Nobody’s got to sell you on why you ought to want Nissan’s Skyline GT-R. What began as a performance-based spinoff of a luxury car made by a manufacturer you’ve never even heard of later culminated into the twin-turbo, all-wheel drive R32 GT-R produced from ’89 to ’94 that boy racer fantasies are made of and that much of today’s import-tuning landscape owes a debt to. It’s a car that dominated the Japanese Touring Car Championship (JTCC), claimed numerous victories in Australia, and that, some three decades later, you’ve got a shot at owning.
Before there was the GT-R, though, there was the Prince Motor Company’s Skyline. It was a luxury car, its overhead-valve engines were barely good for 80 hp, and you couldn’t care less about it. A merger with Nissan, two generations of Skylines later, and Nissan suits who cared about motorsports meant the Hakosuka was born—the original GT-R and the machine that’d lead to the R32, the official reemergence of the GT-R nameplate after a 10-year hiatus and the unofficial birth of Godzilla.
But you ordering up an R32 GT-R of your own isn’t as straightforward as the time you bought that Tercel off of your aunt. And, as it turns out, owning one can be even trickier. To help make things more like that experience with your aunt and that Tercel, we hooked up with GT-R expert Sean Morris of Long Beach, California’s Toprank International Vehicle Importers, who’s responsible for delivering more than 150 R32 GT-Rs stateside and whose experience with the icon of a chassis dates back to your days on the merry-go-round.
WHY YOU NEED AN R32 GT-R
You already know that the R32 GT-R’s powered by the almighty RB26DETT engine and that it’s got an AWD layout. That is, in part, why you need one. For Nissan, FIA homologation was always a consideration when developing this engine, which means it was built with a purpose—to go racing. Nissan will tell you that the 2.6L, twin-cam, inline-six is good for a maximum of 276 hp and 260 lb-ft of torque, but history’s revealed that those figures are nothing short of conservative. The RB26DETT is based off of things like a nearly indestructible cast-iron block, parallel-mounted twin turbos, and individual throttle bodies. Together, they make up a recipe that stinks of ’90s supercars and that today’s automotive manufacturers with their dinky hybrids and belt-driven transmissions have all but forgotten about.
It’s the AWD layout that makes the GT-R a GT-R, though. The longitudinally mounted engine up front bolts up to what you think looks like a regular, old RWD transmission that allows it to behave more like something powered by its hind end until you let things get squirrelly. Nissan does all of this with ATTESA E-TS (Advanced Total Traction Engineering System for All-Terrain, Electronic Torque Split), a system based off of that RWD-style gearbox that drives the rear differential through a standard tailshaft. At the end of the transmission sits the AWD transfer case where a short driveshaft travels back to the front wheels through another differential. Inside the transfer case a multi-plate clutch pack distributes torque. Information like G-force, throttle position, and individual wheel speed is fed into the computer. If traction’s lost, the clutches intervene, engaging and splitting torque up evenly. It’s sophisticated, it’s elegant, and you want it.
THE USED R32 GT-R CHECKLIST
It sounds like one big party, but Morris is here to tell you where things can go wrong, how to fix them and, better yet, how to avoid any of that in the first place.
The body: The GT-R’s got a mix of steel and aluminum body panels of which Morris says you ought to pay attention to. The aluminum hood and fenders up front are prone to corrosion and the steel ones out back can rust, both on their trailing ends near the ground where debris is typically kicked up. Speaking of aluminum panels, be sure those fasteners holding those fenders and that hood into place are still using those plastic washers that Nissan says they should. The plastic runs interference between the aluminum and steel and helps ward off corrosion.
When it comes to paint, the VIN plate located on the firewall will tell you what color that GT-R’s supposed to be; look for the three-digit series of numbers, letters, or both that’ll reveal whether or not the one you’re looking at’s been resprayed. For example, “KH2” means you’re looking at what should be Gun Grey Metallic.
Don’t let minor body damage or the fear of you not being able to get replacement parts keep you from owning a GT-R, though. Several Nissan dealerships here in the States have access to R32 body parts, Morris tells us, and there are online resources for all of that like never before.
The interior: Morris says there’s a good chance that instrument cluster will have been swapped out for something else, like a 260 kph NISMO one, perhaps, but not to make a big deal out of it. Instead, pay attention to normal wear-and-tear items like the pedals or the turn-signal indicator lever to estimate mileage. According to Morris, a bit of bubbling on the passenger-side dashboard is almost inevitable, too.
Like body parts, interior parts are just as easy to come by. Morris has got one tip, though: when swapping steering wheels, determine whether or not you’ve got an early style wheel or a later one. Bolt the wrong one into place and you’ve just disabled HICAAS—Nissan’s four-wheel steering system—and cocked your wheel to the side in a silly looking sort of way.
