From C10 to R35, the mutual rise of the GT-R legend

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As the CEOs of Japan’s car companies each try to top the next by promising to return to their glory days of automaking, Nissan is left without a champion. Enthusiasts cry out for the lack of an affordable Miata, 86 or S660 fighter, claiming the once storied firm has lost its way, and go back to drooling over Datsuns. What everyone seems to forget, however, is that Nissan has an utterly dominant, supercar-killing heritage model that sets both the world and the loins of fanboys on fire every time its three-letter name is uttered: GT-R. 

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At the height of the Tuner Era those legendary three letters were the ne plus ultra of every red-blooded petrolhead’s dreams, a prize made all the more alluring by its unattainability outside of Japan. For most, the closest to a GT-R one could get on this side of the Pacific was one made from pixels in the virtual world of Gran Turismo.

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At the time, however, the subject of our collective yearning was clearly the contemporary, all-wheel-drive, turbocharged Godzillas of the R family: the R32, R33, and R34. For years R was the last letter of the alphabet when it came to Japanese automotive performance, and it wasn’t until the mid-2000s before the Showa Era GT-Rs rose to prominence outside of Japan.

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Perhaps that’s because there was nowhere to look but back. A string of bad corporate decisions and market shifts had left Nissan in dire straits. They were pulled from the brink of bankruptcy by Renault, who installed Carlos Ghosn, their own French CEO known as Le Cost Cutter. As a result, the final Skyline GT-R, the R34, Wangan’ed off into the sunset at the end of 2002 with no successor in sight.

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It was a dark time, not just for Nissan but the Japanese auto industry as a whole. Well, for new cars at least. In Japan, a newfound appreciation for their domestic classics was reaching an all-time high.

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As it happens, JNC was founded during this period in 2006, happily writing about Showa Era cars without a care in the world. What we soon discovered, though, was that many enthusiasts in the west who came of age in the 1990s believed the R32 Skyline GT-R to be the origin of the species. It was baffling.

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Sure, the Skyline GT-Rs were Japan’s crowning automotive achievement, but it was akin to saying that Corvettes began with the C4. Apparently, the idea that Japan could have created a raw, primordial ur-Godzilla before the days of computer-controlled fuel management and four-wheel steering was so unthinkable, all but a handful of die-hard otaku even bothered to check if it’d been done.

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But it had. And the “discovery” of that fact gave the GT-R something even the king R32, R33 and R34s could not — heritage. Suddenly, the it wasn’t just a technological wonder that decimated all comers thanks to silicon and circuitry. It was a technological wonder that decimated all comers with decades of history, tradition and provenance behind it.

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The GT-R had as proud a pedigree as that of any Mustang, Corvette, or Porsche. That, of course, made it all the more painful that the R34 had ended production without an heir. Would the Skyline GT-R make a comeback after a hiatus, like the Z (and that the GT-R itself did between the C110 and R32)? Or would it stay dead like the Silvia after the S15? At the time, no one knew. Nissan had released a GT-R concept in 2001, and then another very similar looking one in 2005. Remember, Nissan had also made a Z concept in 1999 that went nowhere.

But then, unlike so many supercar vaporware concepts, Nissan actually went and launched the damn thing. Not only that, but they announced that, for the first time, the GT-R would transcend the borders of its birthplace and be offered worldwide.

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The R35 went on sale in Japan on December 6, 2007. Though only a scant eight years ago, that’s a lifetime in internet publishing years and it can be difficult to remember just what the reaction was like. Most of the world was like, “OMG GT-R in USA!!!!11111oneone!” Many die-hard JNC readers actually wondered if it would be a proper successor — now that there was tradition, there was something to live up to.

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After all, Godzilla’s given name had always been “Skyline GT-R.” The Skyline part of it was now going to be dropped and split off into its own model, and rebadged as an Infiniti in the US. It would also eschew its traditional straight six for a bespoke, hand-built 3.8-liter V6.

True, the Fairlady Z also traded in its inline heart for a V, but that change occurred early enough it its lifespan that it didn’t seem like an egregious bucking of tradition. Loyalists were understandably on edge.

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Turns out, the fretting was for naught, because the R35 proved every bit as ass-kickingly lethal to its rivals as its predecessors. Its list of technological tricks was long: all-wheel-drive, ATTESA E-TS, the world’s first fully independent transaxle, g-meters, and a dual-clutch 6-speed with shift times of 0.2 seconds. Its focus on racing was so acute that the GPS could make the car behave differently if it sensed it was at one of the world’s great racetracks. And, in a strange twist of fate, the car popularized on the screens of Gran Turismo now included a screen designed by Gran Turismo.

