - onto ebay. This is the last photo I took of my subaru:
A photo for the auction. I couldn’t stand to take a parting shot like I had of all my other cars when the new owner came to pick it up. I was too tired. In the months that followed, life was confusing and complicated, and extremely, extremely depressing and disheartening. Everything I had worked for in my life up to that point disappeared from under me in a matter of weeks. I don’t actually know what happened to the car or where it is now. But I would love to find another 360 and to take another long trip - this time under better circumstances and with a happier ending. I believe I will always love these charming little cars. The Subaru 360 is one of the most overlooked, misunderstood and under-appreciated Japanese classics - and it’s hard not have a good time when driving one. I hope that somewhere my little Subaru is still smokin’.