I was introduced to Jonee Eisen by a mutual friend at a flea market in Echo Park. "He's into cars, too." So, I asked, what sort of cars do you have? "A couple of Subarus and a DAF 66." I nearly choked. "A DAF!?!" The sky was falling. "Yeah, you know - the Dutch took the clutch." Yeah Jonee, I know.
Sadly tragically for our purposes, since we met Jonee has sold the DAF, as parts are harder to find than a certain hotel heiress's dignity. Happily, he still maintains a pretty sweet collection of microcars. And this past Friday, he invited me over to play with 'em.
First up, and somehow the most common, was the brillinatly eccentric 1969 Subaru 360. The car has a badge on the back which reads, "Deluxe," But as Jonee explained, "They all did." There was a "performance" model of the 360 called the Young, but it was quite literally a red paint job. The 360 is a Kei car, a class of cars in Japan designed to get around tax and insurance regulations. They were also widely promoted to people who could afford a motorcycle, but not a full-sized car. And, as Jonee pointed out, in Tokyo you were allowed to park them on the street overnight. Most importantly, they are tiny.
Our Man Jonee And His 1969 Subaru 360
While resembling a VW bug in more ways than five, the 360 sports a 25 horsepower air-cooled 356cc straight 2-cylinder, 2-stroke with oil injection. Despite all this awesome potential Consumer Reports deemed the 360 "Unacceptable," adding that the diminutive Subaru was, "the most dangerous car in the United States." For example, they stated that the suicide doors would come off if you opened them up on the highway. Besides the obvious, (don't open the doors on the highway!) we believe this is the first vehicle to ever get branded with CR's infamous designation. Regardless, and just like with the tip-happy Suzuki Samurai, we totally disagree with Consumer Reports.
For a car with roughly ten times less power than my daily driver, the 360 has some guts. Weighing almost four-times less (the Subaru weighs 900 pounds) absolutely helps. Which makes it a very practical car around town. While there is literally no trunk to speak of, the imaginary rear seats provide plenty of space for grocery schleping. Plus, everybody honks and waves at you. Jonee explained that
swindler importer extraordinaire Malcolm Bricklin claimed that the 360 achieved 66 mpg, but actual mileage is between 30-40 mpg.
This Is The "Trunk" - Normally, It Is Filled With The Spare
We have to say that as entertaining as the 360 was to drive (in a moment) listening to Jonee's tales of Bricklin's shenanigans and failures was nearly as entertaining. At one point Malcolm started franchising a series of small race tracks that (naturally) came with a bunch of unsold 360s. Besides the broadside by Consumer Reports, the 360 was doomed by its relatively high price. For just a hundred dollars more, buyers could purchase the more than twice as powerful and much larger Volkswagen. Left with a bunch of deadweight, many dealers resorted to, "Buy a Buick, get a Subaru!" One dealer went so far as to offer six brand new 360s for $2,000.
Driving the 360 isn't much different from piloting a Bug or an old 911. The trickiest part is that there aren't any synchromesh gears. Seeing as how I forgot how to double-clutch long ago, I kept grinding the hell out of first gear. The trick is that you have to be completely stopped before you pull the lever back. Yeah, back. Reverse is where first gear usually is found, so I kept grinding more hell out of the poor transmission trying to shift into reverse at 10 mph. Luckily, Jonee is a nice, forgiving man.
Top speed? Didn't go there, but Jonee says he occasionally takes it on the freeway. While lap-belts, a steel dash and my father's worship of Consumer Reports kept hoonage to an absolute minimum, I am happy to report that like rear-engined cars, the 360 takes corners with ease. Also, there is a pull under the dash that opens a panel on the hood that lets fresh air into the cabin. And you can stick your fingers out of it. Talk about a killer app!
1972 Subaru R2
Next up was Mr. Eisen's 1972 JDM Subaru R2. While dimensionally similar to the 360 (i.e. teeny), the R2 has a totally different body. Much more like a Starlet than a VW. The engine is virtually unchanged, but a freer flowing carb bumps the horsepower by 7 to 32. Gone are the suicide doors, but at least the engine is still out back. This car was never sold in the US and as far as I can tell, is right hand drive only. Sadly, Jonee's wasn't running so hot, so no chance for a drive.
1960 Mazda R360
But no matter, as Jonee quickly pulled his latest and perhaps greatest microcar from his garage. Fresh off the container ship from Japan is a 1962 Mazda R360. Another Japan-only Kei-car, the R360 has the honorable distinction of being Mazda's first four-wheeled vehicle (they produced three-wheeled trucks just after the war). The R360 sports an air-cooled 356cc four-stroke V-twin engine that produces about 16 horsepower (though some sources, including Jonee, say the peak is actually 18 hp). Not a lot of power, but the car only weighs 838 lbs. In fact at speed, it felt more powerful than the 360. Only trouble is, this R360 has a 2-speed automatic. So, getting up to said speed is a bit difficult. Much more impressively is the R360's sheet metal that features huge helpings of Italian design influence, but put into practice via the requisite Japanese filter.
Meet Bob. And Yup, That's A Mazda3 On The Right
I convinced Jonee to swing by the Glendale Mazda dealership so we could park it next to a Mazda3 and note the difference. Almost immediately we were swarmed by salesmen that were both confused and excited by the ur-Mazda. The frankly shocking size disparity between the R360 and a modern compact car was fascinating. And then we met Bob. Bob Nameche claims he owned the very first Mazda dealership in the United States. Bob's first reaction was that the smallest of all Mazdas was in fact a European car. We realized that Bob didn't recognize the R360 because Mazda didn't start selling cars in America until 1970. Jonee jokingly asked if they had any spare parts and then we drove off in to the sunset.
After hopping back into the Subaru 360 and juicing up its 4-gallon tank, we hit Jonee's storage shed for the surprise of the day, a 1960 Fuldamobil. I'm thinking this all fiber glass ride is going to be the ultimate project, as most of the parts have to be fabricated rather than found. Mechanically related to the Messerschmitt three-wheelers, Fuldamobils hail from the town of Fulda. Which is where the goofy, hard for Americans to remember name comes from. However, they licensed their design all over the globe with pretty amazing results. In Sweden the Fuldamobils were known as Fram Kings, in England as Nobels, as the Bambi in Argentina, Attica/Ulta in Greece and as Hans Vehaar in India. That last one being up there with Oscar India in terms of coolest automotive appellations of all time