Classic Cars

Classic Drive: 1968 Subaru 360

Driving the original Subaru, 50 years later

CHERRY HILL, New Jersey — It wasn’t until I was well on my way home from New Jersey that I figured out what I’d been doing wrong when I drove the Subaru 360.

The problem I’d been running into was an almost complete lack of acceleration from a dead stop. Granted, when one is driving a car with a 25-horsepower engine, one doesn’t expect to smoke the tires like a Challenger Hellcat. The 360’s rear-mounted, 359-cc two-cylinder engine doesn’t even develop enough power to drive the Hellcat’s supercharger. Still, I’d driven an original Fiat 500 with a 23-hp twin, and while it was excruciatingly slow, it wasn’t this excruciatingly slow.

Hours after my drive, I realized my mistake: I’d been easing off the clutch and keeping the revs low, but the 360’s engine is a two-stroke, and that means it has no low end power whatsoever. What I probably should have done was rev the daylights out of the thing and let the clutch slip, but that seemed like such an amateurish thing to do with the car’s owner sitting right beside me. Especially when the car in question belongs to Jeffrey Walters, Subaru’s senior VP of sales, and especially when “sitting right beside me” in a Subaru 360 translates to “practically sitting in my lap.”

It’s hard to appreciate just how tiny the 360 is until you actually stand next to one. It stands chest-high to me, and I’m only 5-feet, 6-inches tall. It’s barely a foot longer than a Smart Fortwo and more than a foot narrower. And at 960 pounds, it’s less than half the weight. Back in 1968, Subaru advertised the 360 as “cheap and ugly.” They weren’t kidding.

I was originally scheduled to drive one of Subaru’s own 360s; they have several in its heritage collection housed just a few miles from the company’s U.S. HQ in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. But it turned out that both running cars were on the fritz, one with bad brakes and the other with a bad engine. Phone calls were made, Walters was informed of our predicament, and he generously offered up his car, a clean, 19,000 mile original that he found a few years ago at a dealership in Chicago.

Walters said the car normally started right up, but when I turned the key it refused to fire. The fuel tank is above the engine, employing a gravity feed that eliminates the need for a fuel pump. Walters had opened up the aftermarket petcock when I arrived, but a few minutes of talking and gawking was enough time to flood both the carburetor and Walters’ driveway. Oops.

Once running, the 360 buzzed like a leaf blower, farting out a cloud of blue oil smoke that soon faded to a faint haze. Like most gasoline two-strokes, the 360 burns its oil along with gasoline; unlike most two strokes, they don’t have to be pre-mixed. The driver simply fills both tanks and the 360 blends them automatically. It’s the type of innovative thinking the Japanese would later utilize to pound the daylights out of Detroit.

Back to my lousy driving: Any attempt to ease off the clutch at low revs would lead to several agonizing seconds of the car crawling along at a walking pace. I drove a two-stroke Saab some years back, which had a line on the tachometer imploring the driver not to exceed half throttle below 3,000 rpm. Thinking of Subaru’s own dead 360, I figured the same restriction might apply to this car. But the 360 has no tach, so I waited, and waited, and waited. When we hit 10 mph the engine finally started to boogie, relatively speaking.

I shifted to second way too early and once again found myself stranded under the torque curve. We were heading up a shallow rise and the 360 wasn’t accelerating.

“You can never get up this hill very fast,” Walters said, generously leaving the rest of the sentence unspoken: even if you drive the car correctly. Finally, as the speedo crept past 25, we started to pick up speed.

“Here we go,” I said to Walters. “Now she’s starting to accelerate.”

“Yes, well, it tends to do that going downhill,” Walters said dryly.

My next start wasn’t any more spectacular, but this time I held first gear past 20 mph, the engine note rising to a low but insistent scream, the kind of noise I imagine one hears from irate tiger cubs (though having never experienced an irate tiger cub, I can’t really be sure). Into second gear I went, and this time I got it right: The engine was well into its microscopic torque curve, and the car continued to accelerate at its frantic but tepid pace. I dared a shift into third gear, thinking that 30 mph was well within my reach. Were it not for the corner coming up, I’m pretty sure I could have coaxed (or caned) the car up to 40.

This, my friends—this is driving!

Aside from the dearth of power and the difficulties accessing it, the Subaru 360 is not nearly as unpleasant as everyone at Subaru led me to believe. The engine makes a hell of a racket for something so small, but the non-assisted steering—one-finger-light even at a standstill; such is life in a 960-pound car—is reasonably responsive and the car tracks straight and true. The ride is as cushy as any Detroit land yacht of the same vintage. Visibility is excellent, even using the tiny fender-mounted side mirrors, though the view out the back is partially obscured by a blue fog when the engine is under power.

Taking corners, however, is another matter. The 360’s tires are literally the diameter of dinner plates and not much thicker, and the softly-sprung suspension rolls like a sailboat. Then, of course, there’s the constant threat posed by a rear-engine car with swing axles.

I slowed to 15 to make the turn. Keeping up my head of steam would have required downshifting to first, the only forward gear in the 360’s four-speed box that isn’t synchronized. I know how to double-clutch—I used to own a 35-foot Gillig bus with a crashbox; don’t ask—but a perfect rev-matched downshift, on my first try, with the owner sitting next to me? That wasn’t going to happen. Instead I took the coward’s way out, grabbing second and allowing myself to be short-shift-shamed by the under-revving engine. Soon, though, we were ripping along at 25—and believe me, in a Suabru 360, that’s really ripping along.

“This is brilliant!” I said to Walters. “Everyone told me I would hate this car, but I love it.”

“I do too,” Walters said. “I drive it to work a few times a year.” This amazed me: The road from Walters’ leafy suburb to Subaru’s main office is Route 70, a six-lane, high-speed, traffic-choked nightmare that contributes to the general unpleasantness of New Jersey. Walters seemed like a pretty normal guy, but I began to question his sanity.

“You have to remember what this car was designed for,” Walters said. The 360 is an early kei car, engineered for the low speeds and tiny parking spaces of crowded Japanese cities. I’ve always suspected that the hidden purpose of the kei car was to discourage car ownership, and the 360 did nothing to dissuade me. Here in the States, its sub-1,000-pound curb weight exempted it from what few safety standards existed at the time. The idea of wheeling it among Detroit’s steel monsters of the late 1960s, with their two-ton curb weights and ineffective brakes, was downright frightening. The driver of a ’67 Fury would barely see the little Subaru, let alone notice when he ran into it—or over it.

“What was Malcom Bricklin thinking when he brought this thing to America?” I wondered aloud. (My guess: Genocide of his fellow citizens.)

“I don’t think he was considering the long term,” Walters said. “He was looking to import the cars and make money.”

It’s possible that both the 360 and Subaru could have been just another Bricklin flash in the pan, like his overweight SV-1 safety-sports car and his later low-cost import, the Yugo. But Bricklin’s partner, Harvey Lamm, saw the potential appeal of Subaru’s more modern front-drive FF1 in snowy rural areas. Then he was introduced to Subaru’s first four-wheel-drive wagon, and the rest, as they say, is history. A good, thing, too—because had the 1968 360 been its only product, chances are the whole Subaru brand would have been history.

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