Words by Andy Butler
When the Nissan Skyline GT-R BNR32 appeared back in August 1989, it had been conceived with one goal in mind: to win in Group A motor racing and put Nissan at the top of the pile occupied by cars such as the Ford Sierra RS500 Cosworth and the BMW M3. To say it was a success would be a gross understatement, and to list all of its achievements would be an article in itself.
To give you an idea of its successes, the GT-R took 29 out of 29 wins in the Japanese Group A championship over four years. GT-Rs dominated the Japanese N1 category from the moment they started competing, and they won other major events, like the Nurburgring 24 Hours (in Group N) and the Spa 24 Hours (in Group A and Group N). Nothing has dominated its particular area of motorsport to the same degree, so that’s probably why the Skyline GT-R is such a performance icon today.
Central to its design was a sophisticated four-wheel-drive system. This would allow the car to fully utilise anything up to 550bhp coming from the new RB26DETT 2.6-litre DOHC twin-turbo engine. Tyre technology wasn’t as advanced as it is today, and asking a pair of rear wheels to do anything other than spin up and shred rubber was a none-starter with that amount of beef going through them.
Snappily known as ATTESA E-TS – which is short for Advance Total Traction Engineering System All terrains Electronic Torque Split – the system was a major step forward compared to other four-wheel-drive systems, most of which employed a permanent 50/50 front/rear torque split. In normal driving conditions, 100 per cent of the Skyline’s power is sent to the rear wheels, allowing the front wheels to cope with steering and braking, unhindered by the need to provide drive, as well. But, when road conditions dictate, up to 50 per cent of the power can be filtered through to the front wheels as necessary.
The clever bit is the way that the car turns into a corner. The ATTESA system reduces the power fed to the front wheels to make the car behave like a purely rear-wheel-drive car, with its better turn-in characteristics and nicely-balanced handling. Racing drivers at the time found that the fastest way to get a GT-R through a corner was to brake heavily on the way into a bend to unsettle the rear and provoke it into oversteer, so that the rear of the car begins to come around. Then, as the bend opens up, and with all four wheels once again in line, to apply progressively more power, allowing the ATTESA E-TS to deploy the torque through the wheels with the most grip.
The ATTESA E-TS system monitors lateral acceleration, as well as wheel speed at each corner, to work out where to send the power – and how much. This is achieved through the use of an electronically-controlled hydraulic unit that operates a centrally-mounted multi-plate clutch. As the control I unit picks up the differences in signals coming from individual wheels, it applies pressure to the multi-plate clutch to vary the torque split between the front and rear. Then, when the lateral G kicks in, the torque split is returned to the usual rear-wheel bias to aid cornering performance.
To further help stability and turn-in, Nissan’s engineers came up with the Super HICAS rear-wheel-steering system, which was designed to improve the car’s turn-in characteristics and balance through a turn. How successfully this works is open to debate, but some drivers who race the cars reckon that it’s best disabled. Whatever the merits of the system, it showed that the boffins were trying everything they could to get the car through bends as quickly and predictably as possible.
After all the techno-wizardry of the transmission and steering systems, the suspension is fairly straightforward, if extremely good at its job. Based on a sophisticated version of unequal-length !r upper and lower control arms, with additional links and knuckles, the design allows the dampers to provide tight control and to operate in a linear fashion – one inch of wheel movement gives one inch of damper travel. The end result is a car that handles beautifully, turns in to corners without understeering, and is simply devastating on the track.
For the regular R32 GT-Rs, the braking system was based around four-piston calipers and 296mm vented discs up front, and two-piston calipers and 297mm solid discs at the rear, all looked after by an ABS brain. At the time the car was launched, these brakes were praised but, by today’s standards, they leave a little to be desired when worked hard. When the `-Spec arrived in 1993 it wore the Brembo kit that became standard issue on the R33 GT-R – and braking performance improved considerably. The forged-alloy fivespoke wheels did a good job of allowing cooling air through to the rotors and calipers, but these were swapped for larger 17in BBS rims on the V-Spec.
Although the Skyline was a big car, Nissan tried to keep the weight down by fitting an aluminium bonnet and front wings but, even so, it was no lightweight. To put it into context, its great rival, the Sierra Cosworth, was around 200kg lighter. It still didn’t stop the Nissan from giving the Sierra a good kicking on the track but, with less weight, it might have done even better. The GT-R was also much less aerodynamic than the Cossie, with its CD of 0.40, but those spoilers and wheel arch bulges were all bred from necessity, and there was plenty of power to keep everything rolling quickly.
