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Such a trip in THAT car?

The epic story of a Tokyo-Budapest trip in a 360cc Subaru made in 1968

31/10/2013 09:09 |  Comments: 

Editor-in-chief

The guy behind the idea of the English-language Totalcar site, the totalcarmagazine.com, also serving as an editor at the Hungarian totalcar.hu , our mother site. Serial collector of sorry old things that have internal combustion engines in them, as a newfound religion, Zsolt is keeping a family under the terror of rust. Being in the business for the best part of the last 19 years, he landed at Totalcar after serving at a huge round of printed automotive magazines. Has a wife, two small(ish) children and a pet rabbit.

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Most people would never even dream of doing a trip like this. And most people would never dare to drive such a car in traffic. But there are some who do both - and like it.

Our good man Zoltán was the first to spot the car in the Budapest traffic. He was almost yelling in excitement as he called me: „Hey, Zsolt, I was driving by the Western train station and a Subaru 360 just passed the other way!”

„Now that's impossible my friend, those were only made for Japan and just a few of them were shipped over to the US in their time. In the last years one or two of these cars made it to England. But there's no such thing as a Subaru 360 in Hungary, there probably aren't more than one or two altogether in continental Europe,” I said, although I knew that Sipos really knows a lot about Japanese culture and especially car culture.

“It was a Subaru believe me, it even had this really weird, small license plate on it that I never saw before,” - Zoltán kept pounding his point home. He must have been taking some strange drugs, although, as far as I know, he doesn't even get to drinking beer.

All this happened on a Saturday. Next Tuesday another colleague, Árpád Zirig arrived at the editorial, smiling. „Hey Zsolt, I just saw a cute old Subaru on the street, you know the very small one with a smoky engine in the back,” he said. He seems to have found the same dealer as Sipos, the poor sod. Then one of our readers made a phone call to Zirig, saying that he spotted a really cool old Subaru on the street. Has everyone gone crazy around here?

But this reader had more information than the others. A friend of his managed to speak to the owner who said he had arrived to Hungary with this car on its own wheels from Japan. And if the topic interests us, he's got the phone number, but we should act quickly, because the owner is leaving the country the next day. 'Interests us...?' Are you kidding? We're running!

I was on the phone in an instant, calling Imre, the owner of the Subaru. No, he really wouldn't like to be seen or heard in the media, he's in a hurry anyway, but if we insist, we may take some pictures of the car and he'll tell us a few things about his trip. A ray of hope there...

The Subaru 360

392,000 of these little cars were made from 1958 to 1971 by Fuji Heavy Industries. It was their first passenger vehicle. 1958 was the year when the Japanese government's “kei-car” scheme was introduced for low-taxation microcars. The 360 fit squarely into the hole. 10,000 units of it were also exported to the United States. In theory it couldn't have passed the regulations for roadworthiness in that country but since it was so little (less than 1000 pounds – 454 kilograms that is), it got an exemption. The car was then distributed from 1968 in the US by a chap who later became infamous for his spooky businesses and his own make of car. The name was Malcolm Bricklin – by the way, does anyone remember the horrible Bricklin car?

He didn't get a good start with the Subaru dealership either. More than half of the cars he imported were still unsold after the first year. The original price of the 360 was 1300 dollars but by 1969 it was sold in packs of six for 2000 dollars. There was also a weird commercial running on TV, saying that the Subaru was cheap and ugly but with a consumption of 66 mpg (3.56 l/100 km) it can cause a few surprises.

The Japanese version had a 356, the American a 423cc two-stroke, two-cylinder, air-cooled engine located in the rear. Early cars had 16, later ones 25 horsepowers and a few of them were made with two carburetors and 36 PS. It had a monocoque body made of steel with a glassfibre roof. Some other features were the 10-inch wheels (like the original Mini's), four hydraulic drum brakes with duplex operation on the front ones, a fully synchronized three-speed manual gearbox with an overdrive as an extra cost option. The car was affectionately called the 'ladybug' (tento-mushi or tento-chu) in Japan.

Imre is a modest, softly spoken person. He really doesn't give a damn about becoming famous. When we arrive, he still has a few things to attend to at the huge shopping mall where we meet. But he brings up the Subaru from the underground parking so that we can take the necessary pics for the article. “The engine is already quite dirty although I washed it at the border when we entered the country,” he apologizes. We stare in awe at the engine bay – dirty? Where? There's not a speck of dust on it, although it's an oil- and smoke-spitting two-stroker. Trabants are always laden with grime around their mechanicals and the operating principle (and even the sound to a certain extent) of the two cars are the same.

