The cars we loved.
Many car makers are thinking small today. Unlike years ago, they are taking little cars seriously, if only to boost their corporate fuel averages (CAFE). Even in truck and SUV obsessed America, the smaller car is finally getting its due. In this little renaissance, it’s easy to forget that even smaller small cars have been common in elsewhere in the world for a long time. Japan is perhaps the center of micro car universe. There they call them “Kei cars” and they are as common as parking spots are rare in Tokoyo. The US is not without its version of Kei cars, or what passes for them considering everything here that’s supposed to be small ends up being bigger than anywhere else. Kei cars are often are confined to the niche specialty category. While cars like the Smart FourTwo or Sion Q made few inroads with North American consumers, they were small and cute enough to make an impression on trendy urbanites on the coasts of the United States.
The FourTwo and Q are not without some precedent in the States. Back in the 60’s Subaru sold a version of its 360 Kei car here. Named for its engine displacement (356cc rounded off), it was a variation of their first car. Like the VW Beatle, the 360 was designed to be a people’s car. Its cute Dr. Seuss-like lines could have been inspired from any number of children’s books. The front end seemed to smile, although the little vented bonnet had no engine to cool, because it was in back.
Post war Japan was picking up the pieces of its war torn economy and its workers need inexpensive transportation. The 360 price of about $1,300 is about what we would pay for a good flat screen TV now. About the size of five big grocery carts, the 360 only weighed 1,000 lb. It’s 13hp 2-cylinder engine strained to carry four passengers. If moving with the wind, it could eventually up to it’s 60 mph top speed in 34 seconds. When you’re this small and cute, the highway could be a dangerous place, which is why the 360 was better suited for town duty. The interior offered few if any distractions. A speedometer dominated the display, with doo dads for wipers and lights – very basic, not unlike a deluxe golf cart with a foldaway canvas top (which some 360’s had).
The 360 had an advertised EPA figure as high as 66 mpg. In reality it was closer to half that under a full load. A slightly larger engine towards the end of the 360’s run made 36 hp. The initial suicide door coupe spawned a family of variants that included a van, station wagon and convertible. There was little in the 360 line for enthusiasts, but a sport models called “Young S” was available for a limited time. They were extremely rare in the US, as most models sold here were Vans or the four passenger two door coupe.
The 360 had a smaller following in the US than the VW Beatle, but cultivated a following for Subaru that exists today. Like the Beatle, it also had rear wheel drive and featured a unique two stroke engine in the rear. By the early 70’s Subaru would replace the 360 with a quick succession of larger and more powerful mini cars. The most popular of them the Rex would become its first hit in the US. While the 360 ended production in 1971, Subaru sold a car that embodied its spirit called the R1 in Japan from 2005-2010.