Banbury-built car named as one that changed Britain

Colin McRae and Derek Ringer celebrate on the podium winning the World Rally Championship for Subaru. Picture by LAT Photographic. NNL-151023-121557001
Colin McRae and Derek Ringer celebrate on the podium winning the World Rally Championship for Subaru. Picture by LAT Photographic. NNL-151023-121557001

When Colin McRae won his first World Rally Championship in 1995 he became the first British driver to do so.

Former BBC Top Gear presenter, James May has named the Prodrive-built Subaru Impreza World Rally Car as one of the ten cars that changed Britain.

Engineers at Prodrive work on the first Subaru Impreza car in August 1993. NNL-151023-121608001

Engineers at Prodrive work on the first Subaru Impreza car in August 1993. NNL-151023-121608001

He listed the Banbury-built car alongside such classics as the E Type Jaguar, the Land Rover, Range Rover and Rolls Royce Phantom as those that have made a difference.

The Subaru Impreza rally car was designed and built by motorsport specialist Prodrive in the early 1990s, at its former headquarters on the Wildmere Industrial Estate, which is now the new Banbury Gateway Retail Park development.

The rally car debuted in the summer of 1993 at the 1000 Lakes Rally in Finland and the blue and yellow car went on to become one of the most iconic rally cars of all time, winning World Rally Championship titles with British drivers Colin McRae and Richard Burns.

However, it was not the success on the rally stages that cemented its importance, according to James May, rather the way it: “Spawned the road going version. The gold-wheeled WRX democratised a new type of fast.

“Top speeds and acceleration played second fiddle to point-to-point capability. The car looked tremendous, made cheeky turbocharger noises and put race-winning technology in the hands of people who couldn’t afford an Audi: more evidence that Britain remains the capital of the motorsport world.”

Prodrive ran the Subaru World Rally Team from 1990 right up to the end of 2008 from its Banbury base. And while it is nearly seven years since the team disbanded, Prodrive still remains synonymous with Subaru Impreza.

David Richards, Prodrive chairman, said: “We still regularly have Subaru Impreza owners’ clubs come to visit us to look around the factory and have their cars lined up under the Prodrive sign for a picture.

“Many of the cars are the special edition Imprezas we made when Colin McRae won the World Rally Championship title 20 years ago, in the same blue colour with the same gold wheels.

“Even today, they still look as if they have just come off the production line. When you see hundreds of these now classic cars gathered together you can understand why James May has put this car on this list.”

While the iconic blue and gold of the Subaru Impreza 555 is widely acknowledged across the world, Prodrive still plays an active role in motorsport with their Aston Martin Racing team. Launched in 2004, the team competes in the FIA World Endurance Championships (WEC).

A look back at McRae’s title campaign

When Colin McRae won his first World Rally Championship in 1995 he became the first British driver to do so.

Born in 1968, McRae began racing in 1985 after taking part in several British Rally Championship (BRC) events. He made the switch to WRC (World Rally Championship) one year later and took part in one-off appearance in Sweden where he finished 36th and third in class.

He first got involved with the Prodrive Subaru squad back in 1991 and joined their assault on the BRC. After winning the BRC in 1991 and 1992,McRae would score his first WRC victory in New Zealand.

Colin’s major breakthrough was eventually facilitated by David Richards, the 1981 World Champion co-driver alongside Ari Vatanen, and the man who brought Subaru to rallying with his company Prodrive .

Richards, having spotted some of the same natural ability and raw talent that had attracted him to Ari Vatanen, took a huge gamble in signing McRae for Subaru, in order to give him the grounding in the British Rally Championship that would prove essential in his ongoing development and ready him for the step up to the WRC

In his title-winning season in 1995, McRae had only won two events but went into the final round five points ahead of closest rival and teammate Carlos Sainz.

McRae won the rally – his home event – and in doing so became the first British driver to win the World Rally Championship and the youngest driver to do so.

After finishing second in the championship for the next two years with Subaru, McRae joined Ford for the 1999 season until 2002 where he became the driver with the most WRC victories with 25.

This amount has since been surpassed by Sainz and Sebastien Loeb.

Prodrive and Subaru’s path to glory

While the Impreza is the car that became the icon, the Subaru programme began its life in 1991 using the Subaru Legacy.

David Lapworth, now R&D director for Prodrive, was then technical director who oversaw the development of both cars.

He said: “You have to remember that back in the early nineties, Subaru was almost unknown in the UK.

“The company was introducing the more compact Impreza to be the car to increase its sales across the world and wanted rallying to demonstrate the performance benefits of its four wheel drive system.

“However, the Subaru Legacy rally car it was replacing had not yet won a World Championship event and for the Japanese this was critically important, as in their eyes, the car would be a failure without a victory.

“Fortunately Colin McRae won the Legacy’s final event in New Zealand and we could introduce the Impreza knowing it would be a more competitive car and so it proved.”

Carlos Sainz would give the Impreza its first win at the Acropolis Rally in Greece in May 1994, but it would be Colin McRae who would become so intrinsically linked with blue and yellow rally cars, and who become Britain’s first World Rally Champion in the car on November 22, 1995.

The Impreza World Rally car continued to evolve over the following decade with numerous facelifts and even changing from a saloon to a hatchback.

It would also bring Subaru and Prodrive further World Rally titles with British driver, Richard Burns, and Norwegian, Petter Solberg.

Despite this continued success, for many it will be the image, from 20 years ago this month, of Colin McRae standing on the bonnet of his Impreza celebrating with his team from Prodrive that will forever represent this iconic car.

The Banbury autosport firm was then left to mourn two World Rally champions, when Burns’ life was cut short at the age of 34 from a brain tumour in 2005 and in 2007, McRae was tragically killed in a helicopter accident.