Immortal Combat

As rare as they were devastatingly dominant on track, Nismoís on-road prowess started with these two all-paw beasts, the R33 400R and the R34 R-tune

by CHRIS CHILTON pics JONATHAN JACOBS

FOR ALMOST 50 years the GT-R badge has been the premier pin-up for Japanese car fans.

Winning races (becoming so dominant in the early í90s that it was essentially banned from competition), breaking records and making a big noise wherever it went, the GT-R has always been a special car, no question. But the pair of cars weíve got here today are more special than most because theyíre the work of Nissanís tuning and racing arm, Nismo.

Now that Nissanís marketing department has got its grubby hands on the badge you can even get a Nismo-branded 370Z, which is actually a decent steer despite its age (see page 32). However, in other parts of the world the famous nameplate has found its way onto the Micra and Note. Although if youíre looking for something with only slightly more performance, 2016ís Le Mans disaster is probably worth even less.

But back in the í80s, í90s and í00s, (especially with the DR30, HR31 GTS-R and mighty R32 GT-R in Australian touring cars with Gibson Motorsport), Nismo was strictly serious. The name Ė a contraction of Nissan and Motorsport Ė is easy enough to understand, but the company actually came about through the merger of Nissanís two separate racing divisions: One that dealt with privateer racing, and another that looked after the factory efforts. Racing was always the focus, so when Nismo did turn its attention to road cars, the results were spectacular.

The R33 400R and R34 R-tune cars weíve got here are fast, rare and hugely valuable. But beyond the parentage, what makes them so much more special Ė and does the driving experience live up to the hype?

Looking absolutely stunning in Deep Marine blue paint offset by silver stripes running end to end along the flanks, itís clear from your very first glance at the Nismo 400R that this is no ordinary GT-R. Itís the bonnet that does it, specifically the huge vent that looks like a not very secret trap door. And maybe itís the colour-coded front spoiler that doesnít jut out, but drops aggressively towards the floor all the same. No, scratch that, itís definitely those gorgeous split-rim Nismo LM GT1 wheels.

The 400R exists as a celebration of Nissanís attempts at Le Mans in the mid-1990s with the GT-R LM, a car you might recall from your Gran Turismo days. The list of new parts that went into creating a 400R is massive, and touches every single area from the headlights right through to the tail spoiler. And although the 400R isnít as exotic as the racer, or the one-off road car that homologated it, itís still infused with some of the same tech. For a start, this thing was cutting edge for composite use for its time, the most arresting pieces being the Le Mans-inspired bonnet and double-wing rear spoiler. Hidden away beneath the floor, the

The R33 400R and R34 R-tune cars weíve got here are fast, rare and hugely valuable

Gods of GT-R

The other rare R33 and R34s R33 LM One-off road car built to homologate Nissanís Le Mans entry.

Registered, but never sold in Aus, this wide-body monster inspired the 400R.

R33 N1 A homologation special, it had no air con, radio, or even a boot liner. It used a stronger N1 engine with upgraded turbos for more reliable racing; 45 built.

R34 R-tune Around 25 GT-R owners had their R34s modified with the R-tune package. It had a 335kW R1-spec engine.

A softer S-tune was also available.

R33 400R A turn-key Nismo built R33 GT-R with a extra grunt and a stack more attitude courtesy of LM-inspired details like the vented carbon bonnet.

R34 NŁr The NŁr was based around the N1 engine; 718 were based on the trackbiased V-spec II, while 285 started as more road-focused M-specs.

R34 Z-tune Built to celebrate Nismoís 20th anniversary, and limited to just 20 units, Zs were V-specs stripped down and built up again with 410kW engines.

propshaft is made from carbon too, and is 50 per cent lighter than stock.

Unlike modern performance cars, that carbon fetish doesnít extend to the interior, which is mostly standard R33 fare, and very much plastic-fantastic. Thereís a proper old-school three-spoke wheel though, and a couple of 400R logos, one in the wheelís hub, and another above the glovebox. Then you notice the instruments. Other R33 speedos read to 180km/h, reflecting a top end restricted by a from-the factory speed limiter. But the 400Rís reads all the way up to 320kmh, and the rev counter is only yellow, rather than red-lined at eight grand, the new danger zone starting at 9K.

History and hubris can carry an old car a long way, easily persuading you to overlook the fact that the driving experience hasnít aged well. But 20 years on, the 400R is still sensational... but not perfect. The clutch is fierce and the suspension is definitely harsh by modern standards, because weíre so used to the breadth of ability of cars running adaptive dampers.

But itís bearable at low speeds, and starts to flow better with some decent numbers on the speedo. And the upshot is excellent body control.

