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LET’S CELEBRATE Subaru’s golden anniversary selling cars here in the U.S. In doing so, I offer a parable of focusing on strengths to overcome adversity. Other tidbits here touch on Wife Dottie’s and my years at R&T.
Origins. Subaru’s corporate origins stretch way back to 1915 and The Aircraft Research Laboratory headed by Chikuhei Nakajima. This firm reorganized in 1932 and became Nakajima Aircraft, a company producing scads of piston-engine aircraft and even two jet prototypes during World War II.
Post-war, the company reorganized as Fuji Sangyo and manufactured among other things (from leftover aircraft parts) the 1946 Fuji Rabbit motor scooter. In 1950, Japanese anti-monopoly regulations split Fuji Sangyo into 12 companies. Between 1953 and 1955, five of them became Fuji Heavy Industries.
Subaru: Pleiades, Unification. According to several sources (albeit unconfirmed by Google Translate), ス バル, subaru means “unite” in Japanese. More widely confirmed, it’s also the Japanese name for the Pleiades cluster of stars in the Taurus constellation. Either way, it makes a poetic logo of several entities forming one.
Subaru 360. The Subaru 360, built between 1958 and 1971, was the company’s entry into the Japanese Kei or light car class. Kei cars were, and continue to be, of restricted size powered by diminutive engines, home-market regulations giving them tax breaks a’plenty. Over the Subaru 360’s model run, production totaled some 392,000 vehicles.
Bringing the 360 to the U.S. Entrepreneurs Malcolm Bricklin and Harvey Lamm gave the Subaru 360 a go in the late 1960s, but Kei cars were, and remain, a hard sell in the U.S. market.
In a 1988 interview with Inc. magazine, Lamm cited the problem: “The Subaru 360 was really little better than a motorcycle, the better part being that you didn’t have to sit outside.”
Other Views. Generally, others appear to have preferred the motorcycle. In 1969, Consumer Reports gave the Subaru 360 a “not acceptable” rating and called it “the most unsafe car on the market.”
High praise indeed, given Ralph Nader’s scathing book, Unsafe at Any Speed: The Designed-In Dangers of the American Automobile, only three years before.
R&T offered a perhaps more nuanced view. Its March 1969 road test opened as followed: “Look at it this way—the Subaru 360 is an example of the breed of cars that could solve almost every problem we now associate with the automobile, if we would only give it a chance to do so.”
R&T continued, “The engine is so small [356 cc] it couldn’t create an eyeball of smog if it tried. It has such a modest top speed [56 mph] that the whole industry devoted to making speed limit signs could be switched over to something useful. Because it can hardly go fast enough to bend itself [0-50 in 36.7 seconds], even in a crash, it has got to be safer.”
Other benefits: “And finally, because it occupies so little physical space [only 117.9 in. overall], replacing all full-size American sedans with Subaru 360s would have the effect of adding a full one-third more road space to the currently crowded network and every 2-car garage would automatically become a 3-car (or even 4-car) garage.”
On the other hand, R&T asked with grammatical precision, “Is this a crate in which you’d like to send your kid up?” Also, continuing its lack of Subaru 360 enthusiasm: “… everyone around the office who drove it had something to say about its amusement value, but nobody was eager to take it for the weekend.” The magazine’s table-of-contents blurb read (in those pre-PC days), “fun, but would you want your daughter to marry one?”
Well, not daughter, but yes, marry. Wife Dottie, R&T Editorial Associate at the time, remembers driving the Subaru 360, as described here at SimanaitisSays in “Car Schlepping in Days of Yore.”
Countering Adversity With Strength. Automotive News, February 19, 2018, writes “Dodging a bad review, Subaru fell into awd country.”
That is, aware of the 360’s less than stunning reception, Subaru of America’s Harvey Lamm identified other company assets and focused on particular U.S. markets in which these assets would be properly appreciated.
Briefly, these were Subaru’s all-wheel-drive expertise and U.S. regions known for serious wintery weather.
Living in sunny southern California and working for R&T, I recall driving, testing, and writing about Subarus. True, they had all-wheel drive. True, they came in practical shapes, several of them sorta prototypical mini-SUVs. And none ever broke while in our hands.
Whenever we wrote about Subarus, albeit with a distinct lack of “The Enthusiast’s Magazine” praise, we’d get scads of angry letters postmarked Colorado, the Dakotas, Maine, New Hampshire, or Vermont. Invariably they retorted, “What do the effete likes of you know about Subarus??
In retrospect, and in fullness of veracity, we should have performed comparison tests in Colorado, the Dakotas, and New England, especially in the wintertime.
Happy golden anniversary, Subaru of America! ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2018