Review: 1968 Subaru 360, Owned By Lexus LFA Engineer

Bertel Schmitt
by Bertel Schmitt

“Don’t shift!!!!”

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.

“This car got 66 mpg – in the sixties,” Tamura says. “The secret to high mileage is low weight.”

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.

First gear has no synchromesh, I am told.

“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 …

“NO SHIFT!!!!” Tamura whispers with a pained look and a hand on the shifter.

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?

If Ray LaHood reads this, he will demand that little Subaru for every American – it definitely demands totally undistracted driving. And the transmission must be made from tofu.

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.

Entering the car through its suicide doors requires the abilities of a contortion artist for a man of my heft.

As we change positions, skinny Tamura slides in effortlessly. Tamura is from a generation where men were men and women were women.

“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.

Tamura drives the Subie only on weekends, I hear.

“So, what do you drive to work, Tamura-san?”

“My bicycle.”

If you can build the world’s most powerful car, you won’t need to buy one anymore, I guess.




Bertel Schmitt
Bertel Schmitt

Bertel Schmitt comes back to journalism after taking a 35 year break in advertising and marketing. He ran and owned advertising agencies in Duesseldorf, Germany, and New York City. Volkswagen A.G. was Bertel's most important corporate account. Schmitt's advertising and marketing career touched many corners of the industry with a special focus on automotive products and services. Since 2004, he lives in Japan and China with his wife <a href="http://www.tomokoandbertel.com"> Tomoko </a>. Bertel Schmitt is a founding board member of the <a href="http://www.offshoresuperseries.com"> Offshore Super Series </a>, an American offshore powerboat racing organization. He is co-owner of the racing team Typhoon.

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  • Andy D Andy D on Jun 12, 2012

    In the fall of 1969, I was working in Stockton, CA. I saw a parking lot full of 360s. I had a 47 GMC at home and a bug in CA. My brother had a 58 Morris Minor that came with a hand crank. I drove 6 volt bugs for 20 yrs. My old IH walk in van had a hand throttle and a manual choke. Every car had its own starting ritual, especially in inclement weather. The pre-61 bugs didn't have a gas gauge. Instead, there was a reserve switch that opened a lower gas pickup in the tank. Yah, those were the daze! My first EFI car needs plugs every 100 k. . I retired it after 350 k miles. The furthest I needed to get into the engine were timing belts and fuel injectors. I stopped driving my low miles '66 Valiant because it was too difficult to drive among power disc brake cars with manual drum brakes.

  • Matthew Matthew on Mar 03, 2013

    Could there be a specific section made for vintage/older car reviews and editorials like this one?

  • Redapple2 Do Hybrids and be done with it.
  • Redapple2 Panamera = road porn.
  • Akear What an absurd strategy. They are basically giving up after all these years. When a company drinks the EV hemlock failure is just around the corner.
  • Graham The answer to a question that shouldn't have been asked LOL
  • Bill Wade I live in AZ. I don't think you'd find very many LEOs that would pay the slightest attention to kids on e-bikes.
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