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The GT-R wasn’t simply great for a car of its price, practicality or unflappability in rain. It was a supercar killer, period, and in addition to that it rang in at a fraction of the cost, in a package anyone could use, in any driving condition, rain or shine. The GT-R could lay down a world record Nürburgring time in the morning, pick the kids up from daycare in the afternoon, and take you to the opera in style in the evening. And in the eight years since the R35’s debut, Nissan consistently evolved the GT-R to maintain its prevailing position as top dog.

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Meanwhile, reverence for the early hakosuka and kenmeri GT-Rs had only been growing. We’ve seen the number of imported hakosuka and kenmeri Skylines increase significantly in the years since JNC was established, and even as the prices have doubled, there appears to be no quenching the western thirst for classic Skylines.

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Real S20-powered cars are still exceedingly expensive and rare, and as such, many of the early imports were less expensive GT or GT-X models. However, because the GT-R was still considered the best of the breed, many of these more common ones have been cloned to look like GT-Rs.

Such cars were often modified with the GT-R’s signature fender flares, trim, and emblems, but rather than the twin-cam, triple-carbed, multi-valved S20 engines of the GT-R, they’d come with single-cam, 12-valve L-series motors underhood.

For as long as there have been factory hot rodded models, there have been clones. Back in the tuner heyday, for example, it was popular to dress up — or even engine swap — your Civic or Integra to resemble a Type R. There was little concern for authenticity. However, as historic cars like the Skyline and Skyline GT-R have grown their legacy, it’s become important to distinguish clones from the genuine article.

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That’s why many Skyline owners who are serious about their cars have adopted the GT-改 (or GT-kai) badge. Kai means “modified” in Japanese, and it respectfully lets others know that their Skylines are not clones, but tributes to the GT-R.

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The KPGC10 hakosuka was the first S20-powered car to crack the quarter-million dollar mark at a high-profile auction in the west. The halo effect has lifted its siblings like the Fairlady Z432 as well, and there’s still plenty of intricacies in the GT-R family tree yet to be discovered by the mainstream car world. Its cachet will only mature further as that happens.

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The power and performance of the R35 has ratcheted up almost every year since its 2007 debut. In parallel, so has the stature of the Showa Era Skyline GT-Rs. It has been a perfect storm of old and new, a feedback loop of mutual legend-building. The KPGC10 and KPGC110 GT-Rs gave soul and prestige to the R35, while the R35 continues to add ever more world-beating superlatives to the lineage. Godzilla’s come a long way, and he’s not done yet.

Special thanks to Eric Bauer, hakosuka Skyline GT-改 owner and designer at Honda Advanced Design Studio.

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10 Responses to From C10 to R35, the mutual rise of the GT-R legend

  1. alvin said:

    where’s the engine bay shot on that Hako?
    #periodcorrect

  2. John M said:

    Great side-by-side shots! Everything about the older styling is more appealing to me, but glad to see Godzilla lives on. Not sure about the Nostalgic sticker on the R35. The Kenmeri Skyline is my all-time favorite JNC, but when I think GT-R, the R32 is what I see in my head. I first went to Japan right after the R32 came out and I was always looking for that “R” like a meerkat. Although other gens had significant records, the blue Calsonic R32 and undefeated run of 29 wins is what gives me the feel of that Godzilla dominance.

    Sidenote: On vacation now and trying to make a dent in my Godzilla DVD box set. Watched Terror of Mechagodzilla the other night hoping to see some J-tin and they used American LHD cars – WT?

  3. cesariojpn said:

    “Enthusiasts cry out for the lack of an affordable Miata, 86 or S660 fighter, claiming the once storied firm has lost its way, and go back to drooling over Datsuns.”

    So, you take this lamenting for a “cheap” entry level sports car and feature a 6 figure entry level hypercar that got stripped of part of it’s iconic name (Skyline) that propelled it into it’s popularity years ago? I don’t get it.

  4. Scotty G said:

    That wouldn’t be a hard choice for me, I mean, if a person were given a chance to pick one. (the original, of course)
    A very cool comparison, nice photos as always!

  5. Deadduck said:

    The GTR is a great car, but Nissan needs to make a “cheap” entry level sports car. Not all of us can afford a GTR.

  6. Kuroneko said:

    Nice photographs! Vaguely Nihon settings too. Impressed! I count myself lucky to have driven both versions back-to-back too as well. What you really needed though was a red Nissan Prince Skyline GT-B to get the after-burner tail lights side-by-side. The chrome trims on the GT-B match the valance shape on the GT-R too.

    • Ben Hsu said:

      Thanks, that’s high praise coming from you. Nihon is what I was going for. I’m glad someone noticed! I’m not sure I see the GT-B resemblance to the GT-R, but in any case they’re already rare in the States so a red one would be asking too much of the JNC gods.

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