The origin story of a legend.
This wasn’t a good week for fans of fast Nissans. Just three days before Christmas, its moonshot Le Mans program, which fielded a wild front-engined, front wheel drive car in the storied race, was unceremoniously canceled. Nissan’s U.S.-based employees were notified of their firing via email and the manufacturer hasn’t announced plans to reenter LMP1 at a later date.
In light of this sad news, now seems as good a time as ever to revisit one of Nissan’s past motorsport glories, the R32 Skyline GT-R. While many car lovers know of the R32 GT-Rs greatness, not everyone knows its racing history.
According to Dennis Gorodji’s book Nissan GT-R: Born to Race, Nissan was struggling in the mid-1980s and the R32’s predecessor, the lackluster R31 Skyline, didn’t help matters. Nissan’s executives decided to reverse the company’s fortunes with the R32, with a racing GT-R model planned from the outset.
The GT-R moniker was a bit of a sacred cow for Nissan at the time, previously worn on the 1969-1972 Skyline GT-R, which had great competition success. Nissan, it seems, went with a “win on Sunday, sell on Monday” approach for its upcoming sports coupe.
While the R31 Skyline was somewhat akin to a Japanese BMW 3 Series, with its RWD chassis and engine choices topping out with a 210 horsepower straight-six, the R32 Skyline GT-R was more like a spaceship.
With homologation in the FIA’s Group A class always in mind, Nissan’s engineers developed a 2.6-liter twin turbo straight-six engine dubbed RB26DETT. Had Nissan gone for a 2.8-liter motor, it would force the car into a class with a weight minimum of 1340 kg (2954 lb). The 2.6-liter allowed it to enter the car in a class with a minimum weight of 1260 kg (2778 lb).
The street version of this engine made about 320 horsepower stock though it produced more than 600 horsepower in race trim. To cope with the prodigious power, Nissan engineers fit the R32 GT-R with an advanced all-wheel-drive system called ATTESSA E-TS, apparently taking inspiration from the Porsche 959.
Like the 959, the GT-R used an electro-hydraulic clutch to split torque between the front and the rear, but where the Porsche split torque based on the car’s weight distribution on the move, the GT-R remained rear wheel drive until the rear wheels lost traction.
Both of these all-wheel-drive systems were ferociously complex, but Gorodji’s book breaks it down well. The Porsche always sent 20% of its torque to the front wheels, which Nissan’s engineers thought contributed to understeer. Nissan’s system kept the car fully rear wheel drive at corner exit to preserve maximum grip of the front tires.
Fairly incredible technology for the time period.
One year after the roadgoing Skyline GT-R’s introduction in 1989, Nissan released the lighter weight NISMO GT-R in 1990, building 560 examples to homologate the GT-R for Group A racing. The NISMO road car allowed Nissan to homologate specific go-fast parts just for racing, according to SpeedHunters.
Quickly, the GT-R emerged as a dominant force in Group A racing. According to EVO, GT-Rs won all 29 races of the Japanese Touring Car Championship entered, took victory at the 1991 Spa 24 Hour race and decimated the competition in Australian racing. The GT-Rs victories in Australia – three Group A Championships between 1990-1992 and 1st place at the Bathurst 1000 in 1991 and 1992 – led the local press to dub the GT-R “Godzilla.”
An appropriate nickname if there ever was one.
Watching videos of Group A GT-Rs in period, it’s easy to see how Godzilla earned its reputation. The way it puts power down on corner exit is unlike anything else of the period.
“It’s this turn-in agility followed by the ability to put all its power down on the way out of corners that made the GT-R such a formidable weapon,” said British autojournalist Richard Meaden in an article for EVO on driving the iconic Calsonic-sponsored GT-R.
“A Group A [Ford] Sierra RS500 was lighter and had 500-550bhp, but with rear-wheel-drive it couldn’t match the traction, especially over longer runs. To be fair to Ford, nothing else could.“
The GT-Rs success was so great in Australia, the Australian Touring Car Championship’s governing body reportedly forced the series into a two make championship, consisting of GM-Holden and Ford, a predecessor for today’s V8 Supercars series. This ended the GT-R’s Australian reign, as turbocharging and all-wheel-drive was no longer allowed in the series.
It’s the R32 GT-R’s incredible motorsport success and subsequent inclusion in the Gran Turismo franchise that made Godzilla an automotive icon. It might not have saved Nissan going in the 1990s, but it did give birth to its most beloved icon.
We hope the cancelation of its LMP1 program isn’t the last moonshot project for Nissan. While the front-wheel-drive GT-R LM Nismo was ultimately a failure, it was built in the same spirit as the mighty Godzilla.