If you asked a bunch of ordinary folk to nominate the longest-standing and most recognisable sporty model badge, chances are that Volkswagen's 1976 'GTI' would top the poll. But there's one that's been around even longer: GT-R. Applied to the Nissan Skyline, it's been a byword for engineered performance since the first C10 Skyline-based GT-R appeared in 1969.
Powered by a 160hp 2.0-litre inline-six, that first GT-R was doing very well on Japanese racetracks until Mazda's light and powerful rotary RX-3 came along. Even so, the GT-R brand was still looking set for glory, but the legend was put on hold in 1973 when the global oil crisis cut the production line for the next model - the amazing-looking 'Kenmeri' coupe, based on the 1972-77 C110 Skyline - down to just six months. If you manage to find a clean C110 Kenmeri GT-R in a barn somewhere, get it bought. Fewer than two hundred of them were ever built.
Although the GT-R badge was then politically mothballed for 16 years, fast Skylines did continue to be made, first in GT-EX and RS form and then as the 1981-on R31 GTS-X and Touring Car homologation GTS-R models. When the GT-R name finally reappeared on Japanese roads in 1989 in the form of a small posse of R32-based cars, it was clear that Nissan hadn't lost the knack.
This was the first 'proper' swollen-bodywork Skyline GT-R, a car designed from the ground up as a Porsche 959-rivalling production racer with roadgoing versions available. Its twin-turbo RB26 2.6-litre inline-six, which like all RB (Race Bred) engines had belt-driven cams and a cast iron block, supposedly adhered to the 280hp 'gentleman's agreement' power limit that was in force on the Japanese domestic market at the time, but even the 300hp+ the R32 GT-R was thought to be actually producing was still a long way under the 500hp it was blueprinted for. With all-wheel drive delivering up to half of the torque to the front wheels, the R32 GT-R carved 25 seconds off the 'Ring production record, won the domestic Touring Car championship five years running, and smashed the Sierra Cosworths at Bathurst, a feat that gave rise to its Godzilla nickname.
Longer, wider and stiffer. That was the porny-sounding recipe for the mid-1990s R33 GT-R. A lot of effort was put into weight reduction and optimisation too, allowing Ringmeister Dirk Schoysmann to take the GT-R into the seven-minute zone, making it the first production car to do so. In 1996 a 2.8-litre, 400hp road version of Nissan's Le Mans engine was used to create the Nismo 400R. Just 44 of these were made at a cost of 12 million yen each, or just under £93,000 in today's money.
In 1999 the new R34 GT-R appeared. It was shorter than the R33, which reduced rear passenger space a bit, and it had a smaller front overhang. Its RB26 twin-turbo six was still rated at 276hp at 7,000rpm, which was supposedly enough with all the traction tech to give the 1,560kg car a 0-60 time of 4.8 seconds and a top whack of 165mph. More on that later.
Back in Japan, buyers were keen to seize on any opportunity to express their individuality, and Nissan was more than happy to oblige them with a range of excitingly-named specs. Let's have a quick ramble through what a Japanese enthusiast could choose from in the all-too-short three-year period of R34 GT-R production from 1999 to 2002. (Disclaimer: even marque experts can get blindsided by the GT-R mix-and-matchery that Nissan went in for on the domestic market, so please try to control your anger when posting corrections, of which there will undoubtedly be some.)
The base GT-R was supposed to have 276hp, as noted, but it's believed that the true figure was nearer to 327hp, with 289lb ft of torque. All GT-Rs had aluminium bonnets, mechanical LSDs front and rear, and Nissan's ATTESA all-wheel-drive system that could redirect up to 50 per cent of the torque to the front wheels within a thousandth of a second.
The V-Spec (for 'Victory') changed the mechanical rear LSD to an 'Active' electronic one. It also had stiffer suspension, carbon diffusers front and rear, extra oil cooling, a new ECU map and a more sophisticated ATTESA E-TS PRO system with G-sensors to split torque electronically, not just back-to-front but also side-to-side at the rear. The Multi-Function Display added new readouts on exhaust and intake temperatures and the boost gauge was upgraded.
