Motor sports stories come in many types: the rookie driver winning their first race for a big name team, legendary drives from last place to the checkered-flag, the somehow magical performance in the rain that astounds everyone watching, and perhaps the most popular — the underdog team that overcomes adversary and better equipped rivals to win. In the history books of Japanese motor racing, this last category cannot be mentioned without talking about the 1964 Japan Grand Prix at Suzuka Circuit. Specifically, a moment that many have since called the birth of the Skyline legend.
As many know, this was refers to the moment when with a hastily built-for-homologation S54 Skyline, the Prince Motor Company (PMC) took the lead from a far more purposeful Porsche 904. While both were equipped with two-liter engines, the Skyline was essentially a family saloon with an elongated engine bay to accommodate a single overhead cam straight-six, and the 904 a quad-cam four-cylinder, giving the lighter mid-engined racer a distinct performance advantage and nearly twice the power. While the Skyline did not win this race, it captured the enthusiasm of the home crowd, and did manage to come home in second to sixth places behind the 904.
It was with this history in mind we attended the recent Nostalgic 2 Days at Yokohama’s Pacifico Event Hall. As rumor suggested, Yoshikazu Sunako, the driver of Skyline number 39 that came home in second place behind the winning Porsche was to be in attendance.
After trawling the halls of Nos2Days, we found ourselves standing in front of an unrestored pre-Nissan Prince Skyline GT-A. Notable for its single carburetor equipped inline-six, it was of course the start of the homologation special that became the triple-Weber-equipped Skyline GT-B, and the racing Skyline legend.
Appropriate of course, as we were here to meet, and hopefully sit down and interview Sunako-san – the man who drove the now famous second-placed Skyline GT-B (actually a modded GT-A if we recall our racing history correctly). Unrestored, on original plates, it carried its age very well, right down to the red vinyl interior and somewhat ratty door seals.
Also carrying his age well, was Sunako-san himself, now 83, who approached us warmly with a huge smile. He had been advised Japanese Nostalgic Car was waiting to interview him, and he eagerly sat down with a cold can of coffee and proceeded to tell us all we needed to know — and a few other things too, but perhaps better left undocumented.
Japanese Nostalgic Car: Greetings, Mr. Sunako. Thank you very much for taking the time to be interviewed. Our readers are big fans of Skylines and the early days of Japanese motoring history. The Skyline’s performance at the 1964 Japan GP is becoming well known in the West, and we would like to learn more about this pivotal moment in Japanese motorsports. So, how did you become interested in cars and motorsports?
Yoshikazu Sunako: In 1955 I joined Yamaha to build motorcycle engines and became a test rider. I was eventually asked to join their race team in which I raced in the 250cc class. After racing Yamaha motorcycles for seven years, a co-worker from Yamaha joined the Prince Motor Company and asked me to come along. I joined PMC to drive their cars in 1963 accordingly.
JNC: What was your first race for PMC?
YS: My first car race was at the second Japan Grand Prix, in 1964. I drove the blue number 39 Prince Skyline GT in the GT-II class. I came home in second place just after the Porsche 904.
JNC: Did you have any expectations in driving the Skyline in 1964?
YS: Since it was my first car race I was very excited, but didn’t really know what to expect. I didn’t expect it to be such a historical race.
JNC: Did you feel the Skyline was well-matched to the Porsche or did it feel unfair?
YS: Actually, immediately after, nobody really cared about the different capabilities. However, in the period after the race, it really lit a fire under the team as they realized the potential of the Prince as a racing name, and the R380 was born as a result.
JNC: How did the Skyline handle on the circuit?
YS: Well… the Skyline hood was extended by 20 cm, so the overall body balance was bad, and the car slipped and drifted when we turned. But after a few practice runs, I knew the car was something special.
JNC: What was the feeling of the team and drivers when Tetsu Ikuzawa passed the Porsche?
YS: It was a great feeling when Ikuzawa passed the 904. I thought Prince had a real chance to win the race. However, the Porsche retook him and then I thought it was my job to beat it. After signaling to Ikuzawa, I went absolutely flat out chasing the 904, and eventually came second with Ikuzawa coming in third 20 seconds later.
JNC: Did you have a hint the Skyline would become a legend during or after that race?
YS: When I drove the Skyline GT for the first time, it was difficult, but I knew it was special. I also suspected it was a car not made for Japan, but something made to compete globally. Although the 1964 race was perhaps significant for the Japanese automobile industry as a whole, the third Grand Prix race in 1966 was more important for me, as it was my first win.
JNC: How do you feel about the global popularity of the Skyline today?
YS: I’m very pleased the Skyline is gaining popularity globally. Particularly as I mentioned, I suspected at the time the Skyline was not made for Japan, and what I thought came true.
JNC: What about Japan now, why do you think younger Japanese people are not buying cars?
YS: Japan is too convenient now! Before, if you didn’t have a car, you were stuck. But now we have the Shinkansen, we have subways, even the buses are excellent! There’s really no need for everyone to have a car, like it used to be. Actually, it doesn’t really matter if younger Japanese people are not buying cars, what matters more is if North American younger people are not buying cars. This is more important for the Japanese car industry.
JNC: Some quick questions to finish if you do not mind? What sort of car do you drive now?
YS: I drive a Nissan Skyline 350GT Hybrid.
JNC: What’s your favorite beer?
YS: I don’t drink alcohol, but I do love women. Especially blondes from Russia, Romania, and the Ukraine.
JNC: Tell us too about your hat?
YS: The one I usually wear, I received as a gift from a Russian girl named Natalie. The one I am I am wearing today though I bought from your home country — Canada!
JNC: Thank you very much for your time, Mr. Sunako. We hope we can inspire more love of vintage Skylines with your story, and hope to see you again next year!
While Nostalgic 2 Days remains a small show, lacking the vast scale of the New Year Meeting in Tokyo, it is greatly more accessible, and over 20,000 people visited on the two days, and there were over 160 cars on display. We will be back, especially if we can share coffee and racing stories with Sunako-san again next year. The story of the Prince R380 is waiting to be told.
Japan GP photos courtesy of Nissan. Ken Lee is co-founder of Cars on Film and you can see more of his work here on JNC. Skorj is co-founder of Filmwasters and you can find more of his work at Cars on Film and here on JNC.
Result! Such a great read and such an epic figure in Japanese racing history. I’m so proud to be part of a team that brings stories like this to the English-speaking world. Well done, gents!
Sunako-san was pretty easy to photograph, very accommodating with our requests… It was great fun too.
Brilliant! Thank you JNC for the valuable history lesson, straight from the source. Not to mention showing us that Sunako-san is cooler than the other side of the pillow. Bravo.
Very cool, now I know more about Yoshikazu Sunako and the # 39 Skyline !
His answer to the question about beer is interesting; I cannot imagine any motorsport legend getting away wth that one in the mainstream media.
We hesitated before publishing too, but glad we went with it…
This is absolutely perfect, and captured the man very well, thank you Ken and everyone.
I love it; he likes blondes… I like blondes too!
This article reinforces that this is the best website ever – you guys do a great job – Kudos to all involved!
Spot on with this write-up, I honestly believe this web site needs a lot more attention. I’ll probably be back again to read through more, thanks for the advice!
Serious congrats to Ken and Skorj, so glad you were able to get an interview with him. And I really appreciate his candor (yes, involving cars too, haha) with his answers.
Awesome article, what a legend!
Legend indeed！ I hope to be like him at his age, you can tell he loves his life and appreciates the little things. Thanks for this interview JNC!