The race-winning WRX and the rugged Outback both trace their roots back to the 360, a tiny, rear-engined car manufactured in Japan well before Subaru became a household name all around the world. Recognizing its importance, the Japan Society of Mechanical Engineers (JSME) has just designated Subaru’s first mass-produced car a mechanical engineering heritage item.
The term “heritage item” is more than just a vague, boilerplate title. It means that the 360 is now considered a part of Japan’s cultural heritage, and its careful preservation is encouraged so that it can be passed on to future generations. The 360 is the first Subaru — and only the second car — to earn this prestigious title.
The 360 was introduced in its home country in 1958, and it was briefly sold in the United States during the late 1960s. It carried a base price of $1,297 in 1968, the year that Malcom Bricklin imported the first batch of 360s from Japan, but sales were low at best and Subaru quickly realized that the car was far too small and slow to suit the tastes of American consumers. Countless other automakers — including Fiat — came to that same conclusion at about the same time. With the help of Bricklin, Subaru introduced a bigger, more spacious model named FF-1 star in 1970. It was powered by a 1.1-liter flat-four engine, inaugurating a mechanical layout that continues to characterize members of the Subaru lineup to this day.
All-wheel drive was added to the mix later, but I’ve digressed. The 360 story was different in Japan, where motorists had a seemingly insatiable appetite for small, affordable, and efficient cars; Subaru’s first model fit the bill perfectly. It stretched just 117 inches long, making it about ten inches longer than a current-gen smart fortwo and about the same size as the rear-engined Fiat 500. It tipped the scale at 900 pounds (roughly 408 kilos), and it was powered by a 356cc two-cylinder, two-stroke engine rated at 25 horsepower in its most basic state of tune. With its sheer simplicity, the 360 helped an entire generation make the transition from a bike or a motorcycle to a car; it’s easy to see why it’s considered part of Japan’s heritage.
If you’re wondering, the other car on the list of mechanical heritage items is an obscure electric model named TAMA that was built in the late 1940s in response to a widespread oil shortage in post-war Japan. Other items related to the automotive industry include Honda’s CVCC engine, the first automatic transmission developed in Japan, and Mazda’s 10A rotary engine.