Golden Godzilla: 50 years of the Nissan GT-R

50 years of the Nissan Skyline GT-R

The iconic Nissan Skyline GT-R is celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2019, but the story doesn’t begin with the ‘Hakosuka’ of 1969. Instead, the Skyline GT-R can trace its roots back to a saloon car of the 1950s, before the family tree branches off with the launch of the Nissan GT-R in 2007, culminating most recently in the Italdesign GT-R50. Here, we take a brief look at the history of one of Japan’s most exhilarating performance cars.

1957 Prince Skyline

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It’s hard to believe that the current Nissan GT-R is a direct descendant of the 1957 Prince Skyline. The Prince Motor Company had roots in the aircraft and electric car industries and was named in honour of Prince Michinomiya Hirohito. At the helm was the late Dr Shinichiro Sakurai, a man responsible for Skyline products up to and including the R30. He understood the importance of racing when influencing car design, but the Skyline of 1957 showed little in the way of sporting intent. The styling was influenced by American cars of the time, while power was sourced from a four-cylinder engine first seen in the Subaru 1500.

Prince Skyline GT

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The first racing version was the Skyline Sport of 1962. Still powered by a four-cylinder engine, the Prince Skyline Sport competed in the inaugural Japanese Grand Prix of 1963 at Suzuka, where it finished seventh in the Sports Car class. A year later, the Prince Motor Company unveiled the Skyline GT, a car designed to stop the European cars from dominating the Japanese Grand Prix. The wheelbase of the Skyline 1500 was extended by 200mm to house a six-cylinder engine, with racing enhancements comprising triple Weber carburettors, a five-speed gearbox and a non-slip differential. The Porsche 904 won the race, but the Skyline GT filled all positions from second to sixth. A road-going version followed – the GT-R seed was sown.

Prince R380

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Dr Sakurai wasn’t going to take the defeat lying down. The stunning Prince R380 was designed with a single-minded objective: to beat Porsche. Completed in 1965, the R380 was Japan’s first mid-engined car, with a platform and chassis design influenced by the Brabham BT8. It used the rear lights from the road-going Skyline, but the primary feature was the 2.0-litre six-cylinder GR8 engine – the genesis of the Skyline GT-R. Car number 11 driven by Yoshikazu Sunakothat won the 1966 Japanese Grand Prix at the first attempt – the last race before Prince merged with Nissan. Prince also finished second and fourth – the Porsche 906 was vanquished.

Nissan Skyline 2000GT-R

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Three years later, a star was born. The first GT-R had been in development for a number of years and was based on the 1968 2000GT. It might have looked like a humble four-door saloon, but power was sourced from a modified GR8 racing engine, complete with triple twin-choke Solex carburettors, an electronic ignition, a limited-slip differential and a five-speed gearbox. At a time when four-speed ’boxes were considered advanced, the GT-R pushed the envelope of performance design. This was one of the fastest production cars in Japan, with a top speed of 124mph. Just 832 four-door 2000GT-Rs were built.

Nissan Skyline 2000GT-R

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The 2000GT-R (PGC10) made a winning start to its racing career, finishing first at the 1969 JAF Grand Prix at Fuji, before securing a string of 49 consecutive victories. In 1972, the Skyline 2000GT-R secured its 50th race win, with K. Takahashi taking the chequered flag on a drenched Fuji circuit. But with competition from Toyota and Mazda, the GT-R was less competitive in 1972 and 1973, but still managed to win a total of 58 races overall, including that magnificent 49-race dominance.

Nissan Skyline 2000GT-R

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A two-door version (KPGC10) was unveiled in October 1970 before going on sale in March 1971. A total of 1,197 two-door Skyline 2000GT-Rs were built, making it more common than its four-door sibling. That said, the ‘Hakosuka’ is a rare beast, as many cars were lost during racing. Loosely, ‘Hakosuka’ is Japanese for ‘boxy Skyline’.

Nissan Skyline 2000GT-R Racing Concept

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The Skyline 2000GT-R Racing Concept was exhibited at the 1972 Tokyo Motor Show, with its number chosen to represent participation in races in the 1973 season. However, Nissan pulled the plug on its work team, with the technical team tasked with developing anti-pollution technology and increased fuel efficiency.

