In the late 1960s and early 1970s, as the muscle car boom reached its zenith in the United States, Japanese designers were also looking to make faster cars. One of the most successful of these Japanese sports cars was the Skyline GT-R, first produced from 1969-1973. Discontinued due to the oil crisis, the GT-R would return with a vengeance sixteen years later to become one of the world’s best-known cars.
The Sky Is the Limit
The Skyline has been Nissan’s greatest success story. In production since 1957, the Skyline model has accommodated numerous changes in economy, auto design and corporate policy over more than 50 years of production. In the 1980s, the Skyline was Nissan’s stock compact sedan as well as its representative in stock car racing, and although it was a great grocery-getter, the “performance” GTS-R didn’t do so well on the track. The decision was made to bring back the GT-R.
Sixteen years makes a big difference in automotive design, and the third generation GT-R would have almost nothing in common with the first and second generation models. Like the original, it would be based on the Skyline and would feature a powerful engine. Unlike the original, the new GT-R would be designed with Group A racing regulations in mind, and almost every decision during the design process would be a response to these rules. This adherence to race rules would result in a true stock super car.
Making it to the Race
The natural choice of engines for racing competition was Nissan’s RB, an inline six cylinder variant which was still relatively fresh in the mid-1980s. Engineers developed a twin turbocharged 2.35 liter version of the engine, but racing rules required turbocharged engines to compete in a higher class. So engineers decided to make the GT-R all wheel drive, thinking that this would help the light-weight GT-R to compete in a higher division. A special high-performance suspension was designed for the car, and the new package was put to the test. It was found lacking.
The new suspension was just too heavy for the car and would reduce performance in its racing division. Like a fighter before a match, Nissan engineers had to decide to either go lighter or heavier. They went with the latter, increasing the engine to 2.6 liters in order to push the GT-R into the next size category, where they believed it would do well. The decision to increase displacement required a redesign of the engine and with it an increase in power.
A Show Room Success
The new Skyline GT-R, communally known as the R32, was released in limited production early in 1989. Boasting 276 horsepower and 266 foot pounds of torque, the Skyline packed quite a punch for a relatively light weight small car. This allowed it to go 0-60 in 5.5 seconds and complete the ¼ mile in 13.7 seconds. The Japanese automotive press hailed the car as innovative, impressive, and, more importantly, fast. The car-buying public quickly snatched up the limited production run of 500 cars and, no doubt surprised by the results, Nissan launched a full production run later that same year.
The base Skyline GT-R featured a five-speed manual transmission and a tough all wheel drive suspension which duplicated that used on the track. Combined with the powerful DOHC 2.6L twin turbo engine, the Skyline became a dangerously quick, agile supercar which dominated on the track from its very first introduction to Japanese stock car racing. It also dominated on the street, where it must have impressed drivers and spectators alike. Its straightforward design wasn’t much to look at, but willing owners changed that with new hoods, trunks, body kits, wheels, tires, interiors – everything, really, but new engines.
The Legend of Skyline
Word of the Skyline’s impressive performance and styling reached the United States almost immediately, but very few of these early Skylines ever made it over. For one, Japanese owners were happy with their GT-Rs and in no rush to sell them. Different regulations for Japanese and U.S. cars also made things difficult. Because it was unavailable, the early generation Skyline gradually became a sort of legendary car for American tuning enthusiasts, a Holy Grail which they could never quite get their hands on.