By on June 7, 2012

“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.

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58 Comments on “Review: 1968 Subaru 360, Owned By Lexus LFA Engineer...”

  • avatar

    It’s a neat-looking mineature car, but even for 44 years old, come on! No wonder it didn’t sell here. Does it have the spark advance on the steering wheel?

    • 0 avatar

      Respect your elders.

    • 0 avatar

      I miss my old 1968 Fiat 124 Sport Coupe. It didn’t have a choke, but it did have a hand throttle. Very useful in snow. You could get out of the car with it running – wheels spinning – and push on the open drivers door while adjusting the throttle. Ah, to be young and not worry about things like slipping and having the damn thing run over you.

      edit – the 124’s engine was almost 4 times larger than the Subie’s.

  • avatar

    I love everything about this article. Great old car, great story, great pocket biography of a noteworthy engineer. Thanks, Bertel!

  • avatar

    Looks like Theodor Geisel design.

  • avatar

    I was watching the Top Gear eulogy for SAAB and they were driving a SAAB 2-stroke. Seems like, with a two stroke, since the lubrication is mixed in with the fuel, it always needs to be getting some gas. So, if you are driving down a hill you need to ride the brake while giving it a little gas.

    Amazed that any manufacturer ever made a car like that…

    • 0 avatar

      You weren’t supposed to engine brake on many four-strokes of the era either, and quite a few cars offered a freewheeling clutch.

      Add four-wheel drum brakes and bias-ply tires as a bonus.

    • 0 avatar

      OTOH the manual for my ’63 Chrysler Newport specifically advised using the 361 cid engine to slow the car downhill, and even advised shifting the Torqueflite 727 into first. Of course, those 10″ brake drums (no power assist) could barely stop the car on level ground…

  • avatar
    DC Bruce

    I remember seeing a few of these “in the wild.” 66 mpg is amazing; that’s about double what the VW bug would get. Of course the VW engine was 2x more powerful. Is the engine really a 2-cycle? If so, it would have to have free wheeling, because spinning a 2-cycle engine at above idle speed with throttle closed is death because not enough oil gets in to lubricate the cylinder walls and piston rings . . . or did Subaru use some system to inject oil into the cylinders independently of the gasoline mixture drawn through the carburetor.

    The other features you describe were the same as the VW, except for the fuel shutoff. And, by 1968, VW fitted its engines with an automatice electric choke (which worked very well). I don’t believe first gear in my 68 Karmann Ghia was synchronized either, but I can’t be sure.

    The best part of this great little write-up is the part about the man who owns the car. Very interesting, and illuminating. Thanks!

    • 0 avatar

      Air-cooled VW gearboxes got a first-gear synchromesh in 1961. It wasn’t particularly impressive by modern standards, but it was much better than no synchro at all!

    • 0 avatar

      I’ve read some articles where the actual MPG figure was in the high-thirties, and not impressive at all. Most all reviews on these shores totally slammed the car. Then again, you have to imagine the times. In most people’s eyes, this (as well as most stuff from Japan) was a joke before they even sat in it.

      There is an oil injection system that lubricates the bottom end and crankcase area. You don’t pre-mix on these. It has a separate oil tank and oil pump.

  • avatar


  • avatar


  • avatar

    “The C is the choke. Remember what a choke is for, and your will date yourself.”

    Modern general aviation aircraft costing $250K to $700K (Cirrus, Diamond, Cessna) still use relatively unforgiving manual mixture controls. At least with this car, if the choke is in the wrong position, the worst that can happen is you can’t start the engine or you stall. With aircraft, you can actually damage the engine.

    • 0 avatar

      The 3 levers look like a GA power quadrant, I was just expecting the prop pitch lever somewhere… Btw what is the chrome bar to the left of the gear lever for?
      Nice article Bertel

    • 0 avatar

      I think about this every time I climb into a light plane. $10k Nissan Versas have electronic engine controls, why do I have to put up with tech straight out of the 1920s in a $400k airplane?! Why do I have to adjust the boost pressure from the turbochargers myself?! Why do I have to set my own mixture?! Carb heat? Seriously? It’s 2012.

      (sarcasm)No sweat though, if you screw up the engine it’s only $30k to have it overhauled. No biggie.

      • 0 avatar

        Redliner, you need to fly a jet with FADECs LOL and even with those you will have to manage the fuel cutoff and pumps.

      • 0 avatar

        Good point redliner. I used to fly helicopters in the 60s & 70s and I’ll never forget when I first flew the UH-1. Automatic throttle control! The main rotor is much like a constant speed prop.

      • 0 avatar

        “UH-1. Automatic throttle control! ”

        How did it work before? IIRC rotor RPM can never be allowed to go outside a very narrow range. Did you have to constantly adjust the throttle to match torque to load?

