“No victory, unless GT-R.” That was the saying in Japan when Nissan’s Skyline GT-R became the most dominant racing machine of its era. No, this is not another story about the hakosuka’s 50-plus victories; the adage was coined for its successor. On August 21, 1989, the R32 GT-R went on sale in Japan. Godzilla is now officially a Japanese nostalgic car.
For enthusiasts of a certain generation, this is where it all began. Those who cut their teeth tuning Nissan 240SXes and Honda Civics looked to Japan and saw a land of turbochargers and stratospheric redlines. Everything looked cooler in Japan, even the blinkers, and atop that mountain of stuff automakers wouldn’t sell on our shores sat the R32 GT-R.
It was the pinnacle of automotive technology. A wolf in sheep’s sheetmetal. Japan’s supercar. At the height of the JDM tuning frenzy of the 90s, the GT-R graced the covers of “sport compact” mags in countries where it was never sold, starred in video games, and was even the focus of a Hollywood-style illegal sales ring that had the US Federal government kicking down the garage doors of every R32 owner in the country.
In fact, westerners became so obsessed with the R32 GT-R that nothing else that came before it mattered to them. The R31 and R30 were viewed as boxy remnants of the 80s. Certainly no one outside of Japan in 1989 cared about the original GT-R, the famed hakosuka that’s become the poster child of the JNC movement. Even fewer noticed its successor, the kenmeri GT-R, stillborn with only 197 units built when Nissan canceled its motorsports programs in light of the 1973 oil embargoes.
In Japan, it was a different story. The racing exploits of the hakosuka GT-Rs were still the stuff of legend, and the GT-R nameplate could not be revived for anything less than monumental. Though the gap between the demise of the kenmeri GT-R and arrival of the R32 spanned just 16 years, the worlds that honed them could not have been more different.
The classic GT-Rs were borne of gasoline-spitting mechanical rawness; the reawakened Godzilla’s secret weapon was a silent bank of silicon chips. A decade and a half of booming fortunes had made a tiny island nation one of the top industrial powers on Earth, and the GT-R became the ultimate expression of a future-addicted culture with unlimited cash reserves.
You know the specs: a hyper-advanced all-wheel-drive system, all-wheel steering, and an infinitely tuneable RB26 fed by twin ceramic turbos and six individual throttle valves. Nissan famously sandbagged the GT-R’s performance figures, claiming 276hp as not to violate the notorious “gentleman’s agreement” between Japanese automakers. The real figure was reportedly somewhere north of 320hp.
In driving, the R32 GT-R seemed to defy the laws of physics. The Advanced Total Traction Engineering System for All-Terrain with Electronic Torque Split employed a symphony of wheel speed and g-force sensors to keep the tires as strongly planted as a redwood stump. It was more cutting-edge than even the Porsche 959’s system. Conditions that would send lesser cars into ditches instead kicked off a battalion of ones and zeroes flitting through ATTESA E-TS’s silicon brain. From the driver’s perspective it went something like this:
1. Mash your foot into the floorboards.
3. Exit the turn with your face pressed against the side glass.
In fact, the system was so good that hoons who preferred a bit of tail-out action were frustratingly unable to break the rear tires free. Then someone discovered you could simply pop the ATTESA fuse out to turn Godzilla into a RWD drift machine.
These days it seems like every automaker and their mother is trying to set a record at the Nürburgring, but the GT-R was the first to seriously lay siege to the Green Hell in search of lap time bragging rights. That’s because the GT-R’s expressed purpose was, as you might expect, to race.
Naganori Ito was largely credited with the seventh-generation Skyline, though “credited” might be a poor choice of words. The R31 was widely panned by enthusiasts due to its floaty ride and a nature that was more boulevardier than brute. In some tellings of the story, Ito-san’s predecessor, Shinichiro “Father of the Skyline” Sakurai himself, had fallen ill just before the R31′s debut. Ito stepped in as head of the Skyline project, but by that time the R31 was so close to completion all he really did as project lead was submit some paperwork to the government to legalize it.
In any case, after the R31′s lukewarm reception, Ito-san made it his personal mission to bring the Skyline name back to its former glory. He decided that the way to do this was by campaigning it in the Japan Touring Car Championships like the hakosukas of old. Ito-san would not only build a better Skyline, but he’d resurrect the revered GT-R moniker create a new legend, complete with a small red and white “GT” crest on the fender like its predecessor.
