Small, quirky, weird, dangerous, underpowered, and we love it

This year at the Chicago Auto Show, Subaru made its presence known with a long line of special edition models. There’s eight of them in total, encompassing almost every entry in Subaru’s stable, and each comes with special paint, satin chrome trim, and new aluminum wheels. All told, we think it’s a rather half-hearted batch of upgrades. Still, there was one car at the Subaru booth that definitely caught our eye – this 1968 Subaru 360. Read on to find out why we like it so much.

Continue reading for the full story.

The Full Story

Subaru Celebrates 50 Years In The U.S. Market With Special Editions, But We're Digging This 360 Instead Exterior AutoShow
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The 360 was one of the first cars Subaru ever made. Nicknamed the “ladybug” in its native Japan, the 360 followed the old “kei” car tradition of small dimensions and low weight.

The 360 was one of the first cars Subaru ever made, with production lasting between 1958 and 1971, which, all things considered, is a pretty impressive run. Nicknamed the “ladybug” in its native Japan, the 360 followed the old “kei” car tradition, and was part of the nation’s efforts towards widespread adoption of the automobile following the devastation of WWII.

The 360 is essentially a two-door microcar created specifically for the rigors of city travel, with a simplified design and tiny dimensions. And when we say tiny, we mean tiny – compared to a modern Smart Fortwo, the 360 is both narrower and shorter, plus its got a shorter wheelbase as well (the rounded body work makes it a bit longer overall, though).

Subaru Celebrates 50 Years In The U.S. Market With Special Editions, But We're Digging This 360 Instead Exterior AutoShow
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Exterior Dimension Comparison Subaru 360 Smart Fortwo
Width 1,300 mm (51.2 inches) 1,663 mm (65.5 inches)
Height 1,379 mm (54.3 inches) 1,555 mm (61.2 inches)
Length 2,990 mm (117.7 inches) 2,695 mm (106.1 inches)
Wheelbase 1,801 mm (70.9 inches) 1,873 mm (73.7 inches)

While the 360 was doing well at home, it took about a decade for it to make the journey across the Pacific. Taking responsibility for that was Malcolm Bricklin, who, in 1968, founded Subaru of America in Philadelphia. Bricklin was interested in selling the 360 to U.S. buyers, and after a bit of legal maneuvering, he finally struck a deal to import some 10,000 examples in the late ’60s. Advertised as “Cheap and Ugly,” the 360 was priced at a bargain-beating $1,297.

Subaru Celebrates 50 Years In The U.S. Market With Special Editions, But We're Digging This 360 Instead Exterior AutoShow
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Advertised as “Cheap and Ugly,” the 360 was priced at a bargain-beating $1,297.

The 360 name is a reference to the engine’s displacement, which is rated at a minuscule 356 cc, or 0.356 liters. The engine is mounted transversely in the rear, and uses air cooling and a two-stroke, inline 2-cylinder design. And because it was a two-stroke, owners were required to pre-mix the oil with the gasoline. As such, Subaru designed the fuel tank lid to act as a measuring cup to help owners find the right proportion of gas to oil. How frickin’ quirky is that?! Thankfully, by 1964, the “Subarumatic” auto-mixing system was introduced to make operation of the 360 a bit more convenient.

Per Japan’s weight regulations regarding kei cars, the 360 tips the scales at just 900 pounds. It uses a monocoque construction, rather than a unibody, as well as a fiberglass roof panel, all of which helps to keep the pounds off. It also incorporates an independent swing axle rear suspension, another weight-saving measure.

Ingress and egress is accomplished by rear-hinged suicide doors. Once inside, passengers would find a layout befitting of the simplified theme, including split front bench seating and a full metal dash. Later models added padding to the dash, as well as an open glove box, pop-out rear quarter windows, and map pockets. Subaru also added controls on the floor for the choke, the heater, and the fuel cut-off.

Subaru Celebrates 50 Years In The U.S. Market With Special Editions, But We're Digging This 360 Instead Exterior AutoShow
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With the three-speed transmission routing the two-cylinder's maximum output of 16 horsepower, the 360 could reach a top speed of 60 mph in a little under 40 seconds.

The two-cylinder engine connected to a three-speed manual transmission to feed the rear axle, although later models were offered with a four-speed manual and a three-speed “Autoclutch” that replaced the third pedal with a self-operating electromagnet unit. With the three-speed transmission routing the two-cylinder’s maximum output of 16 horsepower, the 360 could reach a top speed of 60 mph in a little under 40 seconds. Subaru claimed fuel returns of 66 mpg, but independent outlets saw numbers around 30 mpg.

By the end of its production run, the 360 enjoyed incremental increases to output, peaking at 25 horsepower. There was also a twin-carbureted engine option offering up a whopping 36 horsepower, which meant the plucky little 356 cc powerplant was making an impressive 100 horsepower per liter.

In addition to the two-door hardtop body style, Subaru also offered the 360 as a wagon, a.k.a. the Custom, and a convertible, with the latter being essentially a coupe with a rolling fabric roof. Subaru even offered a pair of sport models dubbed the Young S and Young SS. The Young S came with a four-speed transmission, bucket seats, a tachometer, and a black roof with a white stripe, plus a roof crease to mount your surfboard. Finally, the Young SS offered up that previously mentioned 36-horsepower engine option.

Subaru Celebrates 50 Years In The U.S. Market With Special Editions, But We're Digging This 360 Instead Interior AutoShow
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The extremely low curb weight meant the 360 was exempt from U.S. safety regulations, and during crash tests, it provided about the same level of protection as a coffee can.

While the Subaru 360 was similar to the VW Beetle in a variety of ways, it was also smaller and less powerful. As a result, it was less popular in the U.S. The extremely low curb weight also meant it was exempt from U.S. safety regulations, and during crash tests, it provided about the same level of protection as a coffee can. To compound the issue, Consumer Reports noted that the suicide doors would occasionally open when traveling at speed due to the wind. As you might imagine, sales weren’t great after these issues came to light.

Nevertheless, the 360 was a huge success in Japan, with production reaching an impressive 392,000 units over the course of its 13-year production run. These days, the 360 remains a popular oddity among collectors, and despite all its faults (or maybe because of them), we think it’s awesome.

References

Subaru Unveils Big Batch of Not-So-Special Limited-Edition Cars in Chicago
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Subaru Unveils Big Batch of Not-So-Special Limited-Edition Cars in Chicago

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