The Japan Society of Mechanical Engineers has certified the Subaru 360 as part of the the nation’s “Mechanical Engineering Heritage.” It is only the second car in the organization’s 119-year history that an automobile has received this honor. So what does it mean, exactly?
It means that the Subaru 360 is a significant part of Japan’s cultural legacy. With the debut of the initial K-111 chassis in 1958, Subaru had built an affordable, enclosed passenger car while most of Japan’s citizenry was still commuting by bike (both the motorized and foot-powered kind).
With an initial 16-horsepower, 360cc, two-stroke twin mounted in the rear, the 360 wasn’t quick, but the car weighed only 385 kg (847 pounds) thanks to a monocoque design — including a fiberglass roof panel — borne from the minds of former Nakajima Aircraft engineers.
It didn’t need to be fast, though. A top speed of 51 mph was plenty to navigate the crowded, narrow streets of late-1950s Japan. Subsequent improvements upped the power to 25 horses and a “performance” twin-carb version called the Young SS bumped output to 36 — and impressive 100 horsepower per liter.
Most importantly, however, was the price. While Japan’s one-percenters drove large Crowns, Princes, or Nissans, a Subaru 360 cost ¥365,000 (we’re not sure what the dollar-to-yen exchange rate was back then, but Malcolm Bricklin imported 360s to the US at $1,297 a pop) and was affordable to masses. More than any car, the Subaru 360 helped put Japan on wheels.
It wasn’t the first kei car, but it was definitely the most successful, spanning a production run of 12 years and 392,000 units. In fact, the iconic shape of the tentoumushi, or “ladybug” as it is affectionately called, is already a sort of shorthand for the golden years of the post-war economic boom and has appeared in a host of movies, anime, and TV shows about the era.
The 360 is also the only passenger car in the Edo-Tokyo Museum, a showcase of the history of Japan’s capital city. So Perhaps it didn’t really need the JSME recognition to enter Japan’s cultural canon, but the honor certainly further cements its rightful place there. Incidentally, that other car to receive a JSME award is the 1947 Tama E4S-47-1 electric car.
Images courtesy of Subaru. Screenshot from Dragonball.