The second part of this series shows what it’s like to meet your heroes.
Welcome back, dear readers. If you missed or skipped Part 1, allow me to set the scene: A few years back, I decided to take the plunge and import my dream Subaru from Japan. No, not a 22B (automotive journalism doesn’t pay that well), but close: a 1998 Subaru WRX STI Type R Spec V Ver. 4. That’s a long identifier for what was the first STI coupe, a two-door, high-performance Subaru we never got in the US.
My specific Subaru was built in March of ’98, meaning it won’t be legal for import into the U-S-of-A until March of 2023. Being consistently impatient and perpetually in search of any opportunity to visit Japan, I decided I couldn’t wait that long to drive it. So, as soon as COVID restrictions allowed, I headed out in search of some wheel time with my personal piece of forbidden fruit.
As I explained in part 1, I purchased my car through a US importer called The Import Guys. They, in turn, worked with a Nagano-based exporter called RT JDM Performance. It was at their facility where my car was being stored, so after arriving in Tokyo and spending a couple of days getting acclimated – and devouring a fair few bowls of ramen – I headed to find my car.
Nagano is about three hours north of the city by car if you time the traffic right, which ain’t easy. Like damn near everywhere else in Japan, it’s easier to get there by train, but that just felt wrong. I chose to drive. The sight of Mt. Fuji looming off to my left as I wound my way north gave this jaunt a little bit of extra significance, a feeling of adventure.
RT JDM sits atop a two-level garage that’s stocked with other machines just waiting for their time to be exported. There, wedged between an R34 Nissan GT-R and a bonkers yellow Renault Clio V6 Trophy Edition, sat my beautiful blue STI.
After squinting at tiny, low-resolution pictures of this car for years, it was almost a shock to see it in person. I was intimately familiar with every scratch and mark, every bit of faded trim and interior, yet to see it all in the flesh was very different. I wanted to be overwhelmed by the majesty of the thing, bowled over by the blue and gold and the big wing, but that wasn’t where my head was at all. I have to be honest: My initial impression was one of dismay.
I’m such a critical person by nature that I immediately just focused on the flaws: the bits of touch-up paint, the holes in the driver’s seat, the wear on the steering wheel. I have a tendency to suffer from extreme buyer’s remorse immediately after any large purchase. This was certainly a large purchase for me and damn were the misgivings hitting me hard as I stood there beside the car I’d waited so long to see.
It didn’t help that the thing would barely start, its ancient battery doling out just enough electrons to spin up the 2.0-liter boxer engine. Likewise, as I bounced and jostled my way out of the parking lot, it was abundantly clear that the car’s mystery suspension was garbage. (Or, at the very least, had been set up to be insanely stiff.)
As I pulled onto the road and made a few gearshifts my mind started to settle. I was slowly getting my head around things, getting over that initial shock. I started to appreciate what I was driving and where I was driving it. I was finally in Japan. I was finally driving the car of my dreams. I’d made it.
As I opened the car up a little more, so too did I start to smile. Though the suspension was crass, the steering was remarkably sharp. Likewise, the linkage on the five-speed shifter felt tight and even the brake pedal was firm – though the rusty rotors were in dire need of replacement.
Most importantly, the engine felt strong and healthy. As a long-time Subaru owner, I’ve certainly heard what an EJ approaching end-of-life sounds like. I didn’t pick up any of the tell-tale knocks or other complaints. It’s impossible to be sure from a short drive, but a seemingly solid motor was a great relief.
That said, the rear differential was certainly making some unhappy noises, a constant reminder that whatever fluids are in this thing probably date back to the Clinton administration – or the equivalent Japanese prime minister. For that reason I didn’t push the engine hard, but on the very few opportunities I had to open it up it was a delight. That big Greddy turbo gauge took a moment to swing to the right and then, once it got there, the car absolutely surged forward, a wave of lovely boxer harmony dispersed in its wake.
I stopped outside a beautiful temple to take some photos and, as I tried to make the most of some harsh midday lighting, the reality of the situation finally and truly hit me: This two-door, blue-and-gold beauty half a world away was mine. I just couldn’t have it quite yet.
On the short drive back to the storage facility I started working through the practicalities. The outer steering wheel is, I believe, the same as the 2002 WRX in the US, so a replacement should be easy enough. For the damaged seat, one of the RT JDM representatives is looking into options to swap in before it ships over. And the suspension? Well, I may or may not already have a set of Ohlins coilovers laying on my garage floor waiting for install. That really just leaves the vintage battery and those crusty brake rotors to address. Easy.
I’m over my buyers remorse and I’m back to being excited again. All those problems just seem like projects now and I’m very much looking forward to getting to work. Four months and counting…