Car Lust Subaru 360

21 Фев 2014 | Author: | Комментарии к записи Car Lust Subaru 360 отключены
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Subaru 360

Remember that cute but dorky (or is it dorky but cute?) imported subcompact with the air-cooled engine mounted in the rear? Didn t seem like much, slow and Spartan compared to the full -sized Detroit dreadnoughts and fire -breathing musclecars it shared the road with, but they sold enough of them to get a foothold in the US market. It proved to be the humble start to something much bigger: today, the manufacturer is an established player selling well over a quarter million vehicles in North America each year—building a goodly number of them in its ecologically friendly US trans-plant factory .

And no, I m not talking about Volkswagen and its iconic Beetle. though there s a lot of parallel between today s topic and the Bug, in appearance, engineering, and purpose.

The subject of today s lesson is the first car Subaru sold in the US, a car you might think of as the Japanese Beetle: the Subaru 360.

The Subaru 360, nicknamed the Ladybug in the home market, was one of the first kei cars, appearing in 1958. By North American standards—heck, even by Japanese kei car standards—the 360 was extremely tiny. It was only 117.7 inches long overall—that is, shorter than the wheelbase of a typical Detroit sedan of 1958. It weighed in at a mere 900 pounds, making it lighter than an Isetta microcar.

It could nevertheless carry four people, as long as they weren t too husky and/or clausterphobic and really liked sitting next to each other. The prime mover was a 356cc two-cylinder two-… air cooled affair, essentially a repurposed snowmobile engine, producing a thunderous sixteen horsepower. Like the Beetle, the 360 had its engine mounted in the rear and driving the rear wheels through a three-speed manual transaxle.

Despite its minimalist nature, the Ladybug was a relatively sophisticated design. It used unibody construction with a weight-saving fiberglass roof, and boasted a fully independent torsion bar suspension. While the styling was unchanged over the entire production run, the engine was soon improved to 25 horsepower in base trim.

From 1964 on, it was equipped with the Subarumatic system, which fed the two-… oil into the engine automatically from an on-board reservoir so you didn t have to fiddle with bottles of oil and measuring cups every time you filled up.

On the outside, it bore a certain resemblance to the VW Beetle—or, rather, what the Beetle would have looked like if it had been styled by the production designer from the Gamera film franchise, and then given a … door conversion. Like the Beetle, the 360 was intended from the very start as an entry-level people s car for those who, up to that time, had been unable to afford a car. Consequently, the price was kept low and there were very few options.

When the 360 first went on sale in 1958, customers could have any color they wanted as long as it was white.

As time went on, Subaru made available other paint colors, an optional semi-automatic transmission, and even other body styles: a station wagon. a convertible. and pickup truck and delivery van derivatives called the Samba. There was eventually a more exciting sport version of the base sedan, dolled up with bright yellow paint, a 36 HP twin-carb engine, four -speed transmission, and tachometer. By 1968, several hundred thousand Ladybugs and Sambas were puttering contentedly around Tokyo and Sapporo and like places, and the car would stay in production until replaced in 1971 by the much more sophisticated Rex .

That would be the end of the story there, but for Malcom Bricklin —yes, that Malcolm Bricklin, the man who would later give us the daring but ill-fated Bricklin SV-1. the latter-day Bertone X1/9. and the pathetic Yugo. In 1968, he formed Subaru of America and began importing the cheap and ugly 360, which he introduced to the American public with these TV commercials, starring lovely Subaru spokesmodel Grooviechik McBellbottom:


(By the way, that is the correct Japanese pronounciation of Subaru, with the accent on the second syllable. The accent on the first syllable, what you re used to hearing, is the Americanized (mis)pronounciation.)

That $1,297 price tag (about $8,500 today, adjusted for inflation) put the 360 squarely into the Tata Nano market segment. It was about $400 (equivalent to $2,600 today) cheaper than the VW Beetle, its closest equivalent in the U.S. market, and $700 or so ($4,500 today) cheaper than a base-model Rambler American. the lowest priced domestic compact then on offer. How did they get the price so low?

