The words Subaru Justy and Bonneville land speed record holder are two phrases that you would never associate with each other in any way shape or form, you’d be mad to associate them together to be honest. However...

By Andrew Ambrose

The two are in fact very much linked together, no matter how odd it may sound. The humble little Justy proudly holds one of the longest standing record-breaking runs across the revered salt.

Wind the clock on the DeLorean way back to 1989 – way before my time - and the unlikely little Japanese economy car set a new - and still holding – two-way average in the I-Production class. The Justy achieved ‘just’ (how appropriate!?) 123.224 mph. Now this doesn’t sound too impressive compared to speed records held by the likes of Donald Campbell, AB Jenkins and Craig Breedlove. But that would miss the point entirely – flip though the rule book for I-Production class and you’ll realise its one of the most inflexible classes to compete within. You won’t find any engine swaps or wide body kits here. All cars must utilise the body and drivetrain of the original production model, couple this with a 1,015cc maximum engine size. Its safe to say it’s hard to be competitive here. Marginal gains really do matter. These restrictions posed some real problems for the Justy, for starters its engine is over the limit at 1200cc and pair this with its aerodynamic properties comparable to a Biffa waste bin. At least the Justy had weight on its side. Now hearing that the two-way average speed of 123.224mph, recorded on the 22/8/89, is therefore an astonishing achievement. No wonder it still holds.

The origination of these unlikely plans were stewing a couple of years earlier back in 1987, Nine Technicians at Subaru America Technical Centre were having some lunchtime small talk about bringing a Subaru to the racetrack. This was a few years before Subaru struck the world rally stages with its legendary Rothmans and then 555 liveried MK1 Subaru Legacy, piloted by a certain C.McRae . Back in 1987, getting a Subaru into the racing scene was a totally fresh idea at the time, but running an entire season of circuit racing is an expensive affair, now and more so back then. So, one of the guys suggested the Bonneville salt flats, in Utah. The team began researching some of the previous land speed records set for production vehicles cross referencing them with Subaru’s line up. They quickly realised most turbo-charged and normally aspirated classes were “pretty stout” Roger Banowetz recalls, then “one of the guys suggested the Justy and we all laughed at him” and understandably so. The Justy was probably the least likely candidate from the Subaru fleet for racing. Humouring the idea, the team discovered I-Production class. This class had an established record of 115mph set by the Southern California Timing Association. The team had their target locked and loaded, so off to work they went.

Since the project didn’t have official backing from Subaru, the car would be built on evenings and weekends after work. This somewhat backyard-built race car, really shows throughout the build. As the fuel-cooler was made out of an old pampers box duct taped together, this was a spur of the moment modification amidst 1989 speed week.

Let’s dive into the modifications that turned this 40mpg 3-cylinder 66hp economy car into a Bonneville record breaking machine. They first tackled the engine block itself. They took the standard 1190cc and destroked it to a measly 997cc to fit the 1,015cc I-Production class limit. This also meant they could use the 1.2’s far superior flowing cylinder head,. Next the team machined a custom billet camshaft for the car. 12:1 pistons were also added to the mix, as well as using the 1.0 crankshaft and conrods with the springs removed from the seals to reduce engine friction. The Justy’s balance shaft was also removed from the engine, which keeps the engine from shaking the car to bits at low rpms. This was done to unrestrict the engines rpm limit. Which used to sit at 6000rpm. Now with the shaft removed, the little motor was able to reach a whopping 11,900rpm, enough to put the Honda S2000 F20C to absolute shame. On the breathing side of the engine. A custom fabricated steel tubular exhaust manifold was added as well as titanium valve spring retainers in the head. A custom intake manifold was fabricated to allow the three 40mm Mikuni motorbike carburettors to be mounted to the engine, instead of the standard two-barrel Hitachi carb. Complete with a straight though exhaust, the horsepower had nearly doubled to 120hp at 11,900 rpm up from 66bhp. What an awesome racket the Justy must have made as it screamed down the salt - it’s a shame time machines haven’t been invented yet! With a featherweight kerb weight of just 771kg. The little Justy had a faintly ridiculous 155BHP/tonne.

Given the thoroughness of the engine overhaul, it’s pretty surprising to learn that the Justy ran the standard production gearbox and ratios. The only change was a switch to automatic transmission fluid to reduce friction in the driveline. On the exterior the Justy was lowered by three inches all round to decrease frontal area and to improve high speed stability. This was paired up with smooth wheel covers, a Japanese market front lip and the removal of the door mirrors. The exterior had a livery sporting the car’s number - 440 plus very dark window tints to combat the scorching Utah heat.

Unusually, the interior was largely unmodified from the production car, bar a roll cage and a tachometer that matched the new higher rpm limit. It even had the original seats and carpet installed. After all of the mods, the completed Justy ran at Bonneville for the first time in 1988, where it set a speed of 117.553mph. breaking the previous 115mph record straight out the gate. The team was ecstatic with this, but inevitably, they wanted more and knew the little Justy had more to give. They wanted to set a record that would stand the test of time, and who could blame them? Back to the drawing board they went, reworking the engine for the following year - again, all in their spare time. Speed week 1989 rolled around and all the extra graft to improve and tweak the car had paid off. They achieved 123.224mph on the 22/8/89 with T.Worlitz behind the wheel. The Magical number still holds the I-Production record today, which is probably the most impressive part of the whole story, not even modern technology 33 years later has been able to beat it. Or maybe someone is stupid enough to try it. Who knows?

Ever since then the record breaking Justy hasn’t turned a wheel in anger, which is a shame. It currently resides in Subaru of North America’s private collection. Subaru has put it back into running order again, which is nice to know. I personally would love to see it run again, maybe with some more tweaking with our technological advances and proper funding the little Justy might be able to do a higher pass, but one can only wish. So I’ll keep dreaming of a 150mph capable Justy in the meantime.

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