50 YEAR CLUB: Nissan Skyline GT-R

Fifty years ago today, on February 21, 1969, Nissan unleashed three letters unto the world that would change automotive history forever: GT-R. For a sub-model that’s encapsulated the dreams of so many, including those far beyond its intended reach, surprisingly little was known about the model outside of Japan until the last decade or so.

For the full story of the GT-R, one must go back a few years prior. After all, GT-R was just a trim level of the C10-generation Skyline, which was initially released in four-cylinder form on August 1, 1968. The Skyline 1500’s sharp-edged, modern design was a departure from its comparatively baroque predecessor, earning it the nickname Hakosuka (hako meaning “box” in Japanese, and suka being the first few syllables of sukairain, the Japanese pronunciation of Skyline). It would be the first full model change for the Skyline since Nissan’s merger with Prince in 1966.

Like the S50 Prince Skyline before it, the C10 wouldn’t remain in four-cylinder form for long. Two months later, on October 9, 1968, the Skyline 2000GT debuted. With an elongated nose and two extra cylinders courtesy of a Nissan L20,  it took after the previous-generation Prince Skyline 2000GT, which had gained notoriety due to its performance at the 1964 Japan Grand Prix.

While Nissan and Toyota built taxis and average personal cars in 1964, Prince was considered a premium marque. As such, high expectations were riding on their showing at the second-ever Grand Prix in Japan. To guarantee a victory, chief engineer Shinichiro Sakurai followed a classic performance formula — stuffing a bigger engine, the Prince G7 inline-six from the deluxe Gloria sedan, into the smaller, lighter Skyline.

A top finish seemed a forgone conclusion, until a privately entered Porsche 904 took the win. Still, Tetsu Ikuzawa managed to sling his Skyline past the purpose-built Porsche for a lap, a move that astounded watchers in the stands. Although they didn’t win outright, the Skyline sedans swept second through fifth, and helped catapult the model’s fame. The six-cylinder Skylines were homologated and sold to the public, paving the path for the GT-R.

Back to post-merger Nissan: On paper, the Skyline would seem perhaps redundant with existing Nissan models such as the Laurel. However, it is said that the Skyline was so sacred to and fiercely defended by Prince engineers, the team was  allowed their own corner of the company to develop it, unperturbed by their Nissan overlords.

At the time of the merger, the Prince engineers were working on a dedicated race car. Not pulling any punches, at the heart of the mid-engined Prince R380 was a four-valve-per-cylinder, triple-carbed, twin-cam, 2.0-liter inline-six known as the Prince GR8. With it, Prince finally claimed its long-sought victory at the 3rd Japan Grand Prix in 1966 (the race was not held in 1965). It was a technological marvel, light years ahead of anything else in Japan and on par with the top racing engines from the rest of the world.

That’s why it was so astonishing when Nissan, at the 1968 Tokyo Motor Show, opening on October 26 just a few weeks after the debut of the Skyline 2000GT, showed the prototype for the first Skyline GT-R. Still a four-door at this point, it was essentially mid-size sports sedan with Japan’s most advanced racing engine stuffed under the hood.

Though it made a few concessions for street use, such as chain- instead gear-driven timing, the S20 engine was still incredibly radical. It retained the 24-valve, DOHC architecture, trio of carburetors, and cross-flow aluminum head. Its intake manifold was polished by hand, and its equal-length exhaust manifold was made of stainless steel.

On top of that, the engine was extremely robust. It employed a wet cylinder liner design, cooling was evenly distributed by manifold to each cylinder and, despite its small displacement, the engine took a whopping six liters (6.3 quarts) of oil to dissipate heat. It used a Mitsubishi electronic ignition system, and its crankshaft bearings featured a side-bolt design in addition to the regular vertical fasteners, allowing for much higher rotational forces.

These technologies were found only on pure racing cars at the time, and sometimes not even then. On the Skyline GT-R road car, they generated 160PS (158 horsepower) and 130-lb-ft of torque, though it is said that 200PS (197 horsepower) and 9,000-rpm redline were possible with a minimal cam-and-carb swap.

There was a story, perhaps anecdotal, that Nissan wanted this engine for its Fairlady Z sports car, which would launch later that year. Ex-Prince engineers, still holding a grudge from the merger, didn’t want to give it up. Eventually they relented, but insisted that the Skyline get it first.

Going by the Nissan’s chassis naming conventions of the era, the C10 would be the third-generation Skyline. In sedan form, the code becomes GC10, a commercial van version would be the VC10, an estate the WC10, and so on. GT-Rs, however, would receive the designation PGC10, the “P” a nod to the Prince engineers that developed the remarkable motor.

Beyond the engine, the Skyline GT-R boasted a 5-speed synchromeshed transmission, four-wheel independent suspension, larger brakes, and a 100-liter (26.4 gallon) fuel tank. It sat 5mm (0.2 inches) lower than a Skyline 2000GT, and had full rear wheel arches cutting into the surf line of the standard cars. Of course, it came with steel wheels so that racers could quickly ditch them to fit larger aftermarket wheel and tire packages of their choosing. Reports from the era clock the Skyline GT-R’s quarter-mile run at 16.1 seconds, and its top speed at 200 kph (124 mph), but soon a plethora of hop-up parts became available, both from the aftermarket and from Nissan itself.

