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  • Peter MacKay

Subaru : From a farmer's workhorse to a rally legend

How a flying Scot and a band of Banbury boffins transformed a brand image overnight

“Win on a Sunday, sell on a Monday”. For years, this was the rationale for automotive manufacturers entering into competitive motorsport. Looking back through rose tinted spectacles, there have been some innovative and cunning examples of filling showrooms with cars emulating their race car twin. Volvo T5 estate cars launching over kerbs in the BTCC, Porsche 911 GT3’s carving the perfect line around Watkins Glen’s fast, sweeping curves, Mini Cooper Countryman buggies devouring the desert in the Dakar Rally or even Jim Clark dancing a Lotus Cortina around Brands Hatch on three wheels. However, The World Rally Championship claims the crown for spawning some of the most desirable road cars ever built and in one particular case, transforming a brand’s image seemingly overnight.

At the beginning of the 90’s, Japanese manufacturer Subaru had cut a tidy niche in the lucrative British car market. Rugged, bulletproof cars which could be thrashed around a farm filled with sheep, muck and old collie dogs until they eventually fell apart generations later, that was Subaru’s forte. 4 wheel drive Subaru Legacies were as loyal and dependable as a black Labrador and as eternal as a Patek Philippe Swiss watch. Unsurprisingly, at the time, Subaru’s never featured on any teenager’s bedroom wall. These were still plastered with white Lamborghinis outside a Miami beach club. An Oxfordshire engineering firm, an explosively talented young Scotsman and a former world champion co-driver turned entrepreneur were about to change all of that. Subaru chose Prodrive to campaign their cars in British rallying with the view to eventually progress to world championship level. David Richards’ Banbury boffins were the ideal partner to transform these agricultural workhorses into fire spitting monsters that burbled like a snoring Sir Tom Jones after a bottle of single malt scotch.

In 1993, Prodrive took delivery of Subaru’s latest model that would replace the outgoing Legacy out on the stages, the Impreza. Scandinavian genius, Ari Vatanen, debuted the radical new group A Impreza at the notorious 1000 lakes rally in Finland, finishing in second place overall. Ari’s extraordinary commitment and finesse over Finland’s infamous, terrifying jumps delivered the dream start for the boys in blue and gold. Spanish ace, Carlos Sainz, would clinch the cars first rally win on the brutal Acropolis rally in 1994. Clearly, the “555” Subaru Impreza had all the DNA of a true thoroughbred world rally car. Scottish rallying hero, Colin McRae, cemented the Impreza’s sporting legacy with 20 rally wins and a world championship triumph in 1995 behind the wheel of various iterations of the boxer engine rally legend.

An explosion in British car culture had been triggered. McRae’s on stage antics plucked the Subaru brand from farmyards and cattle sales, to b roads and boy racer car park meets. Subaru clearly spotted an opportunity and exported high performance “WRX” and “STI” versions of the Impreza to the UK. All of a sudden, a whole new world of affordable performance was unlocked for petrol heads up and down the British Isles. As McRae became a national hero, so did the Impreza. Porsche rivalling speed, 5 seats, a boot and best of all, gold wheels! The Subaru Impreza WRX road car delivered all of the authentic flat 4 burble that propelled McRae to all those wins. So vivid is my memory of lying in bed as a young boy listening out for that instantly recognisable growl of a highly tuner boxer engine, echoing down the glen a few miles from our home. At the turn of the millennium in rural parts of Scotland, the distinctive Subaru growl was never far away. My fondest memory of childhood involved McRae and the Impreza in 1995. My Mother and I gazed at the television with pure elation as Colin mesmerized the capacity crowd at Chester race course while he celebrated his miraculous world championship triumph. Co-driver Derek Ringer grinned from the passenger seat like the famous feline of the English county chosen to conclude the famous RAC rally. McRae vigorously rotated his 555 Impreza over and over again, destroying his knobbly gravel spec Pirellis with the saltire flag proudly extended out the window of the Banbury built bullet. From that day on, at 5 years old, a Subaru Impreza was the car I would always aspire to. On Christmas day a couple of years later, my dream came true. A blue and gold 1997 McRae/Grist Impreza WRC. It may have just been a toy slot car but a season’s worth of trademark spectacular “McCrash” re-enactments had already taken place on my bedroom Scalextric stage before I was eventually dragged to breakfast. I suspect that many others from the “Gran Turismo” or “Colin McRae rally” Playstation generation will also have very fond memories of the Impreza. Current skyrocketing values of the most desirable special edition Imprezas like the Prodrive built P1 or the exotic 22B shout loud and clear just how fondly remembered and revered these rally replicas are in the UK.

In 2000, the Prodrive P1 limited edition run of 1000 Sonic Blue cars were released to the UK market only. Developed by the Oxfordshire firm that had been so instrumental in Subaru’s WRC success and boasting a silhouette and stance so reminiscent of the rally car, desirability levels were off the scale. Lightweight O.Z racing wheels, a comically large rear spoiler, devastating power and most importantly of all that rock star soundtrack, the P1 had it all. Today, nearly 20 years later, a well driven P1 could keep pace with any of the current crop of hot hatchbacks in its favourite country road habitat. A boast even a mid engine Ferrari of the time would struggle to emulate. No wonder then that a low mileage Impreza P1 will now set you back £40,000 at time of writing.

Without McRae’s flat out heroics in the WRC beaming around the UK on BBC Grandstand combined simultaneously with a Subaru road car range that so closely emulated Colin’s WRC steeds, Subaru’s would still be stuck out on the farm, well off the petrol head radar. This brand image transformation will go down in history as one of the finest deployments of marketing dollars in motorsport that we have ever seen.

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