I wish I’d kept my… Subaru Impreza 22B

An involving drive, homologation styling and Bitcoin-beating investment; the rarest Impreza is much missed by Paul Cowland of TV’s Salvage Hunters: Classic Cars

While many petrolheads will rightly go misty eyed and meerkat alert at the distant rumble of a Subaru EJ-series flat-four, for those of us who admire the marque to an almost devotional state, there can only ever be one true poster child: the Impreza 22B.

For those of you already on the same page, feel free to skip the next two paragraphs. However, if the back-story of this taut two-door is news to you, it’s one well worth checking out.

At the very zenith of its WRC powers, Subaru decided to homologate the rather fetching Peter Stevens-designed stage monster into something that mere mortals could aspire to own. Upon release, all 400 Japanese domestic market units were sold out within a mere two days, with a handful of other countries getting literally a few each. Here in the UK we received just 16, which incorporated several minor cosmetic tweaks and a much longer final drive in fifth to make motorway life more pleasant.

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Although based on the Type R two-door saloon, the Impreza 22B had that X- factor that makes wallets twitch – and the kind of direct handling that could easily make nether regions follow suit. This was a very sophisticated road car, in truth, but the veneer covering the abilities beneath was paper thin. In other words, with 2.2 litres of power, a super-quick rack and gear ratios that sat in sardine proximity, it was perfect.

As did every other right-minded 25-year-old, I had salivated over the launch of this incredible car – but I never felt I would be lucky enough to find a UK example. I was right, of course. However, just four or so years later, working at our family Subaru specialist, TSL Motorsport, I got the next best thing: the Japanese version.

Having had his fun, one lovely customer was ready to move on to the next toy. ‘Perhaps you’d like to buy it?’ he queried. Before his coffee had even cooled, I’d called the bank, sorted the loan and was holding out a grateful hand to seal the deal. It cost not much more than the sticker on a showroom-fresh WRX Turbo, all told.

That first test drive was electric. Having worked on the car before, I already knew it was a superb example with an exceptional history and wanting for nothing. Compared with my other ‘classic’ Imprezas, the 22B was so much more visceral, with a low-down grunt that gave it fabulous cross-country ability.

As for that driver-controlled centre diff, it’s fair to say that it probably got me into as much trouble as it got me out of. I was utterly in love, having met – and bought – one of my true automotive heroes, yet delightedly finding out that reality eclipsed the hype.

The car was perfect in every way. How could you improve on that? And that’s when it hit me; certain icons shouldn’t be tuned or modified. Certain legends should be left well alone.

Conversely, any tuning house that dared to effectively draw a moustache on the Mona Lisa, as it were, would be worthy of a few column inches, right? And so it began. I decided to take the car that shouldn’t ever be modified – and modify it.

My plan was simple. Carefully remove the standard bumpers, bonnet and boot – and have them recreated in carbon fibre. This was peak Fast and Furious era, don’t forget. Just a mere glimpse of weave brought instant scene kudos.

Again, the OEM exhaust, brakes, wheels, seats – you name it – were lovingly removed, cleaned, bubble wrapped and placed into storage. Although no one knew it yet, they’d all be coming back in good time. We then proceeded to add to the car virtually our entire TSL parts catalogue on our shelves, including lights, pipes, massive anchors, remaps... the lot.

The forums lit up in a mixture of shock and awe, closely followed by our phones and inboxes. Every magazine wanted to feature the Subaru, and every product supplier and sponsor from Toyo to Speedline wanted to borrow it as a show car. For around 18 months, this was the hardest-working GC8 outside of Banbury.

After the initial incarnation had offended almost as many people as it had pleased – and our parts-room shelves were stripped bare for the umpteenth time – a second, more tasteful rendition was created, sans graphics and looking much more my personal cup of tea. In all cases, the car was regarded as either a masterpiece or a travesty, just as all good show machines should be. If you’ve built something that doesn’t offend, it’s unlikely that it will truly inspire, either.

Controversy was my calling card, but it was working. The 22B appeared in no fewer than 11 global magazine shoots, sparked a 13-page rant on the American NASIOC forum – and sold more lights, dump valves and wheels than you could have possibly imagined.

It also allowed me to forge many professional relationships with leading automotive brands, which are still flourishing today. And, of course, once the furore had died down, the TSL goods-out dispatch department given a welcome holiday and mag features completed, we carefully unpacked all those pristine OEM parts and put it all back to standard. It was the work of just a few hours to make it showroom fresh once again, and it looked so much better for it.

I finally had ‘my’ car back after it had justified its professional existence several thousand times over. I always thought it should have been a keeper, and you don’t need to look at too many other true homologation cars to know where the prices go. Sadly for me, the financial reality of needing to fund the next project meant it had to leave. If the figures had fitted, it would still be at home, believe me.

I owe that Subaru a lot. It taught me that some cars really are worth stretching for. It showed me how to work a press angle and how to make a build into an interesting story – a skill that still pays the mortgage today.

But most of all, it taught me to trust my gut. If you know a motor is going to be an investment, and you truly love it, find a way to keep it – however you can. Yep, this 22B was the model that made me into an avid – and prolific – car collector.

Right, does anyone know where it is now? I’ve got NatWest on line two again…

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