Rally enthusiasts of the eighties and nineties were well accustomed to braving the wilds of Kielder Forest in order to watch,thermos in bag, in the first of those decades, McRae Senior, Jimmy , usually Vauxhall mounted with DTV and in the second,son Colin in the trademark blue Subaru Impreza with memorably vivid ‘555’ sponsorship. Before the sad demise of McRae junior in that tragic helicopter accident which shocked rally anoraks the world over there had been an even sadder event , the death of Richard Burns in 2007 of a malignant tumour of the brain. This was the sadder for not being a death occurring, H. Toivonen- style, in a rally machine driven in anger.
Subaru has for ever been associated with both Burns and McRae but it was Burns who many thought got to grips calmly with the Impreza in 2001,taking the WRC crown for that year and before that with the dogged Legacy. Through this link Subaru and Prodrive prospered. Deservedly, it is not only the memory of the younger McRae which is revered at Banbury but also that of Burns. The latter lingered long enough in the knowledge of his impending death to found a charity in his name – and, as we now see from the model shops – a number of the rally cars he cut his teeth in are now modelled in 1/43rd scale by Corgi. Subaru will be pleased that three of these are models of Subaru cars, first that dogged Legacy which did so much to put the name of Subaru on the rally map , the second the Impreza RB5 of ’99 and the third the Impreza RB 320 of ’06. It was these which rid Subaru in the UK of its previously frumpy image and made enthusiasts forget the off road and rather gaudy estate cars beloved of Berwickshire farmers which had hitherto been the leitmotif of the marque.
Burns was a redoubtable character and enjoyed the considerable loyalty of Subaru. it was slightly distressing for his fans to see the way in which he failed to adapt at Peugeot to their ’06 cars and most thought that his real spiritual rally home was with Subaru. For all these reasons Subaru enjoyed a considerable marque success in UK and the disappearance of the ‘Burns factor’ from the UK rally scene must still rate as a substantial cause of the exodus of that core enthusiast from the marque. With some nostaligia for those days must Subaru now look back when viewing its current range, described recently by Autocar’s Steve Cropley as ‘ a narrow model range incorporating only three engines and one body shape’. The out and out performance factor has long since vanished from the marque’s DNA and it is difficult to imagine a modern day Burns setting any fasted elapsed times in any of the current offerings. The shift from the performance image to the mainstream has sent the company into the area of mid range ‘grey porridge’ which stirs the hearts of the American buyer but fails to excite the red blooded rally enthusiast of today. ‘Race on Sunday and sell on Monday’ now fails to resonate with the marketing managers of modern manufacturers and it may well be they would argue it fails to resonate with a motoring public which now gazes wistfully at the prospect of driverless cars and hybrid plug-ins. All of these latter are meat and drink to the Toyota stakeholders in Subaru but were a notional Burns now to be resurrected it is likely that driver involvement , so dear to the shivering spectator in November Kielder forests in the past, would be placed at the heart of the Subaru marketing strategy. With so many other manufacturers heading firmly in the direction of ‘plug-in’ vehicles and ever more passive participation by the driver in events, the diehards must fervently wish that Subaru’s current say in the testing and development of new models will result in something more than a warmed-over Toyota. Events concerning the BRZ begin to give those enthusiasts a chink of light. Though this car cannot fit as a potential WRC contender the sporting driving experience it provides will lift the image of the company. Now all they have to do is get that 2015 ‘Impreza lookalike’ homologated in ’15/’16 at which point the anoraks of Kielder and devotees of the memory of Burns can breathe again and actually put something in the garage which will bring back those old vibes. Until then, there is always those three Corgi models……with money going to the best of causes : the advancement of brain surgery.