The most infamous review in the history of Consumer Reports car reviews came in 1969 when they covered the new to America Subaru 360. Their summation: Not Acceptable.
Not acceptable? What does that even mean? It’s not acceptable as a car? It exists in three-dimensional space. Its Higgs-Bosons all work to spec giving it tangible mass. In basic environmental conditions it retains its shape and color. All acceptable. You want more? It has 4 wheels and an engine that can propel it forwards or backwards. Its front wheels can be adjusted allowing it to change its direction. This works for both forward and reverse. It even has mechanisms that can cease its progress relatively quickly. All this sounds to me to be at the very least, acceptable. So, here’s my 56 year late response to that rag. I’ve owned half a dozen Subaru 360's, so I know what I’m talking about here.
First a little history. The Subaru 360 was a kei car produced in Japan from 1958 to 1971. After the Second World War, Japan’s Ministry of International Trade and Industry advocated for a people’s car. Companies that had manufactured vehicles, weapons, etc. for the war effort took up the cause. One of the first was Fuji Heavy Industries. Fuji had once been part of Nakajima Aircraft which made planes during the War. Nakajima was broken up after Japan’s surrender, and one of the companies created by the breakup joined with 4 other companies to form FHI for the purpose of manufacturing road vehicles. When it came time to name their passenger car, they called it the Subaru, which is the Japanese name for the 5 star Pleiades cluster. Subaru made a handful of cars between ‘54 and ‘58, but the 360 was its first to be mass produced and the first success. And, it was a big one, at least in its home country. It had a monocoque body powered by a 356cc 25 horsepower two-stroke. Those specs put it in the “kei class” which was the lowest tax bracket for motor vehicles. With space in cities like Tokyo at a premium, and the Japanese economy building itself from ashes, cheap, tiny cars were popular.
Subaru sold nearly 400,000 360's making it the king of the keis. Mazda, Honda, Daihatsu and others had competitors, but none proved as versatile or durable as the Subaru. The engines were built to last more than 100,000 miles. They were relatively comfortable and easy to maintain. There were also van and pickup variants for merchants.
Like the Beetle elsewhere, the 360 was exactly what Japan needed in that era. But, that was really true of only Japan. Europe had had its own microcar boom, but by 1960, the bubble had burst. Economies there had improved, at least in the west, and cars like the VW and Mini had run away from their tinier people’s car brethren.
America’s economy, after a brief postwar recession, was humming and small cars never really had a chance in its wide open spaces. Still, that didn’t stop one crackpot American entrepreneur from importing Subaru 360's in the late 60's. Malcolm Bricklin was a young business school dropout with a litigious nose for suckers. After a failed and rather shady attempt to start a chain of hardware stores (he was sued for fraud after promising a distribution network that was a figment of his imagination), Malcolm started importing Rabbit scooters which were manufactured by Fuji Heavy Industries.
He became annoyed when production of the bikes wound down, so he went to Japan to try and buy the manufacturing machinery to build them himself. When he saw the little cars, he figured it would be much easier to import them since they were already built, and they were everywhere so they must be pretty popular. It was a home run. At an extra bonus that must have made his mouth water, since they weighed less than 1,000 pounds, they didn’t have to meet federal safety regulations. All he had to do was ship them over the Pacific and start taking people’s money. With a $75,000 investment, he started Subaru of America, the same company that sells you WRX’s today.
The cars were an instant failure. They had absolutely nothing people expected in a car in 1968. Sure, they were cheaper than a VW Beetle, but only barely and that car was was a Rolls compared to the teeny, minimalist, underpowered Subaru. No one bought them. Malcolm imported 50,000 cars between ‘68 and ‘70 and that was 50,000 more than there was demand for. New Jersey even outlawed them for being too dangerous. New Jersey! They were priced at just under $1,300 and some dealers would sell you two for the price of one. Or, they’d give you one for a dollar with purchase of a Buick or Cadillac. It’s rumored a shipload was dumped in the ocean. As a way to get rid of them and make his money back, Malcolm hit on the idea of starting a family racetrack franchise business called “Fastrack” using Subaru 360's like go-karts. For $20,000 he’d sell you 10 cars, some helmets, a whole bunch of tires, and instructions on how to build your own racetrack. In typical Bricklin fashion, he had actually taken on a contract to dispose of thousands of used tires. So, he was paid to take the tires away and then sold them to you. Brilliant. A few Fastracks did open, but the 360's took such a beating, they were rendered useless pretty quickly.