Thereís precious little roll from the Bilsteinequipped suspension, and colossal grip from the fat 18-inch rubber, meaning you can lean on the light, feelsome steering without fear of the front washing wide, then ease onto the accelerator and feel the rear tyres take up some of the strain. The LM racer lost its front driveshafts, but thereís no disappointment in the R having kept them. The 400R fizzes with feedback and the GT-Rís four-wheel-drive system was always

heavily rear biased, meaning it feels like a seriously flattering rear-driver, and never like a nannying allpaw thatís forsaken entertainment and interaction in the pursuit of eradicating wheelspin.

And compared to a stock GT-R, thereís a stack of more power for the clever four-wheel drive system to shuffle about. In place of the standard RB26DETT GT-R motor, the 400R got a derivative called the RBX-GT2 that was related to the race motor and built by Nissanís motorsport engine builders, Reinik. Opening up the bore from 86 to 87mm, and stretching the stroke 4mm to 77.7mm, released another 200cc, which, together with high-lift cams, polished ports, larger exhaust manifolds and new turbochargers, helped produce a heap more power. Stronger internals, meanwhile, ensured it held together while doing it Ė the pistons were forged instead of cast, the rods were beefier and the lubrication system upgraded.

Everyone knows that Nissan underrated the power of regular GT-Rs to honour the 206kW gentlemanís agreement among manufacturers regarding maximum output. The true figure was more like 224kW. But the 400R makes 300kW, along with 470Nm of torque.

Enough to get to 100km/h in four seconds, and to top out at a true 300km/h. Youíd never accuse a stock R33 GT-R of being slow, though the thought does briefly cross your mind once youíve uncorked the 400R for the first time. But with a third more muscle, it was always going to perform at a different level.

You need to see 4000rpm on the rev counter before the 400 shows you what it can really do, but from

With a third more muscle, the 400R was always going to perform at a diff erent level

there on itís properly savage, kicking you hard into the elegantly sculpted sports seat between gasps for air when you snick the next of its five gears with a tug on the surprisingly light and easy gearchange.

Nissan had planned to build 100 examples of the 400R, but in the end, just 44 were produced for Japanonly, and predictably, theyíre worth huge money. Just how much is hard to say because they come on the market so infrequently Ė especially outside Japan.

However, you can bet on spending at least $250K if you can persuade someone to part with one. And thatís a big if, because for many, the 400R is the definitive road-going GT-R. But not everyone would agree. For some, any car claiming to be the definitive road-going GT-R would have to be based on the R34, the last and most developed of the Skyline GT-R series, the final car before Nissanís supercar jumped

ship from the Skyline series altogether, becoming, in the R35, simply GT-R. Shorter, lighter, and even sharper to drive than the R33, the R34 was a perfect platform for Nismo to do its stuff.

Most famous and well known of those R34-based Nismo creations is the Z tune, created when Nismo got the go-ahead from Nissan to buy back and modify immaculate low-mileage examples of the R34 that had recently ceased production to celebrate its 20th anniversary. These cars had the entire catalogue of Nismo goodies thrown at them. Only 20 were made, and the entire run sold out, fast.

But long before the world had clapped its eyes on the Z-tune, Nismo was happy to help customers create their own ultimate GT-R. If you took your own R34 to Nismo Ė and it didnít matter which; Nismo would mod GT-Rs, V-specs and even the super rare NŁr versions Ė and if it was deemed fit enough, you could apply some of the same flavour of components that would later make up a Z. The R34 weíve got here is one of those.

Back in 2000 the full R-tune package would have represented well over half the value of the car being converted. But you certainly got your moneyís worth.

Like the 400R package, the complete R-tune kit covered everything from suspension to aero mods.

But the heart was the R1 engine. Nismo produced 70-80 of these monster straight-sixes, based on the tougher N1-spec RB engine, but only around 25 R34s received it as part of the full R-tune upgrade, making them almost as rare as the legendary Z-tune.

Hunkered down close to Rockinghamís tarmac this R34 looks like evil personified, and all the better for the non-standard spacers fitted to push those LM GT4 wheels right out to the edge of the genuine Nismo arch extensions. A massive plank of a spoiler Ė mounted on Midori carbon risers Ė towers over the rear end whose bootlid wears the familiar GT-R badge in one corner, and the important (but pretty nastylooking) R1 sticker on the other.

The car here is even rarer than most because its built around a GT500 block, a component normally reserved for Nismoís full-blown competition machines. That doesnít mean more power, but it did mean more strength for tuners who really wanted to push the envelope, plus it makes for some serious bragging rights at GTROC meets. Though giving away 200cc to the 400R, the R1 motor makes significantly more power, almost 335kW, compared to a claimed 206kW (but actually more like 246kW) from a stock R34. Like the 400 you need to wind it up first, again, to around 4000rpm, before the fireworks start. This time there are six gears to play with, instead of the R33ís

The R-tune is fast enough to make your palms moist and your throat dry

ĎI wish I could have taken part in Le Mansí

We talk to Kozo Watanabe, the genius behind the Skyline GT-R and Nismo

What cars inspired you during the GT-Rís development?

