Why The Subaru 360 Is Japan's Most Japanese Car.
Germany had the Volkswagen Beetle, France had the 2cv, Italy the Fiat 500, and England the “British” Mini. All icons of their respective country’s motor industry. Each design was distinctive, innovative, and popular. Each design reflected, if not exemplified the motoring culture of the country it was built in. But what about Japan? What Japanese car is the most Japanese out of all possible Japanese cars? You might think the Toyota 2000GT, but you’d be wrong. Perhaps an RX7 or a Skyline? Both very Japanese, but still wrong. The icon of Japanese motoring could never be anything other than the Subaru 360. Let me explain why.
In the 1950s, Hino was building Renaults, Mitsubishi was building Kaisers and Jeeps, Nissan was building Austins, and Isuzu was building Hillmans (of all things). Suzuki was building the Suzulight, a thinly disguised copy of a German Lloyd microcar. Toyotas and Princes looked like scaled down American cars. Daihatsu was about the only company producing something original - something too original - the freakish three-wheeled “Bee” sedan. The Japanese motor industry wasn’t known for being original, and their copies weren’t held in high regard either. Which is why the 1958 Subaru 360 is perhaps one of the most important cars in the history of Japanese automobiles. It was not only original, it was brilliant. And it was better than European microcars too.
The Subaru 360 was designed to fit into Japan’s Kei Jidosha (literally: light automobile) class of vehicles. This class of vehicle was limited to a maximum engine capacity of 360 cubic centimeters (thus Subaru’s prosaic 360 model name), and overall vehicle dimensions were limited as well. The incentives for buying such a vehicle were lower tax rates, looser parking restrictions (larger sized cars for instance could not be left parked over-night on city streets) and cheaper insurance. But as most companies believed it would be impossible to produce a usable car with an engine so small, the kei class of vehicles was virtually ignored and the market languished. The Suzulight was the first serious attempt by a major manufacturer to produce a car for the market, but it was largely derived from a Lloyd design that was already several years old. In contrast, Fuji Heavy Industries’ car, the Subaru 360, was going to be entirely original, designed from the ground up for Japanese roads and motorists. Most Japanese then had never owned cars, and most roads in Japan were still unpaved. If a car was going to be successful, it had to be sturdy, simple, economical to run, and cheap to buy. And making a car all of those things would require some very clever design.
The car had to be incredibly light (target weight for the prototype was under 900 lbs.) to wring the most out of the 356cc, 16hp engine. So the roof was made of fiberglass, and the rear window was plastic. The bulbous shape of the car was dictated by the thin steel used in the body panels, the curves were necessary for strength. The car was supposed to provide seating for four people, in an overall vehicle length of less than 10 feet. So a very clever, compact suspension system and 10 inch wheels were used. The engine was mounted transversely at the rear to maximize interior passenger space. And the amazing thing is, not only did this all make the Subaru 360 very original and effective for a Japanese car of the era - the thing was just damned good even in comparison with European cars of the time.
Consider the much loved Fiat 500. Its 12 inch wheels and longitudinal engine ate into precious passenger space. It was also heavier than the Subaru, and with its weaker 13hp engine, it was slower too. Further - it wasn’t built anything near as well as the Subaru was. As well, contrast the Subaru with the Glas Goggomobil. The Goggomobil was like the Subaru in that it used a rear mounted twin cylinder, 2-stroke engine and 10 inch wheels, but the Goggomobil’s three box design and coil spring suspension resulted in poor space utilization, and overall the thing was just much cruder than the Subaru 360. The Austin Se7en (more informally known as the British Mini) which appeared in 1959, is not in the same class as the little Subaru 360, being a bit larger overall, much heavier, and with a much, much larger engine - but several of the genius ideas of the 1959 Mini had already appeared in the 1958 Subaru 360. The 10 inch wheels and transverse engine mounting are obvious, but both cars also used sliding windows in the doors to free up the interior door space for more elbow room and storage space. Subaru had just done it sooner.
