The One That Got Away

The One That Got Away: Paddy Lowe’s Subaru Impreza STI

by Charlotte Vowden
2 July 2024 5 min read
The One That Got Away: Paddy Lowe’s Subaru Impreza STI
Photos courtesy Paddy Lowe

“Famously, the Subaru Impreza was the car favoured by bank robbers in those days [the late ’90s]. I’m not joking! First of all you can get the whole gang in it, it’s got a massive boot for all the loot, and the police will never catch you, because there’s no police car that has the performance to match a Subaru Impreza. Maybe that’s not the best story for Subaru, but it shows the quality of the car. I used mine for commuting and taking the kids to school. They thought it was really cool.

I was a biker in my earliest days of motoring. I rode motorbikes until I was about 25, and then I got into cars because it’s so cold in the winter and I got fed up with it. Compared to bikes, I thought cars were really slow, but when I test drove a Subaru Impreza, I thought my goodness – it wasn’t dull!

How much is your car to insure? Find out in four easy steps.
Get a quote

Rather than buying a UK model, which is fairly detuned compared to the native Japanese market versions, I looked into the grey import sector and landed on a gunmetal grey STI with a turbocharged EJ20 engine. It was straight out of the factory in Japan, and with all the different import procedures I had to go through it cost something like £22,000 or £23,000. This was in 1999. I was 37 and this was the first new car I’d ever bought.

1999 Subaru Impreza STI on train

It was shipped to Rotterdam, so I went over there to pick it up and drive it to Britain. Everything was sort of gleaming. I love a clean engine bay, but I’m not somebody who washes their car every Sunday morning. I’m more interested in the mechanics. I had to change the speedometer to mph, and the only other thing I wanted to change was a big sticker it had on the boot, flames or something like that, which I thought was a little bit over the top, so that was peeled off.

I’m a stickler for running in an engine, so for the first thousand miles I didn’t push it. It was a little bit frustrating, but I’m a patient person and you didn’t have to rev the nuts off the engine to get the performance out of it, so it wasn’t particularly devastating to my enjoyment. I’ve never done my own study, but I think the rate an engine burns oil throughout its life is much improved by a good running-in process, and this car certainly used very little oil during the time I had it. I did 90,000 miles and it never let me down.

1999 Subaru Impreza STI front

I had the Subaru put on a rolling road dynamometer, which was exciting. It delivered exactly what it said on the nameplate, which was 280 horsepower, and although that’s not a massive number in sports car terms, it gave great A-to-B performance. I was working at McLaren at the time, in Formula 1, so I was very busy. When I wasn’t away, I commuted from near Reading to Woking which was about a 50-minute journey. I knew every single divot in every single bit of tarmac en route, which was all on country roads. I’m a safe driver, country roads are not a place to put people at risk, so it was only in the right places that I drove it quickly. 

The Subaru was extremely well balanced and never frightened me, I had full confidence that it would go where I pointed it. The traction was mind-blowing and it was very, very light – 1270 kilos – so it drove like a feather. The engine was incredibly useful; the turbo brought in torque very low down so you’re not fumbling for gears. It was easy to overtake without losing crucial seconds. You can pretty much press the throttle and go for it, and when everyone else was struggling to get to work in the snow, I didn’t have any problems, because the Subaru was four-wheel drive. 

It was also a proper four-door family car. I could get all the kit and the dog in there and not feel overladen or sluggish on the road. We went on holiday to Italy and Cornwall in it with the kids and took it to their school summer fete once or twice – it got cleaned for that. We liked the brand so much, my ex-partner got a Subaru Forester and 23 years later she still has it. That’s another amazing car, not so quick, but super solid, and people stop her because they want to buy it. 

1999 Subaru Impreza STI front end

The Subaru set a benchmark with its reliability. I did 15,000 to 20,000 miles without touching it. Nothing went wrong. When it needed new brake pads and tyres, I got the best I could, because that’s a really important part of the car’s handling. I upgraded the brake pads, I think to Mintex, and remember thinking how awesome they were; I couldn’t believe how quickly they could stop the car.

The Subaru is the most interesting car I’ve ever owned. And it’s the best car I’ve ever owned, but you can’t have everything; comfort was probably the biggest thing that was missing. It was quite noisy and the interior was very basic – apart from a pretend leather gear knob – but I was happy to trade those things because sound-proofing and fancy interiors weigh a car down.

Having understood what a brilliant car it was, I started thinking about power upgrades. I was quite envious of the Prodrive special rally edition – Richard Burns was an amazing driver – but I wasn’t awash with cash at the time. Unfortunately I lost the car driving home from work one evening in 2005; someone drove into the back of it at about 60mph while I was waiting to turn right at a junction. It was quite an impact. Luckily the lady in the car behind had air bags and that saved her from any injury. 

1999 Subaru Impreza STI rear smashed

The Subaru’s boot was half the length it should be, so I knew it was never going to be recoverable. The kids and I had one last walk around it before the truck came and took it away. I should have kept something as a memento, but I didn’t think of it at the time, which is a shame. It was all very sad really.

It was a friend to me, that car, because it was such an incredible all-rounder. From family through to sports car and commuter, it was reliable, usable and had phenomenal performance. I don’t think there are many vehicles that have all that. 

Paddy Lowe Zero Fuels

If I could bring it back from the dead, a fantastic thing to do would be to fill it with our fossil-free Zero fuel [Following his long F1 career, Paddy Lowe is the founder and CEO of the fossil-free synthetic fuel company Zero] and go for an outing with my kids. I hadn’t thought of it until now, but that would be terrific. Where would we go? I don’t know, there wouldn’t be anywhere special in terms of location, but I think a drive would bring back lots of memories.

Daryl Beattie Paddy Lowe Damon Hill Zero Fuels
(L-R) Former motorcycle racer Daryl Beattie, Lowe, and Damon Hill.

In 1979, when I was riding motorbikes at the age of 17, the message in the media was that the world was going to run out of oil. I said nothing was going to stop me, one way or the other I would make my own fuel, but the problem now is getting ourselves off the addiction of using fossil fuels. We’ve been hard-wired to think the only place fuel can come from is underground, but at Zero we’ve developed a fully renewable synthetic fuel that’s fossil-free. We live in a linear world of consumption, not a circular one, and that needs to change. It’s not only about the transition, it’s about permanence. Electric isn’t the only answer. Petrol engine cars are here to stay, and there will be more of a mix of both.

Fire is in our DNA, that’s why human beings love combustion and that’s why an engine, by default, has an emotional attachment. There’s no reason we should be made to feel guilty about it, because there are ways that we can make it guilt free. So bring it on!”

You may also like

Driving the Prodrive P25 brought out my inner car-crazy kid
Driving the Prodrive P25 brought out my inner car-crazy kid
1993 Subaru Impreza
Unexceptional Classifieds: Subaru Impreza
Redline Subaru timing
I need more hands! Setting timing on our Impreza WRX
A story about

Your biweekly dose of car news from Hagerty in your inbox

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

More on this topic
Hagerty Newsletter
Get your weekly dose of car news from Hagerty UK in your inbox

Thanks for signing up!

Your request will be handled as soon as possible