The answer is simple: other than the (relatively simple) re-engineering needed to move the steering wheel over to the left, there were no development costs. The sheetmetal and basic platform were unchanged from the 1958 original, the tooling had been paid for long ago, and there was no need to do anything to federalize the Ladybug. Since it weighed in at less than 1,000 pounds, the 360 was, as a matter of federal law in effect at the time, not technically an automobile. This meant that it was exempt from federal automobile safety regulations requiring a bunch of things the Japanese market 360 didn t have: side marker lights, a dual master brake cylinder, and such.

Social critics of North American automobile culture often opine/suggest/complain that the world would be a better place if more of us were driving smaller city cars on shorter trips, and point to things like kei cars and Goggomobils and Smart Fortwos as shining examples of what should be. Problem is, cars like that have only a limited appeal on this continent. Except for a few metropolitan areas, population densities are much lower in North America than in Europe or Japan; streets are wider and less crowded, and average travel distances are much longer. North Americans are, on average, physically larger than European and Japanese people (insert social critique of fast food and childhood obesity here) and don t fit into smaller cars as comfortably—and a smaller car that s a tight fit becomes progressively less tolerable in proportion to the length of the trip.

North American car buyers also, with some justification, perceive smaller cars to be less crash-worthy than larger ones. That was especially true of late-50s microcars like the Isetta and Goggomobil and Subaru 360, which didn t have enough sheetmetal fore and aft to make for meaningful crumple zones.

For all of these reasons, the Beetle and cars like today s MINI, Fit, Versa, and Sonic are probably at the lower limit of size for a car hoping for anything more than niche market appeal on this continent—as the makers of the Smart Fourtwo seem to be finding out the hard way. Still, on the surface at least, the cheap and ugly 360 certainly had a sporting chance of becoming popular with the counterculture crowd. the way the Beetle and the Type 2 Microbus already were.

It did, that is, until Consumer Reports got hold of one.

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The review published in the magazine s April, 1969 issue rated the 360 as not acceptable. CR savaged the car for its glacial acceleration—0- 50 in 37.5 seconds, 28.5 seconds in the quarter mile with a 47 MPH trap speed! —poor emergency handling at high speed, and real-life fuel economy well short of the claimed 66 MPG. They also criticized the miserable ergonomics of the driver s position, the inadequate windshield defogger, the annoying tendency of the … doors to live up to their name by popping open at speed, the shockingly deficient structural integrity, and bumpers which were virtually useless against anything more formidable than a watermelon. The review did conclude on a positive note, however:

It was a pleasure to squirm out of the Subaru, slam the door, and walk away.

As you might expect, sales of the 360 collapsed soon afterward.

Even if it had gotten more positive reviews, the Ladybug was too unsuited for American roads to ever be more than a novelty item or a cult car. Subaru and Malcolm Bricklin had apparently already realized this, and weren t relying on the 360 as their sole product for the American market. In 1969, Subaru of America began importing the FF-series compact. giving it the model name Star.

The Star/FF-1 was a car that looked a lot more like the Subarus we re used to today. It was powered by a water-cooled four-… flat-4 engine which is the mechanical ancestor of today s Subie prime movers. Riding on a 95.5-inch wheelbase, it was far better suited to the American road and the American driver.

It was initially FWD only, but in 1971, Subaru built an order of FF-1 station wagons for the Tohoku Electric Power Company equipped, at customer request, with all-wheel drive. These cars set the pattern for Subaru s future success. You can think of them as the ur -Forester .

As for the 360, while it was not really suited to North American road and market conditions—it usually shows up on the list when one of the magazines or car blogs runs a worst cars of all time piece—it was good enough to get Subaru started in the American market. Given that Subaru now sells around a quarter million vehicles in the U.S. every year, you could even say that the cheap and ugly little Subaru got the last laugh on Consumer Reports.

The 360 itself now something of a collector s item, a cheap and cheerful fair-weather road toy. The Subaru 360 Drivers Club boasts a membership of nearly 500 families and a thousand Ladybugs. Its stated mission is “to keep our favorite vehicles on the road and running on both cylinders.” One look at the club website is all you need to see that these are Car Lust s kind of people.


—Cookie the Dog s Owner.

All illustrations came from the Subaru 360 Drivers Club website s collection of member photos and the galery of vintage print materials at Steve s Subaru 360 site .

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