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The same 11 questions

Published in blog.hemmings.com

Owning an out-of-the-ordinary classic, like my 1990 Nissan Skyline GT-R NISMO, brings lots of questions–usually the same ones over and over again. Photography by the author.

It’s well over a year since I put my name on the title of a 1990 Nissan Skyline GT-R NISMO (or NISsan MOtorposrt). It attracts attention only intermittently: If you’re under 40 and a dude, i.e., the video game/Fast and Furious generation, you know what it is and are jumping up and down when you see it. If you’re older, or don’t pay much attention to cars, then it’s easy for it to slip under your radar because it just doesn’t look like something special. (Driving it is a different matter.) It’s not flashy like a Lamborghini; it’s not overtly macho like a jacked-up pickup truck; it’s a little old square coupe, but it’s one of those cars that, when you know, you know. Most questions are kind and curious, if occasionally overwhelmed with excitement at seeing a modern legend on the streets. But most of the conversations end up more or less the same.

WHAT IS IT?

A 1990 Nissan Skyline GT-R.

Strictly speaking, this is the NISMO variant, one of 560 built and one of 500 sold through Nissan dealers in Japan; the other 60 cars were turned into race cars that so thoroughly dominated the FIA Group A racing scene worldwide in the early ’90s that they were legislated out of existence on track. All R32 NISMOs are 1990 models, and all were painted grey metallic.

IS IT JAPANESE?

[This one always throws me.] Skylines were all built in Japan.

 BUT IT WAS MADE FOR THE JAPANESE MARKET … RIGHT?

R32 GT-Rs were all built for the Japanese market, bar a handful that made their way to Australia in the early 1990s.

 WHATEVER QUESTION IS ASKED NEXT USUALLY WORKS UNDER THE ASSUMPTION THAT SKYLINES OFFICIALLY CAME TO THE STATES ONCE UPON A TIME. THAT ASSUMPTION IS ALMOST ENTIRELY WRONG. THIS LEADS TO …

 HOLY CRAP, THE STEERING WHEEL IS ON THE OTHER SIDE!

Yup. These were made for the Japanese home market and not exported officially, so they’re all RHD.

1990 Nissan GT-R Nismo

IS DRIVING ON THAT SIDE HARD TO GET USED TO?

Shifting lefty takes some getting used to; the 2-3 and 4-5 upshifts, in particular, don’t feel like a natural motion for my left arm. (Although, when you shift, only the left side of your body is in motion–arm and leg together–so there’s a certain symmetry to it.) Judging distance on the offside front corner takes some getting used to. And I’m still having some issue placing myself correctly in the lane; I’m used to aligning myself in the lane using the left side of the steering wheel as a guide, and if you do that in the Skyline, you’re straddling the double-yellow. So I need to adjust my thinking when I’m in that car. You do also have to be careful in left-turn lanes, particularly if there’s someone in the facing left-hand-turn lane blocking your vision.

WHAT KIND OF POWER DOES IT HAVE?

The short answer: 300-ish horsepower.

The longer answer: I haven’t taken mine to a dyno, so I’m not quite sure. It was advertised at 276 horsepower, or 280 Pferdestärke (an internationally recognized power measurement that is nearly equivalent to a horsepower … but isn’t quite). In Japan, in the ’80s and into the new millennium, car manufacturers worked under a voluntary “gentlemen’s agreement” that they wouldn’t advertise cars with more than 280 ps. Their engines may well make that power, or (much) more, but this would be downplayed so that the car companies could seem like more responsible corporate citizens. The twin-turbo RB26DETT inline-Six puts out somewhere between 300 and 320 hp.

And then there’s the boost restrictor. A little brass plug in one of the hoses restricts airflow and caps your power at just 10 pounds of boost. Take that plug out, and suddenly you’re at 14 pounds of boost (as the gauge in the console will gleefully point out) and you’ve got another 10 percent on your hands. So now you’re somewhere between 320 and 350 hp. (My car, a one-owner car in Japan before I bought it, had the restrictor removed long ago … but I bought one, just to have. I keep it in the glovebox.) For a toy, for me, 350 horses is plenty of power. Lord only knows where the power numbers would go if someone diddled with the ECU…

1990 Nissan GT-R Nismo

HOW DID YOU GET IT HERE?

Now that Skyline GT-Rs are more than 25 years old, they can make the trip across the Pacific and live Stateside with little issue. I went to IVI/Toprank in Long Beach, California, in part because I knew they had a good selection of cars, and in part because I have known Sean Morris on and off for nearly 20 years. I knew him when he worked for MotorEx–a company that officially imported federalized R33-generation Skylines about 20 years ago. He knows plenty about Skylines, GT-Rs and the importation game, and he’s no fly-by-nighter.

