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I dare you to: 1997 Subaru WRX STI Type R Coupe (GC8D)

27 February 2014

Christchurch boat mechanic Charles O’Malley has always had a thing for Subaru WRXs — he’s owned seven of them in the past, and although he’s owned some very nice rare examples, it was the GC8 STI Type R two-door coupé that held his attention, and he eventually picked one up. “I’ve always loved the shape of the coupé and how it drives,” Charles says. “After heaps of other Rexes I ended up getting this 1997 Type R coupé about six years ago.”

The completely stock-standard jet-black GC8D lived happily in Charles’ garage for the next year, only receiving very basic modifications — a new set of wheels and other bits and pieces — before disaster struck when the factory-fitted Subaru EJ20T ran a big-end bearing during a spot of aggressive driving. Charles admits: “It wasn’t my best moment, but I really liked the car so I didn’t want to give up on it.” However, he didn’t just want to rebuild the motor to stock specifications; Charles was after more power, and had been considering a change from Subaru’s famous all-wheel-drive configuration to something a little more tail-happy. “I always liked the idea of a rear-wheel-drive WRX coupé, so I thought I might as well look into it, since the car was in pieces. I was talking to a mate, and I joked it would just be easier to replace the EJ with a Nissan R20DET and gearbox. He basically dared me to do it, then it wasn’t a joke any more, and I just decided, why not?”

The conversion, as it turns out, was surprisingly easy. There was plenty of room in the engine bay, and the mounts were essentially in exactly the right places for the new motor. In fact, had they been on a 45-degree angle instead of flat, the S14 Silvia–sourced motor and gearbox that Charles got his hands on could have bolted straight in! “I got the boys at Spec Performance to make me up a new set of mounts and just bolted the motor in — the gearbox was spot on too, I didn’t even have to modify the tunnel, and the shifter position was exactly the same.” Of course, the gearbox mounts did require a little tickling, and a custom driveshaft was fabricated to match the Nissan box to the Subaru rear diff, something Charles now regrets. “I wish I’d gone and swapped the rear end for a Silvia one,” he admits. “The WRX axles and CVs just aren’t built tough enough for the job.” Judging by the pile of old axles sitting in Charles’ garage, we’d be inclined to agree. The CV-smashing power is achieved by a nice, well-thought-out selection of bolt-on modifications that are currently helping the internally stock SR20 make 265kW at the wheels on Spec Performance’s dyno, as tuned a few days before the V 4&Rotary South Island Champs last month. Though this is a great power figure, Charles was actually hoping to get closer to 300kW, especially considering the recent swap to a BorgWarner S256 turbo, but unfortunately the car was too low for the dyno, causing the rear to belly-out under power, which in turn resulted in lack of traction higher up the power range. “I’m pretty confident the car will spin up near 300kW, but it will do for now, especially since I’m still running the Subaru rear end.”

So how did he get there? Rewind to 2011, and Charles had just finished the car in its first form — stock-looking from the outside, but pop the bonnet and you’d be in for a real surprise, perfectly illustrated by the bright green engine-bay respray which Charles carried out to further make the swap to Nissan power even more obvious. It was a week before the 2011 4&Rotary South Island Champs in Christchurch, and he decided to take the car to his friend Luke Fowler at Sillway Panel and Paint in Ashburton for a quick cut and polish to get it looking perfect for the show, which was when everything changed. Charles explains, “When I walked into [Luke’s] shop, I saw his custom widebody S14 Silvia and said I wanted my car to be as wide as that, so with my best friend, Nick, and girlfriend, Amy, we went home and cut up my other deregistered Subaru coupé shell I had sitting around. “We went back to Ashburton every night after work until odd hours of the morning, and she was ready to bring home on that Thursday night before the show, looking how she does now …” That wasn’t quite the end of it, however, and things hit crisis point on the way to the show on Friday night. “The front passenger’s wheel fell off, leaving the car on its front in the middle of the road, destroying the custom front guard and scratching the rim.” Undeterred, Charles got the car to the show without a guard and spent the night customizing another guard.

“To be sure we got the paint on before the show, we woke up at 5.30 and put the final coat of paint on, and at 7am got it to the show before it started … That was definitely a big week.” Now sitting super-low on a unique set of 0-offset 18×9.5-inch Diezel Mesh rims, the extremely wide guards and perfect fitment make this one of the staunchest street Rexes we’ve ever seen. It’s angry, low, and squat, without being over the top. Of course, seeing the 100-per-cent street-legal machine driving down the road is an experience too, and it definitely takes some getting used to as your mind wraps itself around the very SR20DET bark that has replaced the Subaru boxer rumble we’ve always associated with these cars. Just like the Nissan-powered Mazda RX-7 this WRX shares the cover with in issue 206, you’ve got to ask, how has swapping between two vastly different-shaped motors — from a short and low flat-four to a tall and long in-line four — affected the way the car behaves? “In all honesty, it hasn’t changed anything from what I can tell,” Charles says. “The car still handles beautifully, and when the back hangs out, it stays out, it’s easy to control and not twitchy at all. Full boost comes on by 3500rpm, and it’s just a lot of fun to drive.”

Though Charles plans to hit the circuit this coming summer, his car will always remain a total streeter, and the complete stock interior has been left in place for that reason — it’s built to be driven as much as possible, something Charles admits he hasn’t done enough. “I’ve been building this car for years now,” he says, “and in that time I’d say I’ve only driven it a dozen times, so for now, getting behind the wheel is my number-one priority.” If you had the keys to a car as fun as this Subaru-Nissan mash-up, wouldn’t you be thinking exactly the same thing?