A Car Nerd's Guide To JapanAn insider look at car culture in Japan.  

It’s an usually warm spring day in Tokyo. After a few days of winter refusing to relinquish the cold weather, we suddenly experienced temperatures in the high teens, or the mid-60s if Fahrenheit is your jam. Either way, I’m standing at an intersection in the Tsukiji district of Tokyo, famous for having the world’s largest fish market. But I’m not here to bid on tuna—I’m here to meet a man called Junya Matsushita and his Subaru. Not just any Subaru, either.

Don’t mind the ‘No Photos’ sign on the house, I’m here for the Subaru

After a few minutes waiting I hear a rumble, and then spot a bright speck of blue heading my way. It’s Junya and his 1998 Subaru Impreza S5 WRC STI.

Neither of us are familiar with the Tsukiji area, but I’ve seen a nice spot to take photos of his car next to some old houses, so we try our luck. there It doesn’t take long for us to realize it wasn’t the best idea as large trucks were constantly driving by, presumably with some fishy cargo.

We decide to abandon this plan and transfer to another location. This meant having to get in the Subaru. Now, this wouldn’t be an issue if this was a “normal” 22B—the legendary rally car turned road car that tops the list of the rarest and most hardcore Subarus ever made—but this is an ex-racing car. A factory race car from Subaru’s works team, to boot. A WRC, not a WRX.

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This car, Prodrive chassis no. 31, was only entered in one event: the 1998 Rally of New Zealand with Kangas Juha behind the wheel, where it retired. Being from New Zealand myself, I’m already feeling a connection with it.

The body is very much still a World Rally Championship race car. There’s also a roll cage I have to ascend before squeezing myself into the Prodrive Sparco bucket seats. It may have license plates, but at its core it’s still a racing car.

As Top Gear noted in a drive of the same car a while back, after that one less-than-glorious WRC event, Prodrive 31 didn’t become some garage queen. It bounced around the rally circuit in Europe for a while and was used in numerous races under many liveries. The car is a battle-hardened warrior, tested again and again.

Junya previously owned a 22B STI road car but when he saw this car for sale—albeit just the body and some extra parts—on a European website, he just had to have it. He eventually won the bid and imported it to Japan.

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So why buy the body of an ex-works car? Well, he wanted true rally-spec car, not just a homologation version or a marketing exercise. He wanted proper wheel arches and bumpers.

This is a man who doesn’t compromise in the name of stance. I respect that.

But this car was just a shell and some parts. Because it didn’t come with any mechanical bits, rather than build it back up as a racing car, Junya put in an engine and transmission from a road car. Specifically, a Impreza S204.

The 2.0-liter turbocharged flat-four has about 320 horsepower and 319 lb-ft of torque, mated to a six-speed manual. So while it may not be historically original, it’s usable on the road which is what Junya wanted.

Untouched S204, well except for the upgraded air filter

It’s easier to drive and maintain than if he’d restored it to its former glory.

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“I built the car thinking about driving on a daily basis. So, it’s very easy to drive,” says Junya. He drives it regularly as well. It’s usually taken out on most weekends or whenever he’s got free time. Unsurprisingly, he’s not too familiar with the roads in Tokyo as he prefers to drive it out on mountain roads like the ones in Gunma and Saitama.

It’s a good thing he doesn’t drive in Tokyo much. We’re stuck in traffic and while it seems to drive like a normal car, it still feels very raw. There’s no sound deadening or any creature comforts whatsoever. There are no back seats—all you see is a roll cage. You hear every noise the car makes. Instead of a radio, you get to listen to the mechanical noises, the whirring of the turbos, and stones getting flicked into the wheel arches.

Other cars may claim to be road-going racing cars, but this is literally a racing car on the road.

I’m nowhere near flexible enough to be able to daily this

Being in those snug bucket seats and seeing a combination of dry and wet carbon around me with nothing in the center console to distract me from the experience, I quickly fall in love with this car. The wing mirrors are comically small and I’m not sure if Junya can even see anything in them. They do look cool.

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Unfortunately, we weren’t exactly cool ourselves. Remember how I was saying it was an unusually warm day? This car doesn’t have air conditioning. Instead, we have to wind down the windows (literally wind them down, they’re not power windows) and open up the vents for the roof scoop. Junya says driving this car in the summer is “like hell.”

I don’t doubt that for a second. At least he’s installed a heater though, to make it bearable in the winter.

#SaveTheManualWindows
No A/C. No Apple CarPlay. Just focus on driving.

Other than the lack of air conditioning, Junya says he hasn’t had much difficulties or issues with this car. His car uses WRC tarmac-spec brakes and suspension, which are costly to repair and replace. However, because it uses a more modern GDB engine and transmission, Junya says it’s easier to maintain and more reliable than his old 22B was.

We get to Aoyama Route 246 and pull up at the Jingu Gaien Icho Namiki Avenue, a road you’ll be familiar if you’ve seen photos of supercars in Tokyo. We came here because Junya was kind enough to indulge me in my Gran Turismo fantasies because this road is part of the R246 “track” on GT3. It’s the road after the first corner of the track. After a couple of photos here we move towards Akasaka, or the final corner on the R246 track before it goes to the final straight.

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Just look at that camber

Junya says his favorite thing about owning this car is the connection with past drivers like Nicky Grist, sharing the history of this car and the glory of past rallies with fans. His car has seen Instagram fame, with people from all over the internet appreciating Junya’s build. It’s no surprise people from various Subaru owner’s clubs are very interested in his car. Even staff from Subaru are surprised to see it but don’t say much else about it.

If this doesn’t make you want to get a GC8 right now I don’t know what will

Having grown up in New Zealand, it was hard to escape the passion for Subarus there. There was a strong following for WRC, with schoolyard battles being waged over Subaru versus Mitsubishi the way other people argue over football teams.

The WRX STI, and particularly the GC8, has always held a special place in my heart, and getting to experience this one first hand on the real world version of a Gran Turismo track, even if it wasn’t Tsukuba or Fuji, was still something beyond my wildest dreams.

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After the end of the shoot we park up in front a Starbucks and just chat about cars. Junya is a proper gearhead—I mean, of course he would be, to have this as his sole car. He shows me photos and videos of his friend’s 22Bs and WRC cars, including a one of the 10 surviving GC8 S6 cars. We talk about some of his favorite cars, including a Ferrari 355 and the first-generation Maserati Ghibli. Hell, even the Anija Zonda comes up in conversation as well.

Junya says he personally knows of five or six other owners of WRC cars in Japan, two of which are on a similar project as him at the moment. He’s spent about four years working on this car but he’s not done with it yet. He’s got plans of redoing the body paint, moving the fuse box, hub processing, fuel tank processing, and perhaps chaining it to gravel spec.

Watch this space. I know I will. Prodrive 31 has had a very interesting life, and I don’t think that will change anytime soon.

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Gran Turismo players: does this view look familiar?

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Before leaving, Junya pulled over and had to get a combo shot with this Lamborghini Huracan.
Bonus photo: a random Subaru 360 appeared