The One That Got Away

The One That Got Away: Paul Cowland and the Subaru Impreza 22B he should never have let go

by Charlotte Vowden
22 September 2021 7 min read
The One That Got Away: Paul Cowland and the Subaru Impreza 22B he should never have let go

“There are so many cars that got away, but we’ll start with the one that I’m still upset about every single day.

Imagine it’s the noughties. I’ve got a real thing for Subaru and managed to get hold of one of their homologation cars designed by Peter Stevens called the Impreza 22B STi. They only built 424, so they were a unicorn even then.

As a sacred car, the one thing you should never do is modify them, but I did all sorts of amazing and ridiculous things. I fitted a carbon fibre bonnet and bumpers, big brakes and big rear wing, covered it in graphics and changed the seats. Everything was carefully chosen to be reversible. 

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It was in magazines all over the world and for the year and a half that I owned it, it was probably the most famous 22B. Everybody spoke about “this crazy guy in England that modified this 22B.” It did so much PR for my Subaru tuning business, TSL Motorsport – and offended lots of people too. Posts in forums said things like ‘This is the worst thing I’ve ever seen; this guy is outrageous; he shouldn’t be allowed to have a Subaru.’

It was a very together homologation car and drove unlike any other Impreza because of its 2.2-litre engine and short-ratio gearbox. It had the most beautiful wide wings and no rear doors so had a much sexier rear haunch compared to the GC8 Impreza. Every time I drove it I felt very special.

A customer that used to bring it to us for a service sold it to me. I then, rather stupidly, sold it to a kid who blew the engine up soon after by driving it like an absolute twonk, apparently. I had put it back to standard and sold the modification parts separately – with the exception of the rear bumper which someone had driven into at Santa Pod. 

I think I paid £21,000 and sold it for £26,000. I thought I was an absolute dealer, and of course, those cars are now worth hundreds of thousands. The crazy thing is, because they’re so expensive and the bits for them are so hard to get, you’d almost feel a bit scared to drive it. If you curb a wheel or crack a bumper, that’s almost a write off – it’s alarming how expensive they are to repair.

I’ve lost track of it because it’s had so many number plates, but each vehicle has an issue number so that’s how I’d find out which one it is. If I had a hundred grand would I buy the 22B? The genuine answer is probably not. There are so many other cars out there for that amount of money that I’d like to own a little bit more. Or, I could buy a couple of cars. I also think it would be bad to own it again for four times what I paid for it the first time. 

The 22B had a profound effect on me – it’s the reason why I’m a car hoarder. At the moment I own 54 cars and I won’t sell any of them. I don’t ever want to sell something that I think might go up in value and then watch somebody else enjoy that return so I’ll keep adding to the collection until I run out of space.

Paul Cowland's old Subaru Impreza 22B STi
…and after. Regrets? Cowland’s had a few.

The next car that got away is a 1971 Volkswagen Squareback [also known as the Variant or Type 3] which I bought when I was 17-years-old. It was my second car, and my second VW. I had a really cool Beetle (which I’d also like to get back) and I swapped it for the Squareback. It does it exist, it is on the road and I’ve met the person that’s got it. I constantly try to get her to sell it to me but she won’t be parted from it.

Cars are special at any age, but when you’re really young, they represent adventure and the spirit of exploration. I put my drums in the Squareback and took it to band practice and gigs, I went away in it, I went to job interviews in it, I went camping in it, I drove it all over the place – with various degrees of reliability. Back then, drive-thru McDonald’s were a fairly new thing so I took it to a drive-thru and stuck Ghost Busters symbols on the side for a joke.

It wasn’t a dynamically brilliant car and it was agriculturally slow. It had a little air-cooled engine, and it wasn’t that practical because I’d lowered it. The ride was bumpy and not that enjoyable, but it was mine, and I loved it. It was called Heidi and is the only car I’ve ever named – maybe that tells you something.

I had it for about a year and sold it on through a mate thinking I’d never see it again. Fast forward to about 14 years ago when I was doing a TV show at Santa Pod raceway on the Bug Jam VW Festival and I was walking down the fire-up pit lane doing a piece to camera talking about Run What Ya Brung [a drag race where you’re allowed to take any car up the drag strip for a bit of fun and silliness] and I was saying how amazing it is because it’s open to all. You can bring your daily driver, you find all sorts of things like VW campers, crazy old beetles or even a Squareback 1971. That’s when I saw my car. 

Paul Cowland with his old Volkswagen Squareback
Cowland’s Volkswagen Squareback is still on the road

This is on film somewhere. I was like ‘This is my car, this is actually my car.’ I interviewed the lady that owned it and said ‘Do you realise you are driving my old Volkswagen Squareback?’ I don’t think she believed me.

