Friday | 05 Nov 2021

Subaru’s makeover from farm mule to WRC winner

Filling his car with petrol, David Richards’ mind was elsewhere. Another customer arrived on the forecourt behind him. He didn’t need to turn around to look. He knew. That noise brought back so many memories.

That noise was the trademark off-beat Subaru boxer burble. If late nineties to early noughties’ World Rally Cars had a soundtrack, it would have to be the classic, hard-edged note made by Richards’ Prodrive team in Banbury.

Subaru’s WRC story was, of course, established in the pre-World Rally Car days of Group A. It was the Legacy which helped pave the way for the legend that was the Impreza. That was the model which delivered global glory and carried Subaru to the forefront of motorsport.

The manufacturer’s backstory is quite different. Rewind to the late seventies and for most, including former USA president Ronald Reagan, the Subaru name meant one thing: farming.

The rather unfortunately named BRAT pick-up-style utility vehicle was the choice of landowners everywhere. Reagan’s worked his Santa Barbara ranch for a decade.

Richard Burns won the 2001 world title on home roads in Britain

There was, however, always ambition in competition.

And that ambition came from right at the very top, with founder of Subaru Tecnica International Noriyuki Koseki developing and then driving a Subaru RX and RX Turbo through the 1980s.

Audi might have been the manufacturer pioneering force in four-wheel drive, but Subaru was in on the action pretty soon after with the Group A RX arriving in the early eighties.

Turbocharging helped deliver more power, but there was no getting around the limited suspension travel and rudimentary transmission. Despite those concerns, the RX did win its class at Kenya’s Safari Rally twice and tempted the likes of Ari Vatanen behind the wheel.

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The 1990 arrival of the Legacy road car started Subaru on the road to success. But it was Prodrive’s arrival as a motorsport partner that really ramped things up.

The Legacy retained the RX’s longitudinal, flat-four engine layout, but twice as many camshafts and a two-litre engine meant a significant hike in power. Add in some MacPherson magic and the underpinnings of a solid Group A challenger were there. Prodrive technical director David Lapworth turned it into a rally winner.

It took a couple of years to climb to the top of the podium, but once Colin McRae scored his and the team’s maiden victory at the 1993 Rally New Zealand, the programme could really go through the gears.

And going through the gears meant the immediate introduction of the Legacy’s successor: the Impreza 555. This car will always be intrinsically linked to McRae.

Colin McRae won eight WRC events in an Impreza World Rally Car

The Lanark driver won his world championship in the famous blue and yellow livery in 1995 and the Subaru-Prodrive alliance went on to bag two more titles with Richards Burns in 2001 and Petter Solberg in 2003 with World Rally Car derivatives.

The evolution of the Impreza 555 into Impreza WRC97 was one of the stories of the World Rally Car era. Piero Liatti gave the WRC97 a debut win on the 1997 Rallye Monte-Carlo, the first rally of the new generation, demonstrating that this drop-dead gorgeous car had the pace to back up stunning looks.

Standing staring at the curvy lines and flared-arches at the car’s launch in 1997, the step from farmer’s field to arguably the WRC’s most stunning and successful creation was quite astonishing.

What a difference a decade can make.

Photographs courtesy of Prodrive

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