Inside the Skyline R32, the cabin was typically Japanese and low-key, but looks dated now. Ergonomically there was a lot to like, with the most used switches a finger-stretch from the steering wheel. The instruments in the binnacle were dominated by the tacho and speedo. The centre console held another three gauges, including one for reading boost pressure, but there was nothing extraneous or flashy. For a two-door coupe, the interior room was good, and the shapely front seats were praised at the time for their comfort and support. Ride quality was a little jiggly at low speed, but remarkably supple when pressing on.
To see just how good it was on track, one UK motoring magazine took a GT-R to the Nurburgring in 1990 to give it a good thrashing at this notoriously difficult circuit. By chance, a German magazine had also arrived to do some comparison tests between the Porsche 928GT, Mercedes 500SL and the BMW M5. To get the best results from each car, they had hired in a few professional racing drivers, and sent them out while the UK and Japanese journos were playing with the GT-R. You can guess where this is going, can’t you? Even with the scribblers behind the wheel, the GT-R was quicker than all three pro-driven German supercars.
Through its lifetime, the R32 GT-R was slightly revised four times and, after three straight Japanese Group A championship wins, the Victory Specification (V-Spec) was released alongside the regular version in February 1993. With its better Brembo brakes, bigger BBS rims, re-jigged suspension and revised four-wheel-drive system, the weight had risen a little, but the limited edition status ensured it sold well.
A year later, the V-Spec II was launched because the GT R had notched up yet another Group A championship win. This is the most exclusive of the R32 models with just 1303 built, but the first V-Spec wasn’t exactly common, with only 1453 vehicles made. The non-V-Spec model ran to 40,390 cars, which is a tremendous number of vehicles for a manufacturer to produce, given the level of performance and cost.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR
If you go to buy a GT-R from a private seller, you probably need to check him out as much as the car! Does he give the impression that he’s lavished care and attention on the Skyline, or does he look as if the cost of a good service would bankrupt him, so he’s probably never even topped up the oil? Buying a bargain-priced Skyline of any model can prove to be an incredibly costly experience if you pick up a neglected example, so be sure you’re happy that the owner is selling a car that’s been enjoyed and looked after, rather than trying to off-load a nightmare onto the first idiot who offers him some cash.
Of course, if you’re buying from a dealer, you’ll still need to check over the car just as carefully, even if it does come with a warranty. It’s amazing how many things aren’t covered on a guarantee, even if you think they should be. Bearing in mind the R32’s age you should be buying the car purely on its condition and the desirability of the extras it has, rather than sticking to a rigid idea of which year you want and how many miles you’ll put up with.
Have a listen to the engine and check that it’s got good oil pressure. Everything should be nice and quiet and the motor should rustle a bit at idle, not clatter and tap its nuts off! Be aware that, at 60-70,000 miles, you might want to start thinking about having the engine apart to freshen it up so, if it hasn’t been done already, there’s a large bill looming in the future.
Turbochargers can be a problem area if they are the standard ceramic-wheeled units, particularly if someone has wound up the boost a bit. The ceramic exhaust wheels fly apart when asked to provide anything above 1.Obar of boost, which is why most tuners will offer rebuilt standard units that have been fitted with steel exhaust wheels to stop the problem from recurring.
Crankshafts can also be a weak point if the engine has been over-revved. Brief trips round the rev counter to more than 7800rpm should be avoided but, below that, everything should be fine. Unfortunately, you can’t really tell if the motor has been over-revved until something lets go but, if you’re looking at a car with a motor that feels rough at higher revs, it could be a sign that all is not as it should be. Six-cylinder motors have perfect primary balance, so they should be smooth all the way round the rev counter.
Because the standard pipe is so restrictive, it shouldn’t be a surprise if the car has a non-standard exhaust fitted. And, if the car is pre-1992, you shouldn’t worry about whether there’s a cat fitted or not, because it’s not a legal requirement. On later R32s you’ll need a cat at MoT time so, if there’s a decal pipe fitted, make sure the original catalytic converter is available, or get some money off the asking price to compensate.
Although some people do give the five-speed Nissan gearbox a bit of a slating, it’s a really robust unit that can take an incredible amount of torque, considering it comes with under 300bhp from the factory. It doesn’t like to be shifted too quickly, though, otherwise you can trick out the synchros in the higher gears, so checking how the fourth/fifth change feels is a good idea. Ideally, you need to be travelling above 100mph in fourth, and to then swap up into top gear, so this isn’t that practical a suggestion on an urban test-drive! If there’s a gnashing of teeth, the synchro could be past its sell-by date. But, if the change is smooth and noise-free, make sure you keep it like that by driving with a little mechanical sympathy.
