As you may have suspected, I’m very fond of Subaru’s first car, the Subaru 360. Small, slow, strange, rear-engined, air-cooled, it’s like a litany of qualities I deeply enjoy. One of my favorite variants of this odd little ladybug was the early “commercial” version, where Subaru attempted to transform their tiny family car that didn’t really even have a trunk into a tiny commercial vehicle that you could unload from either side. The method they took for this transformation is really pretty remarkable and, I think, unique in the history of motoring.
If we look at the design of the 360, we can see it’s a pretty unlikely candidate for a commercial vehicle/small van kind of thing:
Unlikely, but not exactly impossible. If you look at these old diagrams, you can see that, once freed from the burden of carrying people in the rear seat, you could fold that seat down and carry a good bit of stuff, in addition to the little bit of storage you already had under the dashboard and in that little well behind the rear seat. Subaru took the roll-back canvas roof version of the 360 in folded-seat-cargo-mode and made that the basis for their commercial variant, adding the one very unique extra trait:
Yes, fold-down side windows. Well, more than windows, the whole half a B-pillar and the whole C-pillar fold down with the window, as part of the window frame. It’s a really unusual solution to this problem; Subaru essentially made a half-convertible, but for commercial cargo/delivery use. The result was relatively easy access to the cargo area from the sides and, though a bit less so, the rear. I love this solution because it’s simultaneously incredibly clever and incredibly half-assed.
Was it kinda awkward to load and unload? Probably. Was it better than using a regular Subaru 360? Almost definitely. Soon afterwards, starting in 1961, Subaru would adapt the 360 mechanicals to a true box-on-wheels or pickup truck, the Sambar, which was a much better solution.
Since we’re talking about the 360, we may as well show some of these early commercials where they pronounced the name Su-BAH-roo and called the car ugly and filled its fuel tank via a brandy snifter:
Oh yeah, that’s good stuff.
That’s clearly a ute (an ute?). It’s a passenger car converted to carry cargo in an open access bed at the back. It’s just that this ute has a folding cargo cover.
Meh, structural integrity is overrated.
Scariest driving experience I ever had was driving one of these in little traffic on a flat road at 25 mph. Every time I used the brakes the whole car dipped alarmingly down on the front left from the momentum of my (not huge) body. Then it broke down. I would rather take a riding mower into traffic.
My immediate thought was that you could probably feel the body flexing every time you ran over a penny.
My 360 was plenty stiff and tight: no rattles, no creaks. As for crash protection, well I never got ’round to testing that.
I shall now have “the little Subaru…wow” stuck in my head all day.
With each commercial, you could see the model get more and more tired of saying it.
It’s Su-BA-ru, thank you very much.
Fuck I’ve been moderated again!!!!
I think Subaru of America was going for a Doyle Dane Bernbach-style self-depricating thing, but clumsier and lower budget than Volkswagen’s advertising
And apparently good ol’ Malcolm Bricklin never paid the ad agency that came up the campaign. So it was really low budget. “Cheap and ugly does it!” was the slogan and it’s a terrible slogan, so I guess Malcolm got what he paid for.
Darn you for linking to that popup laden garbage heap of an old site. I never want to give them any traffic, ever.
I am surprised though that a hatch would not have been a superior design choice here.
I’m too hooked on NP/ND to stop visiting them. If Rob ever leaves, half of the web traffic probably will too.
I also can’t resist WCSYB on Thursdays. They are really pushing it though by featuring one person after another who basically says, “I want a luxury SUV! What luxury SUV should I buy?” I don’t know man, and I don’t really care. Point to the biggest and chromiest thing on the lot and hand the dealer a blank check and a bottle of lube.
Yeah, I am a NPOND regular. Rob knows his stuff pretty well, and features a bit of everything, but he definitely has a be t for British sports cars and weird old European stuff like I do.
They did eventually make a kind of wagon version with a trunk.
I mean hatch.
Wow a weird solution.
Thanks for this, I try to learn something new each day and this qualifies.
The rest of my day is less stressful now.
Having owned cars manufactured back into the 1960s and help work on cars built back into the 1940s:
Car companies worried a great deal less about water leakage and wind noise back in the day.
My lawn cart has bigger wheels than this thing and certainly a higher payload rating
I thought the commercial about “a little gas” was brilliant.
They were so cheap they couldn’t even come up with a tagline. Just…”wow”.
As a kid, I had a sedan, white/red. ‘So many nutty stories to tell. I’ll pick one:
After an Illinois blizzard, it turned arctic cold. None of our “real” cars would start, so I figured, let’s dig-out the 360, invisible under a snowdrift. Everybody laughed at me. She cranked slowly at first but now faster and faster and finally began to burble happily! I drove around the deserted streets chauffering family and friends. It was her finest hour.
I really want to know who that model was. Wow!
Subaru pioneered using sawzalls on their assembly lines.
Speaking of wonderful and strange Subaru 360 solutions, the price on this one has now fallen into the realm of seriously tempting:
During a tour in Okinawa I and a couple of other Marines bought a Subaru van. Whoopee! Trips to Gate 2 street and into the night life. Then someone dropped a big lie on us, accusing us of all kinds of weird shit. Long story short, someone decided that there was no way that 1. We couldn’t afford it and 2. There had to be something nefarious going on because NCIS had looked into it. Multiple trips to the CO’s desk later they finally noticed that I was working as a bartender at the “O” Club and had enough income to buy said vehicle.
As soon as we cleared that mess up, I sold my interest to the other two Marines and swore never to have anything to do with Subaru. Two years later I found myself selling Subaru’s for a living. What a strange land I live in.
Is now the right time to tell you about my friend’s SuBAru 360? I hope so! It’s not like 360 content comes up that frequently.
My friend Dan built a Subaru 360 for the Grassroots Morotsports $2000 Challenge. A few years ago he set out with a dream, like we have all had, to build a Subaru 360 into a Le Mans Prototype…for two grand. It’s an amazing feat of ingenuity, determination, and creativity.
Dan asked one of HIS friends to help him make period-looking marketing for the car that would show it in ads that looked a lot like those for the original car. But that friend, an unreliable deadbeat, failed Dan entirely.
What does that have for a drivetrain? Looks like you can see the end of a transaxle in the back or maybe that is the motor hanging off the transaxle??
Here we go. Subaru 2.5L
This is a great video. Awesome car!
That commercial was just what I needed today. Thank you for your service, Mr. Torch!
The 360 would have been a better car with some modifications to make it more stable at speed. Since it was already ugly, a focus on aero drag reduction could have possibly gotten it to over 100 mpg, and increased its top speed at the same time, possibly into the triple digits as well. But the designers weren’t thinking about any of that, and they still ended up with a really cool little car regardless.
A 360 also is a decent choice for a cheap EV conversion because it is so light and has low frontal area. You could get by with a 48V system because anything over 45 mph of so in one is asking for trouble, meaning all brand new EV components minus the battery would be about $1,500, and then you’d only need a 10 kWh battery to have acceptable range for such a slow car. Without any scrounging or 2nd-hand parts, you could have a complete EV conversion with 50+ miles range and 45 mph top speed for under $4k in parts, plus the donor.
If one ever finds a 360 with a destroyed engine, this is the way to go.
You know, for such a wonderful design those fussies at Consumer Reports were very, very snotty and mean to the Subaru 360. Maybe if they’d gotten one with the cool windows, they’d have been nicer, ya think?
I admire the snark, very unlike CR in later years.