The clutch is going to be a problem. That much is clear from the get-go. It’s a Nismo twin-disc unit with an abrupt pickup that will take some getting used to. I almost stall the car.
I’m in one of the nicest and best preserved Nissan Skyline R32 GT-Rs in America. That clutch and the goofy aftermarket audio head unit, which looks like it’s from Pep Boys, are the only non-stock pieces on this entire car. Original wheels, unmodified engine, transmission and all-wheel drive system. Stock suspension. This car even wears its original exhaust system. Its interior is perfect and its black paint was applied in the factory. After 30 years there isn’t a mark on it. The odometer read 38,985 kilometers. That’s 24,225 miles. If there was ever a time-warp to early-’90s Japan, this is it.
Struggling with the clutch, I merge into traffic on Cerritos Avenue in Los Angeles and head for the freeway. Nissan only built R32 Skylines with right-hand drive, and being on the wrong side of the car is disorienting as I navigate through the endless clutter of L.A. With each mile I’m getting better at shifting gears with my left hand, and after flipping on the wipers several times by mistake I’ve made peace with the Nissan’s turn signal stalk being on the right side of the steering wheel. The rear view mirror, on the left, still takes some getting used to.
The GT-R belongs to Toprank International Vehicle Importers in Cypress, California. Toprank specializes in importing cars from Japan that are at least 25 years old. Cars of that vintage meet are exempt from broad import restrictions set by the National Traffic Highway Safety Administration, as well as past the Environmental Protection Agency’s 21-year exemption. Today TopRank’s inventory includes several FD-generation Mazda RX-7s, a Honda Beat, a couple of Nissan Figaros, an NSX, and a sweet EG-generation Honda Civic Si. But Toprank’s bread and butter are Nissan Skyline R32s, which were built between 1989 and 1994. I count eight in the current inventory, including a rare factory GT-R Nismo and our black GT-R creampuff. The company sells about 10 Skyline R32s a month.
These cars are exploding in popularity as more Generation Xers are spending their tech money on the cars they dreamt about in high school. For many, Godzilla is at the top of that list. And prices have risen with demand, as we mention in our R32 buyer’s guide.
After about 10 miles I’m impressed with the R32’s overall refinement. It’s a Cadillac compared to a new Nissan R35 GT-R, which rides like a stagecoach. Rolling on 16x8-inch wheels and 225/50-16 tires, the R32’s ride is extremely comfortable. Many modern sedans aren’t this compliant. Body control is exceptional and the steering isn’t too heavy like it can be in modern Nissans. Also, the ratio and diameter of the three-spoke factory steering wheel are perfect and the response is pleasingly linear.
The refinement and response of the Skyline’s inline six-cylinder engine is also a surprise. It’s extremely smooth and very quiet. I can feel a little vibration in the seat as the solid lifter engine idles at 1000 rpm, but just barely. And its bottom end torque and linear power delivery are unexpected. The real power comes on about 5000 rpm but it doesn’t hit hard, it’s more like a surge and then it never lets up even as the 2.6-liter pulls past its 7500 rpm redline.
Nissan never sold its legendary RB26DETT engine in America. Too bad, it was an engineering wonder when it debuted in 1989 featuring dual mass airflow sensors, parallel twin-turbos with ceramic exhaust wheels (each one feeds three cylinders), six throttle bodies, an aluminum cylinder head, oil cooled pistons and coil on plug ignition. The compression ratio is only 8.5:1 so it runs well on pump gas even in California where the highest octane available is 91. Stock boost is 10 psi.
Nissan rated the engine at 276 hp at 6800 rpm, and 266 lb-ft of torque at 4400 rpm. Today, in the age of 300-hp Nissan Maximas with CVTs, those numbers don’t sound like much, but they were huge when these cars were new, and it was widely accepted to a conservative horsepower estimate. The engine revs quickly like it has a light flywheel and there isn’t much time to pull off gear changes at wide open throttle. The five-speed manual is essentially the same unit Nissan installed in the 300ZX Turbo and its gears are short. Around town the car is happiest in third or fourth gear with the engine around 3500 rpm. Throttle response is immediate and the shifter’s throws and gates are tight. It feels mechanical, something we can’t take for granted with modern cars, if they have a manual transmission at all.
At over 180 inches long, the Skyline is not a small car. And despite its aluminum front fenders and hood R32 GT-Rs aren’t particularly light either. According to Sean Morris, the director of Toprank who has been involved in the import of GT-Rs since 1999, his personal R32 GT-R Nismo, which is the lightest of the R32 models, weighs 3500 pounds with almost a full tank of fuel. From behind the wheel, however, the GT-R feels small and light. The pillars are very thin and the seating position is upright so visibility is excellent, although the rear view is compromised some by the sizable rear spoiler.
Also, the chassis feels tight. This low mileage example doesn’t have any squeaks or rattles and there’s no flex as we articulate the suspension on steep driveways.
Traffic is light as I merge onto the 605 freeway southbound toward the beach. By now I’ve mastered the grabby clutch and have grown accustomed to the right hand drive. At an indicated 120 kph I upshift to fifth gear, roll up the windows and hit the air conditioning, which is ice cold, and relax a bit. I check the gauges and there are many, including dials on the center stack for boost, oil temperature and voltage. Morris told me there should be about 10 pounds of oil pressure for every 1000 rpm and the gauge, which reads in Bar, is right where it should be.
I get a thumbs up from a guy in a 370Z. And another from a couple in a new lifted Ford F-250. Most people don’t notice this car, but those who know… know. Others spot the right-hand drive and do a double take.
Morris and his team have fitted the car with a fresh set of Bridgestone Potenza RE-71R rubber, and there’s plenty of grip as I push the R32 on a few fast fourth-gear freeway off- and on-ramps. With all-wheel drive and the R32’s Super HICAS rear-steer system this isn’t the environment to explore the car’s ample limits, but its stability is impressive. It’s an easy car to drive quickly. The HICAS system, which makes small adjustments to the rear suspension alignment as you drive, was also on the 300ZX Turbo and some owners complained of its odd “feel” and disabled the system, which is easy to do. Morris says it’s functional on this particular car, but in these conditions and at this pace I can’t feel the system working.
There is no traction control system, but R32s (except for a few rare special models) do have ABS. There’s plenty of stopping power from the four-wheel disc system, which features 11.6-inch cross-drilled front rotors and four-piston calipers, but the pedal is a bit soft and numb by today’s standards.
With the sun sunk into the Pacific, I return the GT-R safely to Toprank, parking it between a Gun Grey Metallic GT-R Nismo and a yellow FD RX-7. Morris appears out from under the open hood of the Nismo. I reluctantly hand him the key and tell him what he already knows: Godzilla lives up to the hype.
He smiles. “The next generation car, the R33 GTS-t, turns 25 years old in August and then the R33 GT-R in January of 2020. That’s when well start bringing those in,” he says. “I’ll let you know when I get the first ones. You can take them for a spin.”
He doesn’t need to twist my arm. I’m already hungry for more GT-R.