Árpád sets out to produce the pictures; Imre gets on with the story. He has spent his last sixteen years in Japan working as a public servant and accumulated his leave days for years to embark on this trip. At first he thought of taking the Trans-Siberia Railway, and then he reverted to his company car, a VW Passat, thinking it would be more fun that way. But he has been a classic car hobbyist for the best part of the last ten years, so finally he arrived at the idea of the Subaru.

Let's think this over once more. He's Hungarian. He has been living in Japan for sixteen years. He has been into classic cars for more than ten years – yes, in Japan. He's a public servant working for an embassy. And for some strange reason he got this lurid idea of crossing Russia from toe to head through the largely uninhabited areas of Siberia and the rest. Unbelievable!

The whole idea of microcars came to him sometime around 2000, by then he was pretty much at home in Japan. There's another thing to know about Imre: he really loves very big and very small cars, and since it is somewhat easier to own one of the latter in Japan, he wanted something really tiny. The original idea was to acquire a BMW 600 (the long version of the Isetta); a bubble car that utilizes its whole front panel as a door and it also has one door on its right side for the rear passengers. But he soon discovered that those are very expensive in the world and outrageously expensive in Japan. So he gave up on that car, but not the idea.

The first time he spotted a 360 was just a few weeks later in Harajuku, one of the elegant downtown districts of Tokyo. He didn't even know that car, but boy, was it love at first sight? He circled it bedazzled, then at home he looked it up on the internet and the decision was made. Just a few weeks later he bought it. It needed a bit more than a dose of tlc, like a complete new paint job, lots of elbow grease on the mechanics but the car was on the road by 2001. The engine hasn't been dismantled since, although Imre has already covered more than 20,000 kilometres since its refurbishment.

This second car was purchased a few years ago, just for this big trip. It cost 300,000 yen which wasn't a lot of money for an old car with so little rust. But for one with dull white paint, a worn engine, dead brakes and dodgy electronics it wasn't cheap either. Imre spent weeks with just removing the old paint. The engine was overhauled with the help of a close friend and renewing the brakes also took a bit of search and some head-scratching. Although the classic scene has been burgeoning in Japan for quite some years, thus you can easily buy just about anything for a Nissan Skyline, a Fairlady Z (240 Z) or a Toyota Celica, the Subaru 360 isn't on the map yet. There's not even a washer you can find for it, be it new, reproduced or second-hand.

“I stumbled on a set of brake cylinders on Yahoo Japan some time ago, it went for 130,000 yen finally,” he says. And anything you can find for it cost as much, if not much more. But since there was no need for the welding torch to come out and he did all the refurbishment of the mechanical bits by himself, he mostly spent money on the paint job and parts. Even as such, the best part of 1.5 million yen went into on the car. Was he to have it restored by a firm the cost should have been two-three times as much. Imre knows the numbers, since one of his doctor friends had a similar car made for 4 million yen. Nobody said specialized labour was cheap in Japan.

He had to give up originality for reliability's sake. Now there's an electronic distributor feeding the sparks to the engine, the ignition cables are also modern NGK items. There's an alternator instead of a dynamo and Imre has chosen the rare canvas top instead of the “twelve makes a dozen” type glassfibre hardtop. To get this he had to make a frame from scratch.

The colour was also changed from white to the 360's best known shade, a pale yellow. To comply with Japanese traffic regulations Imre installed two yellow prisms in the rear light clusters for the turn indicators. And the sporty touch: there's a wood-rimmed steering wheel from the Subaru Sambar micro-pickup that was in turn based on the 360.

I have to interrupt the story here. “We heard stories about the toughness of the Japanese inspection system, so how did you get it licensed? Are there exemptions from certain rules for classic cars?”

“It is not that tough. There is no such thing as a special examination for classic vehicles, it's true, but if the car is right, it passes. It just has to be up to the standards of the time when it was made,” Imre explains. “They really investigate the condition of the brakes; there is a certain level of deceleration that the car has to reach, no matter how old it is. The headlights also have to project a minimum of 12,000 lux and the rear turn signals have to flash in a yellow. But it's far from impossible. You don't even have to install safety belts in cars that were made before 1968 and emissions have to be at the original levels, which is not asking a lot. And the whole procedure costs about 5000 yen,” and with this Imre finishes off the topic of legalization. If you wish to see how the Subaru passed the exam, here's the video.

