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Nissan GT-R at 50: what's it like to own a GT-R?

6/7: TG speaks to three Skyline owners on their ownership experience

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Mark Riccioni - Nissan Skyline R34 GT-R (1999)

Mark, what’s so special about the R34?

Maybe it’s a generation thing, but for me it’s the most iconic of all the GT-Rs. That big stuck-on wing, gold-painted Brembo brakes and a multi-function display straight from the ‘90s. It all looked quite aftermarket, but in a good way.

The PlayStation comparison gets thrown around a lot, but it was the hero car in games like Gran Turismo. The one you’d buy cheap early on, triple its price with tuning parts and decimate the competition as a result. A kinda anti-exotic underdog. It’s pretty much the same story in real life, too. Albeit with a few more engine rebuilds in the process.

Far from being reliable, then?

That all depends what route of GT-R ownership you pursue. They aren’t inherently unreliable cars providing they’ve been maintained well. But tuning culture is my bread and butter; it’s what first introduced me to the GT-R and car culture as a whole. Watching grainy videos of Japanese cars with far too much horsepower racing one another is what got me excited; how the hell could these Nissans be making twice the power of a Ferrari?

That appealed to me way more than actually owning a supercar, not least because it felt achievable. I’d rather be the man in a ‘sleeper’ embarrassing a supercar than vice versa. Although, nowadays everyone expects GT-Rs to be running silly power so that’s gone out the window. Balls.

Go on then, what power are you running?

Currently about 60bhp as the (new) engine gets run-in, but I’d previously had it dyno’d at 744bhp. The new engine has been built for 1000bhp with the idea of running it semi-reliably at around 800/850bhp. Inevitably I’ll end up dialling maximum boost to see what it’ll max out at, but that attitude might also explain why I’m on engine number three.

What sort of work needs doing for that power?

GT-Rs respond brilliantly to tuning. 400bhp can be achieved with intake/exhaust and ECU. Uprate the turbos & fuelling and you’ll be knocking on for 500bhp with an otherwise stock engine. Once you’re in the realms of 650+bhp however is when things get a bit wackier.

My current engine consists of a HKS 2.8-litre crank with Nitto forged internals, a brand-new cylinder head with 272 degrees Kelford cams, Brian Crower oversized valves & valvetrain as well as being ported and polished. The oil & water pumps have been replaced with HKS items, the sump is a larger baffled Trust item and the turbo (just the one rather the two) is a Xona Rotor 105-68 which will flow between 800-1100bhp.

Oh and fuel, lots of fuel. I’m running 800cc injectors fed by two Nismo fuel pumps with a separate swirl tank in the boot. And that’s just the engine side, not the clutch, differentials, brakes and so forth…

It sounds like a labour of love. What’s the best thing about owning an R34 GT-R?

Take the power out of the equation and it’s just a car which makes you smile. The graphics on the MFD are terrible by today’s standards, but that’s what makes ‘em brilliant. The (stock) seats are perfect if you’re a 5ft 2in, eight-stone Japanese person and not so much if you’re Western. Then there’s the interior, which is wonderfully plastic and Japanese which definitely isn’t code for being a bit sh*t.

But it’s all those quirks which give a car character. You don’t really get ‘naff’ new cars anymore; they’re all a bit samey right down to the engines, styling and performance. The reaction the R34 gets still surprises me. It’s definitely aged well; maybe better than the other two generations, and I think it holds a lot of nostalgia with people my age. But even the younger generation seem to get excited. I had one kid cycle into the middle of the road, stop, point, and blurt ‘F**K! GT-R!’ before riding off. Bizarre.

What advice would you give for anyone looking to buy a GT-R?

Have a clear idea as to what kind of GT-R (stock, tuned, track) you want otherwise it gets very expensive very quickly. I’ve been fortunate to own one of each generation now, including an R32 GT-R drag car which 100 per cent shouldn’t have been on the road, and I can’t stress how important it is to do your research beforehand.

Also, don’t be afraid of all modifications; be afraid of the wrong modifications. You’re dealing with 30-year-old tech now, and modern components like brakes, suspension and filters perform infinitely better than the stock items they replace. Just make sure they’re good, reputable parts and they’ve been fitted by a reputable garage. Oh, and use the damn things. Ever since they’ve been brandished ‘appreciating classics’ they’re getting snapped up by investors tucking ‘em away for a future sale. Do it with Porsches, do it with Lambos if you must, but don’t do it with GT-Rs… it’s a souped-up Nissan at the end of the day.  

Tom Balfour-Smith - Nissan Skyline R33 GT-R (1996)

So, Tom, what’s this?

If you want to get technical, my car is a December 1996 Series 2 BCNR33. But most normal people would know it as an R33 GTR - a KH3 in black, one of only 160 built back in ’96. It’s a non V-Spec model, but does have a few nice factory options such as xenon lights and N1 bumper ducts and bonnet lip. The car was owned by the same family for its entire life in Japan before it was exported to the UK and has only covered a verified 37,000kms. More to the point, it was totally standard until 2014, when it was treated to a series of stage one engine upgrades, the suspension and clutch.

My theory, looking through the mass of history, is that it was passed onto a younger son/daughter and they intended to try a few track days. Not sure if that happened, but it made its way to the UK in 2016, and I couldn’t say no when I saw how clean it was and the folders full of receipts. It took me about three years to find the right one, but when you know, you know.

So is it very modified, or just a bit?

