Fifty years of Nissan GT-R development culminates in a £1million, gold-tinted road trip
The veins in my eyes are throbbing. A sheen of stress sweat shines on my forehead, and I can feel my heartbeat in my temples. Midtown Manhattan in rush hour is – without exception – the worst place to drive a car I’ve ever experienced. An apocalypse in time and motion.
Every other street contains roadworks or diversions; two lanes scythe into one across junctions in a way that seems like a sadistic gladiatorial experiment. Potholes gape. Drain covers sit proud of their flush moorings by three inches, offering up razored steel edges to vulnerable alloy, and drivers abandon their humanity as soon as they step into vehicles. If you don’t know your way – which I don’t – and get caught up in one of the block-shaped diversion eddies, you may circulate until you simply die of nervous exhaustion.
Words: Tom Ford // Photos: DW Burnett
If that wasn’t enough to deal with, I’m driving a car worth more than £1million that looks like a couture spaceship. The kind of thing that devours the data of passing mobile phones, causes people to run out into the road to take a picture, punctures local wi-fi with a sudden spike of uploads. I could be completely naked rollerskating next to this thing, and would be utterly ignored.
I pause for a second to allow Dave the photographer to jump in, and watch a man topple off his delivery tricycle (quite a complicated procedure), another nearly get run over by a yellow Nissan taxi just to get a snaptwitgram. In the support car a block behind sit three minders – the people who built the car – and the boss of the entire project. The global boss. I have the feeling that if my knuckles get any whiter on the steering wheel, they’ll appear translucent. Welcome, then, to life with the Nissan GT-R50 by Italdesign, the first in a potential 50-car run of ridiculously exclusive GT-Rs, crafted by the legendary Italian design house.
You wouldn’t usually be able to do this. Most cars that look like the ’50 are no more than shells. Pretty, hollow Trojans, woven from parts-bin skeletons and 3D-printed dreams. To drive one, there are usually rafts of excuses, avalanches of caveats, and paltry mileage limits.
Italdesign and Nissan, on the other hand, when asked if Top Gear could abduct the GT-R50 from the New York Autoshow and roadtrip it, simply put its collective finger to its metaphorical lips, paused… and then asked to come along. Having it trawl through New York’s architectural greatest hits in traffic – including the Oculus Station next to the World Trade Center Memorial, the Flatiron Building, the mini-l’Arc de Triomphe… thing, DUMBO and various others – is downright bizarre.
This is a uniquely confident stance, in my experience, but I’ll go with it. The idea is to take this rolling showcase and roadtrip it through New York state to Delaware, to a place called Dover International Speedway, a one-mile NASCAR track that opened exactly 50 years ago. The same year the GT-R name was born in Japan, the same year Italdesign licked its first corporate pencil and set to work, and the reason for the GT-R50’s existence.
It is also, and this bit is pure gold, nicknamed ‘The Monster Mile’ – and, as everyone knows, the R32 GT-R was nicknamed ‘the monster from Japan’ when it destroyed Group A motorsport in Australia, the genesis of the ‘Godzilla’ nickname that has stuck with GT-R generations ever since. We’re going to try to drive a Godzilla GT-R50 by Italdesign on the Monster Mile, 50 years after they all were born.
Timing, however, is critical. The car had to exit the NY show, get to Dover, shoot the feature and then get back to NY to be shipped to its next engagement. Four days sounds like a generous amount when there are barely 900 miles to cover (including some picturesque detours), but there’s just one problem; there’s a NASCAR race for the latter two of the days we need to shoot, and we have a tiny window of opportunity. So it looks like we’ll be coasting down to Dover and then going hell for leather to get it shot and back to New York.
The first day we spend in New York, doing touristy things and becoming our own mobile attraction. The GT-R50 is a doddle to drive, but with the roof significantly lower (54mm) than a standard GT-R, it’s not the easiest thing to see out of. The rear spoiler is fully hydraulically active, but one feels that theatre is necessary in the city that never sleeps, and so we raise it for the full peacock effect of the golden behind.