Imre is the only foreigner – “gaijin” – in the Subaru 360 club. Everybody knows him and since he speaks Japanese fluently he is a welcome person there. His friends from the club were following his trip to Hungary on the net constantly, cheering him when he made it to the next stop. Their help was also needed in refurbishing the car. The Subaru was ready in a year, but it threw a crankshaft bearing on the night before the exam. The engine block had to be replaced overnight – Imre wasn't too happy about it but as he says, it's better to stumble on these things in a safe environment than in the middle of nowhere.

To make sure everything was fine they made lots of short and a few longer trips with the family. If you'd like to read the reports or see some nice pictures of Japan and a little Subaru visit Imre's Japanese-English language blog here.

The famous 360

Although the car itself never earned real respect abroad, Japanese car fans really adore it to this day. There are no more than a few thousand of these cars that can still be saved but there are no parts made new for them yet, so it's a tough job to keep any one of them.

Thus the 360 primarily lives on in comics and cartoons and of these it had its most important role in Pokémon. Otherwise you often see the 360 in modern Japanese culture. It usually appears as an icon, it is printed on children's pencil cases, on billboards giving information in public places, as illustrations in books – it has a similar role as the Fiat 500 in Europe.

It might not come as a surprise that Imre embarked on his journey alone in the car. He had to fit a spare engine, a gearbox, a complete brake system, lots of other parts for replacement and of course, tools and his own luggage too. Since all Subaru 360's that were made after 1964 have independent lubrication (in the case of two-stroke cars with an earlier construction you fill up the tank with a mixture of petrol and oil) he had to take a few cans of 2T oil along. You can guess how much space was left inside after he'd packed everything.

Let's see, the 360 travels at around 80 kph and at that speed it consumes 4 l/100 kms. If you really push it, it'll do 120 but – quote from Imre – at that speed it tries to disintegrate itself. And it also starts to consume a lot of fuel, meaning a notch above 4 litres.

A good friend from the club had some special stickers made for the trip, the car received its export plates which look exactly like the ones used inland but in the place of Japanese characters they have Latin letters on them. All the while Imre didn't think that he would change the world with his lengthy trip, he didn't believe that he'd become a new Amundsen or Livingstone, so there wasn't even a bet behind the whole idea. He just packed, made a video of the start and left his home in Aoyama with friends and club members saying farewell to him.

“Now that the trip is behind me I'd say it was a brash idea, but when I started it just seemed to be enormous fun,” he says. Imre had to travel 12,000 kilometres with a car that is too small to be even called a real motorcycle by today's standards. To make things worse, there was no pavement whatsoever on 1500 kms of the route that he encountered. Some potholes were larger than the Subaru and his average speed on these sections was lower than 15 kph.

I come out with the inevitable question “Weren't you worried in a small car like this in a hostile, uninhabited place, such as Siberia? I heard news that travelers often get robbed in that area.”

“I was just a bit anxious, but I wouldn't say I was afraid, for a moment. There was this area where I couldn't find a petrol station for 300 kms and by the time I finally found some fuel, I must have been driving on the fumes left in the tank. I could have prepared myself better for that. But I saw no sign of crime, the only thing that bothered me was the horrible quality of the roads,” he answers.

“I never thought the car would break down completely. If such thing happened I should have had to leave it there, because I had no idea how it could be rescued within tolerable financial limits. But I could have fixed nearly anything on it, since I had a spare of almost everything. The only part that could have caused real headaches was the suspension, because I had almost nothing on stock for that. And of course, the biggest tragedy should have been to be a victim of an accident, but I really took lots of care to avoid that.”

All in all, not much happened. One of the rear shock absorbers broke (a Lada's was hacked in its place but an extension had to be made for it since it proved to be too short – lol). The rubber mounting of the engine cooling fan perished but a local guru made a really precise replacement from a billet of steel and it's been working perfectly since then. And the oil reservoir for the two-stroke lubricant also split at the bottom – what did you expect, it was almost half a century old and made of plastic. The driver's door also started sagging, since Imre drove it open for a while to make a video and there the road was really bad. That's about it.

