The streets of New York City are a fantastic place for on-the-go history lessons, even when the subject is the unlikely success of a Japanese automaker. For one week, a classic Subaru 360 micro-car, the first production car the company ever produced, sat shivering on the snow-covered streets of my lower Manhattan neighborhood. Its wheels looked like they belonged on a lawnmower, while the bizarrely bulbous exterior makes the 360 look like something that just crawled out from under a rock. A child seat in the back was either proof of the owner's sense of humor, or a sign of parental neglect. Built from 1958 to 1971, the 360 was rear-wheel-drive and powered by a 423cc (for North America) 2-cylinder engine. The top speed is reportedly 60 mph, though this is likely downhill and with a strong tailwind.
For better or for worse, this strange little car helped put Subaru on the road to future success in the United States. Not that much (if any) credit actually goes to the woefully flawed 360 itself. Even a fan of automotive underdogs must admit the 360 was poorly built, underpowered, and ill-handling. Never officially brought into the U.S. by Subaru, it was automotive maverick Malcolm Bricklin who handled importation of the 360. Unfortunately, this scenario only complicated sales, servicing, and a supply of spare parts – big problems when you own a car that falls apart by the time you get to the end of your driveway. In 1969, Consumer Reports rated the 360 "Not Acceptable" – the first time ever the magazine had given such a low score – due to the 360's lack of power and serious safety issues.
In the end, Subaru got things right with its all-wheel-drive lineup of vehicles, such as the Legacy, , and Forester. Last year was a sales record for Subaru of America, with total sales of 263,820 vehicles. This is a 22 percent increase over 2009 levels – the brand's previous record sales year – and is miles away from the company's inauspicious entry into the North American market more than 40 years ago.