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The Kei to success: Part 1

Thirty-five years before the iconic Impreza WRX first appeared in the World Rally Championship stage in 1993, Subaru was a manufacturer little known outside of Japan. Founded in 1953, Subaru was the brainchild of Kenji Kita,

The Kei to success: Part 1

Thirty-five years before the iconic Impreza WRX first appeared in the World Rally Championship stage in 1993, Subaru was a manufacturer little known outside of Japan. Founded in 1953, Subaru was the brainchild of Kenji Kita, the CEO of Fuji Heavy Industries (FHI), a multi-faceted company involved in scooter, engine and chassis manufacture amongst other things.


Birth of a star
Kita wanted FHI to get into car manufacturing and a prototype was made, code-named P-1. An invitation to company employees to give the new car a name failed to produce anything suitable, so Kita chose one close to his heart, Subaru, the Japanese name for the open star cluster Pleiades in the constellation of Taurus. This celestial body is depicted in Subaru’s badge. The P-1 became the Subaru 1500, but only 20 were built.

Over the next five years the company introduced a string of low-volume models before finally launching its first serious production model, the 360, a rear-engined two-door city car with a distinct personality.

“ Nicknamed the ‘ladybird’ or ‘lady bug’ because of its shape, the 360 was an instant success ”

Adding lightness
The prototype, code-named K10, was completed 11 months before and the design objective was to create an easy-to-produce car with a light, monocoque body, sufficient interior space to accommodate four adults, excellent ride comfort and a lightweight, high-power, high-durability engine. Thanks to Fuji’s many years of aircraft manufacture, such was the attention to detail that the head of every rivet in the car’s bodywork was filed down, just one of many adopted aircraft principles used in the car’s construction.

The 360 – the number referring to the tax-limited engine capacity – was launched on 3 March 1958, and its overall size and engine capacity complied perfectly with Japanese government legislation made in 1949 to create an affordable ‘light’, or ‘kei-jidosha’ national class of car. The rules dictated an engine of less than 360 cm3 and an overall length of under 10 feet (3 048 mm) to combat congestion while helping to motorise the country’s post-WWII population. Kei cars gained tax concessions and were exempt from stringent parking regulations. The 360 measured 2 990 mm long, 1 300 mm wide and 1 379 mm high, and thanks to the use of lightweight materials that included a removable glass fibre roof panel, the 360’s kerb weight was only 430 kg. Nick-named the ‘ladybird’ or ‘lady bug’ because of its shape, the 360 was an instant success.

A two-stroke twin with air-cooling
Powering the 360 was an air-cooled, twin-cylinder 356 cc engine mounted transversely in the rear. Being a two-stroke, oil was needed to be pre-mixed with the petrol, and rather innovatively, the fuel filler cap served as a measuring cup. with the fuel tank lid serving as a measuring cup. In its original form, the engine developed 12 kW and was mated with a three-speed manual gearbox with synchromesh on second and third. As the Japanese speed limit was 40 km/h in urban areas and the average driving distance 8 to 13 km, performance was not a critical factor. Top speed was 82 km/h. The claimed fuel consumption was 3.56 litres/100 km but this figure was never achieved in road tests.

The all-independent suspension featured torsion springs front and rear together with a left/right connected coil spring, with swing axles at the rear. Wheels were a 10-inch split-rim design.

Initially available as a two-door saloon – the doors were of the rear-hinged, ‘suicide’, variety – the interior featured an all-metal dashboard and floor-mounted controls between the front seats including the heater controls, choke and fuel cut-off switch, as petrol was gravity-fed to the engine, avoiding the need for a pump.

From such humble beginnings, the 360 became a significant player in the minicar world, especially in America, as we shall see in Part 2.

Get to learn more about Subaru heritage and how Subaru vehicles started. Explore our range of Subaru SUVs and Sedans.