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Car of the Week: 1970 Subaru 360 Sambar van

The Subaru 360 Sambar blazed its own tiny trail in the van world.
Car of the Week 2020
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Vicki Siefker has showed up in a lot of places with the little van she calls “Buck” in tow. And she knows wherever she goes, the questions are sure to follow.

“What is that?” and “What country did that come from?” are always among them. People don’t always ask if the van has a name, but she’ll always introduce him as “Buck.” He has fuzzy dice hanging in the rear window, because the front windshields on a 1970 Subaru 360 Sambar van are so small, you’d have trouble seeing around the pair of dangling dice, and they’d probably be bouncing off your forehead.

Siefker has about a dozen microcars in her collection at her home in Delphos, Ohio. She shares the same enthusiasm for the tiny cars as her husband Ken, who passed away in early 2021.

“Buck,” she says, was Ken’s favorite of the bunch."

“It’s probably the most reliable one. It pretty much runs whenever we need it to,” she says. “We can put our chairs or whatever in it and just go. He just liked the little van the best. That was the one!"

“We would pull it behind the motor home and then drive it when we got there, because they are street legal. We’d just take it with us so we’d have something to drive when we went places.”

The Siefkers eventually decided they had to have a Subaru van — and later a pickup — after they originally bought a Subaru 360 sedan. 

The “cab-over” design was all the rage when it came to van design in the 1960s. Compact and mini cars were also becoming popular worldwide. All those trends merged when Subaru launched the 360 Sambar Van. This dandy 1970 example belongs to Vicki Siefker, of Delphos, Ohio.

The “cab-over” design was all the rage when it came to van design in the 1960s. Compact and mini cars were also becoming popular worldwide. All those trends merged when Subaru launched the 360 Sambar Van. This dandy 1970 example belongs to Vicki Siefker, of Delphos, Ohio.

“A neighbor guy and his son put [the sedan] together as a bonding project. It was every color in the rainbow, and my husband saw it and thought it would be a good thing to pull behind the motor home. So he saw it and said, ‘I don’t know if that thing runs, but I’m going to go down and try to buy it.’ So he bought it, and it sat in our building for a couple years and we finished it off, and then went to the World Meet for our first meet in Chicago … from there, we started seeing vans and pickups and started seeing everything that they made and all the colors. And it becomes like a disease.”

The couple found the Sambar Van in a collection in the Nashville, Tenn., area. They eventually wound up buying several of the man’s microcars.

“[The previous owner’s] mother actually drove this one almost as a daily driver. She would drive it around and go get her groceries and stuff, and my husband saw it and started talking to him about it,” Siefker recalled. “Eventually we bought it, and several other pieces from his collection.”

The "cab-over" puts the driver out in front.

The "cab-over" puts the driver out in front.

SUBARU DISCOVERS AMERICA

Fuji Heavy Industries, which launched the Subaru brand, began in 1953 selling a motorscooter called the Rabbit. By 1958, the company had launched its first automobile called the 360. It was a small sedan with a transverse-mounted, air-cooled two-stroke engine of 365cc with a mighty 16 hp.

In the late 1960s, adventurous U.S. businessman and aspiring automobile mogul Malcom Bricklin began importing Subarus stateside under the “Subaru of American, Inc.” banner. The company did not get off to a great start on American soil, however, particularly after Consumer Reports ran a story criticizing the 360 and calling it “the most unsafe car on the market.”

Have friends? The 360 has you covered.

Have friends? The 360 has you covered.

The company was able to persevere and overcome its early struggles, and among the more interesting early machines it created was the 360 Sambar Van and its sibling pickup. They were Japan’s first Kei Class vehicles (the smallest highway-legal passenger cars and trucks), debuting in 1961.

The first-generation (1961-’66) 360 Sambars were rear-drive, rear-engine machines with a one-box body and four-wheel independent suspension. The engine could be accessed via a hatch inside the vehicle. The front doors were rear-hinged, while the rear doors were front-hinged with a rear cargo hatch. The “cab-over” design followed a trend at the time that included The Chevrolet Greenbriar, Ford Econoline and, of course, the Volkswagen Type 2 Van.

The second-gen Sambar debuted in January 1966 and ran through the 1973 model year. It had updated styling and an engine that now produced 19.7 hp. A raised roof for more headroom became optional in 1968. In 1970, the engine was accessible from outside the vehicle, and a padded dash replaced the previous metal version. Engine output again grew to an estimated 25.6 hp.

Other features on the 1970 models included polished factory hubcaps on the 10-inch steel wheels; sliding side windows; wing windows; lap belts; glove compartment; and a folding rear bench. The transmission remained a four-speed manual. A spare tire was hidden under the front seat, and the fuel tank carried 8 gallons.

On the earliest Sambar vans, the air-cooled, two-stroke engines were only accessible via a panel inside the van. That changed for the 1970 model year, when you could open a door below the rear hatch. Horsepower was up to 25.6 for ’70.

On the earliest Sambar vans, the air-cooled, two-stroke engines were only accessible via a panel inside the van. That changed for the 1970 model year, when you could open a door below the rear hatch. Horsepower was up to 25.6 for ’70.

Top speed of a 1970 Sambar was in the neighborhood of 59 mph, if you redlined it and you weren’t too loaded down. The tiny haulers measured 118 inches from nose to tail and tipped the scales at a bantamweight 1,180 lbs. The base price was reported to be $1,366.

Though circa-1970 Subaru vans remain decidedly scarce on American turf, the concept of a tiny utilitarian van has certainly stood the test of time. The Sambar has survived in various iterations through eight generations and is still being built today by Daihatsu/Toyota.

Cooling intakes were located above the 10-inch wheels in back.

Cooling intakes were located above the 10-inch wheels in back.

THE FAMILY VAN

The Sambar Van has been in the Siefker family for more than 10 years and it’s still going strong. Vicki still takes it to shows and microcar gatherings, like the big World Meet in Hickory Corners, Mich., in 2021.

Easy access out back 

Easy access out back 

“We haven’t had to do much to it,” she says. “It was in fairly good shape when we got it, except it was painted a red metal flake like a boat, and my husband just did not like that metal flake look. It was gray and red when we got it so we had it painted. He added the original hubcaps on it, and added the little trailer hitch on it because we pull a little teardrop trailer. And he put the headlight covers on it."

“We put the rack on it about two years ago. We finally found one that we liked.”

Microcars often become the center of their owners’ social circles, and that has certainly been the case for the Siefkers. The family has continued to enjoy and show off their fun little collector machines and congregate with other car owners they have befriended over the years.

“We just always liked these cars, and we met so many great people,” she says. “My husband was the expert. I just know what we liked, and he and a lot of our friends were the experts. I’ve just kind of been along for the ride.”

With a sticker price under $1,400, the Sambar was not meant to be fancy. Its task was to be easy to drive, very economical and have enough passenger room and cargo space to be practical.

With a sticker price under $1,400, the Sambar was not meant to be fancy. Its task was to be easy to drive, very economical and have enough passenger room and cargo space to be practical.

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