How I made my 25-year-old import look like new
Traveling from Japan to the U.S. can take a lot out of you if you’re not prepared. The jetlag is a killer and, even if you’re flying business class, you’re going to have a few aches and pains as you stagger down the jetway toward home.
As it turns out, the trans-Pacific journey can be hard even if you’re a car, too. At least, it was on my car.
In early 2021, I bought my dream Subaru, a 1998 WRX STI Type R Version 4 Spec V Limited. That’s a long-winded way to say this is Subaru’s high-performance version of the Impreza coupe, one never released here in the U.S. I bought that car in 2021, but it didn’t turn 25 until March 2023. Since foreign cars under 25 are generally illegal to import, I had to store it in Japan.
I paid for covered storage in a garage. However, as I later learned, my car spent those two-and-change years sitting on top of a parking garage in the sun. When the car finally made it to me in New York it was utterly filthy and the paint was in bad shape. That, as it turned out, was just the beginning.
Making my dream Subaru look as good as I wanted was going to take some work. Here’s my journey.
The state of the car
After years of waiting, I couldn’t stop smiling as the car rolled off the transporter. When I got it home and into the garage, however, my excitement was tempered by all the work I could see ahead of me. For starters, it was disgusting, covered in grime from all that time sitting in Japan, plus whatever else it had picked up on the boat over and at the port in Seattle.
The windows were covered in writing from a yellow grease pencil. Every one of the four wheels had been curbed and chipped at some point during transit and, if that weren’t bad enough, somehow a big chunk had been taken out of one of the sidewalls.
After I doused the thing in soap and gave it a good bath, I spotted even more problems. A few panels had clearly been resprayed, but a scuff on the front bumper looked fresh, likely also imparted during shipping. There were dozens of chips and other little imperfections.
I decided to start with the wheels.
Wheel repair and restoration
I make a real point of avoiding curbs and taking good care of my wheels. So, having all four of the Subaru’s gold Rays wheels showing real signs of abuse was just too much for me. I looked into DIY options, but all looked well outside of my skill set. So, I decided to send the wheels out to the pros. A local shop made them look like new for about $175 per wheel.
The center caps, though, I decided to handle myself. These aren’t just any Rays wheels, they’re an ultra-lightweight model designed specifically for Subaru, and they have carbon fiber center caps to prove it. Those caps, though, were dull and scuffed up like everything else.
After a thorough cleaning, I broke out my favorite plastic repair set from Novus. It’s a three-step series of concoctions designed specifically for delicate plastics. I guessed it would work on carbon fiber too, and I was right. The end result was stunning. Those caps now gleamed beautifully.
Finally, I mounted a set of Michelin Pilot Sport 4 tires to replace the old, damaged rubber, and then we were in business. That just left the rest of the car…
Grease pencil on glass
One of the shippers somewhere had scrawled a bunch of identifiers all over the windows of my Subaru in what looked like yellow grease pencil. I had no idea what any of it meant, all I knew was that it had to go. This stuff usually comes off pretty easily, so I reached for some Invisible Glass, my usual go-to cleaner, and got to wiping.
I got precisely nowhere. That writing was baked on there good and proper.
I got more serious, pulling out a bottle of Goo Gone, my usual go-to for more persistent cleaning. Goo Gone did a little better than Invisible Glass, but I still wasn’t making much headway.
My next attempt was straight alcohol, and that did the trick—eventually. I had to mist on a layer, let it sit for a minute, then scrub like hell. I repeated that process two or three times on each pane, finally breaking out a razor for the really stubborn marks. It took nearly a full hour but finally, it was all gone. This glass was clean.
I confess I’ve never been an expert on paint care, and so I was lucky to get a little expert consultation from Mike Pennington, one of the paint gurus at Meguiar’s. Over video chat, I gave Mike a tour of my Subaru and the sad state of its paint. He suggested two potential paths: a low-effort version that would deliver “fair” results, or a high-effort process for restoration-level results. When I said I was game for a little elbow grease, he sent me a box full of goodies.
Multiple boxes, as it were.
After a fresh bath for the car, I started with the clay bar, which if you’ve never used one is a slightly gooey, sticky bar of stuff that you simply rub on the paint, using quick detailer as a lubricant. That stickiness is key. The clay slides over the smooth paint but adheres to stuck-on deposits like pine tar or pollution. Within a few passes, I could see it all gathering on the formerly white clay.
That process took about an hour, and then it was time to get serious with Speed Compound. I’d used polishes and polishers before, but nothing so serious as a dual-action polisher, often called a DA. That was paired with a stiff foam-cutting disc. This is the most intensive step, so I was advised to go slowly. I made four passes over every part of the car, an agonizing process that took a whopping two hours.
But, the results were immediately apparent. That scuff on the front bumper? It was completely gone. Lots of other nicks and scrapes disappeared as well. But, I have to say that plenty of chips and deeper gouges were made even more apparent, highlighted by the compound gathered. Those will require more serious fixes later, but all things considered, for a 25-year-old Subaru that spent a few too many years in the sun, things were starting to look good.
With tingling fingers from the shaking DA and a sore back from all the effort, I was dreading doing it all over again with the Finishing Polish. But, this process went much more quickly. Applied on a softer foam disc, the slippery polish went on easily. And, with only two passes required, I was done in less than an hour.
The paint was really glowing now, but I still had one more step: wax. Pennington suggested Hybrid Ceramic Liquid Wax, which is purely for protection. Compared to all that had come before, and with the paint now glass-smooth, this part was easy. It took me less than 30 minutes to do the entire car.
It was a hard day’s labor that gave me a lot of respect for all the great detailers out there, folks who hopefully have a healthier back than I.
Regardless, the aches and pains were worth it. No, I can’t say the car looks like new. It has its share of battle scars, plus a few areas where the sun-tortured paint is simply starting to flake away. All that is going to require a more radical intervention. But that classic World Rally Blue, scuffed and dull before, now gleams in the sun. I’m back to smiling whenever I see it.
There is, however, the not-so-small matter of the interior, which if anything is even more tired than the paint. That, though, is a project for another day.