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Restoring world order - Full story: Prodrive Subaru Impreza

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It was the first of a new breed of rally car...

...the World Championship-winning steed of Colin McRae, but a hard life had left WRC97001 in need of full restoration - by none other than the original Prodrive team.

This is a restoration story. Sure, the subject is only a 1997 model, and no, it wasn’t lost for years, only to be rediscovered in the corner of a dusty barn. But there’s rust, crash damage, rare parts and hard work involved; and, as historic rally cars go, Subaru Impreza WRC97001 is one of the most important ever made.

It’s a car that could so easily have disappeared forever, and yet it’s the first of a breed that defined the best rallying seen since the death of Group B in 1986. That it was campaigned by, among others, the legendary pairing of the late Colin McRae and co-driver Nicky Grist of course adds to its appeal.

Subaru entered international rallying in 1983 in the unlikely four-wheel-drive Leone, with reasonable success in the Group A class, though inevitably overshadowed by the monsters of Group B. The company had dabbled with Formula 1, sponsoring a flat-12 engine, but it was Subaru’s Ryuichiro Kuze who would persuade the company that the future was in the World Rally Championship. This would focus attention on one of the few then-strengths of the company – four-wheel drive – and promote a more performance-orientated image.

Kuze became president of the new Subaru Tecnica International (STi) performance division, and soon realised he needed a European partner to guide the inexperienced Japanese team. He approached Prodrive in 1989, five years after its set-up by former Ari Vatanen co-driver David Richards.

Prodrive had been campaigning Porsche 959s, Metro 6R4s and BMW M3s, hampered by a lack of enthusiasm from the companies involved (and the loss of Group B), so the Subaru deal was a breath of fresh air for the highly professional team. It took on the Subaru Legacy that had been prepared in Japan for the Safari Rally and redesigned the car virtually from scratch within the Group A rules, equipping it with the very best components allowable.

When the smaller Impreza was introduced, Prodrive was able to transfer the best parts to the new model. But this time they were aiming even higher in terms of quality and performance.

‘The Impreza was our first proper go at rounding up all the problems,’ explained Nigel Riddle to author Brian Long for his book The Rallying Imprezas. ‘We’d sticky-taped and gone along with the Legacy and, as successive things broke, we’d fixed it... But the Impreza was the first thing that you thought “This is the right-size car”, and we put to bed a lot of our niggles all at once then.’

Sure enough, the Impreza took up where the Legacy left off, and improved on the results, winning the World Championship in 1995 and ’96. But changes were afoot, and for the 1997 season the FIA produced rule changes that brought back the thrills of Group B to rallying.

And so while Group A remained, for cars based closely on standard production machinery, a new World Rally Car class was introduced, stipulating that cars must be derived from a ‘family’ of road cars made in minimum quantities of at least 25,000 per year. They had to be steel-bodied four-seaters and the basic engine had to be fitted to at least 2500 road cars and remain within 20mm of its original position. But four-wheel drive and turbocharging were permitted regardless of whether they featured on the road cars, and performance was limited by engine capacity, turbocharger restrictor and intercooler size.

The new rules weren’t such a big advantage for Subaru as they were for other manufacturers, given that Impreza road cars already, famously, featured turbos and four-wheel drive, but there were still significant advantages in switching to the new class.

And so, in November 1996, on the eve of the Catalonia Rally, Prodrive unveiled chassis number WRC97001 – the very car you see here. This was the first of the new World Rally Car class Imprezas, completely re-engineered over the previous Group A cars. The engineering team, led by David Lapworth, had spent 1996 developing the new car, with Colin McRae, Piero Liatti and Kenneth Eriksson putting in hours of testing in 001.

The work paid off. The great advantage of the new rules to Prodrive was that the position of the turbo, air intake and intercooler could be changed (unlike in Group A). Prodrive used the right-hand front inner wing to mount a huge airbox, with a massive intercooler stuck up at the front of the car instead of on top of the engine, where it had been prone to heat soak. The intake and exhaust systems were much modified to match.

The result was higher power, without sacrificing reliability. Little else had been changed on the engine – even the turbo itself was the same as the Group A car’s – and the suspension kept the same basic MacPherson strut layout, but took advantage of the longer travel allowed. The biggest change was to the bodyshell itself, which was a handbuilt two-door instead of the Group A four-door.

And so 001 and its sister WRC cars went straight out into success, winning the World Championship by notching up 119 stage wins and eight of the 14 World Rally Championship rounds between them – though, as is often the case in motor sport, pinning down which car won which event isn’t possible. What is known is that as soon as Prodrive had finished with 001 for the ’97 season, it was sold off to ProSport in Italy, where it would compete in the Italian rally championship. From there it would later make its way to Ireland, destined for a hard life of clubman rallying. It was knocked around, put away wet and generally treated like a typical rally car.

