The Subaru 360 gets a lot of praise as being the first massively successful car in the Japanese market, as important as the VW Beetle was for Germany and the Model T was for the US. That is great and well deserved recognition, but mention of it being the first high performance Subaru is rare, and I think its high time we shed some light on the Subaru 360 Young SS.
The story of the Subaru 360 begins in 1958, when it hit the market as a welcome relief for the Japanese public. Earlier post-war Japanese automotive offerings were either three wheeled delivery trucks, knockdown kits like the Isuzu Hillman Minx, or large expensive cars like the Prince Sedan AISH. None of these were necessarily well suited for the average family, most were too expensive, and as a result the auto industry wasn’t growing as quickly as the Japanese government wanted.
To spur growth, the Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI) came up with a huge incentive program for automakers to develop small displacement cars that would cost approximately the same price as a high-end motorcycle. The “people’s car” program was born in 1949, setting initial displacement at 150cc. However, the class didn’t really take off until 1955, when engine size limits were raised to 360cc. The mix of affordable prices, tax incentives and low fuel consumption created a perfect storm that generated a boom of automotive production.
The most successful of these early kei cars was the Subaru 360, thanks to its cute design and superb construction gleaned from Subaru’s former aircraft engineers. It was given the nickname tentoumushi, or ladybug, due to its round shape. It was Japan’s first runaway automotive hit, and kept up with it’s competition for nearly a decade until 1967, when Honda released the N360.
The Honda was a massive jump in power and sophistication. It had significantly advanced suspension when compared to the 360 and 30 horsepower as opposed to the Subaru’s 25. These horsepower numbers sound quaint today, but back then even a modest 25 to 30 horsepower was enough to cause trouble on Japan’s narrow streets if needed.
After the N360 came out, Subaru came back with a pair of performance models, the 360 Young S and the 360 Young SS. For performance, the Young S added a fourth gear to the transmission and aesthetic touches like bucket seats, a tachometer and a black and white striped roof complete with a indentation in the roof made especially to carry a surf board. Subaru, however, gave the Young SS all that and performance boost.
The 360 Young SS had the massive historical achievement of being the first Japanese car to make 100 horsepower per liter. That’s a power-to-displacement ratio at the time only seen on the Ferrari 250 GTO. Not only that, but the ladybug SS could also go triple the national speed limit at the time, topping out at 75 mph.
Subaru’s engine trickery was achieved from some good ol’ fashioned hot rodding. Engineers chromed the cylinder bores to relieve engine friction internally, and supplied fuel via a pair of Mikuni-Solexes in lieu of the standard version’s single carb. Combining this with its reed valve cylinder head and roller bearing crankshaft, the little two-stroke engine was able to wind itself up to 8,000 rpm, where it reaced peak output. The torque band on the car also had a relatively late peak torque figure of 27 lb-ft at 6,400 rpm, creating a feel of limitless power gains.
Not long after the Subaru 360 Young SS came out, Mitsubishi and Daihatsu threw their hats in the ring with performance kei jidosha offerings as well, creating a kei performance war foreshadowing the battles we would see throughout the 1980s and early 90s. At its heart the Subaru 360 Young SS has that wild soul that Subaru has always kept hidden, the same soul that gave us the BRAT, SVX and STI.
Unfortunately, the legacy of the Young SS seems to be largely lost on the American public, but in Japan the car is celebrated as the performance variant of the people’s car. Young SS’s have appeared in video games produced in Japan such as Auto Modellista and Gran Turismo, while the regular 360 was featured in popular anime such as Pokemon and Get Backers.
Sadly, the Young SS was never imported to the US, but we did get a variant of the Young S. After the initial sales failure of the original 360, there was no market for the hi-po version. Perhaps with a Subaru 360 winning Best of Show at JCCS 2017, however, more people will become interested in the ultimate version of the breed.