25 YEAR CLUB: The Subaru Legacy is officially a Japanese nostalgic car, Part 02

Subaru Legacy RS Type RA 02

A quarter century ago today, the Subaru Legacy went on sale in Japan. In Part 01, we studied its origins, but despite its humble family sedan appearance, Fuji Heavy Industries intended for the Legacy to go racing right from inception. This is a fitting place to discuss the origins of Subaru Technica International (STi) and how it relates to the Legacy. 

STi logoFounded in 1988, STi’s original missions were to train technicians, develop aftermarket equipment, and, most importantly, manage Subaru’s racing activities. As mentioned earlier, besides moving upmarket with high-performance models, Subaru also saw the track as a venue to increase its profile and outgrow its niche reputation. To generate publicity, one of STi’s first outings was a high-speed endurance record attempt with the new Legacy.

Subaru Legacy speed record

STi prepared four Legacy RS models with stronger drivetrains, stiffer suspensions, a deep front air dam, roll cage, and a quick-fill long-range fuel tank. In January 1989, STi took the cars to the Arizona Test Center, an oval track in the Phoenix desert, and drove the hell out of them. Under the auspices of FIA, the cars ran for over 18 days, accumulating 100,000 kilometers (over 62,000 miles), and set a speed record of 138.78 mph!

Almost immediately, STi used its World Speed Endurance Record experience to produce its first car: the Legacy RS Type RA. Launched in November 1989, it was visually identical to the regular RS save for discreet decals on the front doors reading “Handcrafted tuning by STi” and rear badging. Under the skin, however, the Type RA received many of the modifications on the record attempt cars.

Subaru Legacy RS Type RA

The drivetrain got forged pistons and strengthened connecting rods, revised intake and exhaust ports, balanced crankshaft and flywheel, and an additional fan on the radiator. Suspension was retuned, and a quicker ratio power steering was added. Available only in Ceramic White, this first series of the RS Type RA was limited to only 100 units.

The following May saw the second series Type RA with a close-ratio transmission added. From this point on, Type RA was a low-volume but regular production model. With the 1991 facelift and update across the Legacy range, the third series Type RA got a 16-bit ECU, improved mid-range torque, and color change to Feather White.The final series was marked by availability of Black Mica in addition to white. The ultimate Legacy, the Type RA was a veritable piece of STi history.

Subaru Legacy STi Wagon

As early as December 1989, STi had developed an extensive aftermarket catalog of performance parts for the Legacy. Besides the RS Type RA, STi also produced the Touring Wagon STi. Launched in July 1992 and limited to only 200 units, it came with BBS wheels, various STi suspension upgrades, and a front splitter. With 220PS, it was closer to an RS wagon than the GT. Perplexingly, it came only with the automatic transmission.

Unfortunately, none of these sports models made it to the US. Our EJ22-equipped models were mostly naturally- aspirated, and the Legacy was seen largely as a Camry and Accord competitor. In 1991, however, Subaru did launch the Legacy Sport Sedan in the US. Powered by the SOHC EJ22T, it lacked an intercooler and produced 165PS, available only with the 5-speed manual. With identical alloy wheels as the RS, it did at least resemble its Japanese cousin.

Subaru Legacy Wagon USDM

The following year saw the new LE wagon, later renamed Touring Wagon, powered by the same engine. Sadly, the turbo wagon was only available with the 4-speed automatic. Nevertheless, with AWD and turbo boxer engine, there was nothing quite like it on the market. Most American buyers, however, remained confused by the racy Subaru, especially in wagon form.

Subaru Leone rally

Two other US-only variants are worth mentioning. In 1994, Subaru released the GT Wagon. AWD but naturally-aspirated, it was the only high-roof first generation Legacy wagon sold in the US. From 1990, Subaru also sold a right-hand drive wagon to the United States Postal Service.

Last but not least is the contribution Legacy made to Subaru’s racing history. Though STi was founded in 1988, Subaru had been dipping its toes in the rally world since the days of the FF-1. In the World Rally Championship (WRC), its presence began in 1980 with participation mostly in high- profile events such as the Safari or Monte Carlo Rally. Early contenders include the 4WD Leone, with the later RX Turbo showing the most promise.

Subaru Leone rally 02

By 1989, STi was prepping the RX Turbo, but Subaru had yet to achieve major success as a constructor. With the new Legacy, a major WRC assault was undertaken in 1990. The works team by STi built its cars in Japan, while Prodrive also built cars in England for the European events. The Legacy showed immense potential upon debut, garnering 4th place overall for Subaru at season’s end.

1991 saw the legendary Colin McRae coming aboard at the RAC Rally. With a subsequent win in a Legacy at the British Open Championship, McRae earned a spot on Subaru’s works team. The model proved to be Subaru’s best WRC effort yet. However, stiff competition began to suggest the need for a smaller and lighter car. Mitsubishi was switching from the Galant to the Lancer, and Subaru had the new Impreza in the pipeline.