Particularly interesting is the design of the Subaru 360 suspension system. The Renault 4cv, which was built in Japan by Hino, was popular there because of its typically French, soft ride over Japan’s rough unpaved roads. It set the standard by which the Subaru would be judged. Getting a comparatively soft ride out of the smaller, lighter, Subaru 360, with its tiny 10 inch wheels was a challenge. Particularly when the suspension needed to take up as little space as possible and be extremely light. The solution was novel and effective: trailing arms were utilized at the front, and swing arms for the rear. Springing was provided by a combination of torsion bars and coil springs. The trailing arms were connected to short, transverse torsion bars, which instead of being mounted solidly to the body, were instead connected by a short lever to a shared, centrally located, single coil spring. When the torsion bar overloaded, the coil spring began to compress, allowing still more suspension travel. The reason for this arrangement was that the narrow width of the car didn’t allow for torsion bars long enough to provide the wanted suspension travel. So a coil spring made up the difference. The single coil spring, being centrally located didn’t eat into front passenger leg room the way two conventionally placed coil springs would have. This peculiarly brilliant design was compact, was light, and allowed a car weighing less than 900 pounds to ride like a 4000 lbs. Cadillac.
The engine too was an impressive piece of work. A 2-stroke, air cooled job was specified to save weight and complexity. Fuji Heavy Industries had already designed successful single cylinder engines for their line of Fuji Rabbit motor scooters. Now they designed a two cylinder unit that could propel a car. It was tested savagely on Japan's mountain roads, and tweaked into reliable tune. Sixteen horses may not sound like a lot, but in 1958 it was more than either the Fiat 500 or much heavier Citroen 2cv could boast of, despite both of those cars having larger engines. By the mid 1960s, when paved highways were increasingly common in Japan, Subaru introduced an automatic oil-injection system, which force fed oil into the engine’s bearings. The old way of mixing oil into the gas was insufficient for prolonged high speed driving. The final Subaru 360 was available with an optional 36hp, twin carbed engine, but still of only 356cc capacity. Output per cubic inch was only exceeded by far more exotic cars of the era.
Not everything about the 1958 Subaru was brilliant though. It was quickly found that the ventilation system was not up to snuff for humid Japanese summers. Originally, air flowed into the passenger compartment through a vent in the front firewall, which made necessary the funny little grille on the front of the car. This was soon replaced by a cowl vent, and the door windows were redesigned for better ventilation as well. The funny little grill remained though. The earliest cars were also fitted with constant-mesh gearboxes. Although several European microcars used such designs, they frustrated Japanese drivers, and a conventional, synchronized, sliding gear transmission was brought in. It says much about the soundness of the design that its biggest flaws were relatively minor issues such as these, and resolving them did not fundamentally change the overall character of the car.
Despite these early problems, Subaru 360 sales soared during the mid 1960s, and it became one of the best loved and most popular cars in Japan. To the Japanese, the 360 is to Japan what the 2cv is to France, or the Mini to England. Sure, it wasn’t the flashiest car Japan could make, but it was the car Japanese wanted and bought and among the first to prove Japanese designs didn’t need to be copies or derivatives to be successful. So why, if the Subaru 360 is the most Japanese of all Japanese cars, as well as crucially historically important, is it so unappreciated? Well, quite simply, the Japanese didn’t let their secret out. Subaru let precious few copies of the 360 out of Japan. A few were sold in Australia, and a few sold in the United States. But a car so completely Japanese in concept was never going to catch on anywhere else, and worse, by the time it reached American shores in 1968 the design was already entering its twilight years. The Subaru 360 was not only inextricably wound up in Japanese motoring culture, it was also completely tied up in its own era. It couldn’t have been the number one selling car in any other era or country than 1960’s Japan. That it wouldn’t work anywhere else is only testament to how perfectly it was designed for the time and place it was made. So give credit to the little Subaru 360, for everything it is: clever, original, historically important, and distinctly Japanese.