It's time to take a look at the hero of our story – no, it's not Imre of course, who could have fled any moment to take the train home. Our hero here is the Subaru. This car was made in 1968 which makes it one of the later ones produced. It is just a bit shorter than three metres but it is quite wide and tall for being such a tiny car; it certainly looks more bubbly than an old Fiat 500. Its wheels are also smaller which makes it look a different toy from the Fiat; the Italian is a furry, cuddly bunny-thingy, this yellow one is a cute friendly monster. But panel fit and the general quality of the whole car is way better.

Apart from the driver's door which is sagging, everything is nearly perfect. It seems that the Japanese were really good at making cars in the 60's, it is just that they had neither the marketing power nor enough materials to prove their point. An interesting detail is the quarter light window on the door which doesn't have a frame. Thus, if it is open and the window itself is wound down a huge opening is freed up on the side of the car's body.

The doors open up rearwards which was already an old-fashioned solution at the time this car was made but to make up for this you get hazard lights, which were a real novelty at the end of that decade. The space isn't much tighter than in a Fiat 500 or a 126; I can easily fit in the front with my 187 centimetres but the width of the body is horribly restricted. If you're inclined to take up a bit more space sideways than a normal individual then you better wind down the window and lean outwards of the car with your arms hanging out, like me. Rear seats though, are only for show; if you have to seat a human being here, you'd better find somebody under the age of four. And, of course, forget the child seat.

I don't know it if was intentional or the drawing board just threw up the solution but the doors bite deep into the front wings letting you lift your legs inside the car easily while swiveling on the seat. The seats themselves are much more modern items than in a Fiat 500, they have high backs with integrated headrests. Why, they can even be fully reclined.

In its time the Subaru 360 used to be the first and best kei-car of them all. There were contenders like the Mitsubishi Minica, the Mazda Carol, the Daihatsu Fellow, the Suzuki Fronte in the segment, but until the Honda N360 was introduced, the Subaru was thought of as being the king of the really good small ones with the best quality, acceleration and interior space.

This was the moment when I had to put up the question – may I drive the car. Imre carelessly answered – there's the key in it, you just gotta turn it...

I have to admit I found myself in a bit of discomfort. I had lived five years in Japan from 1977 when I was a kid and these cars were already distant relics of the past then. I knew that such a car existed of course, I would even have recognized it in traffic anytime but in all the five years I must have seen maybe three of them all in all. They played an old series called G-Men '73 on the TV in those years and I used to sit there watching in awe because the streets in those movies were full of cars like this.

All this makes the Subaru a car that, in theory, I would have never had the chance to see, touch and drive – ever. The last time I saw one was 12 thousand kilometers and about 30 years away. I was a kid then, staring at this old heap of junk, now I'm a bald and middle-aged man not being able to believe his eyes. Dimensions of time and space are contorted in my head, right now I'm just a guy having a feast of a saber-toothed tiger and a mammoth for lunch...

And this car is a real fine piece, believe me. I have a 500cc Autobianchi Bianchina from 1966 which is an automobile that fits into the vest pockets of today's microcars, it's that small. But that Autobianchi is a huge, heavy, bulky truck compared to this Subaru. It's got an engine almost twice as big (I have uprated the cylinders from 500 to 600cc) as the 360's. In this one the clutch operates at a thought, the accelerator pedal is so small and sensitive that you really need a session to learn its operation.

The best part is the steering which is so precise, light and full of feedback which you won't find in any model from 2013. The gear lever can be operated with just one finger and it slots into each new speed with alarming precision. It is only the brakes that really tell the car's age. They are dead and wooden, barely able to slow the bulk of the car, let alone stop it. After a while you get used to really trampling on the pedal and with this trick they start working. But it's a sweaty job. Although the wheels are really small, the suspension has a long travel making ride comfort perfectly acceptable.

Imre's time is over; he has to step on, because next day he must be on his way to the Netherlands from where the little Subaru will be traveling over the sea to Japan. The car would have been up to a lot more usage but Imre ran out of free days. And his family is also waiting for him – his wife, children, the other Subaru 360, the Subaru scooter and the Hungarian-made black Pannónia with a sidecar that he uses every once in a while in the Tokyo traffic.

Did I tell you that Imre isn't your average civil servant?

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