Subaru Legacy Rally New Zealand 1993Yet Subaru’s president emphatically didn’t want to retire the Legacy until it became a winning car. At the hands of McRae, the Legacy won Subaru’s first WRC victory at the Rally of New Zealand in 1993. The timing was impeccable, and the Legacy went out with a bang.

Suffice it to say, the Legacy was no ordinary mid-size sedan. To those in the know, four generations of Legacy provided antidotes to the mundane. With seemingly incessant performance developments — the later GT-B, RSK, Blitzen, GT spec.B, S401, S402, etc. —the Legacy manifested many of Subaru’s the most celebrated and unique core values. It has charisma, with racing pedigree to boot, and is also a linchpin to Subaru’s modern legacy (pardon the pun).

Subaru Legacy wagon high-roof

While we missed out on many of the hottest variants available in Japan, the Legacy remains a car worthy of preservation, especially the rare turbo sedans and wagons. These days, Subarus tend to still be in the minority at events like JCCS. As a bona fide JNC, the original Legacy is a classic that also works well as a daily driver. Find them, save them, slap on a daruma decal, fill in the eye, and bring these cars out to the shows.

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16 Responses to 25 YEAR CLUB: The Subaru Legacy is officially a Japanese nostalgic car, Part 02

  1. Nigel said:

    Ah yeah, I think I will be paying more attention when I see a Legacy now.
    (I see models with STI parts quite regularly).

  2. Dominator said:

    Great article! A good history lesson as well. One change I would suggest, the USDM 91 Legacy SS did come with a 4EAT automatic too (unfortunately). I happen to have one with that automatic. Soon to be swapped out for an STi 6-speed.

  3. mister k said:

    that top white jdm legacy is cool but i can’t think of any usdm car i’d like to shag with

  4. Jason R. said:

    This is an outstanding article and shows how vital the Legacy has been to the success of Subaru. I own a 1992 Legacy Sport sedan and I’ve been enjoying it every day since it hit the road in December 2009 with a 4EAT to 5MT swap. I have been actively racing the car in SCCA Autocross events since 2010 and I’ve been turning wrenches on it & upgrading it more and more every year since. The vehicle is a great platform and surprises a LOT of people with how competitive it can be with minimal modifications.

    My hope it to one day own a 1st Gen. Touring Wagon to complete the turbo Legacy collection. 🙂

  5. Stephen Kappotis said:

    It’s nice to see an appreciation for these underrated cars. They were tough, easy to fix, could handle any conditions, and blended in—a great car for a getaway driver, which is what I figured when I made a modified 1990 wagon the personal car of the protagonist in my books.

    A little more on the USDM EJ22: the crank and rods were forged. On the turbo, the block was also a closed deck design with the bottom end built for 400 hp to meet Group A homologation specs (even though Group A engines were 2.0 liters and the USDM only made 160 hp with the restrictive head design and small turbo. Good torque off the line, though). I have one in my garage awaiting restoration.

  6. Legacylarsa said:

    In Europe, Sweden, we had Subaru in the early 80s with the leone 1.8 turbo, and in -92 came the updated serie one Legacy 2.0 Turbo to us.
    I´ve killed one in a accident, my first, after that I bougth a 2000 Imreza wrx(called gt in our country) only a year old, still running good! ..and what is better then one Subaru? Two of course, I did find myself a “new” old -92 legacy turbo, with 5-speed manual, dark blue, but with little rust,now in repering mode.. but i was lucky, and ran over an jdm2002 B4 rsk,(we are allowed to drive rhd cars, even if drive on the right side)so now I have three wonderfulls Subaru

  7. Kevin said:

    I own an unmodified original Legacy RS Type RA its a fantastic car.

  8. james said:

    Keep articles like this coming. This is awesome

  9. Hamish said:

    is this just about the us models because i own a factory manual 91 gt legacy i was told they were rearer than the rs model in new zealand because they were never sold new or something

  10. Gordon Stone said:

    I have my father’s last car before passing, a 1991 turbo legacy 4wd. Everything in the car works perfectly. The car just turned 100,000 miles I see no reason why it won’t do another 100 k. Great car fast and reliable daily driver. I get comments on the car all the time. Thanks dad!!!

  11. Car Nut Seattle said:

    I remember this generation Subaru Legacy. At the time, I didn’t think anything of it. I thought it was Subaru’s attempt to compete against the Toyota Camry or the Honda Accord. With each more recent generation, I find the first generation Legacy the best looking Legacy.

  12. Bryce said:

    I am just about to pick up my 1991 Legacy RS RA. 95% completely stock. Was wondering whether to buy it or not, then found this article and I decided to go for it. Can’t wait to get it and restore to its former glory. There are a few examples in New Zealand (where I’m from) but most have had a lot of modifications, engine changes etc. So Hoping to have the most stock one in the country. Finding info on them has been extremely difficult though.
    Love my Legacy’s, this will be my 3rd.

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