Posted Thursday, October 28, 2021
The field of JDM (Japanese Domestic Market) cars is awash with a huge variety of unique vehicles that usually don’t make it to the U.S. (at least not through manufacturer channels). Among the quirky and impressive is one of the best JDM cars ever built; the Nissan Skyline (especially in performance GT-R form). It’s a car of legend and dreams.
And, with every noteworthy vehicle comes a remarkable story and history. Read on as we explore the intriguing details of the beginning and end of the storied Nissan Skyline and Skyline GT-R.
The inaugural Skyline debuted as an upscale sedan made by Japan’s Prince Motor Company in 1957. Prince was formed in the post-war era from the remnants of an aircraft manufacturer. The car’s compact proportions were well-suited for the domestic market, but the car never gained traction elsewhere. With exaggerated rear fins and yards of chrome, the original Skyline mimicked the style of American sedans from the 1950s. A 60 horsepower engine and 87 mph top speed were modest by U.S. standards of the day but positioned the Skyline with more performance than its mainstream Japanese counterparts. Prince was absorbed in Nissan in 1966.
While the Skyline would soldier on under the Prince sub-brand for a short time after the Nissan merger, 1968 saw the release of the first Nissan Skyline (without any Prince badging). Embracing the Skyline’s performance heritage, Nissan offers the car with a choice of four- or six-cylinder engines in either a sedan or wagon. At the same time, the third-generation Skyline loses the curves and soft edges of earlier models in favor of a stark, squared-off look with a tall greenhouse. The car’s emphasis was functioning over form.
1969 became a momentous year in history as major events became focused on technology. Significantly, man lands on the moon this year, plus the 747 makes an entrance, and testing begins for the first supersonic aircraft, the Concorde. Consumers see how high-tech machinery changes lives and lifestyles. Arguably, this forms the origins of Japanese car buyers wanting the latest and greatest technology in their automobiles, a significant trait in JDM culture. Amid these historic occasions, Nissan launches the Skyline GT-R and creates one of the great Japanese classics.
The Skyline GT-R debuts as a platform for Nissan’s engineering prowess. Beneath the car’s plain wrapper lies a sophisticated combination of technology. At the heart of the GT-R—remember this is 50 years ago—is an inline six-cylinder engine with a quad-valve, dual overhead cam setup. Today, most Kias best its 160 horsepower output, but back then, it made for a thrilling and engaging drive. A four-wheel independent suspension—something else we take for granted today—added to the Skyline GT-R’s capabilities. The first GT-R appears as a sedan, but 1970 sees the car’s introduction in coupe form.
The Nissan GT-R (Gran Turismo Racing) can trace its racing roots back to the pre-merger days of Prince. These efforts included back-and-forth competitions with Porsche during the Japan Grand Prix and other match-ups. The engineering that began with these pure race vehicles, including the legendary Prince R380, would serve as the basis for the first GT-R. The first generation of GT-Rs in racing form would achieve more than 50 victories in domestic touring car competitions, thus cementing the car’s reputation.
The 1973 oil embargo served as a wake-up call to the affected countries, including the U.S. and Japan. The days of cheap and plentiful oil (and gasoline) gave way to an era focused on fuel economy. This time marks the end of the golden age of muscle cars in the U.S. and a re-evaluation of performance cars in the land of the rising sun. The Nissan GT-R saw a short life when the fourth-generation Skyline was introduced in 1972. Still, ultimately, the performance variety is dropped the following year due to the energy crisis.
With a world focused on conserving energy, the Skyline carries on without a GT-R variant. This span covers most of the fourth generation into the eighth generation. A limited-edition Skyline GTS-R was produced in 1985 for touring car homologation, but otherwise, there’s a 15-year gap without a proper performance Nissan Skyline. During this time, we see the more bulbous shape of the fourth-gen Skyline (which shares some similarities with American muscle cars of the day) transform into the boxier and more angular designs of the R30 Skyline and R31 Skyline.
In classic Japanese disaster movies, the arrival of Godzilla usually marks catastrophic devastation. Dubbed Godzilla by the motoring press, the 1989 Nissan R32 Skyline GT-R creates destruction of another kind—on the race track. During four seasons of the Touring Car Championship, the mighty R32 GT-R races to victory 29 times in a row. Behind this success is an inline-six-cylinder engine cranking out 280 horsepower (more than 30 years ago!) via a tried and true all-wheel-drive system. The R32 is among the greatest JDM cars that never officially made it to the U.S. and still inspires the tuner community.
As part of the ninth-generation Skyline, Nissan unleashed the R33 GT-R on the performance world in 1995. Longer and lower than its predecessor, the new Skyline GT-R embraces sophisticated aerodynamics to improve handling. Engineers also make it their mission to reduce the car’s bulk (from the R32) and formulate a better weight distribution ratio. The all-wheel-drive system receives a substantial upgrade, too. As a result, the R33 shreds records at the Nürburgring, further burnishing the Skyline GT-R name in motoring history.
Launched in 1998, the tenth-generation Skyline marks the final GT-R variant, the R34. Still relying on twin-turbo six-cylinder power and all-wheel drive, the R34 brings more sophistication to the Skyline GT-R formula. It’s not about creature comforts (which have never been a focus of any GT-R), but about using newer computer-controlled technologies to make the car more responsive. A streamlined body and re-proportioned chassis also made this the best-performing Skyline GT-R. The last Skyline GT-R was produced in 2002. As with previous Skyline GT-Rs, Nissan made no official effort to export the R34 to the U.S. However, some examples were brought in under a show car exemption and an ill-fated (and short-lived) scheme by a third-party importer who shipped a handful into the U.S.
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