Soon R32 test mules disguised as R31s and Silvias were looping the brutal 14-mile, 160-turn Nürburgring. Behind the wheel was Hiroyoshi Kato, Nissan’s venerated test driver so adept at his trade that the Japanese government endowed him with both a Contemporary Master Craftsman award and a Yellow Ribbon medal, given only to individuals who, through diligence and and perseverance at their chosen profession, become public role models.
Though he’s known as Nissan’s Nürburgring Meister these days, ironically Kato-san joined Nissan’s vehicle testing department before he even held a driver’s license. His first assignment was the 330 Cedric/Gloria twins but his passion was always sports cars, fueled by his admiration of the Datsun 240Z that won the Safari Rally. He eventually got his Fairlady Z assignment when it came time to develop the S130, but by the time he landed on the R32 team, he had yet to drive the Nürburgring.
Even as a novice to the difficult course, the R32 GT-R (in prototype form) was so good that he was able to obliterate the production car record, then held by a Porsche 944 Turbo, by 20 seconds. From that point on, all generations of the Skyline GT-R would be cultivated on the ‘Ring with Kato-san behind the wheel.
The R32 GT-R made its motorsports debut on March 17, 1990 at the Group A All-Japan Touring Car Championships. From the beginning, it was clear that a GT-R was going to win as they pulled ahead of the field, the only question was which GT-R. In the end, it was Kazuyoshi Hoshino and Toshio Suzuki’s bright blue Calsonic livery that took the checkered flag.
The duo went on to take home the championship that season, and from then on any team that wanted the slightest hope of winning needed a GT-R. Soon, the quote that began this article became the absolute truth in Group A racing, turning the league into an unofficial one-make series. Over the next four years, R32 GT-Rs won every GrA race on the calendar. Every single one, 29 in all.
The GT-R wasn’t done there. It was just as dominant in N1 Super Taikyu, an endurance series that ran closer-to-stock cars than Group A. It won all but one of 30 races there as well (a Mitsubishi Galant VR-4 broke the streak early on) over the course of four years.
Like the hakosuka GT-Rs before it, the R32 GT-R had established reign in a new era of Japanese racing. It fueled a new generation of enthusiasts who took to the streets in souped-up Skylines in admiration of their racing heroes. It was clear Ito-san had restored the GT-R name to its rightful place in Japanese racing lore.
However, the R32 did something the KPGC10s never did — continue GT-R saga internationally. From Australia’s Bathurst 1000 to Belgium’s Spa 24 Hours, the GT-R proved its mettle on the world stage, and was so powerful it was banned in several arenas.
Racing also yielded a number of homologation specials early on, including a stripped-down NISMO GT-R sans stereo or aircon that came in any color you wanted as long as it was Gun Gray Metallic. 560 were built, but only 500 units were made available to the public (the rest were allocated for racing), making it probably the ultimate in collectable R32s.
Other versions followed, such as the race-ready N1 version that came only in white, livery not included. As R32 became the clear force in Japanese racing, commemorative V-Spec (for “victory”) and V-Spec II editions, with BBS wheels and an active rear differential on the latter, joined the lineup in brief spurts.
For this article, we photographed one of the approximately 44,000 regular R32s built, one belonging to a guy named Bob. He’s asked to keep his last name private because he’s owned his GT-R for about 8 years, fully registered and street legal in the US. The means by which he did so are not entirely shareable, but soon the point may be moot because as of today the R32 GT-R is 25 years old, and those built a quarter-century ago are fully legal for import.
The legacy of the R32 GT-R is like no other. Every time an automaker chases a Nürburgring record, it’s because Nissan was the first to brag about it. Even now, the production car record is held by the soon-to-be-released 2015 NISMO GT-R, an even more insane version of the already pretty bonkers “standard” R35 GT-R.
With state-of-the-art science and supercar killing strength, the R32 GT-R didn’t just revive the most hallowed three letters in Nissan history, it redefined them and made them its own. Most of all, though, it served not only as a halo for Nissan, but for all Japanese cars.
Photo Credit: Ben Hsu, Nissan, Tomosang.