It's funny to think now that when Nissan took the decision in 1999 to import 80 of these V-Spec GT-Rs into the UK, with cars making their way to owners in early 2000, there wasn't all that much excitement surrounding them. GT-Rs were seen as a bit old-fashioned - understandably enough perhaps, as the flared-out body shape had been around for the best part of a decade by then. Nissan routed all these cars through Middlehurst Motorsport in St Helens with a brief for them to be 'Euro-proofed' for high-speed driving (Japanese GT-Rs were limited to 112mph, remember) with three extra oil coolers, even stiffer suspension, a new ECU map, and Connolly leather seats.
The V-Spec II which replaced the V-Spec in October 2000 featured a carbon fibre bonnet with a NACA duct, thinner window glass, clear front indicators, reflectors in place of the side indicators, and black electric folding door mirrors in place of colour coded ones. Inside, the centre console was in darker iridium. the pedals were aluminium and the stitching on the door trims and the (now black instead of grey) cloth seats switched from red to white. The suspension was stiffer than the V-Spec's and the rear brake discs were bigger.
The N1 versions of either V-Spec car were Super Endurance Racing Group N homologation specials, featuring a blueprinted engine with a stronger block, pistons, rods, and rings, a bigger engine oil cooler, high-performance oil and water pumps, an exclusive high-flow exhaust manifold and slightly larger turbochargers with all-steel turbines in place of the lighter but less strong hybrid steel/ceramic items. That increased lag slightly but created a stronger base for tuning. The crank was stock. Weight was saved in the N1 cars by deleting stuff like aircon, stereo, and the rear wiper. The carbon bonnet on the V-Spec II N1 was left unpainted.
M-Spec cars (M for Mizuno, Nissan's chief engineer) were the cushy option with softer 'Ripple Control' suspension and different foam in the heated leather seats for a smoother ride, albeit with a stiffer anti-roll bar. These Ms also had a couple of new paint options including Champagne Gold.
Nür cars were the last GT-Rs to be built in significant numbers. Just over a thousand of them were made in the last year of production (2002), around a quarter of them as M-Specs and the rest as V-Spec IIs, both with the N1 engines. Nür spec cars had 300km/h speedos, cast Nür badges and gold rocker covers. It's said that every single Nür was spoken for on the day of release.
The very last R34 GT-R was the Nismo-concocted Z-Tune of 2003. Just twenty of these RB28 2.8-litre cars were created to celebrate Nismo's 20 years in the tuning biz. Powered by GT2/GT500-racer-derived engines putting out nearly 500hp at 6,800rpm and revving through to 8,000rpm, Z-Tunes were hand-built by Nismo from used cars (all with fewer than 29,000km on the clock) with no regard for cost and an abundance of often structural carbon bits. The louvred bonnet with engine bay vents at the screen end was fantastically exotic. These Z-Tunes reportedly did the 0-60 in 3.8 seconds and ran on to 203mph.
We'll fire across a few GT-Rs to buy at the end of the story, so get your wallets primed for that, but first let's have a quick ballpark chat about prices. Basically, there are no cheap R34 GT-Rs. Even the ropiest refugees from a yakuza impound are unlikely to trouble your account for less than £20,000, and most cars will be considerably more than that. Here, for example, is a Nür in the PH classifieds at £120,000. In terms of desirability, leaving the Z-Tune out, Nürs sit at the top of the R34 GT-R tree.
'Toyota's E-type', the 2000GT, has been a million-dollar car for a while now, and low-mile Lexus LFAs have long since whizzed past the half a million quid mark. Not far behind the LFA are the Z-Tunes. In 2015, Z-Tune chassis no 1 was up for sale at £400,000. A year later, chassis no 9 came up at £352,000. It was a glorious exit, especially as by all accounts the Z-Tune was a delight to drive despite its fearsome spec. In the classifieds right now you can find this rare F-Sport 2.8, a 550hp snip at £199,999.
