To race in the GT1 class at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, Nissan had to build one road-going version of its R390 GT1 racing car. Despite its one-of-one status, this car has been driven by millions of fans worldwide, thanks to its appearance in a range of video games including the Forza series (for Microsoft’s Xbox) and Gran Turismo (for Sony’s PlayStation). On March 9 and 10, the 1998 Nissan R390 GT1 road car will make a special appearance at the MotoXpo display, part of the 2019 Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance.
In 1990, a Nissan R90CP prototype finished fifth overall at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, but a weak domestic economy soon prompted the Japanese automaker to end its international prototype racing efforts. Nissan returned to Le Mans in 1995, running its production-based Skyline GT-R LM in a class that also included the McLaren F1 GTR and would soon expand to even more exotic offerings, like Porsche’s 911 GT1 and the Mercedes-Benz CLK GTR. To compete, Nissan new it would have to develop a GT1 contender of its own.
The company turned to Tom Walkinshaw Racing (TWR) for help. There, design director Ian Callum (now head of design at Jaguar) penned the shape that would become Nissan’s R390 GT1, turning to production Nissan models of the day for inspiration. Working with TWR’s Tony Southgate and NISMO’s Yutaka Hagiwara, the trio refined the mechanicals and aerodynamics, starting with the road car first and then progressing to the racing cars.
Power came from a twin-turbocharged 3.5-liter V-8, previously used in the firm’s R89C prototype racing car. The engine was mounted longitudinally behind the driver, sending its torque through a sequential six-speed gearbox to the rear wheels. In street-car trim, this produced around 550 horsepower, enough to propel the R390 GT1 from 0-60 mph in under four seconds, on its way to a top speed of 220 mph.
As required by GT1 rules, one road car was constructed, followed by three racing cars completed in time for the 1997 24 Hours of Le Mans. The racing cars failed to pass the ACO’s scrutineering, and semi-extensive modifications were required before the Nissans were allowed to compete. Without sufficient time for testing, all three experienced mechanical issues during the race, with only one R390 GT1 taking the checkered flag (in 12th place).
In the off-season, Nissan reworked the GT390 for added downforce and reduced drag, plus improved cooling. All versions – including the sole road car built, repainted from red to blue – now sported “long tail” bodywork, and to prepare for the 1998 running of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, Nissan built four more racing versions, bringing total production to eight.
The changes had the desired results. Not only did the 1998 R390 GT1s pass scrutineering without issue, but each car entered finished the 24 Hours of Le Mans. In fact, all four finished in the top-10 (specifically, in third, fifth, sixth, and 10th), an impressive feat for any automaker at the Circuit de la Sarthe.
Rule changes made the R390 GT1 obsolete after 1998, and Nissan never put the road-going version into production. A popular rumor of the day was that Nissan would indeed build a road-going R390 for anyone willing to front the car’s million-dollar price tag, but there were no takers. Since its retirement, the R390 GT1 road car has been modeled in numerous video games, and permanently resides in Nissan’s Heritage Collection in Zama, Japan. It made the trek across the Pacific to appear at last year’s Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance, honoring the 50th anniversary of Nissan’s involvement in motorsports. It’s since been displayed at the Petersen Museum in Los Angeles, California, and its appearance at the Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance gives fans on the East Coast a rare chance to see it in person.
For additional details on the 2019 Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance, visit AmeliaConcours.org.