It all began back on Australia day (late January for our international friends) when an old high school friend phoned and invited me along on a day of kayaking he had planned. I hadn’t taken my kayak out in years and had been meaning to for a while, so I excitedly made my way to the shed and began removing it from the rafters.
Until I finished dusting the forlorn kayak off, it had somehow escaped my consideration that with my Fiat X1/9 still in a state of restoration disassembly and an NA Mazda MX5 as my daily wheels, I didn’t actually have any method of transporting the vessel. I studied my MX5 and its roll bar carefully, it becoming like one of those team-building problems so favored by corporate learning facilitators on office training excursions. With no apparent way of affixing the kayak to the MX5, and no tea break filled with dull coffee and Scotch Fingers to escape to, I was forced to call up and cancel my attendance at the kayaking trip.
In four years of ownership, this was the first time I had ever admitted defeat. That MX5 has carried road bikes, complete sets of wheels, large rolls of plastic sheeting, a Fiat engine block and even a gearbox or two. But the kayak was not to be.
I sat lazily in front of the television that night with my girlfriend Chantelle, and with a bottle of wine cracked we put on a Top Gear special for some mindless entertainment. And it was there, watching Hammond sliding that old world rally blue Bug-Eye WRX hatch through the wilds of Africa, that the mind-cogs began to turn. After Chantelle went to bed I stayed up late that night scouring Carsales in detail. It turned out that old Rexes were actually a lot cheaper than I expected. Uh-oh.
The fascination with Rexes wasn’t completely fresh, mind you, as I was a wide-eyed ten-year-old at the height of WRX madness in the late 90’s. I spent hours watching replays of ARC rounds I’d taped from channel 10’s RPM program, where Cody Crocker would slide his Group N GC8 to endless third-places behind the WRC spec weapons of Possum Bourne and Neal Bates. I cheered them in person with excitement at the local Coopers Pale Ale Rally SA. I made my Dad take me to Eblens Subaru to collect sales brochures, and then tried to convince my elderly grandpa to buy a WRX when he was shopping for a new car. I even read about the modifications the Osman Brothers were pioneering in Hot 4’s magazine. At $40,000 the WRX was the ‘performance bargain of the century’ in 1999, but as a penniless kid still six years away from possessing even a drivers license they might as well have been a million dollars. They were out of reach.
Since that Top Gear revelation I never acted on my renewed desire, other than having my senses permanently piqued to mindless WRX tidbits, attracting them much like a flower does pollen. That was until one night in late March when I somehow ended up wasting an entire evening watching Colin McRae highlight clips from the mid 90’s on YouTube. You know those times when someone sends you a link to a video explaining kinetic energy recovery, and then you keep watching YouTube’s suggested videos until three hours’ later you find yourself viewing an overweight shirtless man eating an entire bowl of gravy, and you wonder what’s become of your life?
That’s kind of how I got to the rally clips. Luckily McRae saved me before I got to the gravy man, and it was while watching the Scot leap and bound his GC8 over the rally stages of the world to the accompaniment of Nicky Grist’s soothing Welsh accented pacenotes that I decided I simply MUST have a WRX, preferably one of the first generation GC8’s. A hatch would allow me to hide the rash decision as a responsible search for practicality too.
Finding a WRX is easy, but finding a good one is hard, so every day I religiously checked Carsales and Gumtree. And then after three weeks I found ‘The One’– a red 1997 build, MY98 GF8 WRX in Melbourne with 147,000km showing. One dentist owner since new, with books and a full service history, new pads and rotors, a fresh set of Bridgestone Potenza’s and a Victorian RWC. It had a life of daily driving so was peppered with small scratches and door dings, but it was otherwise straight and never crashed. And most importantly to me, it was in 100% factory original condition, down to the tape deck, rear muffler and ‘Subaru – 1996 WRC, APRC and ARC rally champions’ sticker on the rear window.
It was due for a cam belt; not a terribly cheap exercise in a WRX, so given this and my willingness to step on a plane the next day to collect it, I negotiated a little off the asking price and a deal was done. Less than 24 hours later David Rudzitis and myself touched down in Melbourne, picked it up from Glen Waverly and drove it straight back 750km overnight to Adelaide.
