Among the holy grails of Japanese cars from the 90s, the Nissan R390 GT1 Road Car stands heads and shoulders above all. The stuff of Gran Turismo dreams, it was a race car for the road. Nissan made only one, never sold it, and tucked it away in its Zama warehouse when it was still new. Now, it has touched down on US soil for the first time and JNC was there to capture the moment.
Preparations are under way at Laguna Seca circuit for the Rolex Monterey Motorsports Reunion, which is scheduled to begin tomorrow. This year, Nissan becomes the first Japanese carmaker to be honored as the featured marque, and the company plans to make a big splash with its display.
In 1997, Nissan was planning its most ambitious assault yet on the 24 Hours of Le Mans. The R390 GT1 was blisteringly fast, setting a pole position with Martin Brundle behind the wheel. Unfortunately, mechanical problems placed it at 12th at race’s end. We caught the US landfall of one of these cars back in 2015.
To qualify for competition, it was required that cars be “based on” a production car. Nissan wasn’t about to mass-produce a supercar, but the rules stated that only one example of the road car was needed. So Nissan built the race car the way it wanted, then built a street-legal car exactly like it. It claimed the reverse, that the race car was based on a car that was never actually marketed or sold.
The R390 GT1 Road Car was originally finished in red, and had a tail that swept down with a spoiler squaring off the rear end. However, in 1998 when Nissan returned to Le Mans with new and improved aerodynamics, the road car had to follow suit per homologation rules.
The R390 GT1 was redone in the style of the 1998 racers, with a ducktail spoiler and new venting behind the front wheels and along the sides. It was repainted blue. That is the car you see here.
The racing R390 GT1s battled valiantly, with the number 32 car of Kazuyoshi Hoshino, Aguri Suzuki, and Masahiko Kageyama taking the final podium spot to finish third overall. To date, it is Nissan’s highest finish at Le Mans.
In person, the R390 GT1 looks impossibly low and lean. Modern supercars have more design flourishes, more menace, but also more mass. Nissan doesn’t say how much the true weight of the car is, but its silhouette is razor thin. It’s not trying to look tough or pose or grab attention. It’s not making a big fuss about twin-turbo 3.5-liter V8 mounted midship, producing an estimated at 550 horsepower.
It hails from an era when supercars were built with the purpose of being aerodynamic and fast, and nothing more. It has an estimated top speed of 220 mph, yet still sports the twin-wing grille that was the corporate face of 1990s Nissans.
It’s slightly surreal to see this car in person in the US. For a car that’s seen almost zero use, there are imperfections. The R390 logo on the scuff plate is worn. The wheels aren’t as shiny as they once were.
The fact that it was never sold only makes its legend and desirability greater. Nissan estimates that if they had sold it, it would’ve fetched $1 million at the time. It’s probably worth even more now. For many of us, it is the ultimate slab of Nihon steel, and Nissan’s last hurrah of the Bubble Era.
Dust from Japan still coats the car, but the Nissan crew who invited JNC to photograph the landfall will surely have it cleaned up before it goes on display tomorrow. The R390 GT1 road car will be the centerpiece Nissan’s display at Laguna Seca, along with the newly created Nissan GT-R 50, two one-off cars that, if you come to Monterey this week, you must see in person.