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Before the STi...

Today it's the Subaru WRX STi. Yesterday it was the Leone GLF!

Words by Michael Knowling, Pix by Julian Edgar

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This article was first published in April 2001.
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Subaru has always been knock-knocking on the door of sportscar stardom. It's just that - until now - we weren't paying any attention. It's taken nothing less than the awesome might of the Impreza WRX - in particularly the STi - for us to sit up and say "wow".

But this ride to fast-car recognition has been a very bumpy one. Subaru's previous attack on the high-performance market had been double-pronged. In Australia, we saw both the Liberty RS and the SVX. These cars already incorporated a lot of what makes the WRX/STi so great; constant 4WD, MacPherson strut suspension and a turbo flat-four motor (a flat-six in the case of the SVX). Oddly, though, these cars slid through performance scene virtually un-noticed - largely due to their looks and a short-lived model life. Then rewind to the '80s when Subaru's most high profile (low profile?!) sportscar was the Vortex. Ahh, the Vortex. Clearly designed during the sharp-line era of motoring, this vehicle was never going to be successful - solely because of its looks. This thing wasn't bland or quirky like most Subies - it was just plain repulsive! It was, however, Subaru's first turbocar to be delivered in Australia - though, at a sad 83kW, it was no stormer. Full-time 4WD was available on auto trans equipped models.

As a whole, you could say that the Vortex did nothing to help any sportscar aspirations.

Leone Who?!

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But Fuji Heavy Industry's initial - and more successful - attempt at making something sporty can be seen in the vehicle shown here: the Leone GLF. This was the top Subaru of its era, styled with a strong - but inoffensive - '70s flavour. No, it doesn't have anything like a stove-hot 206kW motor or a viscous all-wheel-drive system but, yes, it is trademark quirky through-and-through. Just take a look at that body - the pillarless doors, the beautiful rear window aerodynamics, the protruding body ridge and the slightly gumby overall appearance....

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Joseph Sulfaro - who resides on the Gold Coast - purchased his 1984 model GLF during 1988. At the time, its main function was to provide comfortable, reliable and "different" style motoring. It was certainly a big step up after a couple of base-model Geminis - at last, Joseph had air conditioning and a 5-speed manual! The next few years saw a considerable distance pass beneath the Sube's chassis until before long, Joseph decided it was time for a spray job revival. Joseph did this in his home garage using his own compressor and gun; he'd already gained experience spraying a couple of other cars here and there. This new licka paint saw the Subie looking sweet and, as always, motoring on strong. The only small glitch for the next few years was one blown digital dash display. After trying to get it repaired locally, Joseph had to resort to buying another complete unit from a wrecker. GLF parts, he says, aren't really a problem to come by.

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In true Subaru fashion, the GLF's motor kicked on for more than 230,000km before it was decided that the whole car needed an injection of youth. This time, the mighty GLF was parked in the garage for a more extended period. Joseph set to work pulling off the guards and doors and stripping everything that would willingly come off. Thanks to good on-going maintenance and care, all the panels were already in good nick. All that was required was a couple of new bumpers, some small rust repairs under the rear quarter glass and some new rubber seals.

Again, Joseph wheeled out the spray compressor and set to work on those smooth-as-new panels. The paint used is very similar to a standard colour; it's called Holden Antelope. Notice that Joseph also rolled the car onto its side in order to tackle its underside. Several layers of black tar were applied to seal stone wounds and to further lessen in-cabin noise. The only body mod during the works was the relocation of the aerial. This has been moved from the front guard to an aftermarket whip on the rear glass. There are also a couple fewer badges now as well.

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Subaru's unexciting but long-serving 1.8 flat-four was then the object of Joseph's focus. He completely rebuilt the motor with new rings, bearings and all the usuals. The 2-valve heads were also professionally ported and polished for a little more gas flow. Joseph tells us that he had every intention of acquiring a set of aftermarket cams - but this was a no-go since nobody had any idea what kind of profile was required. A 2-inch exhaust was an easy bolt-on upgrade, however, resulting in a noticeable rise in power. The GLF's rorty exhaust note certainly turns a lot of heads - most people expect to lay eyes on a Rex! The intake was then free'd up with the inclusion of a K&N drop-in filter and a series of holes drilled around the perimeter of the standard air cleaner housing. The under-bonnet is also packed with, well, a spare tyre!

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The suspension also got tightened up during the build. This saw the body lowered by 2½ inches front and rear - using Kmac front springs and modified rear torsion bars. Adjustable Konis and Pedders Comfort Gas shocks provide necessary damping. In addition to this, Kmac bars reduce Subaru sway and handling is further improved with a Kmac camber/castor kit. Joseph also discarded the 13-inch factory alloys to make way for some 15x6.5 Simmons wearing Pirelli P5000 Dragos. As Joseph says, it's a good practical upsize. Looks good too.

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Now you won't find wrap-around rally seats in this 2-door Subie. Instead, you'll see that Joseph has installed one-off fabricated front seats draped in a custom black/gold fabric. Also featuring pump-up lumbar support, they feel sporty without being overly restrictive. Joseph also snapped up two new door trim top halves - apparently, the last pair that Subaru Australia had in stock. How's that for luck?! Notice that the car's overall sports theme is strengthened further by a Momo wheel, leather knob and boot.

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Another kind of boot - the one at the back of the car - is filled with some more of Joseph's handiwork. Being a cabinetmaker by trade, he's whipped up a subwoofer enclosure to contain dual 12-inch G&S drivers. On the back face of the enclosure are two amps - a 2 channel Signat and an Alpine 4-channel. Notice the handy 12V courtesy lights on both flanks of these boosters. The rest of the stereo gear is filled out with Alpine 6x9 2-ways, Alpine component speakers and an Alpine tuner/CD. It's all quality stuff that's a pleasure to listen to. Of course, it's way better than the standard sound system in a Rex!

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A full eighteen months after its build completion, Joseph says the car still gets quite a lot of attention out on the street, despite having since copped the inevitable ding here and there. Usually it's the distinctive flat-four beat that capture's people - then they stare trying to work out what kind of car it is! By all accounts the vast majority of people love this GLF - but what does Joseph think of the present-day Subaru fliers? Is it something that he aspires to? "Yeah, they're great and all - but there's lots of other good cars around as well. For me, though, it's a matter of putting money into a house rather than a car." And the GLF certainly has been a real bargain.

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Judging by the amount of positive comments that Joseph receives on his car, does this mean we can now expect to see old Subies flourishing as a popular choice of streeter? Until Subaru's relative recent fast car success, the GLF was never regarded a significant car. But now? Only time will tell...

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