The Subaru 360 – Subaru’s Inauspicious Start in the United States

Subaru occupies a prominent place as niche manufacturer in the American automobile market these days. Built by Fuji Heavy Industries of Tokyo, Japan and marketed towards drivers who live an active and outdoorsy lifestyle, Subaru cars are much loved by American drivers for their dependability and durability. The Japanese automaker is also renowned for employing fascinating technological features, including all-wheel drive, horizontally-opposed engines, and continuously variable transmission (my present car, a 2012 Subaru Impreza, is equipped with all three of these features). But it was not always this way. When Subaru first started selling cars in the United States, it struck an inauspicious note by offering a car that was not appropriate for the American market: the Subaru 360.

Trade catalog for the Subaru 360, ca. 1960s

Trade catalog for the Subaru 360, ca. 1960s

The Subaru 360 was a microcar originally designed for crowded Japanese driving conditions. A truly tiny car, the 360 weighed in at a mere 993 pounds and ran on 70-inch wheelbase. It employed a rear-engine, rear-wheel drive layout. Power was provided by a 356 cc (22 cubic-inch) 2-stroke inline-2 engine, which utilized air-cooling and was good for 25 horsepower. The engine was mated to a 4-speed manual transmission. The car rode on a suspension system which employed trailing arms with torsion bars and coil springs on the front wheels, and torsion bars and semi-axles on the rear wheels. Styling wise the 360 was clothed in a bulbous (and some argued ugly) 2-door body shell, which featured rear-hinged “suicide” doors.”

The 360 was capable of a level of performance that sufficed in Japan, but was considered unacceptable in the United States. On the positive side, it was an economical car to run, with a claimed gas mileage in excess of 50 miles per gallon, and its small size made it well-suited for use in urban areas. On the down side, it was a decidedly slow car. According to Consumer Reports, it took the 360 37.5 seconds to accelerate from 0 to 50 miles per hour and had a top speed of around 55 miles per hour.

Trade catalog for the Subaru 360, ca. 1960s

Trade catalog for the Subaru 360, ca. 1960s

Teaming up with automotive entrepreneur Malcolm Bricklin, Subaru started importing the 360 to the United States in 1968 and offered it at a remarkably low sticker price of $1,297. Using the slogan “Cheap and Ugly Does It” (which probably drew its inspiration from well-remembered advertising campaigns for the Volkswagen Beetle), Subaru sought to market the 360 as an inexpensive, yet distinctive economy car. Unfortunately for Subaru, the 360 received a very chilly reception from the American driving public and sold poorly. Potential customers were put off by the 360’s small size, odd styling, and slow performance. Among those who did buy it, the car earned a reputation for being difficult to get serviced.

Perhaps most damaging of all, the 360 was publically branded as an unsafe car by the American motoring press. Consumer Reports rated the 360 as “Not Acceptable,” describing it as “the most unsafe car on the market.” The magazine was highly critical of the car’s lack of speed and unusual handling characteristics. It also harshly criticized the 360’s lack of safety equipment and poor performance in crash testing with larger American cars of the day. Its reputation damaged, Subaru withdrew the 360 from the American market after the 1970 model year. But Subaru learned some immensely valuable lessons from the 360’s experience, which enabled the Japanese firm to build cars that would become favorites with American drivers in years to come.

Around 10,000 Subaru 360s were imported to the United States between 1968 and 1970. Surviving examples are considered to be interesting collector items today.

Sources

Covello, Mike, Standard Catalog of Imported Cars, 1946-2002; Iola, Wisconsin: Krause Publications, 2002, p. 748-749.

Georgano, Nick, ed. The Beaulieu Encyclopedia of the Automobile; Volume 2: M-Z; Norwich, England: The Stationery Office, 2000, p. 1537.

McCourt, Mark J., “A Small Start for Something Big, The tale of how Subaru came to America with the 360 and how it nearly all ended,” Hemmings Motor News, February 2006.

Subaru 360, Subaru (Japan): Trade Catalogs: Specific Models: 360 and 450, ca. 1960s, Z. Taylor Vinson Collection, Hagley Museum and Library.

Subaru 360 Drivers Club

Subaru 360, Fuji Heavy Industries Ltd., Subaru (Japan): Trade Catalogs: Specific Models: 360 and 450, ca. 1960s, Z. Taylor Vinson Collection, Hagley Museum and Library.

“The Subaru 360 (Not Acceptable)” Consumer Reports, April 1969, p. 220-222.

Kenton Jaehnig is the Project Archivist for the Z. Taylor Vinson Collection at Hagley Museum and Library.

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