THE LADYBUG IS NO BEETLE

By Stuart Grant

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The people’s car. A vehicle that mobilised the masses by offering simplicity, practicality and affordable pricing. The Germans churned out the VW Beetle, the French the Citroën 2CV, the Brits the Mini and the Italians upgraded many of their population from Vespas and Lambrettas into the Fiat 500. With the Europeans accounted for and the Americans having already met the people’s car grade with the Model T, was Japan’s answer the bizarre Subaru 360?

There are a lot of people in Japan. In 1960 the population was just shy of 92 million. It is no wonder, then, that the powers that be wanted a people’s car. And having seen the success of the Beetle in the American market, the ever-ambitious Japanese wanted to hit the exports hard, and Japan’s Ministry of International Trade set the ball rolling advocating the development of a people’s car for export. So what came from the Land of the Rising Sun? Toyota or Datsun? No, not really. Initially the main players back in the day were the Suzuki Suzulight and the Subaru 360.

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Kei cars or kei jidōsha are what the Japanese refer to as city cars – small vehicles designed to comply with their local tax and insurance regulations. In 1949 the limitation was a 150cc unit in four-stroke guise or 100cc for two-stroke, but dimensions and engine sizes gradually increased and by 1955, in order to tempt more manufacturers into making the little machines, capacity limit sat at 360cc for the both two- and four-strokes. By the 1960s the cars had improved in specification, with automatic gearboxes and disc brakes being added, and the likes of Honda and Daihatsu joined the party.

Kei cars continue today, albeit larger in dimension and engine-capacity departments, but in many minds the Subaru 360 is the original leader of the pack and between 1958 and ’71, 392 000 were churned out of Subaru’s production facility. Although Subaru’s holding company, Fuji Heavy Industries, was well respected in the manufacture of heavy equipment, the Subaru 360 was the firm’s first foray into the passenger car market.

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Designed by Shinroku Momose it featured a steel monocoque construction with fibreglass roof and quickly earned the nickname ‘Ladybug’. For those wanting a bit of extra room a station wagon was added to the mix and even a convertible with rollback fabric roof. ‘Suicide’ doors were the order of the day and although it was a tight squeeze, it was possible to fit a family of four inside to potter around town. ‘Potter’ being the only appropriate word when you realise that power came from a rear-mounted 356cc two-stroke engine. Fed by a Solex-type Hitachi sidedraft carburettor, power came in at a whopping 25hp at 5500rpm and 34Nm torque at 4500. Performance figures are not easily found but some claim a top speed of 100km/h, which it reached in about 37 seconds. One can only assume that getting to this and maintaining it would take a lot of stirring in the three-speed manual with overdrive fourth gearbox department. Not to mention how scary it would be on the small tyres at each corner. Interestingly, later variants offered an Autoclutch option which worked similarly to Volkswagen’s Autostick or Porsche’s Sportomatic, with no clutch pedal, rather operating the mechanism via an electromagnet or solenoid when the gear lever was pushed.

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Although the real market was in Japan, the allure and desire for export was there and America called. Initially a few were imported by private individuals but by 1968 an official US Subaru distributor was established. The brave man who looked to take on the vast expanses of the land of the free was Malcolm Bricklin. He’d made his money by establishing a large hardware shop chain before buying up a Boston-based scooter operation with a large consignment of Lambretta scooters. Once the scooters had been flogged, he looked at the Fuji company to supply its Rabbit scooter. He learned that this scooter was being discontinued and set about buying all the tooling to start his own manufacture. It was while negotiating this in Japan that he was introduced to the Subaru 360. Together with business partner Harvey Lamm, Bricklin established 80 Subaru dealerships stateside.

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1 0 000 units hit the American shelves and he marketed the 360 as a Volkswagen Beetle opponent, even echoing VW’s ‘It’s ugly but it gets you there’ tagline by using ‘Cheap and ugly does it’ for Subaru. On paper it trumped the Beetle, costing $1 297 against the German’s $1 699. Sadly the difference in price did not make up for the 360’s inability to really meet the American consumer requirements in practicality and performance. About the only aspect that tied it to how America buys cars was the fact that, like the Model T Ford, the Subaru was only available in one colour – white with red interior.

A lack of colour choice was the least of the 360’s problems though. The real nail in the coffin came when the publication Consumer Reports declared the vehicle not fit for the market because of a lack of power and serious safety concerns in the event of an accident. The 360’s sub-1 000lb. kerb weight exempted it from US safety standards but the article slammed the Subaru for iffy handling and a lack of passing ability, and rubbed in the negativity by putting it into a 30mph crash test against a 1 800kg American car where the front bumper ended up in the passenger seat. The summary came out as “unacceptably hazardous” and ended the story with, “It was a pleasure to squirm out of the Subaru, slam the door and walk away.” Sales collapsed following the publication and Bricklin had to scramble back to Japan and beg for the larger front-wheel-drive Subaru and later the four-wheel-drive variants the outfit is now famous for to salvage some pride.

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332 units were sold in 1968 and a few more trickled out over the next three years, but clearly there was surplus stock filling the dealerships and robbing them of space to sell better propositions. Bricklin left the business with Lamm while he went off to build his own car known as the Bricklin. Lamm in turn sold the import rights back to Fuji Heavy Industries. But what of the unusable stock? Bricklin took a bunch and operated a time trial company on a private racetrack where customers could come and pay $1 to set a time. As for the rest they seemed to dissolve as spares became unobtainable with the importer refusing to bring any parts in. Rumour has it that some 360s were shredded while a lot were tossed from ships and left to rust away at the bottom of the ocean. Thanks to the later Subaru Rex gaining respect, Subaru survived in America, drawing a cult status and operating profitably.

Australia got 73 Subaru 360s with a used car dealer in Victoria importing them in 1961. How this example ended up at one of South Africa’s bestselling Subaru dealerships in Centurion remains a bit of a mystery. Past employees at Barloworld remember seeing a 360 years back, so this could well be it. Whether it came in as a show car or a dry run for a potential model in the line-up is not known. What we do know is that with our past propensity to squeeze big engines into cars and eat up the wide open roads, chances are the 360 would have been a financial flop here too. Flops do somehow have the ability to become cult and collectable though and the 360 is no exception with a strong following in the world’s micro-car fraternity. This one, rebuilt by and on show at Subaru Centurion, is now desirable and could well be the only on to have made it to our shores without being tossed overboard.

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