In typical Japanese fashion, the R32 electronics are pretty solid and there are no common faults to worry about. If there are any oddities, like warning lamps coming on for no reason, it’s almost certainly down to poor earthing between the battery and various components under the bonnet. Running a few extra earth cables, and cleaning up the existing points where the cables terminate, can stop any weird symptoms from occurring.
One fault that happens on a few cars involves the wiring on the coil packs that live on top of the motor beneath the central spark plug cover. The engine runs hotter on tuned versions and, over time, these looms can break down but, apart from this, everything else seems sorted.
Of course, this doesn’t account for any poor wiring that a previous owner may have done, and some of the wiring we’ve seen that’s been used to fit additional computers and gauges is plain scary! This shouldn’t be a problem if you’re buying a car that’s been in the UK for a while, but be aware that any Jap-fitted bits could be wired by a trained spaghetti tangler. Any decent Skyline tuning shop should be able to sort out something like this, so don’t get too stuck in if you haven’t got a clear wiring diagram to follow, or you could make things worse.
Being a reasonably stealable product, your insurance company will almost certainly ask you for some form of alarm or immobiliser to validate your theft insurance. This will have to be Thatcham-approved, and that means you can’t just get one from an accessory shop and fit it yourself. Get a decent product, professionally installed, and you’ll have much better peace of mind. If there’s one fitted, make sure you get the certificate that comes with it, as your insurer will want proof.
These are something of a weak area on the R32 GT-R, unless it’s a Brembo-equipped V-Spec or V-Spec II, and then the Brembo bits are expensive to replace when they wear out. If you drive enthusiastically, you’ll probably want to uprate the Nissan brakes, but at least carry out a visual check on the discs (look for cracks and blued metal) to ensure that they’ll tide you over until you can sort out something better.
Because there were so many more R32s available in Japan, a great number have found their way onto circuits, and so there are lots of modified cars wearing track-orientated or even drift suspension. This could prove to be far too stiff for regular road use so, if you’re looking at a car with fancy adjustable coilovers, have a good test drive to make sure you can live with the ride quality.
As standard, the GT-R isn’t exactly soft, but it is a pretty good compromise between comfort and handling. During the test drive everything should feel nice and tight, and you should listen for knocks and bangs that could point to worn out suspension bushes or dampers that will need swapping to restore the car’s good manners. These are all old cars, and the rubber bushes soften with age, so be prepared to shell out for a revamp here.
WHEELS AND TYRES
Originally running on 8x16in rims, these early R32s can be improved by fitting bigger wheels. That’s why so many cars are sporting larger rims with lower-profile rubber. There are no problems with running 17s, as proved by the V-Spec cars that came with BBS alloys that size, but anything much bigger can adversely affect the handling. While you’re checking the wheel size and tyre condition, also have a close look at the rims for signs of scuff damage that might point to the suspension geometry being slightly out. If a wheel looks like it’s had a biff, check the tyre treads closely to see if there’s any feathering round the edges that may signal mis-aligned settings.
After at least ten years, R32 GT-Rs are proving to be pretty good-from a corrosion point of view. There are a couple of areas to look at to make sure the tinworm hasn’t got hold but, if they check out OK, the rest of the body should be fine. If the car is a new import, check the body and then get some underseal applied to keep it nice and fresh.
The main areas that can give problems are the rear wheel arches and the rear of the inner sills. Another area to watch out for is the lower edge of the back window but, if you’re happy that these bits are solid, you shouldn’t get any nasty surprises. Just have a good check to see if there are any tell-tale signs that the vehicle has been in a shunt and had some dodgy bodywork done that will need redoing at some point in the future.
The V-Spec limited edition (of just 1453 cars) was introduced in 1993 to celebrate the Skyline winning three consecutive Group A race championships in Japan. It differed visually from the regular GT-R in having larger 17in BBS alloys wearing 225/20 rubber. The suspension was lower and stiffer, the engine produced slightly more torque, the rear ‘active’ diff was electronically controlled and, last but not least, the brakes were upgraded to 324mm front discs with Brembo four-pot callipers and 300mm rear discs.
For 1994 Nissan another limited edition, called the V-spec II – just 1303 were produced. From the information we have the only difference from the earlier V-Spec appears to be the fitment of slightly wider wheels wearing 245/45 section tyres. This was probably to homologate the wider wheels for racing use.