The engine: Despite how bulletproof the RB26DETT is, it isn’t perfect. Morris points out the inline-six engine’s weak links, like its detonation-prone #6 cylinder that can run lean because of the intake manifold’s shape. The factory oil pressure gauge can’t be trusted; its throttle bodies can leak as can its fuel injectors’ lower seals; its MAF sensors as well as its ignition coils and their plastic connectors can fail; and its oil pump won’t last forever. According to Morris, the rear turbo’s compressor housing is also way too close to the front turbo’s turbine, which’ll lead to some sort of turbo failure sooner or later. And although the idea of those ceramic turbine wheels might sound good, Morris says that detonation can cause them to snap fairly easily.
None of this should be the end of you considering a GT-R, though. An aftermarket intake manifold and proper tuning can ward off that detonation, often times those MAF sensors can be fixed with soldering, and parts like ignition coils and oil pumps can all be easily sourced, according to Morris.
Finally, RB engines are an interference design, which means preventative maintenance like a timing belt, water pump, and all of the associated pulleys will never be a bad idea and won’t cost you a whole lot more than those ones you just bought for your old Civic.
The drivetrain: It’s the ATTESA E-TS AWD layout that makes you want the GT-R instead of something like the RWD GTS-T but don’t think that its drivetrain’s indestructible. Third gear won’t last forever once you pass the 500hp mark and those fourth-gear synchros won’t always play nicely, Morris advises. Depending on whether or not you’ve got an early style transmission or a later one, Morris says many Z32 300ZX internals are compatible. And when it comes to those synchros, a lot of times, he says, heavy-duty gear oil can make all the difference.
Plan on wearing that clutch out early on, as Morris says, if you don’t load the drivetrain enough when launching, breaking that front differential someday, too, and going through axle boots up front just as you would with any other car. Morris suggests upgrading that front differential before it breaks, though. Here, the differential and the engine block share the same cast-aluminum oil pan; send a spider gear through that pan and you’re on your way to yanking that engine all the way out just to replace things.
The chassis: Morris says there isn’t too much to be concerned about with the chassis. Keeping the brakes in working order is easy, partly because they’re almost identical to the Z32 300ZX’s and partly because the aftermarket’s got it covered. Morris says that removing HICAAS is common and nothing to worry about. Do it right and you’ll free up space under the hood and make oil changes a whole lot easier. Do it without knowing what you’re doing, though, and you just might be like some of those knuckleheads Morris has come across who’ve inadvertently disabled ATTESA.
THE GOOD AND THE BAD
Why you want one:
- Even you’ll have a hard time blowing up an RB26DETT.
- ATTESA E-TS AWD. That is all.
- It’s twin-turbocharged from the factory.
- Here, aftermarket support abounds.
- All your friends will envy you.
Why you don’t:
- While it may be legally to import, it isn’t cheap to do.
- You’ll need help getting it from Japan to your garage.
- Pep Boys won’t have that timing belt.
- Insuring it won’t be easy. Or cheap.
HOW TO BUY A R32 GT-R
You getting an R32 GT-R will never be as easy as you plopping down a week’s pay for some raggedly old Civic hatchback. Here, just about everyone’s against you, including the federal government, the EPA, and whatever DMV you think you’ll be registering it at. Try going the purchase process alone and you’ll either spend way too much or end up with something that’ll only get taken away from you at some point. Look to a firm like Toprank International Vehicle Importers, though, who’s legally imported and sold more than 150 R32 GT-Rs, and you’re on your way to doing things right.
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Today, you taking advantage of the R32 GT-R’s age is your best bet at legally importing one. Since it’s more than 25 years old—the federal government’s cutoff—all of a sudden things like crash tests, emissions, and DOT requirements aren’t as important as they once were. There are caveats, though. First, that GT-R had better have its original engine or an EPA-approved equivalent. And second, depending on the state you’ll be registering it in, that GT-R still might not be emissions-compliant even though the feds say it is.
You’d be a fool to not contact somebody like Morris, who’s familiar with the ins and outs of the importing process and who, in most cases, knows the details better than the people who wrote the laws. The whole process starts with Morris’ people in Japan who hand-pick cars suitable for sale here in the States. That means the chances of you paying for an R32 GT-R that won’t start are slim. And if you live in California, you’re in luck. International Vehicle Importers has done most of the legwork for you, dealing with the state’s version of the EPA—CARB—and making sure you’re in the clear to drive it just as you would with your aunt’s Tercel. But you better have $25K set aside at the very least.