Twenty-five years ago, the motoring world sat at the feet of Subaru. On World Rally Championship special stages, turbocharged Imprezas ruled supreme.
The year before, a plucky Scot named McRae had delivered a first world driver’s title, and alongside teammates Sainz, Liatti and Burns they clinched the constructor’s title for Subaru too. The latter was repeated in 1996; the mid-point of an unprecedented treble of WRC manufacturer championships for a company that, even as late as the start of the ’90s, was seen as no more than a maker of rugged all-wheel drive vehicles.
As stage rally domination continued, the cult following for blue Imprezas with gold wheels grew. On the back of this, Subaru released to the world – or the Japanese domestic market at least – one of the most exciting performance sedans ever seen – the Impreza WRX STI Type RA.
A number of models were released, but the two STI Type RA variants in this feature are arguably the best of that mid-’90s breed.
The white car is one of only 852 Version II STI Type RAs ever created, while the blue car is even rarer – number 083/555 of the Version II STI Type RA V-Limited series, which commemorated the 1995 WRC title for Colin McRae and Derek Ringer.
In getting to this photoshoot location, I’d driven the pair for nearly 20 minutes, savouring their sounds and smells along the way. In the modern world, amongst traffic, these cars look tiny, but on a flowing road, as the revs flare through the incredibly short ratios of the Type RA gearboxes, they’re spot on.
The lineage of rally-bred high performance saloons from Subaru can be traced back a few years to the Legacy, and most famously of all, the Legacy RS-RA. Having incorporated an internal tuning division with the creation of Subaru Tecnica International (STI) in 1988, the initial intention was to create three vehicles to tackle the daunting 100,000km Land Speed Endurance Trial. Such was the form that continued through the following decade, the little-known JDM machines blitzed the record.
Launching the Legacy as a high performance model coincided with the emergence of the Subaru World Rally Team (SWRT) in 1989. While the maiden campaign used the Subaru Leone, it was 1990 when the Legacy RS hit the stages, although it wasn’t an instant hit. Over the next few years, the new team needed a lighter homologation base for the rally car, and thus the stripped-down Legacy RS-RA was conceived. It did the trick, and in August 1993 Colin McRae grabbed victory in New Zealand; a first and only win for the Legacy.
While retiring a car mid-season may seem odd – especially after cracking a three-year curse – what Subaru had up its sleeve was just a bit special. Having seen first-hand the nimble competition, Subaru knew they needed a small homologation special that would take the stages by storm. The Subaru Impreza WRX Type RA was a single-minded base to build a Group A world championship monster, and it worked right off the bat, finishing 2nd on debut at the 1,000 Lakes Rally in Finland.
From 1995 to 1996, Subaru, having seen the success of its previous WRX and STI models, coupled with growing interest flowing from the WRC domination, decided to make high performance Impreza production a piece of their factory range, rather than limited run made-to-order models. The Version II STI Type RA was the first to roll off the Yajima Plant line in October 1995, with the V-Limited following not long after in March 1996.
What makes the Type RA special in its various versions and editions, is the focussed approach Subaru took to improve upon the already quite impressive Impreza WRX STI.
The first task was to reduce weight to 1,200kg, and that was done through the removal of equipment like electric windows, rear wipers and even the radio, which was an optional extra. The intention to make this a strong base for a Group N production-based rally car continued with a roof vent that came standard, a lack of side skirts, and the wiring for a fifth fuel injector, designed to keep fuel supply moving to the closed-deck EJ20 boxer engine during the most punishing rally conditions. Redundant on a road car, this was homologation special stuff at its finest
The V-Limited got all the tech goodies of an STI Type RA, but a few extra styling goodies were thrown in to mark the seminal victory of ’95 for McRae and the Impreza. Each of the 556 cars – numbered as per title sponsor State Express 555 cigarettes, but with the sequence starting at #000 rather than #001 – received stitched autographs of Colin and navigator Derek Ringer on the seats, a boot lid sticker and a unique paint hue supposedly selected by the world champion himself to match the saltire of the Scottish flag.
As we hopped from location to location, I began noticing the varying tweaks that have been made to each car.The Type RA
Looking at the James’ Type RA up close, it’s clear to see how mods have been planned and executed to emulate the stage monsters of the mid-1990s that inspired spectators both locally and internationally.
While the 555 Imprezas dominated the 1995 and 1996 World Rally Championship rounds, the success kept coming at varying grades. Krzysztof Hołowczyc won a European title, and here in Ireland a generation grew up with Bertie Fisher and Andrew Nesbitt flinging 555 Imprezas around narrow lanes
The RA screams competition and performance parts. Gold Speedline 2110 Challenge wheels cover a Prodrive/Alcon brake package up front with 4-pot callipers and 330mm discs, while at the rear 2-pot callipers from a later Impreza WRX grab 290mm discs. The squat and aggressive stance is achieved with KYB struts matched with Eibach Pro springs.
There is likely a string of you shouting that the rear spoiler is not from a Type RA, and you would be correct – it’s from a standard WRX of the time. James has the original wing tucked away, and the pair can be swapped if needed, but he prefers the lower wing. Similarly, the car’s original mirrors – which have been swapped out for carbon teardrop items – are safely stored. Every other mod can be undone too.
