A Subaru Impreza WRX, Mitsubishi Lancer Evo II, And The Lasting Impact Of The JDM Takeover Of The WRC
Photography by Daniel Piker
This story of JDM fandom starts with an Italian manufacturer, Lancia. The 1992 World Rally Championship season was Lancia’s swan song, one of the most bittersweet in not just rallying, but motorsport history. Lancia’s final effort as a factory team was a prime example of how to bow out on a high note, but it was also the end of the most persistently innovative team to ever design and race a rally car. And not only was it the end of a legacy that effortlessly transitioned from Fulvia to Stratos to 037 to Delta S4 to Delta HF (all championship-winning cars, one after another), it was the last showing of any Lancia works racing team in general.
Come the start of the 1992 WRC season, the company had already funneled its motorsport budget wholly into the rallying effort some six years prior, just as the Group A regulations were pushed into the limelight of the sport to fill the gap left by the abrupt and infamous end of the Group B era mid-season in 1986. Lancia sports racing cars in the 1980s had been disappointing, but its rally cars continued to rack up silverware, and re-directed resources could be taken from the weaker programs and funneled into the company’s strongest suit, rallying. It proved to be a smart decision that paid off in the form of yet another display of Lancia’s might in the WRC.
The Delta HF won Lancia the constructors’ title in its inaugural season, and during the next five seasons the regularly updated Delta HF Integrale brought five more titles to the Turinese marque. The final attempt at the constructors’ title in 1992 saw the iconic Martini-striped Delta HF Integrale win eight of the 14 events, only missing the podium twice. It was more than a good run, but it was time for a new breed. The last Lancia to compete in the WRC was a private entry from the Jolly Club in 1993, which coincided with the debut of the next generation.
The first production Mitsubishi Lancer Evolutions went on sale in October 1992, and the first Impreza WRXs followed immediately behind in November 1992, while both manufacturers entered competition with the Lancer and Impreza in the WRC just months later, and for the better part of the rest of the decade the teams nipped at each other’s rear mud flaps as Group A was superseded by the confusing-duplicate-acronym-producing World Rally-specification cars (World Rally cars are usually referred to as “WR cars” to avoid too mixing up WRCs).
The most famous of these WR cars is the wide body two-door Impreza that Subaru enlisted Prodrive to build, but long before Colin McRae and Tommi Mäkinen and the rest of the Subaru and Mitsubishi all-stars inspired the new generation of Playstation fans in the mid and late 1990s, another Japanese manufacturer—Toyota—led the charge for that would become a decade defined by Japanese constructors’ titles.
Toyota had been developing its Celica GT-Four rally cars since the late 1980s, and these all-wheel drive turbocharged fastbacks earned them constructors’ titles in 1993 and 1994, as well as drivers’ titles for Carlos Sainz, Juha Kankkunen, and Didier Auriol in the first half of the decade, but by the 1994 season Subaru had fully replaced its Legacy RS stable with the new Imprezas, with Mitsubishi more or less in in lockstep, having completed their own changeover from Galant VR-4s to Lancers ahead of the season. Subaru narrowly lost to Toyota in the final standings in 1994, but the Impreza led both Subaru and Colin McRae to their respective titles in 1995, and Toyota was caught “bending the rules” with a clever manipulation of their cars’ intake manifold diameters.
From 1995 through 1998, both season drivers’ and constructors’ championship titles were earned on the backs of Imprezas and Lancers, and Subaru and Mitsubishi roundly established themselves as fan favorites and regular title contenders. Although that a five-year title reign is hardly unimaginable between two teams when you have even more impressive streaks by lone manufacturers, it’s also easy to argue that despite not being the most dominant of all time, there still hasn’t been a rally car with the same impact as the Imprezas and Lancers. Peugeot, Ford, VW, and especially Citroën have led WRC winning streaks at least as impressive as Subaru and Mitsubishi’s on their own, but nobody’s yelling out to Citroën Xsara drivers egging them on to do a handbrake turn—for better or worse.
In contrast, the impact of the Imprezas and Lancers in the WRC, coupled with road going versions that echoed their racing relatives, was enough to make the WRX and Evolution models household names in countries where they weren’t even for sale. The owners of the cars pictured here, Brian George and Jerryn Smith, spent a lot of time in those kinds of households in the 1990s.