The Squareback is the one I’d really really like to get back because it has so many special memories but she doesn’t want to sell it. When somebody loves a car, if you hassle them and put too much pressure on you’ll end up alienating them. I just give a very gentle reminder every now and then that I’m interested. More often than not, when they’re ready, and that’s the most important thing, when they’re ready to let the car go, they will call. 

There’s one car that I really wish I’d bought. It’s the replica 1961 Ferrari 250 GT that they used for all the stunt driving in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. It’s a really iconic film if you’re my age, and a truly iconic film car. It was such a huge part of the storyline and a classic car with a history like that is such a cool pop culture artefact.

It was about ten years ago, it was £25,000 and I just couldn’t afford it. Every day of my life I will regret not buying that car, I bet it’s easily worth £150,000 now. My advice to anybody is if you can afford the finance payments on the car of your dreams, just do it. You never get the chance to buy them again.

That said, there are a hundred great reasons to buy a classic car but never buy it because you think you’re going to make money on it. If that’s a happy bi-product that’s wonderful. That’s what I tell everybody, but because of my background dealing in car sales I always make a little calculation just to see if it makes financial sense and how much money it might eventually make. I wish I could switch that part of my brain off but my cars are my pension.

As a dad in the motor trade I’ll always try and steer my kids down the right path when they buy their cars but it’s important to let them do their own thing. They need to find out through their own experiences with a bit of light-touch parenting to help them out. 

I want them to find their own passion for it. What’s cool is that I see little glimmers every now and then. They’ll see a car in the street, and be like ‘Oh, I’d like one of those as my first car’, and they know what they don’t like which is even more brilliant.

For me, as a collector, there’s a real pleasure in just looking at the cars that I own. Of course, driving them is the most fun, but our office is above the garage and it’s just nice to go and make a cup of tea and have a look. If I got these cars back I’d have a special little area for them.

To the person that owns the 22B; I really hope you’re enjoying it and looking after it because it’s an absolute treasure. To the individual with the Volkswagen Squareback; please sell it to me. To the person with the car from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off; you lucky devil!”

Read more

Cowland on Cars: Average is the new epic. Treat yourself to something utterly unexceptional
The One That Got Away: Mike Brewer’s once-in-a-lifetime Lamborghini Urraco barn find
The One That Got Away: Steve Parrish and the Yamaha TD2B that made him partially deaf

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  • steven broadbent says:

    I bought a 1960.s frog eyed sprite ,Cant remember what i paid for it but i swapped it for a suit ,

  • DAVID FINLAY says:

    I regret selling my first five cars as follows,
    MK1 Escort 1.3 2 door
    MK2 Escort 1.3 Sport
    MK2 Escort 1.6 Sport (bought this car new in 1980, one of the last MK2’s)
    Sunbeam 1.6 Ti
    MK2 RS2000
    And for those who know about these things, none of them had a sunroof.

  • Giles says:

    1974 BMW 2002 Cabrio – bought high for R6500 in 1990, sold low for R5000 in 1999. Today like hen’s teeth and about R20 000. About to the same thing with a low mileage Z3 2.8 if I’m not careful…

  • Scozzese says:

    1995 Porsche 993 Turbo, tuned to 520 BHP : quite simply, the best car I ever owned. On dull days, I used to commute from my hometown in Northern Italy to the nearest german Autobahn with no speed limit for a good blast at lunchtime. Sold for 25% of what it is worth now : stupidly, I felt it was time for moving on. Equal first on my regret list, an early AC-engined AC Ace: an older restoration with lots of patina, it was a good Labrador of a car. Again, it was sold for 25% of its value today: the silver lining is that I used the money for buying a chain-gang Frazer Nash, later to become a much loved and much raced and rallied car. Sometimes, I try to picture myself in a garage with the three cars: what a wonderful world, Louis Armstrong used to sing……

  • Laurence Jacoby says:

    In 1973 I bought a ‘66 Mustang 289 convertible for £375 with a new coat of paint in electric blue with orange side stripes, had it a year and sold it for £750!, I then bought a ‘67 series 1 E Type FHC for £800, worst car I ever had, sold that for £875, then bought a V8 Valiant saloon for £400, sold it for £750, rare car today, then a 1972 Hunter GLS, which had the Holbay engine and was faster than a 3litre Capri!, again a rare car today, then a 1974 TR6, Then a series of saloons as kids came along, then an XJS Cabriolet with a manual 3.5 engine, followed by a TWR V12 XJS convertible, a 911 Carrera 2 convertible, at the same time I had a Buick Centurion convertible with the big block 455V8, extremely rare, you never see them advertised here or in the States,followed by a 1996 Merc SL, followed by a C5 Corvette, followed by a DB9 Volante, followed by a Bentley V8S convertible, a few other cars in between those that slip my memory, I also had a ‘66 Mustang fastback 350H recreation not long ago fitted with the 289V8. So many great cars, if I’d had a barn and lots of money I’d have kept them all, but the one that stands out to me was that original ‘66 electric blue with the orange side stripes, fake bonnet scoops, to my just 20 years old self, that was the greatest car I ever had!