In 1971, Malcolm sold Subaru of America back to Fuji Heavy Industries. When they started exporting more appropriate cars themselves to the U.S., they refused to acknowledge the 360 ever existed here. For the few souls who actually did buy one of the little cars, they found themselves orphans.
They’ve always had a small, dedicated following of weirdos, though. The Subaru 360 Driver’s Club was founded in 1980 by owners who wanted to keep the little things running. And, as microcars have become hot on the collector car market, nice 360's are now highly sought after.
Malcolm went on to build a car with his own name in Canada that people hated and sued him over. In a repeat, albeit much more highly publicized, performance of his Subaru debacle, he was also responsible for importing the Yugo. Later, he would try again with cars from China. This time they never even made it on the boat.
I bought my first 360 in 1997 for $1100. The guy who sold it to me had a shit eating grin like he had ripped me off, but I knew better. The 360 is the most underappreciated car ever sold in America. I love it and here’s my review.
Exterior - 10/10
It’s fucking adorable. How can you not love how this car looks? It screams “let’s go have fun!” The simple curvy swoop down the side is a brilliant styling touch. Not busy, just a friendly little reminder that, yes, even the cheapest car can have some class. I know from experience that these are the most eye-catching cars ever made. They spread joy and frivolity wherever they go. When you drive one, you’ll be a one vehicle parade. Constant thumbs up, people will wave at you, laugh with glee, and fill their Instagrams with pictures of your car. They get more attention than any Lambo, dude, and the ladies love them. It’s like having a puppy that never grows up.
Interior - Yes
It has an interior.
Okay, expanding on that, there’s a surprising amount of room in there. Surprising in that full-sized humans can actually fit in the front seat. I’m 6' tall and can drive it quite comfortably. You can even add a second person. (Note: adding passengers can seriously affect performance, but aren’t the most enjoyable drives the solitary ones?) You’ll probably have to ask them to move their leg so you can shift gears pretty often, but who hasn’t needed a conversation starter on a road trip? The back seat is perfectly suited for that floating head in a jar from the future you know. Or, a small child you don’t like. The seats are upholstered in the most exotic of materials. Vampire skin! I know, right? This gives them a distinctive, eye-popping red color. Unfortunately, the one downside to vampire skin is that it disintegrates upon first being exposed to sunlight, but, if you ever find one without tattered seat covers, you’ll notice it feels just like actual vinyl.
Acceleration - 1/1 (It accelerates to the best of its abilities.)
Accelerating is probably the most fun part of driving and the 25 horsepower 360 lets you savor the experience. It will get from 0 to 60 eventually, so just chill dude. Speed is a sensation, not a number. 50 in a Subaru 360 feels like 150 in any other car. And, the feeling is what matters. “But, what about when I’m getting on the highway with all those big cars that go fast?” “Nyah nyah nyah nyah nyah highway.” Shut up and grow a pair. First of all, this is a city car. It wasn’t designed for our freeways, turnpikes or Autobahns. Secondly, you think you’re tough because you drive a bro-truck? Fuck you. It takes actual courage to cruise the interstate in one of these and I’ve done it. The slightest gust will push you around like you’re a kite. Your driving skills and powers of observation will be put to the ultimate test. You need to know what everyone on the road is doing at all times because one wrong move by you or any of your fellow drivers could spell disaster. Oh, just like when you’re on a motorcycle? Uh-uh. A Ducati gets from 0-60 in less than 3 seconds and can dart around like a hummingbird. The 360 may be small, but it handles like a bag of Jell-O. You prove to the world you have admantium balls when you drive a 360.