Nissan Skyline 2000GT-R ‘Phantom’

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Although Nissan’s racing days were temporarily on the back-burner, a second-generation Skyline GT-R was unveiled in 1973. In common with many new-generation cars of the era, the KPGC110 was bigger and heavier than its predecessor, but the engine remained the same, meaning it was also slower. The styling was more American muscle car than Japanese family saloon, but it did usher in one of the Skyline GT-R’s signature details: four round rear lights. Fewer than 200 GT-R coupes were built – all of which were sold in Japan – with production lasting just six months.

Nissan Skyline GT-R R32

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The GT-R name sat dormant for the rest of the 1970s and most of the 1980s, but in 1985, Naganori Ito succeeded Dr Shinichiro Sakurai and was given the task of developing a new range of Nissan sports cars. Work started on the top-secret Project GT-X in 1986, with Nissan launching a succession of production cars based on the Skyline R32, including a true icon – the GT-R. Alongside the Porsche 959, it pushed the boundaries of performance car development and was the first all-wheel-drive GT-R. Few cars have moved the game on to such a great extent.

Nissan Skyline GT-R R32 Calsonic

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The Skyline GT-R R32 made its competition debut at the opening race of the All Japan Touring Car Championship in 1990, with the Calsonic car driven by K. Hoshino and Toshio Suzuki securing victory in the 300km race. It went on to win all 29 races of the four series held from 1990 to 1993, and three consecutive Group A championships in Australia, with the local media nicknaming the GT-R ‘Godzilla’.

Nissan Skyline GT-R R32

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Quite literally, the R32 changed motorsport. Such was the GT-R’s dominance – it won back-to-back Bathurst 1000 races in 1991 and 1992 – the Australian Touring Car Championship’s governing body banned all-wheel-drive and turbocharging, killing Godzilla in its tracks. But no matter, because the R32 GT-R had already cemented itself as performance car royalty, helped in no small part by its appearance in the Gran Turismo video game franchise.

Nissan Skyline GT-R R33

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Today, Nurburgring lap records are two-a-penny, but the R33 Skyline GT-R sent shockwaves through the performance car world when it became the first production car to lap the ‘Green Hell’ in less than eight minutes. The 2.6-litre straight-six engine was carried over from the R32, with output restricted to 280hp as part of a Japanese gentleman’s agreement. A few engine tweaks meant that the R33 was a tad quicker to 62mph, but many people chose to take advantage of the RB26 engine’s seemingly unquenchable thirst for tuning. This was the first Skyline GT-R to be officially imported in the UK and the lineage with the current GT-R is clear to see.

Nismo Skyline GT-R LM

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Needless to say, the R33 Skyline GT-R proved to be an effective racing car. In 1995, a Nismo Skyline GT-R LM completed 271 laps at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, finishing 10th – a remarkable achievement considering the strength of the opposition. The race was won by a McLaren F1 GTR, but other competitors included the Porsche 911 GT2, Ferrari F40 LM and Callaway Corvette. To mark the occasion, Nissan produced a limited edition Nismo version, with an extreme 400R following in 1997.

Nissan Skyline GT-R LM road car

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This will be familiar to fans of Gran Turismo – it’s the one-off R33 LM road car. It was built to satisfy homologation rules, which allowed Nissan to go racing at the 1995 Le Mans. Beneath the bonnet lies a detuned version of the race-going 2.6-litre straight-six, while the arches are a full 50mm wider than the standard car. Amazingly, this thing was actually registered in the UK.

Nissan Skyline GT-R LM

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Nissan and Nismo launched the ‘3-Year Project: Challenge to Le Mans’ in 1995, but the programme ended in 1996 when living with the Porsche 911 GT1 was proving to be an impossible dream. Car number 23 finished 15th overall and fifth in class, with the engine output increased to 2.8-litre to deliver in excess of 600hp.

Nissan Skyline GT-R V-Spec R33

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V-Spec first appeared on the R32 Skyline GT-R of 1993, a high-performance variant with standard equipment including Brembo brakes and 17-inch BBS alloy wheels. A V-Spec version of the R33 was available from launch and featured uprated suspension and an active limited-slip differential. In 1997, Skyline specialist Middlehurst Nissan built 100 modified V-Spec cars, with changes including a 180mph speedometer, UK-spec bumpers and mechanical upgrades.