  • Roness says:

    I built an OHC Velo 350cc special in an RS spring frame many years ago, should never have sold it but someone made me an offer I could not refuse. Being a mere 350 & going every where ‘two up’ it made sense at the time. Trouble is, the guy who now owns it keeps turning up at the same meetings as I go to on it! So having had a little windfall, money wise, I’m building another which of course is costing far more than I sold the old one for. Will it be worth it, the same or am I loosing the plot in my advancing years? Time will tell!

  • John Harris says:

    In 1963 I bought a 1953 Riley RMF 2 1/2 ltr Sport Saloon. My first car! I had cut my teeth on a succesion of provisional licences and friends ’20s Austin 7s, Ford Pops, A30 & A35. As a freshly qualified design engineer I visited various customers across the country and a proper licence and a decent car of my own were now important for my future advancement in business and the search for the future Mrs. H. I acquired the Riley from a schoolfriend in the RAF who was being posted out to Indonesia. He bought the car from his CO and it had been maintained from new by RAF personnel, before he got his hands on it only to have it snatched away by circumstances. I paid him £130 for the car which was every bit as good as one would expect, absolutely immaculate and the Big Four up front capable of propelling the biggish car with suffient elan to make short work, on predominantly A roads, the length and breadth of the country. It also took me and a couple of friends to Vienna that summer along with a short trip to Soviet Bratislavia, border guards seeing no problem in allowing us a short sight seeing trip! However a couple of close encounters of the b******k clenching variety on various A, B and side roads around the country convinced me I needed something with better get-up-go than the Riley could provide. It was important that if my career was not to come to a precipitous end, a change was necessary. The Riley was duly sold on to a Riley Specials dealer who paid me £125 for the car! With no sign yet of Barbara Castle and looking for something to fit the bill, accompanied by a skilled advisory friend, I bought a two owner 1954 3 1/2 ltr Jaguar XK 120 DHC for £90, reduced to £70 as the hood was tatty, no spare wheel and a small blow in the exhaust. The two previous owners were the father and son proprieters of a Jaguar main agent who felt the car now had no worth, hence the price! By the time we’d driven through the night the 150 miles home the small blow had grown into a bellowing roar, warning villages some miles ahead we were approaching. With some fairly straightforward repairs carried out and the aid of a local Jaguar Agent who raced XKs & MkIIs who could provide most parts I may require or at least access to the factory, along with a respray it served it’s purpose until by the mid ’70s the time had come to lay it up. In that period I had the time of me life in it, both pre and post 70mph limits introduction. By then however it need serious money being spent on it, still mechanically sound but bodily; I think the current expression is “Hanging”! My main problem was that although my career progressed my salary advances never quite matched the cost of properly maintaining the car. You could almost purchase a small workman’s cottage in my part of the world for the price of a set of wings along with the labour costs involved. I’d also just completed a ground up rebuild of a 1953/45 Morgan Plus Four my brother had gifted to me as a spare time (3 1/2 Yrs??!!) project. The Morgan then became the steed of choice, an almost seamless changeover. (It still is, bad back and all!) Unhappily the Jaguar was finally sold in parts form, rolling chassis including engine, transmission, the remainder all boxed ready for the next owner. I’d researched the cost of a full semi pro rebuild and I accepted a price which, combined with that figure, reasonably exceeded the then current valuation of a top notch 120 DHC; about £90 to 100K at the time. I reckoned I’d got a very happy 10+ years out of the car and a cracking return for my £70 outlay.
    The regret comes that at the time they were the foundation of my free wheeling youth when I was unbelievably healthy, work was fun, I was quite well paid (Three day weeks, massive labour and fuel cost inflation soon put paid to that) and driving still exciting. But both cars had a major influence on the second requirement of a decent motor. With the business part settled, the acquisition of the future Mrs. H. became a priority when a suitable candidate dropped into my lap. Mild romance was entered into and we enjoyed the Riley (gorgeous leather seats in the back) until shortly before I sold it when a TR2 complete with handsome owner appeared on the horizon and I was forced to continue the search elsewhere. Various options were considered, lots of knockbacks but without success until some three years later, there across a crowded dance floor was my original No. 1. It was something at first sight and sort of took off again and we are still enjoying the wedded bliss engendered, not by me I later discovered but her confession some years later it had been the XK which had been the major attraction initially, but (she said!) she soon realised her mistake!
    I’ve driven some lovely and some lousy cars in my motoring life but I hope you can understand why the two of them still give me a tweak every time I see examples of one or the other and why I still put a couple of pounds into the lottery every week. Well, it could still be me!
    Sorry this was supposed to be short one but it sort of got away from me. Retirement and time on your hands often invites one to fill in spaces that should really be left alone! You can always wield the editorial pen.

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