360 De­grees of Subaru

SUBARU: AP­PRE­CI­AT­ING THE EVO­LU­TION

Automobile - - Contents - By Aaron Gold

Look­ing back on 50 years of his­tory often re­veals a tale hard to ex­plain. Take Subaru and its ges­ta­tion in Amer­ica. We drive its first car—the tiny 360— and won­der how it sur­vived, given we barely sur­vived steer­ing one for a day in New Jer­sey. But the 360 served as a bridge to a fu­ture that is now as bright as ever.

T H E TAS K I N ques­tion is a rel­a­tively sim­ple one, mas­tered by mil­lions the world over: Press lightly on the ac­cel­er­a­tor, ease off the clutch pedal, then feed in more throt­tle as the clutch bites. Left foot up, right foot down, away you go. It takes some prac­tice to mas­ter, but in the grand scheme of things, driv­ing a stick shift is easy. Ex­cept noth­ing is easy in a 1968 Subaru 360.

We’ve come to the ham­let of Cherry Hill, near the site of Subaru’s soon-to-be-for­mer U.S. head­quar­ters, to drive the car that 50 years ago launched Subaru’s his­tory in Amer­ica. To wrap our heads around how the man­u­fac­turer went from the 360—the very first ve­hi­cle Subaru im­ported to the States and a car too ane­mic to be called fee­ble—to world-class per­for­mance cars like the lim­ited-run WRX STI Type RA.

The last time I pi­loted a Type RA was on a char­ity road rally called Drive To­ward a Cure, where I kept rea­son­able pace with a rac­ing-trained driver in a Porsche 911 GT3. In the 360, you’d be lucky to keep pace with a fully loaded ce­ment truck. This is no ex­ag­ger­a­tion; with the 360 cranked as fast as it seemed ca­pa­ble of go­ing, not one but two ce­ment trucks blew right past it.

Driv­ing the 360, you find it ex­traor­di­nar­ily dif­fi­cult to be­lieve Subaru lasted 50 min­utes in this coun­try, let alone 50 years. The 360 is im­pos­si­bly tinny and im­pos­si­bly tiny. It stands chest-high to peo­ple of even slightly be­low av­er­age height. Com­pared to a Smart Fortwo, the 360 mea­sures just short of a foot longer, is more than a foot nar­rower, and at 960 pounds is less than half the weight. The unas­sisted steer­ing is one-fin­ger-light, even when the car stands still. Open­ing the rear-hinged sui­cide doors re­veals noth­ing but the thin sheet­metal of the floor and roof. As far as crash pro­tec­tion goes, you might be safer driv­ing a car made of bub­ble wrap.

Power—a word used strictly as a nod to con­ven­tion be­cause it re­ally doesn’t ap­ply to the 360—comes from a rear-mounted 359cc (22-cu­bic-inch) two-cylin­der en­gine. This three-quar­ter-pint pol­lu­tion pump idles with the tat­tered buzz of a poorly tuned chain­saw and farts out an im­pos­si­bly large blue haze through an ex­haust pipe the di­am­e­ter of a penny. Out­put is a pal­try 25 horse­power and 25 lb-ft of torque, not even enough to drive the supercharger on a Dodge Chal­lenger Hellcat. A four-speed man­ual sends power to the rear wheels, though it seems im­pos­si­ble to be­gin to fathom the cir­cum­stances un­der which a 360 might ob­tain a speed high enough to use fourth gear—per­haps if it was dropped out of a plane.

You’d ex­pect a car with such a mea­ger en­gine to be slow. The 360 re­de­fines the word. An old Fiat 500 with 2 less

horse­power than the Subaru feels like a Corvette Z06 in com­par­i­son. The rea­son: The 360’s mi­cro­scopic en­gine is a two-stroke, which means it has no low-end torque what­so­ever. To get mov­ing you have to rev the en­gine like you hate it and slip the clutch with­out smok­ing the clutch. Get it right, and the car leaps ahead to what feels like light speed, though it’s ac­tu­ally an in­di­cated 10 mph. Get it wrong, and the en­gine bogs down, pick­ing up speed so lan­guidly that el­derly folks with walk­ers shake their fists and tell you to get the hell out of their way.

