Thirty years ago, today was a Friday and today was the start of a whole new world for Subaru.
Down the last three decades, the Impreza has become a modern-day Mk2 Escort, garnering the sort of cult following nobody could have predicted. When Hideshige Gomi emerged from his office in Shibuya City, not even the man himself would have dreamed he’d designed a car that would become quite so popular.
Did it change the face of rallying? In many ways, yes. As the Impreza evolved it ushered in all manner of new technology, including fully active transmission and active, self-levelling suspension. But on this day back in 1993, one man still wasn’t convinced the new car was an upgrade over the old one.
That man? Colin McRae. The Scot was a big fan of the Legacy RS and maintained long into the Impreza’s life that a Legacy with the Impreza’s engine would have offered just as much potential.
It was, of course, thanks to McRae’s 1993 Rally New Zealand win that Prodrive could push the button and deploy the Impreza in Finland. Subaru had been clear: the old car has to win before the new one can compete.
And the new car was shorter (170mm), narrower (15mm) and came with a 60mm shorter wheelbase. For McRae, this made the car nervous. The wider, longer Legacy gave more stability, especially in the high-speed and across the jumps.
Prodrive’s technical director David Lapworth was the man who took Gomi’s road car design and turned it into a world-beating rally car. Schooled in Des O’Dell’s Peugeot-Talbot competitions department, Lapworth remains one of rallying’s most innovative and brilliant design brains ever.
The Impreza 555 was very much his creation.
Putting McRae’s point to him brought a wry smile.
“One person’s nervousness,” he says, “is another person’s response.”
Predictably, Richard Burns had an eminently sensible take on the situation and pointed out that the Impreza’s predecessor had become so competent, it was almost difficult for the next generation to outshine.
“The Legacys Alister [McRae] and I used on the 1993 RAC Rally were so good,” said the Englishman. “They were probably the nicest and quickest ones ever.”
It’s why K44 LNX made its way into Burns’ private collection – it was always a favorite. But back in the day, he could see the future.
“The Impreza was quicker, sharper and more precise,” said Burns. “It was a chopped off Legacy – a car you were less likely to swipe the boot off.”
Lapworth’s reasoning was straightforward: Group A was going through the gears, Toyota had truly weaponized the Celica and Mitsubishi’s Lancer had evolved into an all-round title challenger. Group A had got properly racey.
“We had the best six drivers in the world giving it everything they’d got,” Lapworth reasoned.
Knives needed to be sharpened.
“The cars were getting racier and the question was focusing more on finding a way to make the driver comfortable with a car more… edgy in nature. The extra 20bhp didn’t do any harm either!”
And that power hike came from a significant overhaul of the flat-four beneath the hood. A significantly bigger IHI turbo was route one for more grunt, especially when it was combined with a total re-work of the car’s cooling package. The cylinder head was also worked on along with new data logging and a semi-automatic gearbox.
The hydraulically shifted gearbox had been trialed on the Legacy, but it was in position from August 27, 1993 on the two 555s that made the start of the 1000 Lakes.
Neither McRae nor Burns made one of those cars. Colin’s panel-rippling run through Finland from 12 months earlier doubtless remained fresh in David Richards’ mind and RB was still in the process of winning a maiden British title with Prodrive’s junior team.
Ari Vatanen and Markku Alén had won their home round of the championship nine times between them. Subaru’s new toy was put in the hands of the locals – and with both drivers nearer the end of their careers than the beginning, the thinking was that those hands would be safe.
For Alén, this day 30 years ago was famously over almost before it had begun. On the Valkola stage just north of Tikkakoski, his brand-new Subaru Impreza 555 was in the trees and out of the rally before eight in the morning.
Famous for fast starts, the desire to lay a marker down and dig foundations for a rally win from corner one, Alén went at it hard on SS1.
Alén would probably be best leaving the overalls in the car. He wouldn’t be needing them again
“I don’t know what happened,” said Alén. “I started like normal, 110%, and it started [as a] small accident then became big accident.”
Prodrive’s John Spiller – not a man to mince his words – wasted no time in reaching for the mic with the message that Alén would probably be best leaving the overalls in the car. He wouldn’t be needing them again.
Vatanen dealt brilliantly with the added pressure of being the sole new Subaru and carried the fight to Juha Kankkunen’s Toyota. He led briefly, but was foiled in a night stage when the intercooler spray hit the windshield and he couldn’t find the demister button in the new car.
Ari’s second place was a fine start to a story that started 30 years ago today.
And how that story progressed, with six world championships in eight years and a car that helped crown the careers of McRae, Burns and Petter Solberg.
The sight and sound of the Impreza transcends Group A. David Richards recently talked of being at a petrol station filling his car when an Impreza arrived at an adjacent pump. The noise took him straight back to a time when he, Lapworth and his team ruled the world.
For further detail on the subject of Subaru’s most successful rally car, dive into David Williams’ The Rallying Imprezas.