How it all started with the Subaru 360

What's the idea behind these little vans?

Here in Europe, we have got some small cars, however they make even smaller ones over in Japan. These small Japanese cars are the so called 'kei-cars' (kei means small in Japanese). This kei-car class firstly appeared after the Second World War. This class was introduced by the Japanese government with the idea to speed up the rebuild of the coutry. The cars were affordable and the idea was that this would help to mobilize Japan after the war to give the manufacturing industy something to get going again.

It wasn't until 1958 that the kei cars really got off the ground. In that year, Subaru introduced its first mass-produced car: the "Subaru 360", a small car powered by an air-cooled twin-cylinder in the rear. Subaru was the first manufacturer to produce a successful kei-car with this car model.

Other Japanese companies like Honda, Suzuki, Mazda and Daihatsu all noticed the succes the new and unknown manufacturer Subaru had with the 360. It didn't take long until these car makers started to design their own models to compete with the 360.

So much for the kei-car cars, but where are the kei-car vans? That started a few years later, in 1961, with…. Subaru. Yes, again Subaru, in that year they introduced the "Subaru Sambar", a small truck based on the 360. It was also available as a van or as a passenger bus. Like the 360, the Sambar was again a success. And like the 360, it didn't take long after the introduction of the Sambar for the competition to see that it was also interesting to make trucks and vans.

Lastly, something about the kei car class in general. Since the beginning, this class has been a class with restrictions: the government has set the maximum external dimensions, the maximum engine capacity and the maximum engine power. All cars that fall within these restrictions are automatically a kei-car.
The kei-car's success is partly due to the benefits these cars have in Japan. Financial advantages, such as a lower purchase price and lower road tax, as well as functional advantages such as better parking facilities and lower petrol consumption, have ensured that the kei-car has grown in Japan. In addition to the aforementioned advantages, many Japanese back roads are so narrow that you can only go through them with a kei car. Thus, it is not so surprising that there are many kei-cars driving around in Japan.

The Libero (or E-Wagon, Domingo, etc ...)

Okay, we ended with the introducing of the Sambar in 1961. We now take a leap in time and jump to 1982, that year Subaru introduced the 4th generation of the Sambar. This Sambar would become the basis for the first Domingo, which was introduced one year later, in 1983.

The Domingo differs from the Sambar in two ways: the front end was lengthened and the kei-car engine was replaced by the 1.0L three-cylinder from the new Justy. Due to these adjustments, the Domingo no longer complied with the regulations of the kei-car class. A disadvantage for the Japanese domestic market, but an advantage for the export, especially when Subaru started using the 1.2L three-cylinder from the Justy after a technical update. Because of the increased length and the heavier engines, the Domingo was now also suitable for other countries.

In 1990 Subaru introduced a successor to the 4th generation Sambar, so the 5th generation Sambar was a fact. Three years later, in 1993, the now 10-year-old Domingo was also succeeded by a new generation. The concept remained the same: take the Sambar, make it longer and screw in the engine from the Justy.
Subaru did not make the Sambar longer by lengthening the front. They made it easier now and fitted a bigger front and rear bumper. Subsequently, the little 660cc kei-car engine was replaced by the 1.2L three-cylinder from the Justy, which was all it took to create the new generation Domingo.
This second generation was built until 1999. Then the curtain fell for the Domingo. Subaru continued to make the Sambar for the Japanese domestic market, but they no longer wanted a separate version with larger bumpers and a heavier engine for export.

Both generations have their own model code:

  • The KJ is the first generation. It's made from 1983 up to 1993.
  • The FA is the second generation. It's made from 1993 up to and including 1999.

How do you recognize them? The differences between the two generations.

The differences between the KJ and the FA are quite obvious. The KJ is easily recognized by the double rectangular shaped headlights and the greater angle of the windshield. The FA on the other hand has notable bigger bumpers, bigger windows and a dedicated licence plate bar on top of the front bumper where the licence plate is bolted down to.

My Libero

My Libero is from december 1996 and has the model code FA. It's the superdeluxe trim: panoramic roof, 4WD, two tone paint, alloy wheels, swivelable front seats, it really is fully loaded.

Pretty much every single bolt or part has gone through my hands. After the purchase my Libero turned out to be in a way worser state as I initially thought. Luckely, repairing stuff is my hobby.
I'm not a trained mechanic, however I'm quite handy and with the help of the service manual I just started repairing all sorts of things that were broken. By just simply doing it and with a bit of common sense you can really get most things done.