Nissan GT-R: Track King to Drag Queen

Mention the name of the mythical monster that rose from the Pacific Ocean and crushed Japan around any automotive enthusiast and expect ears to perk and heads to turn. That's because the name Godzilla refers to a very specific car that dominated the Pacific racing circuits, and it was never available for purchase in North America. That made the Nissan Skyline GT-R the ultimate mythical and unobtainable trouser soiling machine.


Monster or Myth

Back in the 90’s, only the most die hard of import fans were aware of the Nissan Skyline GT-R’s existence. Only the most niche of automotive magazines would have featured a car that was unavailable in their market. But that changed on December 23rd, 1997 as the Skyline GT-R made its North American debut on the Playstation game console, seven years after firmly supplanting it’s racing dominance on the circuits of Japan and Australia.

The first Nissan Skyline GT-R was produced between 1969 and 1972. It wore the model code KPGC10 and was very successful in Japanese touring car racing but it wasn’t a game changer in the racing world. The following generation also wore the GT-R badge, but only for one year in 1973. The name plate then disappeared until its resurrection in 1989.

Stock 1989 Nissan Skyline GTR
A stock 1989 Nissan Skyline GTR

Entering it’s 8th generation, the 1989 Skyline GT-R was a vehicle originally designed to compete in Japanese Tour Car Group A racing. Nissan tasked Nismo, their motorsports division, with development of their new car. According to Group A class rules, the car would have to be homologated, and a minimum number of road going cars would have to be produced and sold to the public in street legal trim.

Originally the Skyline GT-R was planned to compete in Group A’s 4,000cc class. Group A rules for the 4,000cc class at the time limited engine displacement to 4,000 cc if the engine was naturally aspirated. Turbocharged engines would be subject to a 1.7 multiplier penalty. Nissan knew all along they wanted to go forced induction and put man hours into developing a twin-turbo 2,350cc inline six cylinder engine with a target of output of 308 horsepower.

Witnessing the Porsche’s 959 success with all-wheel drive in rally racing, Nissan believed they could make an all-wheel-drive drive train successful on tarmac as well. The result was ATTESA, an advanced transmission that sent 100% of the torque to the rear wheels with the ability to send up to 50% to the front as needed. Additionally, Nissan created a hydraulic powered all-wheel-steering system called HICAS (pronounced: hi’-cas), which would apply up to 1 degree of toe in or out to the rear wheels in order to aid the car’s rotation in corners.

Things were initially looking great for the new GT-R, however with all of the new technology being added, Nissan soon found the car to be much heavier than anticipated and knew the car would not be competitive in the 4,000cc class. Their options were to remove their newly created and untested tech in the name of weight savings or to increase engine displacement and bump themselves into the next racing class up. Their solution was to simply increase the engine displacement to 2568cc and compete in the heavier 4,500cc class. It proved to be a great decision.

Even though the R32 Skyline GT-R was the heaviest car in the series, it never lost a race. The Skyline GT-R won 27 races in a row. It’s domination on the race track was ultimately responsible for the Group A racing’s dissolve. The story was the same for Australian Group A racing. In fact, the Skyline GT-R was flat out banned from some endurance races. The Aussies hated the car, calling it the “monster from Japan”. Then Wheels, an Australian motoring publication, dubbed the GT-R “Godzilla” in it’s July 1989 edition.

The name stuck.

Zexel #25 Skyline GTR race car
The #25 Zexel Skyline GTR won the 24 hours of Spa Francorchamps in 1991.

Godzilla Production

Meanwhile, in Japan, the Skyline GT-R’s success on the race track fueled such high demand that Nissan scrapped their original plan of building only 5,000 units. Nissan went on to produce over 43,000 Skyline GT-R’s until production of the car stopped in 1994.

The Skyline GT-R was so desirable and dominant on the race circuit that Nissan went on to develop the 9th and 10th generations of the Skyline GT-R, the R33 and R34. Both the R33 and the R34 GT-R were powered by variant of the R32 GT-R’s RB26DETT engine, and an evolution of the ATTESA transmission and HICAS all-wheel steering. These next generations of Godzilla grew marginally larger and heavier but still packed unbelievable street performance worthy of the monstrous nickname.

While not as dominant as the R32 GT-R, the R33 and R34 GT-R generations continued handing out punishment on tracks world wide up until mid-season 2002, when production of the R34 ended. The R34 GT-R continued to race, however its proven powerplant was replaced with a V6 engine from the 11th generation Skyline, known as the VQ30. The Skyline GT-R failed to win another race.

Silver Nissan Skyline GT-R
We’ll let it slide if you mistakenly label it Godzilla.

Identity Theft

The 11th generation Skyline began in 2001, however, it completely broke Skyline tradition. Namely, the buttery smooth inline six cylinder engines loved by all were gone. There were no more turbo engines and no GT-R trim to be had. Godzilla was dead. The next generation Skyline would be based on their new Front Midship (FM) platform and powered by a V6 engine.

All hope wasn’t lost. A Nissan GT-R Prototype was displayed at the 2001 Tokyo Motor Show and again at the 2005 show. It was officially unveiled in 2007 as the Nissan GT-R: successor to the Skyline GT-R although it was no longer part of the Skyline family. Nissan’s latest flagship vehicle was based on an evolution of the FM platform and shares nothing with the previous generation Skyline other than ideology. The Nissan GT-R merely paid homage to the Skyline GT-R’s heritage by adorning the signature four circular tail lights.


Just as before, all that technology added up. The Nissan GT-R tipped the scales at over 3,900 lbs. 500 lbs more than the Skyline GT-R. But this GT-R was powered by a 3.8 liter twin-turbo V6, which was advertised as producing 478 horsepower. The latest version of the ATTESA transmission was a rear mounted dual-clutch with flappy paddles. Shift times took milliseconds and shaved serious time at the race track. Sprinting to 60 MPH from a stand still now required just 2.7 seconds. For it’s weight, speculation was that the new engine produced far more than 478 horsepower. Like Godzilla’s RB26DETT, the GT-R’s VR38DETT engine was a tuner’s dream.

The GT-R came out swinging hard and hitting far beyond it’s weight class. The Internet went berserk at the news of it’s record-breaking Nurburgring lap times. The Nissan GT-R defied physics and embarrassed super cars from manufacturers like Porsche in the process. Other manufacturers acquired GT-R’s of their own and were unable to reproduce Nissan’s claimed lap time. Accusations of falsifying numbers were thrown about, to which Nissan offered driving lessons. Bold.

Nissan GT-R race car at Bathurst
This Nissan GT-R won the 2015 Liqui Moly Bathurst 12 Hour

In motorsports, Nissan’s R35 GT-R competed in the Super GT race series in the GT500 class but shared nothing more than body work with the road going model. The Nissan GT-R GT500 race car was powered by a 4.5 liter (and later a 3.4) naturally aspirated V8 and sent 100% of the torque to the rear wheels, sharing the layout from it’s actual predecessor — the 350Z.

You read that right. The R35 Nissan GT-R’s predecessor is none other than the 350Z. But don’t be mad. Nissan’s Z cars have have quite the racing pedigree.