OK, so strictly speaking the very first Nissan Skyline GT-R actually appeared some 20 years earlier. Indeed, the installation of a 160bhp 2-litre engine in the rather unspectacular-looking 1960s Skyline saloon created a car every bit as formidable in its day as its namesakes of the ’90s and beyond. But it wasn’t until 1989, 16 years after that first line of GT-Rs was killed off by the 1973 oil crisis, that the hi-tech ethos synonymous with the badge today would first be established.
Just as before, though, the new GT-R would be based on the humble Skyline, in this case Nissan’s eighth-generation, ‘E-BNR32’ version, and a potent engine would still be a vital part of the package. Nismo, Nissan’s motorsport division, was charged with developing the car, not least because the R32 GT-R would replace the soon-to-be-retired R31 GTS-R racer on the track. To this end, it planned to fit the new car with a 308bhp 2350cc twin-turbo in-line six, which would put the GT-R in the 4000cc class once its engine capacity had been multiplied by the 1.7 ‘equivalency factor’ for turbo cars, as stipulated by the Group A regs of the time.
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However, to ensure the R32 had an edge over its rivals, chief engineer Naganori Itoh wanted to go further. Taking inspiration from the Porsche 959, a car he admired greatly, he asked his team to develop a hi-tech four-wheel-drive system. The resulting ATTESA E-TS Pro – or Advanced Total Traction Engineering System for All-Electronic Torque Split – would employ a number of sensors to monitor lateral acceleration and individual wheel speeds, enabling an electronically controlled, hydraulically operated multiplate clutch pack to send up to 50 per cent of the GT-R’s drive to the front wheels when required.
Supported by Super-HICAS – a retuned version of the HICAS (High Capacity Actively Controlled Suspension) four-wheel-steer system found on some lesser Skylines – the GT-R’s chassis would undoubtedly give it a handling and traction advantage, but there was a downside to all this tech: it added weight. Nismo’s solution was to increase the engine capacity to 2568cc, bumping the car into the 4500cc class where its rivals would be subject to a heavier minimum weight.
When the roadgoing R32 Skyline GT-R went on sale in August 1989, the 2.6-litre engine was officially rated at 276bhp – the maximum permitted by the ‘gentlemen’s agreement’ on power outputs in Japan at the time. In reality, however, it produced well over 300bhp, which when combined with the car’s phenomenal handling and relatively affordable price ensured rave reviews. Wheels magazine in Australia – one of the GT-R’s main export markets – had no hesitation in branding the new arrival a supercar, and famously called it ‘Godzilla on wheels’.
Australian race fans, however, weren’t impressed when the GT-R began trouncing their beloved Fords and Holdens on track, not least at the Bathurst 1000 in 1991 and ’92. The second of these wins for the Nissan would prove particularly unpopular, coming as a result of the race being red-flagged after a sudden downpour caused a number of slick-shod cars to have accidents. Even though the GT-R of Jim Richards and Mark Skaife was amongst the casualties, as it had been leading at the end of the preceding lap it was declared the winning car, much to the disappointment of the crowd, who booed Richards and Skaife when they took to the podium. Richards responded by calling them ‘a pack of arseholes’…
Back home, the GT-R would dominate the Japanese Touring Car Championship, winning four years in succession from 1990 and fuelling demand for the roadgoing GT-R. The original plan to build just 5000 R32 GT-Rs to satisfy homologation was soon abandoned; by the time production of the R32 ended in 1994 nearly 44,000 had been sold and Nissan had a new performance icon.