The price difference between the base model Hakosuka and the GT-R was huge. The most basic model, a Skyline 1500 with 3-speed column shift, cost ¥582,000 ($1,617 USD in 1969 exchange rates). A Skyline GT-R, on the other hand, cost almost triple that amount at ¥1,540,000 ($4,277 USD), not too far off from a brand new Corvette Stingray at the time.

Of course, what really launched the Hakosuka to legendary status was its much-touted 50 victories in Japan’s various touring car races from 1969-72. The Hakosuka entered its first contest, the 1969 JAF Grand Prix, on March 3, 1969. It immediately claimed four of the five top spots, with an RT55 Toyota 1600GT wedged in between in third place, and Takamichi Shinohara’s No. 39 car taking the checkered flag.

The Skyline GT-R would go on to defeat a wide variety of makes and models — Toyota’s Corolla Sprinter, Corona Mark II, and 2000GT, Isuzu’s Belletts and R6 race car, Lotuses, Hondas, and early Mazda Familia Rotarys. It even bested Nissan’s own Fairlady Z, which surely elicited from the ex-Prince engineers a satisfying chuckle.

Remember, though, the majority of these wins were claimed by the PGC10 sedan. What most of us think of as the iconic Hakosuka Skyline GT-R, the menacing KPGC10 two-door, didn’t debut until October of 1970, and didn’t see its first race until the All-Japan Suzuki Auto Race of March 7, 1971. That’s the 37th of what Nissan counts as the Skyline’s 50 victories.

However, it was the colorful KPGC10 racers that are most fondly remembered today. With matched liveries and a who’s who of legendary Japanese drivers at the helm, they exuded an inescapable and powerful presence at the track. In these later years, both the competition and GT-R mythos only grew, inspiring a generation of Japanese gearheads who traveled for hours to Fuji and Suzuka to bear witness.

Of course, other embellishments have permeated the lore of the Skyline GT-R. For example, its first 49 victories, before Mazda’s Savanna RX-3 snatched the glory from Nissan’s grasp in a much-publicized race, weren’t all consecutive. They weren’t all overall first-place finishes either; many were class wins. Nevertheless, the Hakosuka GT-R remained the dominant force outside of wedge-shaped racers far removed from any road car. Besides, the mere fact that these narratives have followed the GT-R only prove how stirring the Hakosuka saga has been.

The races didn’t just inspire tall tales or countless octane-bleeding wrenchers. They spurred an entire culture, with enthusiasts modifying their cars in tribute to their beloved race cars. Air dams, external oil coolers, headlight covers and bolt-on flares are just a few of the features that define what we now come to think of as Japanese customization style, all popularized by the Hakosuka GT-R.

The motorsports heritage of the Skyline GT-R was so deeply a part of Japan’s automotive culture that the next-generation of Skyline, the C110, debuted at the 1972 Tokyo Motor Show alongside a fully kitted racing version. With the number 73 painted on its flanks, it signaled Nissan’s intentions to continue its streak of touring car dominance.

Sadly, the 1973 oil crisis and a growing desire to curb emissions killed those plans. It never actually raced, and only 197 KPGC110 Skyline GT-R road cars were built. Compare that to the 832 PGC10 and 1,197 KPGC10 cars built (2,029 total), an already paltry number that explains its ever-rising prices. Some say, though, that Nissan never planned to continue the GT-R, and were only building a few to use up their supply of S20 engines.

In any case, it would be another sixteen years before the GT-R returned, with the debut of the R32 for 1989. The car proved to be a most-worthy successor to the original, mirroring not only in its technological prowess but its motorsports supremacy as well, winning every single Touring Car race it entered between 1989-93. For many in the west, it was their first exposure to the GT-R name, making it a legend in itself. It wasn’t until 2006 or so that interest in Hakosuka GT-Rs began to escalate in the West, but with our ever-shrinking digital world a newfound appreciation for these cars have brought a handful examples to English-speaking shores.

Today, there is no question that the 1969-72 Skyline GT-R is a bona-fide classic. In the West, people still think of the Z or 510 the most recognizable parts of Nissan’s history. In Japan, it’s the Skyline, thanks in no small part to the Hakosuka GT-R. Its relentless engineers, fearless drivers, and legions of fans have made sure that the GT-R are the three most enduring letters in Japan’s motoring history, and no single car has so fully seared itself to the country’s collective automotive memories. Happy 50th, GT-R.

Some images courtesy of Nissan.

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6 Responses to 50 YEAR CLUB: Nissan Skyline GT-R

  1. GeorgeL says:

    Great article, Ben! I learned even more about the Skyline GT-R, thanks to you! One question, you mentioned “a who’s who of legendary Japanese drivers at the helm.” Any names us Americans would recognize?

  2. DomS says:

    @GeorgeL Kunimitsu Takahashi would be the most legendary of them all

  3. Nigel says:

    Four Door Sports !!

  4. diecastjunkie says:

    thanks so much for the detailed article…i learned a lot about the naming convention of the hako and then some?

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