Once un­der­way, your soli­tary goal is to avoid the same fate in sec­ond gear. The Fiat 500 (and the 360’s even­tual suc­ces­sor, the Subaru FF-1) had marks on the speedome­ter in­di­cat­ing max­i­mum in-gear speeds, but the 360 of­fers its hap­less driver no such as­sis­tance. Try hold­ing first to 15 mph be­fore shift­ing to sec­ond, and you find your­self trapped well un­der the torque curve and get­ting short­shift-shamed by the lit­tle Subaru. Next, try hold­ing first to 20 mph. This re­quires wind­ing the en­gine up to what

sounds like about 47,000 rpm, but it yields much bet­ter re­sults; the car was al­most able to keep up with the tran­sit bus in the next lane. Logic would dic­tate sec­ond gear is good for at least 40 mph, but I wanted no part of push­ing this del­i­cate car that hard.

Orig­i­nally in­tro­duced in 1958, the 360 was the first mass-pro­duced kei­ji­dosha, or kei car, a class of Ja­panese ve­hi­cles that qual­i­fied for cheaper taxes and in­sur­ance pro­vided they met cer­tain size and dis­place­ment lim­its. In Ja­pan, where the speed limit was 25 mph in town and 37 mph on back roads, a 360cc en­gine was just about ad­e­quate. But for sub­ur­ban New Jer­sey in 1968—or in this case, 2018—not so much.

Mind­ful of the car’s fragility, I shifted into third at 35 mph, 15 short of the posted limit. The 360 made it clear this was as fast as it in­tended to go. I fig­ured I’d found a nice if slightly ter­ri­fy­ing mid­dle ground be­tween not killing the car and not killing my­self. That was when the ce­ment trucks went fly­ing past.

Aside from the slug­like ac­cel­er­a­tion, driv­ing the 360 turned out to be less dread­ful than I was led to ex­pect. The ride is soft and sur­pris­ingly com­fort­able, not un­like the Detroit land yachts of the era. Its light steer­ing is rea­son­ably di­rect, which is help­ful as you must swerve a con­stant slalom around pot­holes. Even the small­est of them pose a cred­i­ble threat to the 360’s din­ner-plate-sized wheels and tires. Aside from cramped footwells, an in­sane amount of en­gine noise, and the con­stant threat of death from other traf­fic, the mi­cro Subaru is not en­tirely un­pleas­ant. Pet­ri­fy­ing, but not en­tirely un­pleas­ant.

Whether Mal­colm Brick­lin, who im­ported the first Subarus, con­sid­ered this a vi­able car or was just try­ing to make a buck and get out is a mat­ter for au­to­mo­tive his­to­ri­ans. (Con­sider as ev­i­dence his next im­port, the Yugo, and leave it at that.) Frankly, it’s amaz­ing that any­one who test-drove a 360 ac­tu­ally bought one. My jaunt was fright­en­ing enough; it’s im­pos­si­ble to imag­ine the sheer ter­ror of wheel­ing this thing among the in­ad­e­quately braked be­he­moths that roamed our roads in the late 1960s.

Had the 360 been the com­pany’s only im­port, we’re pretty sure Subaru wouldn’t be here today. While Con­sumer Re­ports was busy trash­ing the 360, call­ing it “un­ac­cept­ably haz­ardous,” Brick­lin’s part­ner, Har­vey Lamm, eye­balled Subaru’s new front-wheel-drive FF-1 as a good choice for Amer­i­cans liv­ing in the Rust Belt. When that bet paid off, he im­ported the four-wheel-drive Leone wagon, known here as the DL and GL. Subaru’s leg­end was born. The DL/GL be­gat the Legacy, which be­gat the Out­back, which be­gat the Forester, which in turn po­si­tioned Subaru to take ad­van­tage of the na­tion’s present cross­over craze. And when Subaru started com­pet­ing in the FIA World Rally Cham­pi­onship, the com­pany re­al­ized all-wheel drive could do more than get you out of snow. The WRX came to this coun­try in 2002, and Subaru hasn’t been the same in Amer­ica since.

Put an­other way: Jeff Wal­ters, Subaru of Amer­ica’s vice pres­i­dent of sales and owner of the 360 in our photos, found this par­tic­u­lar car lan­guish­ing in the cor­ner of a Chicago deal­er­ship with 19,000 orig­i­nal miles on the clock. When I first saw it, I mar­veled that a car so old could have so few miles. Af­ter driv­ing it, I’m amazed it has so many.

The 360’s cabin is what mar­keters might call “in­ti­mate.” It’s hard to be­lieve an ex­haust pipe so tiny can pro­duce such co­pi­ous amounts of oil smoke.

Th­ese two Subarus couldn’t be more dif­fer­ent. The STI is hand­some, roomy, andsafe; the 360 is ugly, cramped, dan­ger­ous, andridicu­lously slow.

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