It was chic but it had its problems. Andrew Roberts hails the risky delight that never came to Britain

Reading The World Car Yearbook was a frustrating experience for many British schoolboys in the 1960s and 70s. Its pages contained pictures of so many fascinating cars that were never officially available in the UK. In the Japanese section, the reader was tantalised by gloriously smart executive cars such as the Toyota Century, and an array of miniature cars, all with engines under 500cc. One of the earliest is the 1958 Subaru 360, which, with its distinctive styling, is one of the most important cars in Japanese motoring history.

The 360's origins date back to 1949, when the Japanese government created the Kei (or "diminutive") class of car to combat congestion. All vehicles with an engine below 360cc and less than 10ft in length gained tax concessions and exemption from stringent parking regulations.

Nine years later, the post-War recovery boom meant that while most of the Japanese still lacked funds for a full-sized car, they had more than enough to buy a motorcycle. So, to promote the car industry, the ministry of trade established a contract to manufacture an inexpensive and locally designed "people's car".

Fuji Heavy Industries took the project on, and in March 1958 launched its new car under the name of Subaru (Japanese for the Pleiades, hence the six-star badge) 360 to almost immediate success.

Here was a full-sized car that could seat four and travel at up to 51mph. And it was an all-Japanese design in the era of the Isuzu-built Hillman Minx, the Nissan-built Austin A50 Cambridge, and the Hino-built Renault 4CV. Brochures for the 360 always included at least one shot of a Subaru beside Mount Fuji.

The 360 was a technical advance on the previous generation of Japanese cycle-cars, and Fuji's experience with aircraft led to a monocoque with removable fibreglass roof to lessen weight. The car had independent suspension, front and rear, power from a two-stroke 360cc moped-derived engine, a three-speed plus overdrive gear change with syncromesh on the top two gears, and styling that instantly earned it the nickname "Ladybird".

Over the next 12 years, the range was expanded to the 360 Custom, one of the most attractive small estate cars this side of the Fiat 500 Giardiniera, the chic 360 Convertible, and the 360 Commercial, whose rear windows were hinged to fold on to the rear wings for easy luggage access.

By the early Sixties, the Subaru was as much a part of the Japanese automotive landscape as the Mini in the UK, with 360s serving as delivery vans, police cars, and first cars for young families. In this guise, the Subaru was fitted with a front bench-seat (though three-abreast seating was limited in a 51in-wide car), a heater and a reversing lamp as standard. Strangely, it lacked windscreen-wipers.

There were two minor facelifts, in 1963 and 1967, the latter heralding a welcome extra 20bhp and the introduction of the "Subarumatic" oil system, designed to mix oil with petrol automatically, thereby reducing engine wear. On the early cars, the fuel filler lid doubled as a measuring cup to ensure the proper petrol/oil ratio, but on later models, the driver merely had to remember not to disturb the valve lever on the floor, or the Subaru would be disinclined to move.

At the end of the Sixties, the Subaru was competing against a new generation of rivals such as the Honda N360, with its light-alloy OHC engine and front-wheel drive. Even the Subaru's charming styling was starting to look dated.

Production ceased in 1970, but the 360 earned Subaru essential revenue to continue the technical development programme that culminated in the launch of the 4WD Leone Estate in 1972, spearheading the Subaru export drive. By contrast, the 360 was aimed at the domestic market, but in 1961, Fuji introduced the 423cc Subaru 450 with export in mind. As the Japanese drive on the left, the new car was aimed at Commonwealth countries on the Pacific Rim.

A 450 rebadged as a Maia was sold in Australia from 1961 to 1966. In the States, the 360's career, based on unofficial imports, was ended by a 1969 car guide that decimated its safety record, especially the tendency of rear-hinged doors to blow open at 20mph. In the UK, there were no 360 imports in the 1960s. The nearest most Brits would have come to this automotive icon would have been in the pages of The Motor or watching Godzilla enjoying a meal of 360s.

Whether or not the 360 would have succeeded in the UK is an intriguing question. The 1950s market proved too conservative for the Citroën 2CV. But the Fiat 500, the Western car that bears the closest resemblance to the 360, sold in respectable numbers, and the 360 would have probably sold on the strength of its cute appearance alone.

The challenge for a UK importer in 1959, aside from memories of war, would have been the Subaru's accommodation - luggage had to go on or under the rear bench as the front boot held battery and spare wheel, whereas the similarly sized Mini had a boot and space for four passengers. But the Subaru was still a revelation, the steering and road-holding equal, if not superior to many Western designs.

Search for used cars