We tour, and chat. We draw crowds wherever we park up. We very possibly trend. It gets a bit annoying after a while, to be honest, because people get a bit silly around the car – and so we strike out from the bottom of Manhattan Island over the Brooklyn Bridge, cut down across the Verrazzano-Narrows and lope off to Staten Island. From there, it’s off towards Philadelphia, before cutting down towards the Wharton State Forest, aiming for Atlantic City and our second overnight.
The GT-R50 is… odd. Familiar but beautifully out-of-kilter. The interior feels like a carbonised GT-R, but the shapes and volumes – even the acoustics – have changed. The roof is chopped, the rear window longer, the whole back end carved out to give negative volume around the characteristic circular quad of tail-lamps.
The front is similarly sharpened, needling down into a car that looks as if it will slice eyeballs if you stare too long. Aggressive and a little flash, like a Great White with a gold tooth. There’s a visual heft to a standard GT-R, a thickness. It’s not a car that runs to fat, as such, but the bulk is left deliberate and in-yer-face. The GT-R50 is less so. A more sculpted form, with more sinew on show. There are still deep swathes of surface, but they run to slimmer lines.
It’s not all just for show, either. The GT-R’s 3.8-litre Nismo V6 now sports the turbos and intercoolers from a GT3 car, a ton of internal upgrades, 710bhp and 575lb ft of torque. The six-speed paddleshift ’box is uprated, as are the diffs and driveshafts. The suspension is Bilstein DampTronic, the brakes bigger. And it goes. The first time I let it loose on the freeway, you realise that the ’50’s excessive consumption of carbon fibre is as relevant as the extra horsepower. Where some cars sweep you up in a soft palm of acceleration, the GT-R50 is a fist. It punches. Concept car? Not a chance. This is the real deal, if a very singular one.
We run through Wharton, pause on some backcountry roads, get used to the GT-R50 as a companion, rather than just a show-stand jewel. As dark begins to fall, the only slight hiccup appears. I can’t see. It turns out that the headlights on the GT-R50 haven’t been set up for road driving yet, and are angled for show-stand photography aesthetics. Bluntly, in this configuration, it has no headlights. No headlights with which to pick out the violent topography of potholes and ridges that New Jersey calls ‘roads’, no headlights to do small things like see where I am going, in a car worth more than my soul.
Concentration ensues, all the way to Atlantic City, where I am immediately accosted by the police. Ah yes, Atlantic City. A one-time haven of legal gambling just down the summery railroad tracks from New York, now a slightly run-down, seasidey side-note. Off season, it’s like a massive Skegness, slumped under a drizzly sky. There are bright spots – some of the newer casinos still have the predatory razzmatazz of their Vegas brethren, but there are quite a few that are either run-down or closed – they keep the lights on so that the skyline doesn’t look gappy and depressing.
It is here that I get noticed by the local law enforcement, but Scott the policeman is simply an ardent GT-R fan who initially thinks he’s caught the next-generation GT-R out in the open. He’s no less excited when he realises its the ’50, and offers us a police escort to our next location – which would be rude to refuse. Trouble is, it’s dark, and I therefore spend the next 20 minutes glued to the back bumper of an Atlantic City Police SUV hoping that he doesn’t realise I can’t see anything if he gets more than 20 feet away. Cringing, we’re saved by a small-but-important emergency that sees Scott disappear in a screech of tyres and firework of blue and red lights.
That night’s hotel is… bad. The kind of place where the floors are sticky, the lifts broken and the hygiene scarily optional. There is a four-berth jacuzzi in the centre of my room, of which I will not speak. And we parked the ’50 in the world’s dodgiest multi-storey car park: so never let it be said that this trip wasn’t real. The next morning, joy of joys, the car is still there, and I insulate my arteries with what was described as a ‘waffle’, but could be more accurately encapsulated by the term ‘breakfast diabetes’. Like eating a sugar-covered duvet.
We venture out into AC for a morning, and discover that when the economic engines don’t huff much, a town idles. We shoot in an abandoned casino previously owned by the current president of the USA, revelling in the dystopian excess. There are bits hanging off the buildings, but those lights stay on. Glittery from a distance, less attractive up close. Soon though, it all gets a bit depressing. So we hoick out around Delaware Bay and down towards Dover, using only backroads. Which is where it gets weird. Weirder.