In 2007 the GT-R exited the Skyline range and became a brand in its own right. Although it's still a twin-turbo six, the cylinders are nowadays arranged in a vee and the capacity is up to 3.8 litres, resulting in an R35 GT-R with a 200mph-plus top end and a 0-62mph time of under three seconds, which is tramping on a bit.
We'll doubtless put up a buyer's guide on the R35 at a later date, but for now let's home in on the all-wheel-drive R34s.
- Bodywork & Interior
The running gear of an R34 GT-R was heavy, so its designers were given some leeway on bodywork materials - forged alloy wheels, aluminium panels - to try and keep the overall weight down.The value of R34s, combined with their tendency to be hurled around the countryside at a rate of knots, means that the temptation to repair crash-damaged cars or to replace rusty sections is strong. Rust primarily affects the strut tops, rear arches and floorpan, and the area around the brake light on the steel boot lid as a result of water accumulating in the recess. The strut tops are awkward to put right so it will be a blessing if you find a car you're looking at has been properly rustproofed.
Good panel repairs are possible and needn't be a cause for concern, but look around for overspray on anything rubbery or on the diffusers as indicators of less diligent repair work. The state of the soundproofing under the bonnet will also give you useful clues as to the sort of life a car has led. The diffusers come in for a fair bit of battering on the road and are unlikely to be in pristine condition.
Inside, the clunky graphics of the 5.8-inch Multi-Function Display screen are a big part of its appeal. So are the tuner-friendly readouts it gives you on all sorts of in-depth engine type stuff - but these displays do conk out. A Nismo version was available as an option. That had cornering G-force info and a lap timer that was triggered by a button near the gear lever.
The age of these cars and their value nowadays makes them very susceptible to the charmingly old-world pursuit of clocking. Equally old-world examination of driver-interface items like the (gorgeous) steering wheel, pedals, gearknob and seat bolsters will give you a feel for the genuineness or otherwise of the mileage.
- Engine & Transmission
Anyone expecting the sanitised type of power curve commonly found in modern turbocharged cars will discover something refreshingly 'new' (ie old) in the 24-valve straight-six RB26DETT motor. Even without a kindergarten ECU remap to hoist power to 350hp, you get a surging kind of drive that never gets old. Power delivery is relatively mild up to 3,000rpm, at which point the turbo steps forward in an obvious kind of way before the engine reasserts itself again at higher revs.
This motor's strength, particularly in N1 spec, gives it the potential to handle considerably more power. The internet is full of 'megazilla' cars claiming anything up to 1,200hp. They might do that, but finding an owner who will let you put their car on a dyno to test the claim might be difficult. Certainly anything up to 600hp is a breeze in terms of everyday reliability.
Cams are driven by belt (5yrs/60k miles, £150 labour) and the valves are actuated by solid lifters. Forged internals, new cylinder heads and cams, big valves, porting and polishing - all the traditional tuning methods apply here. The fitment of monster exhausts to GT-Rs became something of a cliché, but there was some method behind this mod as the standard pipework was quite restrictive.
Specific points of weakness in the engine department include splitting of the vacuum line from the back of the plenum and fritzing of the coil packs. Given the size of your investment in a used R34, a cold-engine compression test is practically essential. At the very least you should whip off the cherry-red rocker cover for a look-see at the whirry bits. Regular oil servicing should have kept it all looking clean.
Mods to the ECU wiring and any under bonnet changes generally need to be investigated for your own peace of mind. Mass air flow sensors can fail. Keeping the alternator and battery in good nick will reduce the chances of your fuel pump going wrong.
Some owners say that the biggest problem they have with their R34s is the throttle pedal sticking to the floor. That's a joke, obviously, but the nature of the GT-R makes it attractive to those who like to march on, so costs for consumables other than petrol (which even on the official figures is swigged at a rate of 17mpg in town) will need to be borne in mind.
