It is hard to talk about Subaru without mentioning iconic drivers who made the 90s memorable. Subaru has long been associated with brash driving, loud exhausts, and rowdy hooligans. We have developed a stereotype of the Subaru driver as a short wearing, backwards capped douche bag, but ignored everything about the car that attracted thrill-seekers in the first place. The history of the blue Subaru and its relationship with drivers like Colin McRae has been forgotten by most outside of the car community.
McRae came from a family of rally drivers. Jimmy McRae, his father, was a five-time British champion, and his brother Allister is a racer with 78 rallies under his belt. Colin showed promise quite early in his childhood. He was already winning local motocross titles from the age of thirteen though he knew his real passion lay in rallying like his father. At the age of eighteen, McRae entered the Scottish Rally championship driving a Talbot Sunbeam and soon made a name for himself from an aggressive driving style. McRae was not the type of person who won on the first try, and that would register throughout his career. However, once in the groove of things, he was unbeatable. Just two years after entering the Scottish rally, he took the crown from David Gillanders.
McRae joined the big leagues after signing with Subaru in 1991. That would be his debut into the World Rally Championship with the Subaru Legacy RS. It was a crucial point for Subaru as they had just partnered with Prodrive the previous year and were looking for aggressive drivers to take them to the podium. McRae was just what they were looking for and vice versa. However, he did have a penchant for pushing the car too far. His mantra, which has been adopted by car enthusiasts everywhere, WHEN IN DOUBT FLAT OUT, was quite literal. McRae’s driving may have served him and the team well when he won, but he often crashed. Thankfully Subaru had the resources to accommodate such aggression. One might say his antics prompted the racing engineers to modify the WRX transmission, suspension, and engine culminating into the ultimate rally car. A few of these elements of the WRC winning car have trickled into the population of commercially produced compacts, hatches, and wagons.
Subaru was also at a crossroads as subsidiaries like ProDrive and their World Rally Team were calling for advancements in the car to give them a better chance at winning the World Rally Championship. The Legacy RS may have been adequately powered, but it was lengthy, so it was a bad gamble on some of the rally circuits’ winding parts. McRae’s infusion of energy and grit into the team inspired the release of the 555 Impreza. This is the origin of the blue Subaru; this is what is imprinted in 90s babies when someone mentions ‘Safari Rally.’
In typical fashion, it took McRae one year to get some traction, but he was a force of nature in the 1995 WRC. Subaru hedged their bets by bringing in Carlos Sainz, a veteran world champion at the time. Tensions reached a boiling point, but the match served its purpose. The two brought out the competitive edge in each other and were way ahead of the field. Sensing an imminent implosion of what they had set in motion, corporate instructed Colin to let Sainz win to avoid a crash, but he would have none of it. In the penultimate rally, Colin went against team instructions and went for broke. The team tried desperate measures to slow him down, including having their marshals stand in the middle of the road and wave him down, but it was to no avail. It was fitting that he was driving in front of his home crowd when he finished five points ahead of his teammate. It would be the biggest win of his career and one that solidified his status.
In the following years, Colin yielded the title to up and comer Tommi Mäkinen thereby, initiating the eternal feud between STI and Evo, but he would remain the Subaru icon for fans everywhere. The next three years would be frustrating for the team and himself because they did not deal well with failure. Colin was the type to either be in first place or broken down/ crashed on the side of the road. He did part ways with Subaru to join Ford, but it was not the same. In fact, he only finished three out of fourteen rallies in 1999. However, his flat out, unrelenting approach had earned him notoriety with rally fans. McRae shared the same grit and aggression with Subaru cars, hence why they made a great match.
He became the unofficial lifetime representative of an automotive brand known for producing great track and rally cars. Even NAs have some pep in them, probably because they have remnants of the world rally 22B. Up until his untimely death in 2007, McRae was a living legend that contributed to the WRX STI craze, which goes on today.