The Subaru 360 Is A Toy Car Big Enough For A License Plate
Photography by Michael Banovsky
“We call it ‘Cheap and Ugly’,” says the old-timey narrator on Subaru’s first U.S. advertisement—a tagline that thankfully didn’t stick to the 360 microcar. Sales didn’t stick, either: imported into the U.S. by Malcolm Bricklin, the car was regularly passed over by customers who wanted larger vehicles. Perhaps the 360 works better nearly 50 years later as a classic runabout?
I recently met up with collector Kenn Poore to take his 360 out for a morning jaunt. It’s a happy coincidence that there’s even one of these cars near me, given how few 360s were sold in period and how many survivors are left. Up close, its details are strikingly different from similar cars from Volkswagen (people kept wondering if it was “a Bug”), Fiat, and even Mazda, which also shared a preference for building rear-engined microcars in period.
Like other microcars, it attempts to do a lot with very little. Its body styling is wholly influenced by a bulbous, egg-shaped pressed-steel monocoque chassis, where the hood, trunk, and doors are bolted to. It’s just how you’d make a life-sized tin toy, though if you look closely enough there’s definitely style to be found in its fender mirrors, integrated louvres, vents, and moulded bodysides. Kind of like an outlaw Porsche 356, shrunk in the wash until 1:3 scale. Kinda.
Performance? Not much. We went for a city drive, so I wasn’t able to verify its top speed of 60 mph or its zero-to-50 mph time of more than 30 seconds. Behind the cabin sits a 2-stroke, 2-cylinder engine with 356-cc, with enough oomph to transmit pleasing vibrations but not really to keep up with modern traffic.
Kenn had been shifting its 3-speed transmission with gusto, noting the car is actually pretty practical next to his BMW Isetta, American Bantam, and Vespa 400—arguably, it’s because the Subaru is both newer and designed to be for more “mainstream” drivers than the others. In Japan, the cheeky microcar had siblings, too: successful rollback top “convertible”, truck, van, and wagon variants were based off of the 360.
The U.S. has harbored a few of the above, but sales were so dire that Bricklin devised the ultimate solution to a growing inventory of unsold cars: turn them into “FasTrack” go-karts with the help of dune buggy pioneer Bruce Meyer. Kenn’s left-hand-drive 360 was thankfully spared from that fate.
Once out of first gear, with the vents letting fresh morning air into the cabin, it reminded me most of an original Fiat 500, where motoring must happen with a healthy dose of con brio. With only 25 horsepower, the 360 needs all the gusto it can get—the scenery moves by slowly but it at least feels quick. Without much traffic to contend with, the car felt strangely at home.
This tiny Subaru is definitely one of the less expensive ways to get yourself a unique classic car, but it’s time to set the record straight: it’s far from being ugly. I call it “cheap and cheerful”—what do you think of the 360?