It took a few weeks to sort out a nagging grinding noise from the front left wheel area, kindly diagnosed when I was at wits end by Sean from S&J Automotive as a severely damaged hub flange, and likely the reason I was able to negotiate such a good price in the first place. With the help of Howie Ryan and my Dad we changed the flange, did the cam belt/water pump job, gave it a full service and filled the gearbox with Redline Lightweight Shockproof oil.
The thing I love most about it is that, despite how common they are, it’s still a proper rally homologation special in the truest sense of the word and I think that’s pretty cool. Every time you drive it you see that distinctive bonnet scoop. It’s there to feed cool air to the intercooler, which is mounted on top of the engine because it’s protected from stones and rocks up there. The Garret TD-04 turbocharger gives noticeable lag under 3000rpm, but such a big turbo was intentionally used in the road cars to enable homologation in the rally cars where aggressive antilag would negate the delay. The name is even related: World Rally eXperimental. It’s a direct descendant from rallying’s heyday; the last time that the fastest special stage weapons in the world were developed directly from showroom models.
Despite all the hype and anticipation I’ve so far found it pretty boring to drive, on tarmac at least. The march of time means an old WRX isn’t truly fast anymore, but it’s still a quick car and it delivers that speed in a rather clinical way. It’s just so damned competent and it masks speed so effectively that you feel no emotion at sane velocities. It has a knack of flattering you as a driver, too. I prefer cars that demand perfection because they improve your skills, and the sense of satisfaction you get when you master a string of corners is ultimately rewarding. The MX5 was like that – miss an apex by even a few metres and the rhythm is ruined, but get it right and you have some merit to feel good about yourself. Conversely, the WRX tolerates fools (up to a point) and allows you to use the power and grip to hide any hamfistedness. It’s like getting a high score playing Hey Joe on Guitar Hero. Instantly gratifying, but it doesn’t make you Hendrix all of a sudden.
Through Any Given Reason I’ve been privileged to drive some pretty quick cars, so I know that it is possible to build a blindingly fast car that is also entertaining at lower limits. The WRX isn’t like that – to have a proper laugh in it you need to be pushing so hard that you’ll either have a monumental accident or receive a monumental speeding fine, neither of which is desirable. This is why I have zero interest in modifying it.
It’s rare to find a stock WRX and I think this is a shame because it’s why I love mine so much. From the factory it is, as I see it, the perfect daily driver. It’s relaxing to drive on the freeway or in the hills because there’s always enough power in reserve when you need it and the Police never give you a second glance. It has a brutally effective heater and icy cold air conditioning. You can put five people and their belongings in it, and it handles so competently that you can still make good pace through the hills without getting frustrated like you do when you try to push a poor-handling car. Modifying it too much would kill its dual natured flexibility, which I think is its biggest ace. Or maybe I’m just finally starting to get old.
The MX5 left the other day, headed to Darwin and an enthusiast owner who has some cool plans for it. I’m sad to see it go as I really love that little car, but I don’t need it anymore. I’ve just got my Fiat back on the road, which with its bumpy suspension and loud Weber carburetor’s will take care of track car/disturbing the hills peace duties. The MX5 delivered a driving experience far more muted than the Fiat does whilst not being as practical as the WRX is. That middle ground is why I bought it, but my needs have changed. An MX5 is the perfect car if you can only own one, but right now I’m lucky to have two.
Outsiders don’t quite understand the joy we find in the constant state of turbulence that is choosing a car, but I love the thrill of the chase and the discovery of new ownership experiences. The WRX isn’t like the Fiat; it’s not a car I’ll keep forever. There are a few others I’d like to try – some kind of manual six-cylinder BMW and a boxy XJ Jeep Cherokee spring to mind. But for the time being, I’m having a blast living out my old WRX dreams every time I get behind the wheel. That ten-year-old in me can’t quite believe his luck.
Words and photos by Andrew Coles