      • 0 avatar

        Wouldn’t intake icing be a problem with fuel injection as well?

        One more thing: was there no money left over to spring for the I0-360 instead of the O-360? ;-)

      • 0 avatar

        Thats why Im into the experimental aircraft world. The small certified stuff is so antiquated. Tort liability in the US and development and certification costs spread over so few units sold is the reason.

  • avatar

    What a wonderful little car.

  • avatar

    That little car has a lot in common with my lawn tractor. Fascinating.

  • avatar

    Hey, Bertel, I am an elder! I remember Bugeye Sprites and I drove a TR-3 for years. Tractor crude, and with heaters not much better than an air-cooled VW, but it sounds like they were futuristic compared to the little 360. Oh, wait a minute … that Subaru had glass door windows, didn’t it? And I guess they rolled down, too. Never mind.

  • avatar

    “The secret to high mileage is low weight.”

    Very true, but taken a step further, the secret to high mileage is balance: that of weight and power.

    Too much power and the car is fast…but mileage suffers.

    Too little power (or too much weight) and the engine must needs be thrashed to get out of its own way…and mileage suffers.

    The 360 clearly found the right balance. I wish more contemporary cars could/would.

    In fact, only thing you can’t have TOO much of…is lightness!

    • 0 avatar

      I would love to see you get 60mpg out of a well balanced full size pick up truck ;-)
      I get your point but you have to burn the gas to move the mass.

  • avatar

    The relative congitive disonance between the vintage vehicle and new GPS technology is interesting! And given today’s “Big Gulp, WiFi/Hand’s Free, Rolling Living Room” mentality of driving, a car THIS engaging would probably kill people.

    Oh, and LOVE the picture that caught the two Pembroke Corgis being walked (I have two…wonderful little pups!).

  • avatar

    Nice little car. Love the mechanical everything. But I would probably forget the fuel shutoff and burn the thing down. I owned dds with mechanical chokes. They work. I also remember when you could buy manual choke kits to fix your auto choke that carbons up and craps out on your mid 50s car. Great hobby car but I wouldn’t fit too well. Having said that I don’t miss 3 spd no synchro 1st gear trans.

  • avatar

    The first time I saw one of these things was at the 1968 (I think) Chicago Auto Show. For some reason, I loved it, but I was only 14 at the time.

    A few years later, around 1972, I was hitchhiking home from school and got picked up by someone driving a 360 through central Illinois. He took me about 40 miles up I-55 and believe me, it was scary. Buzzing along with all of the big cars and tractor trailers made for a trip that I’ve never forgotten. I don’t remember how fast we were going, but I’m sure it was flat out.

  • avatar

    Cheap and ugly! Check out youtube for the awesome Subaru promotional video for the new 360 models. Watching them about lose it on a dirt road is priceless. Would love to have a 360 van.

  • avatar

    What an awesome contrast between building a $375K supercar and using (and, seemingly, enjoying) such minimalist personal transportation (both the car and the bicycle).

    Great article!

  • avatar

    “…a motorized chamber pot” — from the Car & Driver review when the 360 first appeared. To think this evolved into the WRX-STi

  • avatar

    Lots of cars from that era has a non-syncromesh 1st gear. All MGB’s and Midgets were like that until 1968.

    In fact it’s a bad idea to shift into 1st from a roll even in cars with syncromesh. You should drive a syncromesh car as if it has none. The syncros are definitely a wear item. The more you use them the faster they wear. Learn to double-clutching.

    • 0 avatar

      Is that currently the case with a modern manual transmission? IIRC syncros are considered a life of the vehicle part these days.

      • 0 avatar

        Civics and Integras from 10 years ago would often start losing the 3rd gear synchro ahead of their time. I assume it happens to other cars too, I just happened to be in those forums at the time.

      • 0 avatar

        Definitely not true. Manual transmission do need to be rebuilt every so often and the syncros are the first items to go.

        There is no magic to these syncros. They are just two brass cones that rub together and one cone brings the other cone up to speed through friction. Really dumb and crude actually. You can imagine when two cones rub together all the time they will wear. When the cones fail to synchronize then you’ll feel the dog teeth engaging each other with a sharp grinding feel.

  • avatar

    My old boss had the truck version as a yard car when he was a kid; it was still kicking around a few years ago. Terrible shape for the year model, even for being in outside storage. The metal was pretty thin, the car too small for me(5’9) and I never drove it because the ignition was very messy. They were Alabama engineering lawnmower/tractor parts to make it run.

    Maybe the parts were factory. Its that kind of car.