When we developed the R32 GT-R, we referred to steering wheel information, including tyre rigidity (feel or steering precision), from Porscheís 944 Turbo. But we didnít refer to any other cars from other manufacturers after that.

Do you have a favourite modification that you were able to make during the development of the Skyline GT-Rs you worked on?

We tried to develop a twopedal setup with Toroidal CVT, but we chose not to as we knew most customers would tune their engines after purchase.

The record-breaking R33 Nordschleife run really made

the rest of the world take notice. Were you confident you could break the eightminute barrier?

No, I wasnít certain until I saw the lap time monitor when the car crossed the finish line. With our analysis, we estimated we could achieve eight minutes and two seconds at best.

I believe the invisible force of the íRing strongly pushed our car.

Is it true you considered moving to a V6 for the R34?

Yes. The basic concept of all the Skylines was to deliver technological innovation to customers. In line with this concept, for the R34 we wanted to propose a new Skyline image with front mid-ship layout and a V6 engine. However, building a V6 engine for the Skyline meant constructing an additional engine production line, which required huge investment. After long consideration, we were forced to give up.

Can you tell us about your activities at Nismo before you retired?

At Nismo, I was a member of the board and my responsibilities varied from motorsport planning, sales and engineering. I had a really good time there. I supported the development of the R34 Z-tune, and also managed the Dakar Rally project that Nissan Europe participated in as a works team.

You worked on many different vehicles during your career but were there any projects that you wished you had worked on?

I am not the kind of person who looks back, as I did everything I could do each time. However, I wish I could have taken part in the 2000 Le Mans 24 Hours race and taken overall victory.

We won the Fuji 1000km Race with the Nissan R391 in 1999 and earned an invitation to the 2000 Le Mans 24 Hours.

Whatís in your garage?

Nissan Skyline GT-Rs and a Lotus Elan.

five, meaning it should be easier to keep the engine buzzing, although the change isnít as sweet.

This is a quick car. Not R35 quick, maybe, but fast enough to make your palms moist and your throat dry, and definitely fast enough that you havenít really got time to spend looking at the reams of data available on the digital display plonked on top of the dashboard above the central air vents. Itís still plasticky in here, and much of the switchgear feels dated, but the cabin is decidedly more modern than the R33ís and those seats with their big shoulder wings and strange covering of grippy spots, feel fabulous.

The ride Ė not so much. The R-tune coilovers feel optimised for scything through Rockinghamís fast banked turns or harnessing the R34ís 1600kg mass through the infieldís left-right transitions. But on the road they feel harsh and unforgiving. The steering is great though Ė perfectly weighted and full of feedback, and the brakes, with six-pot Brembos up front in place of the 400Rís fours, feel immensely strong.

Despite the array of technology onboard this pair, including four-wheel steering and four-wheel drive, both are anything but boring and computer-like to drive. Benefiting from a newer base car with a shorter wheelbase and lower weight, plus an engine pushing out more power, the R-tune is just that bit sharper to steer, though a bit short on bumpy-road composure.

However, flicking through the pictures as I write, itís the 400R I keep coming back to. Those now very period looks, its historical importance as a genuine full Nismo car and, of course, grainy memories of hooning one around Trial Mountain with a worn-out hand controller all those years ago. Back then I didnít really appreciate what made cars like the 400R and R-tune so special, so much more than simply GT-Rs.

Consider that fixed. M

Both Nismos are anything but boring and computer-like to drive

Heavy Hitters

Nismoís ultimate Skylines

NISSAN GT-R R33 400R

ENGINE 2771cc inline-6, DOHC, 24v DRIVETRAIN 5-speed manual, all-wheel drive POWER 300kW @ 6800rpm TORQUE 470Nm @ 4400rpm WEIGHT 1550kg 0-100KM/H 4.0sec (estimate) TOP SPEED 300km/h PRICE (NEW) $300,000 (estimate, in 2017 dollars)

NISSAN GT-R R34 R-TUNE

ENGINE 2568cc inline-6, DOHC, 24v DRIVETRAIN 6-speed manual, all-wheel drive POWER 335kW @ 7200rpm TORQUE 540Nm @ 4000rpm WEIGHT 1600kg 0-100KM/H 4.0sec (estimate) TOP SPEED 290km/h PRICE (NEW) $300,000 (estimate, in 2017 dollars)