CHERRY HILL, New Jersey — The task in 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 short-shift-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.