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The secret life of Shinroku Momose

Very few of the multitude of Subaru owners are acquainted with the person of Shinroku Momose and his pivotal role in establishing the Subaru brand.

The secret life of Shinroku Momose

Subaru enthusiasts might know there’s a link between Subaru and the giant Japanese firm Fuji Heavy Industries (FHI). But the history of the Fuji firm is more or less unknown.

The life of Shinroku Momose is closely linked with the history of the predecessor of FHI, the Nakajima aircraft company. Nakajima developed and built aircraft for the Japanese air force until the end of World War II in 1945.

The young engineer
Momose was born in 1919 in the city of Shiojiri, west of Tokyo, where his father made a living by brewing sake. At age twenty Shinroku enrolled at the then Imperial University of Tokyo for a degree in aeronautical engineering. Upon graduation he moved to his first job at the Nakajima aircraft company in January 1942. He was called up for military service before the end of his first month at the company. Holding the rank of junior naval officer he was assigned to the Yokosuka Technical Unit. Here he was involved in the development of turbine and jet propulsion engines – at the same time that British and German engineers tested similar technology.

In 1944 naval officer Momose was relieved of his duties and assigned to help with the further development of the Nakajima C6N1 aircraft at the company he started his career with. Despite its powerful engines the aircraft did not perform to expectations – this despite the decrease in fuselage width to lower air resistance. Momose relied on turbocharging to overcome the problem and to increase horsepower and torque.

Planes, buses and automobiles

When the atomic bombs decimated Hiroshima and Nagasaki Momose’s career in aviation engineering ended. In August 1945 the Japanese government surrendered and in September a formal peace treaty was signed.

In Japan and Germany the end of World War II brought an abrupt end to the careers of aircraft engineers, with only “peaceful” careers being pursued. In both countries the engineers of war machines instead turned to the automotive sector.

FHI (no longer named Nakajima) commissioned Momose to design and manufacture a bus. Not long after that, in 1949, the new vehicle, with a rear-mounted engine, drove off the assembly line. This successful project was followed by an assignment to build a first-rate car, based on European designs and specifications. Work on the 1500 (code name P1) started in 1951 and was completed in 1954, but for unknown reasons the car never went into production.

A small car becomes a big hit
Like his German wartime colleagues, Ernst Heinkel and Willy Messerschsmitt, Momose turned to designing and manufacturing micro cars in the mid-fifties. The German “funny cars” lost popularity after a few years but the Subaru 360, designed by Momose and built at the FHI plant at Isesaki, became an instant and enduring success. The small sedan, with its two-cylinder, two-stroke, rear-mounted engine, launched in March 1958, with a station wagon version following soon after. This popular light car was built until 1971.

In 1960 Momose was promoted to senior manager in the engineering department of FHI and a year later his light panel van, the Subaru Sambar, debuted on the commercial market.
The Sambar employed the 360 engine, also mounted aft, and powering the rear wheels. It was upgraded over time, and like the 360 sedan, had a long life: production only ceased in 2012. The body style and mechanical layout of the van was copied unashamedly by a number of Asian manufacturers. As the saying goes, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

A blueprint for success
In 1965 Momose made a breakthrough with the successful development of the Subaru 1000. The car featured front-wheel drive with fully independent suspension and a water-cooled boxer engine. The boxer engine, lending the car a low centre of gravity, showed the way forward for Subaru. When the car was launched in 1966, Momose became the chief engineer of the company and joined the FHI board the following year.

It was during his tenure as general manager of Subaru that his cars acquired the features that made them a world success: permanent four-wheel drive through a central differential, drive shafts of equal length and powerful boxer engines. It was Momose who signed off these revolutionary designs.

In 1987 Momose’s important role in the post-war development of the automotive industry was recognised by the Japanese Automotive Association when he was awarded a special prize for development and technology.

Shinroku Momose died in 1997 at the age of 78 and was survived by his wife.

Individuals like Shinroku Momose often impart a personal touch to their vehicles. The man was 1.8 metres tall, exceptional by Japanese standards, and the 360 was designed around his body size. This meant North Americans could fit into the small car with ease. In the case of Carl Borgward, designer of the Borgward Isabella, it was nearly the other way round. He had a long torso but short legs. Drivers shorter than 1.8 metres had great difficulty in seeing anything above the steering wheel without sitting on a cushion or two.

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