    They’ll make you smile just to look at them, but everything else was more compelling, easier to live with and safer. There’s no reason to have chosen this over the contemporary VW Type 1. They’d gotten 12v 1500s, locking, belted– high-back– seats and folding steering columns by the 1968 model year. This car makes the VW feel like a very roomy, modern rocket– and it’s not even a nice car!

    The 68 Imperial, however…

    What was/is the price-point on these cars? They’re not traded locally.

  • avatar

    Wonderful post!

    There is one for sale on the ‘bay. No idea what the reserve is, but it is under $2,000 at the moment.

  • avatar

    66mpg is impressive, but a few years after the Subby 360 Honda built the Z Act and the N360, and sold them in the US with bigger 2 cylinder engines.

    The Hondas were recorded at getting over 100mpg in the city, at 30mph my a certain magazine that I can’t remember.

    Funny thing is that I’m 6-foot and I could fit into both of these Micro Machines.

    Its nice to see an old car that dosen’t have a glaring aftermarket sound system stuck in it.

  • avatar

    I remember a Chevy/Subaru dealer back in the 60s who offered a free 360 if you bought an Impala from him. I guess you took it home in the trunk.

  • avatar

    I have one of these. It’s in the process of getting an engine swap from a Honda CBR 954RR. Here is my build thread in process. I also go into detail on the base mechanicals of the car a bit.

    “Small” is not a word to describe this car. It’s footprint is IDENTICAL to a Club Car golf cart. Despite that, four people can manage (barely) to fit inside. It’s an engineering marvel. Everything saves weight and space. Every car maker out there should have one in it’s technical center.

    I never drove mine when it was stock, but I would imagine it would be quite useful for a short, low-speed commute. Such as something you would use a scooter for.

  • avatar

    Cars like this make me glad they (mostly) don’t make them like they used to! Seems very fun and quirky, but it’s not necessarily something I’d want to do on a day to day basis.

  • avatar

    KCOP TV 13 in Los Angeles used to give these things away as contest prizes. The announcer called it a Su-bar-u.

  • avatar

    Is that a PSP Vita on the dash? Here I am still using a PSP-1000 like a sucker…

  • avatar

    Did you arrive in the Panemera, Bertel?

  • avatar

    This was the car (and there was also a small van) which Malcolm Bricklin brought into the USA back in 1969 as his first automotive venture. There was a shipload of them which sat in the Port of Baltimore until 1973. Some were sold to an independent used car dealer in Northeast Baltimore and were already surface rusted in some spots—-they were all white in color. The car weighed < 1000 lbs and was exempt from US safety standards. My buddy Walt and I were able to pick up either end and move one of the cars around on the lot. We honestly did not know what these oddities were until the Bricklin automobile was produced in Canada the following year and mention was made of these cars.

  • avatar
    bill mcgee

    Back when they were new I recall Consumer Reports making a big deal out of how seldom they rated a car as “not acceptable ” . This car was one that received that rating – the lousy brakes , total lack of safety in a crash , blah blah blah .

  • avatar

    It must be quite a feat for Bertel to score a drive in this guy’s beloved baby. Trying to mangle its transmission too.

  • avatar

    Kudos, Mr. Schmitt!

    This is the best review I have read on here, hands down. Yes, this car is primitive by modern standards, and the Mopar/Ford/Chevy boys are still going to scoff at its meager displacement and diminutive size, but it was written with love and appreciation for a vehicle that many of us have never seen in person. It takes in the car for what it is.

    Can I request a Citroen DS and 2CV, if you ever get the chance?

    And re: choke. At 30 years old, I’ve never driven a car with a choke. As a motorcyclist, I’m quite familiar with how they operate, though they are disappearing as motorcycles switch to FI.

    My Triumph has a fake choke… it uses fuel injection, but the injectors are disguised as carbs, and the fast idle adjustment is manually controlled with a ‘choke’ knob in keeping with the retro styling and design.

    /2011 Triumph (Bonneville) America
    // LOVE that motorcycle!

    • 0 avatar

      Well, I think he did this in Japan. So perhaps a request for Japanese classics is probably more appropriate. Though I once saw a 2CV video that comes from Japan… Anyway, how about a review of Toyota 2000GT? One of the fabled Skylines that did not reach the US, like the first one that looks like a mini ’57 Chevy? Or the 2000 GT-R of 1972? The Mazda B600? (Saw a lot of them as a kid, nicknamed “Soapbox Mazda” here).

      Or how about a modern Kei cars? Any modern kei cars. I often hear Americans wishing for a Kei car to be imported there. But will they even fit inside? Since Bertel, I would guess, is more of the typical American size (than the average Japanese size) it would be quite illuminating, I think. Though he seem to fit fine in the first Kei cars (with another man to boot!) in this review.

  • avatar

    Love these stories.

    Keep them coming!

  • avatar
    Andy D

    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.

  • avatar

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

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