But 001 was maybe a little thoroughbred to put up with that, and when Paul Donnelly of Irish Subaru main dealer the Donnelly Group spotted the car for sale, he recognised its provenance and rescued it – just in time, perhaps. Word soon got around that he had the car, and one collector in particular took an interest.

‘I’m of Irish heritage,’ explains this collector, ‘and I know the Donnellys. I heard about the car and because I like to collect “first editions” I went to see it. But before I bought it I had Prodrive validate it, and I asked them if they’d be willing to restore it – it’s not something they’d done before but I couldn’t and wouldn’t have done it without them.’

Many of the existing Prodrive team had worked on 001 back in the ’90s, including Steve Smith, Prodrive sales manager, who looked after the restoration.

‘The guys here [at the Prodrive HQ in Banbury, UK] are used to working on brand-new cars,’ explains Steve, ‘so when 001 came in they looked at it and said, “What the hell are we going to do with this!” We started it up, but as soon as the clutch was pressed the engine stalled, so there were serious problems there.

‘The car looked alright on the outside but when you opened the doors, the trunk, the hood, it was just a state. But even though it was in disarray it was at least complete. I set four or five guys on it and we just pulled it apart, photographing every stage.

‘There was so much filler in it that we had to acid dip the shell. The others said “Don’t do that, there’ll be nothing left!” but there really wasn’t anything else that could be done.’

The acid dip revealed the full extent of the horrors. Not only was the trunk floor and the floor beneath the seats rotted out, but the rear quarters had been so badly battered, and filled so many times, that there was no rescuing them. This was bad news, because the rear quarters had been hand-rolled by Prodrive, and the spares had been sold.

The good news was that the acid dip revealed serial numbers on the panels that proved this was the original bodyshell, which no-one had been sure of until that point. All they’d known was that it was a genuine Prodrive body; but as 001’s owner wryly points out, ‘McRae never had one of his big accidents in this car!’

So how did the shell get in such a state when the road cars are known to be fairly indestructible? Steve Smith explains that competition bodyshells were specially supplied, and aren’t necessarily made in the same gauge of metal as the road cars. They’re certainly not rustproofed, soundproofed or seam-sealed, because that would add weight.

The problem then was how to fix it. The Prodrive guys cut the back end off an old four-door shell that Roger Clark Motorsport had hanging around, and grafted on the rear panels to 001. Two original rear quarter panels were tracked down in nearby Bicester at a company that had bought them from Prodrive years before – but they had to be bribed with a package of parts for a newer Impreza before they’d even think about letting them go. New sills had to be hand-made, and in all the shell spent a full six weeks in the Prodrive bodyshop.

And then the engine. Ouch. These engines were designed to be rebuilt every 1000km with new pistons, rings, bearing shells and more, but this was in a mess, and the bores were so oval that really a new cylinder block was needed. What were the chances of that? Incredibly, an original block was found upstairs at Prodrive, along with a set of exhaust manifolds – the latter was a crucial find, because the WRC car used an all-new system with some of the most intricate pipe-bending you’ve ever seen. The engine was rebuilt by Prodrive’s Kevin Locke, and equipped with a new engine management map that allows it to run on forecourt super unleaded.The gearbox casing had been repaired previously, and the internals were in a mess, but Prodrive transmission man Darren Pentley managed to find parts.

‘We commit to keeping spares for all our cars for as long as possible, but we sold 25 to 30 of these WRC cars, so most of the spares had been used up over the years. We sourced engine and transmission parts, hubs and radiator for this car from all over – from Ireland, France and from WRC Spares in Plymouth, with whom we have a working agreement to look after older Prodrive cars’ spares.

‘It sounds a bit emotional, but this project really brought Prodrive together. We’d just lost the SWRT [Subaru World Rally Team] contract, and morale was a bit low, but this was like a return to the glory days for many of us who’d helped build the car first time round – I was even there in Spain when it was launched! The engine shop, the transmission shop, the body shop, the electrics shop... everyone together again. It was the start of something new for us, a new service that we can offer, and we really did put a lot of love into it.’

Imagine, then, the scenes at Prodrive when David Richards handed over the keys to 001 to its new owner, cracking open the champagne and presenting a book of the restoration. Is 001’s owner happy? You can probably guess the answer...

‘It’s fantastic! It’s built to be used – you just fill it up with 99 octane  and off it goes. It’s wonderful to drive, fantastically easy and useable. I’ve driven plenty of rally cars, and it’s rare to find one this enjoyable.’

A few weeks after the official handover, 001 is back on home ground, Prodrive’s test track, for the Octane photoshoot, slicing through the snow. It sounds phenomenal, very different from a road car or even the earlier rally cars, thanks to that unique-to-WRC exhaust system, and the flat-four engine is truly singing. The Prodrive team are on hand – and are there a few misty eyes among them?     Thanks to all at Prodrive, +44 (0)1295 273355, www.prodrive.com.

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