NOV 17th 2015

Dan Trent: How a little red button transforms an anonymous '80s Japanese supermini into a superhero

Dan Trent

Exposure to a Performance Car review of the Lamborghini Countach 5000QV at an impressionable age set Dan on course for a life-long obsession with cars. As editor of PistonHeads.com he’s got direct access to a classifieds repository of over 100,000 such vehicles to browse day in, day out. Temptation is never far away. He’s still some way off that Countach though. Dan Trent on Twitter

 

Unrequited love for the quirky end of the motoring spectrum is, of course, a very Goodwood perspective. And one I will be exploring in this column, unearthing cars for sale that inspire by virtue of exclusivity, character and/or rarity. My first pick ticks all of these boxes. Well, all but one. Because I can’t find one for sale anywhere…

It’s all about the red button on the gearstick. Glimpsed through the (usually mud-splattered) side window of a dinky Japanese supermini it signified something special to an impressionable country lad. OK, it didn’t eject the passenger through the roof like Bond’s DB5. But, as far as I was concerned, it may as well have done. 

Subaru Justy

When 4x4s were bought as necessity rather than fashion statement, folk round my way drove either Land Rovers or Subarus. The former were workhorses for those working the land, the latter transport of choice for those who owned it. Because to get around in the sticks you don’t need diff locks, selectable terrain modes or 21-inch wheels. You need a supermini with a red button on the gearstick.

First sold in the UK in 1987, the original Subaru Justy was seemingly nothing special. Sure, all-independent suspension was fancier than the norm and the 71bhp three-cylinder 1.2-litre engine was praised by Autocar for its ‘eager-revving’ nature. But with a push of that red button the Justy unleashed its party piece – manually selectable four-wheel drive. And for country folk with places to go and nothing to prove a Justy was essential kit, with far better performance and road manners than the crude Panda 4×4. The Fiat played at being a baby 4×4; the Justy just cracked on with it.

As perfectly demonstrated to me one snowy day on the North Yorkshire Moors. After my car started sliding down the hill into Rosedale even when ‘stationary’ with the handbrake on, I beat a hasty retreat.

Subaru Justy

As I pondered my options a three-cylinder thrum – described in the original Autocar test as ‘like half a Porsche flat six’ – approached from the valley floor and, soon after, a battered Subaru Justy. At the wheel the stereotypical, wax-jacketed Yorkshire lady with a secret weapon – that red button. Steely gaze focused on the horizon, foot planted and with all four wheels spinning, she breezed nonchalantly up an icy gradient a proper Landie would have struggled with. And to my mind this memory symbolises Subaru as powerfully as McRae ‘Flat-Out and Fearless’ in a 555-liveried Impreza.

These days original Justys are thin on the ground. So when I found an immaculate one locally I was knocking on doors in an effort to find out who owned it. A politely baffled lad called Tom it turns out, this being his second after his first rusted its way to an MoT failure. Finding a replacement had been a proper mission, having failed to convince another local owner to part with his. And this seems to be the way of it – there are none advertised via any of the usual channels, Tom’s experience suggesting determination and word of mouth is the way to hunt out the few that remain in roadworthy condition.

So much for starting out modestly with something attainable. Wish me better luck next time…

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