‘Sunset shots in a picturesque swamp’ makes it sound more bizarre than it actually is, it has to be said. But the vibe is good somewhere near the Bombay Hook Reserve – wind-bent, arthritic tree chorusing poetically with water and a vaguely nuclear sunset. The latter happily bouncing off the former like some Eighties car advert. The GT-R50 looks glorious. There are country roads, and bends to play on. There is also a ratty-looking dual-cab pickup parked in the layby up from where we take pictures. As I pull up next to it, a huge bear of a man clad in penitentiary orange calmly steps out, reaches into the bed and pulls out a simply enormous compound bow. And a single, white, arrow.
Many things go through my head in a very short space of time. Am I about to be the victim of the world’s weirdest carjacking? How am I going to explain arrow holes in carbon bodypanels? WHY won’t the car go into gear? Realising that I’m unlikely to find first gear by yanking furiously on the handbrake, I calm down slightly. The bowman calmly walks across the road and stares out into the swamp, arrow nocked. He then leans down, and in one swift motion, draws and fires into the water. And reels in a decent-sized carp.
It turns out that Andrew is part of the local bowhunting club, and often pops out to catch fish for tea, even though carp aren’t the ‘best eating’, apparently. He also smokes cigars the width of my wrist that smell as if they’re made from old socks and dog food, loves the GT-R, but thinks it may be a tad impractical for hunting. After a few mental shrugs and relieved at the lack of roadside impalement, we run down to Dover. On the way, it starts to rain. The headlights still only illuminate the front bumper.
‘Race postponed until Monday’ are the words I’ve been dreading. We’ve made it to Dover Speedway, but our slot to shoot on the actual track was the day after the race before heading back to New York. Frantic rearrangements later, including insuring a million-pound one-off for track driving (which isn’t as easy as it sounds), we secure a possible Tuesday morning shoot. A very short Tuesday morning shoot, as long as it doesn’t rain again.
We watch NASCAR, and I chew my fingernails off and check the forecast every twenty minutes. I don’t sleep much. But the next morning, the GT-R50 finally meets the 50-year old Monster Mile. We take pictures with the 46ft fibreglass ‘Monster Monument’, feed down into a pitlane scattered with hundreds of wheelnuts abandoned by the race teams that raced here just hours before. It’s utterly wonderful.
The GT-R50 transforms, becomes the most technical NASCAR ever. The mile is banked all the way around, with 9º on the straights and 24º on the ends. At 170+mph that the racers get through here, it must be like a wall of death. With a possible 95,000 fans in the stands, the feeling must be incredible, if a bit blurry. Of course, the GT-R is imperious, hoofing around without a care, reaching speeds our insurers would rather not read about. I have to be careful not to scrape the front splitter exiting the track from banked to flat, but other than that, it’s just a strange and satisfying daydream to be driving this car here, at this precise moment in time.
Fifty years. The GT-R, Italdesign and Dover Speedway have all been around longer than I’ve been alive. But too soon, it’s over. A few brief laps, lots of pictures and we have to be on the road to get the GT-R back to NY to ship. A flurry of fuel stops and fast food, hours of dull freeway enlivened by brief reaches into the deep well of Nismo talent. Car back, cab, aeroplane… there’s barely time to breathe. But we did it.
It might not have been the longest of roadtrips, but this was a special one. The GT-R50 feels more unique than any of the production supercars, almost like a return to coachbuilding; taking a known and reliable platform, and rebodying it with something specific to suit. The ultimate custom, using production car – albeit quite special – underpinnings, the best of Nissan and Italdesign to create a formidable hybrid of both. Owners will be able to spec a myriad of different options with the same basic style, creating what isn’t really an ‘ultimate GT-R’ but an entirely different thing.
More to the point, most of the cars that look like concepts genuinely are no more than shiny lies, built to excite and deceive. But the GT-R50 is the real deal – a mix of jaw-dropping looks and synapse-shattering performance. A combat-ready supermodel, a fitting celebration of a half-century of brilliance from both companies. And that’s nothing but the truth.