Not ridiculously, in terms of GT-Rs, but enough. The engine makes approx 450bhp - mild for the wildly tuneable R33 - the mods comprising of some unknown spec steel wheeled turbos (fitted in Japan), HKS 264 cams, HKS cam pulleys, an Australian Plazaman intercooler, HKS EVC6 boost controller and Apexi power FC management. There’s also a full Tomei Expreme TI exhaust including a brand new just-released Ti downpipe from the same company - important kit in GT-R-land.

The clutch is an HKS LA twin plate, and it was mapped (always important with GT-Rs) by Richard Bell at Bells autos. Suspension-wise it’s a set of Tein coilovers combined with multiple Ikeya formula rose-jointed suspension arms. I did have a set of Work Japan wheels on her with 275-section Pirelli P zeros all round, but she’s wearing new Rays Engineering shoes now.

So why an R33? Why not a ’32 or ’34?

The 33 was always my favourite. It’s that simple. I love the look of them and despite what most people think, Nissan made enough improvements to the 33 over the 32 that despite using basically the same engine, the car was able to lap the Nürburgring 22 seconds faster (or so the internet tells me). Interestingly, they get called a boat because R33s are longer in the wheelbase than either the R32 or R34, but I reckon this just gives greater degree of high speed stability. The facts speak for themselves, really. Nissan learned a lot racing the 32, and piled it into the 33. The changes to the car moving from 33 to 34 were far less dramatic than the 32 to 33. Shows in the stats too.

Why did you want at GT-R, though?

The car for me is my dream car. And it’s Jeremy Clarkson’s fault that I’ve got it! Every year as a kid I’d get the Clarkson VHS for Christmas, and it was that very video that first introduced the car to me. And like many others, my obsession developed with Gran Turismo. I would say more likely the VHS though, as pixelated cars on a 14” portable TV aren’t that inspiring to look at.

Whatever it was, something clicked for me. The way the GT-R was able to beat cars worth four times its value around a track I just found fascinating. And that is true today, too. The car just fascinates me. Every time I drive it, I’m baffled by the agility and the way it catches the horizon effortlessly. Mine has that little bit more ‘get up and go’ over standard and the sound of the RB26 through the TI system (albeit a bit ASBO) is just glorious. Add to that the fact that the GT-R community is amazing (I have people I would class as friends now in the States and Japan as a result), and it’s a magic mix. The car is always a talking point and one I’m very lucky and proud to own.

Dan Baruffo - Nissan Skyline R32 GT-R (1994)

Dan, tell us about your ’32.

How long have you got? Well, this is a ’94 R32 Nissan Skyline GT-R with a few small modifications. Most obviously there’s the factory Nismo bodykit comprising of snouts in the bumper, an aero lip on the leading edge of bonnet, deeper skirts and rear spats and an additional lip spoiler under the ‘main’ spoiler. After that there are BBS LM wheels and some choice engine modifications. They comprise a fully rebuilt motor with forged pistons and rods, ACL race bearings, larger GT28 Garrett turbos, Link G4+ ECU, Cosworth MLS gaskets, ARP bolts and a Nismo twin-plate clutch. Oh, and there’s a rebuilt gearbox, too. And the HICAS four-wheel steer has been deleted - I prefer the way it handles without it.

So… not much then. But why a GT-R?

A childhood dream, if I’m honest. In ’94 I was a car mad 14-year old. My dad’s job relocated us to the Far East, and that was where I first became aware of the Skyline GT-R - specifically the R32. There was something purposeful about the pumped up arches and its square, squat stance. It reminded me of another icon - the Lancia Delta Integrale Evolution - and I needed to know more. The more I found out, the more impressed I became. It was a thoroughbred racing car that had taken 29 wins from 29 starts in Australian Group A and beaten the Aussies in their own back yard, earning the nickname Godzilla in the process. The Monster from Japan was buried deep in my psyche by that point.

So how did that 14-year old end up with the real thing?

Fast forward to 2015, I’m married with kids and enjoying my Accord Type R, but thinking what to get next. The R32 was always in the back of my mind, but when I noticed the prices of R32s creeping up (driven by the 25yr US import rule) I realised that if I didn’t get one then, I may never get one. I travelled up and down the country looking for the right car, getting more and more deflated as the majority were badly presented, or worse - rusty.

In the end I found a fresh import on my doorstep in Devon! After a full inspection, including putting cameras into the rear quarters and sills to look for rust or accident damage, I became the proud owner of one of the last R32 GT-Rs off the production line. It’s finished in metallic pearl red and came fitted with my favourite wheels – BBS LMs. Job done.

Are all GT-Rs played with? What makes it so special?

It’s hard to find a stock one, that’s for sure. I’ve done a few mods to improve the driveability and longevity. The HICAS rear-steering lasted a week before being removed, but the best mod was the ECU and a decent map. The car is powerful but docile. I can crawl in traffic with no problems but then open it up and listen to the roar of the RB26 engine.

The chassis is phenomenal. It has amazing feedback and responds to every input. It feels light and nimble, something I can’t say for a lot of modern performance cars. Most of all though, it feels special. You can’t just go out and buy a decent example at your local car dealer. It doesn’t carry the stigma of arrogance that a performance BMW or Audi might. Other petrolheads nod in appreciation and respect.

It lives up the hype from way back in 1994, then?

I love this car. They say you should never meet your heroes in case they don’t live up to the hype. Well, this one does! However, after four years of ownership the time has come to move it on… I’d love to keep it but I have a V8 itch that needs scratching and I can’t do both. Selling will also allow me to buy some equipment for my fledgling custom car fabrication business (Buffalo Builds Design and Fabrication), which is taking up so much time, I rarely get to drive the GT-R anymore. I may well live to regret this decision…

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