Working the six-speed Getrag box that was a new feature for the R34 is a meaty pleasure. The first five ratios were closely stacked to keep the engine on the boil, with an overdriven sixth for easier cruising and better economy. Even so, it didn't take long to drain the 65-litre tank. You do sense that this transmission, like the engine, is in it for the long haul, but popping out of first gear is not unknown, and there are quieter transmissions out there. Diligence on oil-changing will help long-term reliability.
The ATTESA four-wheel drive system needs to be functioning properly. Giving the car a hard launch will reveal plenty, and the beauty of the MFD is that it will tell you the torque split figures, which if you've launched it hard enough should be 50/50 front to rear. There's quite a noticeable difference in the way that ATTESA (normal GT-R) and ATTESA E-TS PRO (V-Spec) cars drive. The PRO-equipped V-Specs are quite a bit less tail-happy than the non-PRO, non-V-Spec cars.
GT-Rs were packed with electronics but Nissan evidently used higher-grade equipment because there are few horror stories to report.
- Suspension & Steering
M-Spec cars have the softest ride, if you can find one and are relaxed about the whole concept of a soft(ish) GT-R. The base/straight GT-Rs offer a very useable everyday compromise of comfort and precision, V-spec cars are choppier and more inclined to tramline than the non-'Spec' cars, but your reward is greater accuracy when pressing on over smooth roads and tracks.
The Super HICAS four-wheel steering was intended to help the car tip into corners more positively. Engaging at speeds over 50mph, it worked well, although some privateer racers removed the system, fearing its tendency to become confused by mid-corner back-offs. It's a pretty reliable piece of kit, although wheel alignment is critical if you don't want to be replacing the tyres every ten minutes. Check the front CV boots on a regular basis too.
- Wheels, Tyres & Brakes
Front wheel bearings fail. The 18-inch six-spoke forged alloy wheels wore 245/40 R18 tyres, a combo that wouldn't seem out of place on a family hatch today. Nismo's five-spoke monoblock wheels were things of beauty.
When fitted with performance brake pads the factory Brembo brakes can be pretty squealy, even with anti-squeal shims fitted.
GT-Rs got heavier and more complicated as the company moved from the R32 through the R33 to the R34, but the driving experience moved on at the same time. These are great cars even now, and strong to boot, so the big rise in values over the last couple of years is understandable.
To give you an idea on relative rarity between models, around 2,700 series 1 'regular' R34 GT-Rs were built, with around 4,300 V-Specs, including 38 N1s and those 80 Middlehurst cars. You'll know you've got one of them if you can see the engine number on the V5 doc. For the series 2, the numbers are around 1,270 regular cars, 1,850 V-Spec IIs, 740 or so V-Spec II Nürs (including 18 N1s), and 650 M-Specs (of which 285 were Nürs).
Given the numbers mentioned, and the difficulty of verifying mileages and securing service history docs on Japanese imports, you struggle to justify some of these prices, but continuing demand and reducing supply means that if you buy sensibly the only way you should lose money on an R34 GT-R is if you drift, burn, or abuse it into an early grave. You might think that one of those eighty UK Middlehurst cars, of which it's thought around 60 remain, is a good investment. Here's one in Active Red at £79,995.
If you can't afford any of these R34 GT-Rs, there's always the GT-T, the single-turbo 2WD variant. At £20k or less they're a lot more accessible, and some (owners, probably) say that the absence of AWD makes them more fun. The tunability is still there of course, and the R34 aftermarket is mind-bogglingly huge. Unlike some, it's also highly credible. The sort of modding that would be negatively perceived as 'Barrying' in the UK is seen as anything but when the parts come from the right places in Japan. Omori is a good name to look out for.
If you want to buy the ultimate R34 GT-R, though, it obviously has to be a Z-Tune. Not just any old example, but chassis 10, the only one not to be painted in Z-Tune silver. How are you with Midnight Purple?