When I outlined to him what I wanted in a Skyline GT-R–i.e., clean, as stock as possible–he happened to have one in stock. (That it was a NISMO was just a bonus.) The paperwork was all in order, and getting it registered in Arizona was a breeze thanks in part to collector-car insurance, which waives the emissions requirement.

WHAT ARE YOU GOING TO DO TO IT?

Drive it. The R32 GT-R is the kind of car that lends itself so easily to upgrades and tweaking that they don’t remain stock for long, and they’re expensive enough that the people who buy them also have the cash available to do largely unspeakable things to them. I purposely looked for a GT-R that didn’t have so much as aftermarket wheels, because I wanted it stock and factory-correct.

WHERE DO YOU FIND PARTS?

Basic stuff like plugs and filters can be had at the parts store. If I crack a windshield, I’m screwed. For anything else, like the original-style cross-drilled brake rotors, I turn to a local Facebook owner’s group. Where I live, it’s Southwest Skylines; other parts of the country will have similar communities online.

WHAT DID YOU PAY FOR IT?

More than I’d want my wife reading about online. (This is my nice-ish way of saying it’s none of your frickin’ business.). Read any of the excellent buyers’-guide pieces out there and you’ll get a sense.

IS IT FOR SALE?

No.

1990 Nissan GT-R Nismo

That’s actually 11 questions and a realization, but that’s okay. Funny enough, no one asks whether it’s actually any good to drive. The answer? Oh yes. Yes, it is.

The cold numbers–0-60 in about 5 seconds, the quarter-mile in about 13.5–don’t quite cover it. Off-the-line acceleration won’t impress anyone without dumping the clutch at five grand; the RB26DETT makes all of its power at the other end of the rev range. The Garrett T28 turbos use steel impellers rather than a standard GT-R’s ceramic pieces; as a result, the turbos wake up around 3000 rpm, and you’re all in by four grand. Be ready: the needle sweeps the tach as quickly as you can say 5-6-7-8 and you’d better start thinking about shifting at 5 because you’ll be north of 7 by the time your body can react. Shift into second, and if anything acceleration is stronger; both turbos are on full boil; you’ve got momentum; you get a taste of the Skyline’s boost, and your blood pressure rises and falls with the boost. It’s soooo tempting to wring it out to redline every time. Yet at a steady freeway-speed cruise, the Skyline is ticking over just north of three grand, barely enough revs for the turbos to stir, and requiring a downshift into fourth to tap into the power beneath. And at idle, the straight-six is so smooth you barely know it’s running.

When it comes to chassis work, the unit-body, rack-and-pinion/all-wheel-steered, four-wheel-independent-suspended, four-wheel disc-braked, part-time all-wheel-drive GT-R comes into its own. Beyond refinements to the four-wheel HICAS steering, Nissan christened the GT-R’s all-wheel-drive system ATTESA-ETS (Advanced Total Traction Engineering System for All – Electronic Torque Split), a seamless, electronically operated system that usually delivers the power to the rear wheels, but is able to divert up to half of the torque to the front wheels when needed (i.e., to prevent the tires from smoking on launch, in corners, etc.) via an hydromechanical clutch in the transfer case. The ride is smooth, planted, and inspires confidence with steering that’s fluid and faultless; a car this big (well, big by Japanese standards) shouldn’t be able to do the things this car does in the twisties. You’d think that all of the techno-trickery in the GT-R would serve to isolate the driver from his surroundings, but quite the opposite is true: it increases the GT-R’s dynamic ability without standing in the way of the experience.

The NISMO upgrades are basic. We mentioned the steel-impeller turbos earlier; they live atop a reshaped manifold. Ground effects have been altered ahead of the rear wheels. Beneath the standard trunk-mounted pedestal spoiler is a secondary lip designed to keep the rear end planted at speed. GT-Rs come with a rear-window wiper, but the NISMO deletes this (and the switchgear). Cooling upgrades include a pair of vents punched into the front bumper and a missing piece of mesh that protected the low front-mounted intercooler from rocks. Anti-lock control for the four-wheel-disc brakes has been unplugged and removed, the remaining connectors simply twist-tied together and left to dangle. Deleting these components is said to save 60 pounds. A small body-colored spoiler mounted to the hood lives atop the grille. (A single oval sticker on the trunk is the only NISMO badging.)

Given a magic wand, there are a couple of items I might want to change. Two of them compromise this car’s ability to make long trips in comfort: my wide backside can’t take the highly bolstered seats for more than two hours at a clip, and I wish there was some provision for cruise control. Also, it likes to maintain a summertime oil temp of 110-130 degrees Celsius, which is a little toastier than I’m happy with, so I put precious few kilometers on during our triple-digit summers here in the Southwest. Oh, and it still needs stereo speakers hooked up.

It’s an old car. It’s a work in progress. It’ll get there.