Handling - 0.5/1
So, yeah, it could handle better. But, like accelerating, going around corners is fun. More so even than going straight. Due to its rear engine, short wheelbase, and light weight, the 360 likes to oversteer. But, this is okay. Just slow down and prolong the joy of turning. Plus, taking corners too fast is dangerous. The 360 has a unique and effective countermeasure to this by folding its wheels under itself if you exceed the recommended turning speed. This is much more effective than some computer or LSD since it actually teaches you a lesson rather than doing the work for you.
Brakes - 10/10
Drum brakes on each 10" wheel. That’s right, every wheel gets its very own brake. But, drums suck, you say? It weighs 900 pounds soaking wet and has 25 horsepower. It doesn’t take much to stop it. Just putting your hand out of the window provides enough resistance to slow it down, so why add the expense of ABS and discs? Plus, the shoes on every one I’ve had chattered and vibrated like a malfunctioning sex toy, so you get the experience of anti-lock brakes without all the complicated technology.
Gearbox - 10/10
It’s got reverse, and 4 forward speeds: 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and OT. What the fuck is OT? 4th gear, you idiot, only here it’s called “Over the Top(?).” Why? Because that’s cooler than “4,” asshole. Quit bugging me. It’s a marketing thing, you wouldn’t understand, just know that you like it. They were going to call it “Off the Hook,” but they figured dipshits like you would get confused by the “OH” abbreviation. Anyway, each gear is higher than the previous one and they are all accessed using the simple stick with hand conforming knob. What more do you want? 2, 3, and OT are synchronized because if you need to downshift into 1st, you’re doing it wrong. It also has a dogleg 1st arrangement because that’s the way God intended shift patterns be laid out. Is shifting precise and sharp? Don’t you like a little mystery in life? Should everything be predictable? Booooring. The gears are there. Go find them. It makes it that much more rewarding when you do get 2nd.
Engine - 10/10
You know what sucks? Oil changes. You know what you never have to do in a 360? Change the oil. That’s right. Never. Two strokes use a miraculous combustion/lubrication combination that just burns the oil away. Refill as needed and give Jiffy Lube the finger whenever you drive by one.
Ride - 10/10
Shocks in front and swing axels behind give it a fun, bouncy ride that continuously reminds you you’re driving on pavement.
Toys - A million
It’s its own toy. Look at it. You could get it with an AM radio and a speaker, but it’ll be completely drowned out by the roar of the mighty two-stroke. Which is good since AM radio is terrible.
Storage Space - 0/0
Okay, you can fit some shit on the seats.
Value - Absolutely
It was the cheapest car on the market when it came out. Here in America is was a full $300 less than a Beetle. What a bargain! I mean is a Beetle really $300 more car? How it didn’t sell millions over here is beyond me. Today, it’s a collectible and prices are rising, but even the nicest one will be cheaper than a new Camry. And if you’d rather drive a Camry than a 360, I don’t know what to tell you beyond, where the hell is your sense of adventure and whimsy, you dull fucking lemming?
Now, I’m not a mathematical fellow, but that adds up to a darn near perfect score to my eyes. Not acceptable? Hardly. It’s totally acceptable. Best car ever made, maybe. Sure, it will try to asphyxiate you with two-stroke exhaust. And, yes it’s clunky and slow. One critique CR had was that the positioning and shape of the light switch on the dash made it easy to accidentally turn the lights off while moving your hand from the shifter back to the steering wheel. I found that bit hilarious and absurd until I did it myself one night. And then kept on doing it. But, that stuff’s part of the fun. This is a car that will make you smile and laugh constantly and we need shit like that nowadays. Incidentally, Road & Track loved the 360. They recognized that it was ugly (repeating the tagline from the ads), and that it didn’t get the claimed 66 mpg, and that it was too small for this country’s huge boat-car filled streets, but they said it was “lots of fun since you can do most of your motoring with your foot against the firewall. There are very few cars that can be driven in such a manner and this tends to bring out the banzai in almost any driver.” Who isn’t sold on that? They went on to say that, “an immediate transformation of all full-sized cars into 360-class cars would solve most of the world’s ills associated with the automobile…” Indeed. And what a happy world that would be.