While the exterior is subtle, the mechanical side of James’ Impreza has seen quite a lot of work in his ownership. The 2.0-litre EJ20 has had a rebuild with Impreza STI Spec C rods as well as a brand new crank and bearings. A Link G4 ECU gives the firing orders (launch control included) and sends fuel through a Walbro pump to 555cc injectors. All told, 322bhp hits the road via the standard 5-speed DCCD (Driver Controlled Centre Diff) gearbox and rear LSD.
The stainless steel exhaust, which sounds incredible, naturally ends with an original Prodrive Group A back box, but it’s inside the car that the final surprise lies.
Rather than the original Nardi steering wheel, which of course is tucked away in the shed, the interior features a well-used Momo Volanti Monte Carlo item. A cracking addition to any car, this particular steering wheel is special, as it was formally at home in a Subaru Impreza S5 WRC car, and not just any one either. For Irish rally fans (or mainly registration plate nerds), the number plate ‘V10 WRC’ is iconic. Andrew Nesbitt blitzed the championship in 2000, winning every single stage of the three-day Donegal International along the way, behind this very wheel.The V-Limited
While James’ white Version II may be subtly modified, Hughie’s V-Limited has been kept as original as possible.
The iconic colour scheme of a blue Impreza and gold Speedline wheels – in this case a set of ST2s – is a combination that just seems so right and natural. Everywhere I looked, the untouched nature of the car screamed out, from the stock 2-pot callipers and 277mm brakes up front (single pot and 266mm discs out back) to the pink STI-badged grill.
The carbon teardrop mirrors are a subtle addition to a sleek body shape that has aged beautifully, while the purposeful lengths to make the Type RA base more lightweight and focused can be seen with the STI fog light blanks in the front bumper and the non-body-coloured door handles.
Inside, the iconic signature stitching on the seats marks this out as an incredibly rare piece of kit, and the badge on the boot lid confirms its numbering amongst the incredibly limited run of celebration models. The car’s turbocharged boxer four is mated to a very special Hayward & Scott 2.5-inch turbo-back exhaust with a Group A-style back box providing a wondrous soundtrack of that iconic Subaru burble.
By 1996, Subaru had it all: rally success, an iconic look and a model line-up that had excitement throughout. The never-ending quest for perfection resulted in a mind-melting number of various specs and versions, but this duo are – to my mind at least – a true sweet spot. As time went on and the rise of the two-door Impreza and eventually a move away from the GC8 platform, the domination seemed to drain away, but the intense following of this era never waned.
As values of ’90s JDM hero cars continue to soar, the Impreza STI Type RA is rightly held up as one of the market highlights of the era. That’s not to say that these cars aren’t still enjoyed though. As we concluded our shoot, high amongst the trees on a quiet mountainside, the two Imprezas tore off. They were out of sight within seconds, but I stood and just listened. It was utterly magical.
1995 Subaru Impreza WRX STI Type RA Version II (White)
Engine: Subaru 2.0L EJ20, STI Spec C connecting rods, new genuine crankshaft, ACL bearings, 555cc injectors, Walbro 255lph fuel pump, Cosworth air filter, 2.5-inch turbo-back exhaust with de-cat, Prodrive Group A back box, 3-port boost solenoid, Link G4+ ECU c/w ALS, cyclic idle & launch control mapped by AP Performance, STI sump guard
Driveline: 5-speed DCCD gearbox with rear LSD, STI diff guard
Suspension/Brakes: KYB AGX struts with Eibach Pro springs, Prodrive/Alcon 4-pot front callipers with 330mm discs, Newage WRX 2-pot rear callipers with 290mm discs
Wheels: Speedline 2110 Challenge (SL1440) 17×7-inch
Exterior: Factory STI Type RA Version II bodywork, WRX rear spoiler, Scoobyworld rally mud flaps, carbon fibre ‘teardrop’ mirrors
Interior: Momo Volanti Monte Carlo 78, replica Prodrive 6-gear shift knob, optional Lamco gauges, Prodrive boot mat, HKS turbo timer, dealer-fitted electric windows
James Thanks: Sean Conway of SECS for general maintenance, repairs & mods, John Butler of Butler Crash Repairs for the paint work, Aonghus Power of AP Performance for mapping, Dave Byrne of RSR for the engine build
1996 Subaru Impreza WRX STI Type RA Version II V-Limited (Blue)
Engine: Subaru 2.0L EJ20 (original motor), 2.5-inch turbo-back Hayward & Scott exhaust with de-cat ,Hayward & Scott Group A-style back box
Driveline: 5-speed DCCD gearbox with rear LSD
Suspension/Brakes: Original STI ‘Pink’ dampers, original 2-pot front callipers with 277mm discs, original rear callipers with 266mm discs
Wheels: Speedline ST2 (SL1103) 17×7-inch
Exterior: Factory STI Type RA Version II V-Limited bodywork, STI mudflaps, carbon fibre ‘teardrop’ mirrors
Interior: Original Nardi STI red-stitch steering wheel, original STI red-stitch gear knob, original STI McRae & Ringer stitch seats, original manual windowsCutting Room Floor