Brian, the owner of the 1993 Subaru Impreza WRX pictured, has owned Subarus as long as he’s had his driver’s license. He remembers watching Sainz, Burns, and McRae wheeling their Imprezas sideways along the rally stages when TVs still had tubes and the fastest Subaru you could get in the States was the naturally-aspirated 2.5RS. While the first-gen (GC) Imprezas were offered in WRX coupe, sedan, and wagon variants in their domestic market, Brian made do with watching Speedvision’s WRC broadcasts and playing video games that at least gave a simulated version of what it was like to drive the really good road-going stuff socked away in Japan.
When the WRX—the earliest of which were produced in late 1992—turned 25 years old, Brian knew he had to import one. Seeing as he runs a small import operation that plucks rare parts from Japan and brings them to the US for other likeminded JDM enthusiasts, he is pretty tuned in to the process of buying from abroad. When he found the right WRX, he wasted no time buying it—even if it still needed to “marinate” for another six months before its 25th birthday and a boat ticket.
That was a few years ago of course, and in the time since then Brian has carefully selected some period-correct modifications to enhance the experience, while always being mindful to not change the car’s personality. He wanted to make the sound match up a bit more with the memories of watching the Group A versions doing battle in their heyday, so he tracked down an air intake, boost controller, and a blow-off valve made by HKS to the turbocharged 2.0L EJ20 four-cylinder boxer, and he balanced the sound at the rear end with a perfectly period- (and marque-) correct L’aunsport P555 rear muffler. Subaru rally fans will note the reference to the 555-sponsored Subaru rally cars.
Exterior alterations are limited to the very fitting Tecnomagnesio 201B wheels as well as side mirrors that Subaru offered as optional equipment in Japan. Brake and suspension work under Brian’s ownership includes Bilstein adjustable coilovers, Subaru-sourced four-piston calipers, and stainless brake lines. A previous owner had removed the WRX markings, so Brian tracked down the correct style WRX decals and replaced them, but decided to leave the pink grille badge incorrectly installed (upside down) to give him and anyone else who notices a laugh.
The silver 1994 Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution II GSR parked next to Brian’s WRX belongs to Jerryn Smith, another ‘90s rally fan who watched the Group A versions of his car compete in period, if sadly not in person. Growing up, Jerryn would spend time at his aunt’s house during certain holidays or just for a regular old family visit, and without fail his older cousins would plunk him down on the couch and watch the events together during the height of the Toyota-Mitsu-Subie trifecta in the mid 1990s. Rather than picking sides and buying any stickers of Calvin urinating on the Subaru stars or the Mitsubishi diamonds, Jerryn just enjoyed the entertainment value of watching three top factory teams going at it.
Later on he would drift towards Subarus, which he cites as probably a product of his environment—he’s not the only Subaru driver living in the Pacific Northwest, surely. Once Jerryn found out that the early Evos were starting to become available to import however, he started looking for the right example of an Evo II.
It’s one of the more subtle versions to bear the name, but that’s precisely what Jerryn appreciates about the car. It’s a cleaner look than the rest of the family tree from that point forward, but those that know can still recognize what they’re looking at even if it’s passing by in the opposite direction. The intercooler is fed by a maw of a front grille for one, while the hood is more vented than an anger management seminar.
Underneath lies the 2.0L 4G63 inline-four, which is stock but exhales through a cat-less exhaust system, and it thus sure to draw the attention of those who might not be paying any to the humble appearance of the Evo. The three-post rear wing is anything but subtle when considered on its own, but it doesn’t look out of place with the rest of the car, and it provides a nice aesthetic counterweight to the aggressive front fascia. Future plans include swapping the 15” Advan RCs out for a custom set of 16” wheels made to order, as well as a front and rear brake caliper and rotor upgrade, and most importantly, getting rid of the horribly dated CD player/tape deck combo—not every period-correct piece is worth hunting down after all.
But as far as period pieces go, this pair of Group A all-stars are well-preserved window into a world when the connotations of WRX and Evolution conjured clouds of dust in San Remo in your mind rather than clouds of vape smoke in your face at the local car hangout. These early examples of the breed significantly influenced the automotive pop culture’s view on turbocharged four-door four-bangers with four drive wheels. Here’s to hoping they still have some influence to give.