Reviewed by Unique Cars and Parts
Our Rating: 3
The Japanese Beetle
As cars have become cheaper, it is easy to forget that there was a time when the average car represented a huge capital investment for the average person, and cars in Japan could easily cost more than the average house! So it was that in the mid 1950's, the engineers at Fuji Jidosha
(later Fuji Heavy Industries
) set about creating a low cost car "for the masses".
Sure, that theory had been around since Henry produced the Model T, but somewhere along the road the cost of manufacturing, and therefore owning, a car had skyrocketed. The 360, or "LadyBug" as it was affectionately known, was made purposefully small to reduce manufacturing costs, however the engineers tried to ensure that any compromises made were minimised.
Despite a small engine, it could hold four passengers and its power was comparable to the luxury cars of the day. Indeed the team of engineers went to extremes to reduce weight and developed a small but highly efficient suspension
system. The end result was a car that weighed in at a miserly 385kg. Their achievements were inspired by thoughts of travelling with their families. In May 1958
, after a long struggle, the Subaru 360 was finally released.
The Ladybug Deluxe
10 years after its initial release, Subaru released the 360 Deluxe, which looked just like the old Subaru Deluxe. It proved (in tests on the home market) that it had a lot going for it in functional design and durability, and Fuji Heavy Industries
found little need to change it. The car was almost 3 inches shorter than the Mini, 4 inches narrower and 1 inch lower, but the cabin itself was shorter because the front boot occupied a shade more space than did the front engine compartment of the Mini.
The Ladybug was no ugly duckling, but the designers did need to think a little differently if they wanted to create reasonable internal dimensions from what was then one of the first mass produced micro cars. The top was nearly all glass, and was almost the same height as the body panels. The lid in front opened to reveal a surprisingly large luggage area, suitable for carrying light weekend-away luggage for four people.
For a mini-sized Japanese car, there was a surprising amount of rear leg and head room. Both front seats were adjustable fore and aft, and both could be laid completely back to form a flat space – but we wont be drawn on why you would want to do this. The gearshift was a three-speed, floor mounted unit, slightly canted towards the driver. Beside it was the handbrake, which, as on most Japanese cars of the era, worked well at town speeds. Three levers were mounted on the tunnel between the front seats, and were marked C (choke), H (heater) and F (fuel). The two doors opened from the front, and used swivel-mounted quarter vents. Beside the driver's door at the back, actually under the rear seat, was the rear engine hood catch. The front boot catch was under the parcel tray up front beside the driver's knee. Both were the push-pull type.
The engine in the 360 Deluxe was the same as in the original, a forced air-cooled
two stroke, and its two cylinders displaced 356cc. Fuji rated the output 20 bhp at 5000 rpm. The gearbox
on second and third. The steering
was rack and pinion with a gear ratio of 20.6. Front suspension
was the trailing-arm type with torsion bar and coils helped by hydraulic shocks. The rear was swing axle with torsion bar and hydraulic shocks. Tyres were 4.80-10. Brakes were drums on all four wheels with a mechanical handbrake.
In New Zealand, the Subaru sold for slightly over $1200. A used car dealer in Ballarat, Victoria, Frank O'Brien, brought approximately 73 Subaru 360 vehicles into Australia in 1961
- however we are unsure how much these retailed for. It might not have had the performance of the Honda Scamp, but it was cheaper and these days far more collectable. But perhaps the most important thing about the ownership experience was not the cheap price of entry, but in the way the LadyBug would teach you that you needed to love a car to be kind to it.