Most imported small cars have managed to find some kind of niche with buyers looking for economical and affordable transportation. The Subaru 360 just wasn't one of them.
In hindsight, the Japanese-built two-door sedan was not well-suited to North American travel and if it hadn't been for a budding entrepreneur, it never would have been sold here. The original importer was Malcolm Bricklin, an ambitious Philadelphia native who would eventually earn even greater infamy as the creator of the plastic-bodied Bricklin sports car.
Bricklin and his partner, Harvey Lamm chose the teeny-tiny Subaru 360 as the vehicle to begin their careers as automotive moguls. And, at a very quick first glance, their idea of bringing the 360 to the United States might have seemed like a good bet.
The micro-class Subaru 360 - the Subaru name means "unite" in Japanese, and the numbers represented the size of its two-cylinder, two-stroke engine in cubic centimetres - was actually considered ground-breaking in its homeland. After the Second World War (1939-45), the governments of many countries, including England, France, Germany and Italy, attempted to revive their automobile industries as a way of creating employment, rebuilding moribund economies and literally getting their citizens moving again in the most basic of vehicles. The Morris Minor, Citroën 2CV, Volkswagen Beetle and Fiat 500 were prime examples of long-term postwar automotive expansion.
In Japan, the government supported factories in the development of an inexpensive "people's car" that would be priced within reach of most families.
It took a while, but the Subaru 360 was the first of a number of such autos patterned after this formula. Built by the Nakajima Aircraft Company (later to become Fuji Heavy Industries), the four-seater arrived in early March 1958 and quickly gained favour in its homeland. Not only was it cheap to buy, the 360's 16horsepower air-cooled two-cylinder, two-stroke powerplant, mounted VW-Beetle-style in the back, ran on a bare minimum mixture of gasoline and oil.
Other Beetle-similar components included its frameless construction, four-speed manual transmission with floor-mounted shifter and swing-axle-type independent rear suspension.
Despite a favourable power-to-weight ratio, the 360 was by no means lively. The car's absolute top speed was 80 km/h and required close to 40 seconds to reach that number from a standing start. With a full load, exceeding 65 km/h was a questionable proposition.
In its home market, the 360's attributes far outweighed its drawbacks and it sold well. It even acquired the nickname Ladybird from its styling that reminded people of a ladybug. Throughout the 1960s, more models were added to the line, including a convertible, wagon, van and truck.
With its popularity in Japan assured, it's no wonder that Bricklin and Lamm thought the cute little car had a chance of developing a cult following in the United States, regardless of the different needs of buyers in the two countries. The pair formed Subaru of America and 360s began arriving by boat in 1968. By that time, the partners had signed up a small dealer group and began shipping cars.
With a list price of about $1,300, the 360 was about $500 cheaper than the Beetle, at the time the undisputed import sales leader. Another selling feature, it was hoped, was its advertised 66 mpg (maximum) fuel-economy rating.
Very quickly, however, the 360's shortcomings became apparent, In a land where every car, large and small, could effortlessly cruise all day at 60 mph or better, the undersized and underpowered 360 fell well short of meeting even that basic goal. What functioned on the highways and biways of Japan was simply inadequate for North American driving.
It didn't help that the editors of the April 1968 edition of Consumer Reports magazine gave the Subaru 360 a "not acceptable" rating.
In all, Bricklin and Lamm's distributorship imported 6,000 Subaru 360 sedans plus a few convertibles and trucks before closing the doors in 1970. Most proved so difficult to sell they were practically given away.
The following year, Bricklin created FasTrack, a short-lived franchised business that charged people to drive supplied vehicles on a short, twisty race course. The vehicles used for that purpose consisted of 900 unsold Subaru 360s that were rebodied as fibreglass open-top runabouts by legendary Myers Manx dune-buggy creator Bruce Myers.
Although the wrong vehicle for this market, the 360 admirably acquitted itself in Japan by bringing personal transportation to the masses and helping to power up an industry that, in a few short decades, achieved a reach of global proportions.
Malcolm Gunn is a feature writer with Wheelbase Media, which supplies automotive news and features to newspapers across North America.