Trail Blazing: WRX drifter

Posted in Cars, Motorsport
There is a lot of fun to have when you step outside the box, just look at James White’s WRX if you’re in need of proof

Ask anyone who spends a lot of time at the track, and most of them will tell you that having a simple set-up is the key to a reliable and fun time for all involved. And while many will also tell you not trying to reinvent the wheel when it comes to what chassis to use is also a key factor, sometimes those same people need to mind their own, as we don’t all want to slide around in cookie-cutter machines. 

James White has spent the better part of the last decade ignoring said advice and perfecting his Subaru drift builds, which began with an older Legacy wagon, as James tells us. “I had an early-generation one-facelift Legacy that I used to slide around. I started getting all the suspension developed in that car, but it was not only heavy but pretty rusty.” He was on the hunt for a new shell when a water-damaged, lighter later-model wagon popped up for sale, so James grabbed it and transferred all the good parts from the Legacy into the new shell. 
Getting an AWD Subaru drift-ready is easier than most people think.

Christchurch workshop Surfab produces a diff spool for the centre diff, which disables the AWD system to give you 100 per cent drive to the rear wheels, something that James swapped from his old shell. 

The other key component to drifting (successfully) is having lock. Again, achieving this in a WRX is much simpler than most would realize, thanks to pioneering folk like James. “With the Subaru knuckles there is enough meat to simply machine and redrill the steering pickup point closer to the lower ball joint, unlike the knuckles from Silvas and other popular chassis, which need to be cut and welded or replaced altogether.” To further improve the bump steer characteristics, steering drop joints were also machined up. In the future James will look at swapping to an FWD rack for that little bit of extra lock again. 

In the early days the wagon ran the smaller WRX driveline components, and while the five-speed lasted a long time until it blew a selector gear, swapping to a later-model six-speed meant no dramas at all. “The six-speed is great, it’s pretty tough if you’re not shifting like you’re in the Fast and Furious. Out back it’s been a similar experience while running the smaller diffs and axles, the thing would chew through them at a great rate of knots. But upgrading to the larger STI-based R180 diff, axles, hubs and brakes has proved trouble free thus far.” James tells us he has axle changes down to about five minutes flat. 

An STI also donated its engine package, first a Version 7 STI EJ was run, although after what James describes as “being a turkey and doing a burnout” a piston melted, and turned the block into nothing but scrap metal. 

A few years passed while James pursued other things in life, and left the wagon sitting dead. It wasn’t until he purchased a Version 8 STI engine that the car was brought back to life.
Anyone who’s ever driven a WRX or STI will know they make for a peppy little engine combination, ideal for blasting around the track — sideways. Currently James has kept things simple with only the basic mods like a Link G4, an intake and three-inch straight-through exhaust that when heard gives you flashbacks of standing aside a rally stage somewhere deep in a forest. The tune is now 254kW (340hp) but will soon see an increase, not in the hunt for dyno-queen figures, but for added top end. “The VF37 [turbo] is great through the midrange, but it runs out of puff. I bought an HKS GT2835 from Simon Urquhart that should give it a bit more top end.” James has also purchased a custom dry-sump set-up off Simon to cure the heavy breathing issue when all the oil is pushed into the heads, something the EJs are known for.

One of the more interesting developments over the years has seen the radiator shifted into the rear, with a duct exiting air out the rear hatch, and a Davies Craig water pump pushing the coolant around. In the early days the system was a little problematic, with not enough air flow, but since the shoot a few NACA ducts and window vents have seen the WRX begin to out-cool most others on those hot Canterbury days when the mercury pushes above 30 degrees. 
While James has never drifted anything else to compare the WRX to, he tells us it’s a light, snappy and fast switcher much like an AE Corolla, allowing it to do things that the bigger-chassis cars simply can’t do. It’s been a long road with plenty of learning curves to get the WRX to where it is, but that place is a pretty sweet one.

The car is super reliable, there’s little need for between-track-day spanner work, and along the way James has learned more than a few tips for drifting the WRX. It’s a car he has invested so much time, money and effort into that it’s not likely he will ever sell it, and he sure isn’t going to jump to a Nissan chassis anytime soon, instead he tells us there is plenty more development to get on with. 

1998 Subaru Impreza

  • Engine: Version 8 STi EJ207, 4 cylinder, 2000cc
  • Block: Factory 
  • Head: Version 8 STi
  • Intake: Reversed manifold, Surfab intercooler piping, custom 2.5-inch intake, Zerosports intake, HKS filter 
  • Exhaust: HKS downpipe, three-inch straight through 
  • Turbo: VF37 twin scroll 
  • BOV: HKS
  • Fuel: STI in-tank pump, Surfab surge tank, Bosch 044 main pump, split fuel rail, Tomei fuel reg 
  • Ignition: Factory
  • ECU: Link G4 Storm
  • Cooling: Rear-mounted radiator, Davies Craig EWP115, Surfab water pump delete, Setrab oil cooler, GReddy remote oil filter adaptor 
  • Extra: Davies Craig EWP controller, Link boost control solenoid, custom oil catch can 


  • Gearbox: Version 7 STI six-speed
  • Clutch: ORC Super Single 
  • Flywheel: ORC
  • Diff: Surfab rear-drive centre diff spool, Version 7 STI rear diff with Type R two-way LSD, diff raised 50mm


  • Struts: A’PEXi N1-type V coilovers 
  • Brakes: (F) Version 7 STI Brembo calipers and rotors (R) Version 7 STi Brembo calipers and rotors 
  • Extra: Whiteline sway bars, Whiteline adjustable arms, Hardrace front bushes, Mines front subframe brace, J-speed front tower brace, Cusco brake master stopper 


  • Wheels: 17x9-inch (+35) Varrstoen ES2 
  • Tyres: (F) 215/40R17 Hankook Ventus RS-2 (R) worn


  • Paints: Respray by Joe Barwick 
  • Enhancements: C-West body kit, Zero Sports bonnet, modified guards


  • Seats: Unkown-brand Japanese bucket seat 
  • Steering wheel: Momo
  • Instrumentation: Defi Genome STI gauges boost, oil pressure, oil temp, water temp
  • Power: 250kW/420Nm at the rear wheels 

Driver profile

  • Driver/owner: James White
  • Age: 30
  • Location: Christchurch 
  • Occupation: Mechanic 
  • Build time: Seven–eight years 
  • Length of ownership: Seven–eight years 
  • Thanks: Simon at Surfab, Craig and family, NZEFI, Ashley and Liam, Crabb, Will and Corey at Edgeware Automotive, John, Fraser at M45 Automotive, Eroni, my brother Chris, and Bishy.  

This article was originally published in NZ Performance Car Issue No. 227. You can pick up a print copy or a digital copy of the magazine below:

Marcus Gibson

Marcus Gibson has spent his life getting a little grease under his fingernails growing up with a fascination for all things loud, fast, and low. Growing up during the boom of the import scene, the last ten years have seen him work for a few publications, as well as running his own website before taking up a role at NZ Performance Car in 2011. Marcus is as at home with a keyboard or camera in-hand as he is getting dirty in his workshop or at the track, championing that Kiwi DIY attitude.