Pennzoil Nismo Skyline GT-R

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In 1998, this Pennzoil Nismo Skyline GT-R competed in the All Japan Grand Touring Car Championship, picking up two race wins on its way to the GT500 title. The engine was upgraded from 2.6 litres to 2.8 litres to deliver a maximum output of 500hp.

Nissan GT-R Autech Version 40th Anniversary

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When tuning house Autech decided to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Skyline GT-R in 1998, there was only one thing to do – build a four-door version. This paid homage to the ‘Hakosuka’, and there had been plenty of four-door variants of the common or garden Skyline models. It is, perhaps, the greatest Q-car GT-R since the 1969 original. The final Skyline GT-R was built in November 1998, but we wouldn’t have long to wait for the next-generation model.

Nissan Skyline GT-R R34

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If you’d somehow managed to miss the hype surrounding the Skyline GT-R, there was no escaping the R34 of 1999. Thanks to Brian O’Conner (Paul Walker), the Skyline GT-R was thrust into the mainstream when it appeared in 2 Fast 2 Furious. But the R34 was more than just a movie prop – this was one of the most technically advanced cars on the planet, featuring a trick four-wheel-drive system and four-wheel-steering.

Nissan Skyline GT-R V-Spec R34

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As is normal for the Skyline GT-R, it wasn’t long before tuning houses were creating monsters out of the R34, with Nissan creating some in-house specials of its own. Various flavours of V-Spec (pictured) were available, along with a range of Nismo editions. In 2004, Nissan launched the GT-R Nismo Z-Tune. Conceived to win a ‘tuner battle’, Nismo built 20 road-going versions, each one with more power and a host of mechanical upgrades.

Nissan Skyline GT-R M-Spec Nur

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There are far too many Skyline GT-R special editions to mention, but the M-Spec Nur is worthy of inclusion. ‘M’ stood for Mizuno, Nissan’s chief engineer, with ‘Nur’ derived from the Nurburgring, where the R34 was developed. Just 250 were built as the R34 bowed out, taking the Skyline GT-R name with it. But that’s not to say the GT-R badge was dead.

Nissan GT-R Concept

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Looks familiar, doesn’t it? Although the current Nissan GT-R as we know it today was still six years away, with the benefit of hindsight, it’s a pretty good preview of the production model. At least it would have been if it had an engine. Instead, Nissan said that it previewed the look of a 21st century GT-R, albeit without the Skyline name. You could even drive it – just as long as you had a copy of Gran Turismo 4. A further concept was launched before the production version made its debut in 2007.

Nissan Skyline GT-R Z-Tune

50 years of the Nissan Skyline GT-R

The unofficial reboot of the R34 came out in 2005 courtesy of Nismo. Just 20 Z-Tunes exist, built up from low-mileage R34s. Updates include swathes of carbon fibre bodywork borrowed from the GT500 racer, a 500hp upgrade for the hand-assembled RB 2.8-litre straight-six – also race-influenced – and upgraded stability control systems. Chassis #001 commanded a £400,000 hammer price four years ago. Needless to say, this is the ultimate R34 variant.

Nissan GT-R

50 years of the Nissan Skyline GT-R

In truth, the Skyline GT-R story ends here, because Nissan chose to ditch the Skyline name. But the R35 GT-R didn’t just move the game on, it re-wrote the rulebook. With the Japanese gentleman’s agreement limiting the horsepower consigned to the history books, Nissan was free to unleash fury. The £60,000 supercar-tamer featured a 485hp 3.8-litre twin-turbocharged V6 engine – more than double that of its predecessor.

Nissan GT-R Nismo

50 years of the Nissan Skyline GT-R

The R35 GT-R has gone through numerous iterations in its 12 years on sale. The Spec-V was the first variant that showed Nissan had every intention of regularly upping the ante. It blasted past 500hp, leading to the current range-topping 600hp GT-R Nismo. If you ask nicely, you can have the latter with the skunkworks ‘N Attack’ package, which helped it blitz the Nurburgring.

Nissan GT-R50

50 years of the Nissan Skyline GT-R

The R35 GT-R has gone on to create its own legend, upsetting the establishment, setting lap records and evolving into one of the most formidable performance cars on the planet. The Prince of the road has turned into the king of the track, with the latest Italdesign GT-R50 celebrating Godzilla’s Golden Jubilee. Happy 50th birthday, GT-R.