I will hear this many times today.
In the many underpowered cars that I had driven up a hill, around a bend, or towards an intersection, a well-meaning friend, instructor, or authority figure in the seat next to me inevitably yelled: “Shift!!” This was to entice me to stir the stick, and to keep me from killing the engine either outright or in a frenzied over-rev.
This time, it is different. I am in Japan, and I sit in Japan’s first kei-car, a Summer-of-Love generation 1968 Subaru 360. Next to me sits his owner, Chiharu Tamura, and he shouts “don’t shift!!”
Tamura bought this car 4 years ago, for 250,000 yen, which converts to $3,147. Helped by an obscenely high yen, this car is a residual value miracle. When the first 360s were exported to the U.S. in 1961, the price was $1,297. Despite the bargain basement price, the car flopped. It was one of the many disasters brought to us by Malcolm Bricklin, except that his Yugo sold much better – initially. If people would have bought this car instead of the wretched Yugo, they would have doubled their money today.
A Subaru 360 is a car you would not expect from a Chiharu Tamura.
Tamura-san is Deputy Chief Engineer of the Lexus LFA, the $375,000 supercar that shifts effortlessly in 200ms through each of its 6 gears. The Subaru delivers 20 hp, the LFA at work has 560.
I need to be very careful with the gears, No-Shift-Tamura keeps telling me. The shift pattern is a simple H. Reverse and First on the left, 2nd and 3rd on the right, that’s it.
Turning into a scenic overlook on our tour, I want to shift into First. Immediately, I am confronted with a now familiar, but this time very forceful “DON’T SHIFT!!!!” This time, don’t shift at all.
“No problem!” I shout, “I know that from the old Bug!” I go out of gear and into Neutral, pop the clutch, tap the gas, “wrrmmm-brmmm,” and …
I learn that this Subie likes its unsychronized first gear engaged only from a dead stop. While driving, there is a choice of Second and Third, and only with an ichi – ni –san three-second intermediate pause in Neutral. There is no, zettai iranai shifting from Second into First. Wakarimashita ka?
This is Japan where they drive on the left and sit on the right. To the left of me on the transmission tunnel are three levers with letters.
The C is the choke. Remember what a choke is for, and your will date yourself. This lever C aids the start of the little 2-cycle engine. When it’s cold, you slowly feed it back into position while the engine warms up, and you do that with an ear on the engine. When the weather is balmy, as it is now, I simply move the choke back after it has done its job.
The H lever turns the heat on. The engine is air-cooled, and the heat works similarly as that in the VW Bug.
One exception: The heat adjustment is under my seat, somewhere. Did I mention that this car needs your undivided attention?
The F lever cuts the fuel off. The Subie has no gasoline pump, the fuel is gravity-fed. If you let the car sit with the line open, you end up with a flooded carburetor, or possibly a puddle under the car. To avoid this, pull the effing F lever.
Tamura’s Subaru was a high-grade trim: It had a radio. Car reviewers who love to bitch about the “seas of hard plastic” will have no gripes with this car: The top of the mostly metal dash is covered in a minor pond of vinyl. A little Armor All®, and the naugahyde will stay soft and supple.The GPS is a recent addition.
This is the dreaded shaken sticker, next inspection by May 2013 – living proof that even a car that is 44 years old can pass – as long as the owner is the engineer of a supercar. This car passed without seatbelts. It didn’t have any when new, it won’t have any when old.
“This car is fine for two Japanese men in front and their women in the back,” Tamura says, and his shift hand bangs into the wallet in my pants.
“So, what do you drive to work, Tamura-san?”