Japan’s PlayStation icon still humbles supercars 20 years on. No reset button in this; we sample the Skyline GT-R (R33). Sky’s the limit. Meeting Your Heroes. Twenty years after the Skyline GT-R smashed the Nürburgring record for production cars, Chris Chilton sees what makes this giant killer tick. Twenty years ago the Skyline GT-R R33 shocked the world by smashing the Nürburgring record for production cars. Chris Chilton reacquaints himself with a legend. Photography Jonathan Jacob.
There were never Fiestas coming the Other way on Trial Mountain. No pensioners to deal with in Deep Forest Raceway or kids on bikes to steer clear of on Grand Valley East.
But the car we’re driving is definitely the car, the one I, and quite possibly you, drooled over as a junk and junkfood-addled oik, the one we modded until its polygonal head gasket was fit to burst, the one that made every European car in Gran Turismo seem so dull. This is the Nissan Skyline R33GT-RV-spec, and almost 20 years on, I’m as excited to be in the driving seat today as I was to pretend I was while sat cross-legged on the floor back then.
The GT-R, as regular readers will know, had been around since 1969, but lain dormant for a few years during the late 1970s and most of the 1980s, before being reinvented as the four-wheel-drive, four-wheel-steer R32 GT-R in time for its 20th anniversary. Today the GT-R lives on as a distinct model, one that no longer carries the Skyline badge, and shares nothing with its predecessors. But for many of us, it’s still the classic R32-R34 cars from 1989-2002 that formed much of our opinions and longings when it came to the GT-R. In particular, the R33 built between 1995 and 1998.Maybe it was Dirk Schoysman’s record-breaking sub-eight-minute lap of the Ring. More than likely it was thanks to a little grey box bearing the name of another Japanese giant – Sony.
When the first Gran Turismo game launched for the PlayStation in 1998, the R33’s production run was just coming to an end. And if you’d been lucky enough to bag one of those final R33s back then, it wouldn’t have looked much newer than the car you see in the photos. This thing is a time capsule, as close as you’ll get to a factory-fresh GT-R short of breaking into Nissan’s museum collection. Forget Minoxidil treatment, dermal fillers and a 100% kale smoothie diet – nothing takes two decades off you better than coming face to face with a 20-year-old car as well preserved as this.
It’s absolutely pristine, never bumped, never painted and – hard to believe, this – never been modified. No ECU remap, no oversized intercoolers, no jumbo injectors or fancy aftermarket pistons. Not even an air filter. It’s had one owner from new, and has a genuine 45,000 miles on its genuine UK-spec MPH speedo. It is quite simply unrepeatable. And it’s been traded in for a Nissan Note.
Four-wheel drive helps clamp the Skyline to the road like a barnacle on Brighton Pier. Technology and engineering prowess means corners can be approached at warp speed.
‘Nothing takes two decades off you better than coming face to face with a car as well preserved as this’
Yep, the big Micra. The reason for that is that it was bought new from Middlehurst Garage in Merseyside, and proprietor, racer and GT-R guru Andy Middlehurst has just taken it back in from the owner’s wife following his death. St Helens, 15 miles east of Liverpool, might seem like an unusual birthplace for the UK’s GT-R culture, but for a time in the late 1990s this unassuming Lancastrian and his equally unassuming Nissan dealership was the epicentre of the UK’s GT-R world. But more on that later.
I absolutely love these older GT-Rs. The first Skyline I ever drove was an R33, with around 400bhp from first stage mods. So was the second, though this one had 800bhp and turbo lag like the accelerator was made of blancmange and a kick when it came on strong like the engine was made from splitting atoms. An unadulterated showroom-fresh car, though, is a rare beast and I’m itching to get behind the wheel of this bone-stock original.
Before I do, though, there’s time to savour some of the details. Which, given it’s 20 years since this car was built, have slipped into quaint period pieces in the intervening years. The wheels are 17in, which makes them about as big as the castors under your armchair compared to the alloys on a new performance car, but the track width requires those subtly flared arches that distinguish this from a regular rear-drive Skyline GT-S.
There are Brembo monobloc calipers behind those wheels and a felt-but-not-seen feast of tech beyond that, including four-wheel steering and four-wheel drive. A tiny bootlid sticker at the rear sandwiched between those iconic twin lamps and the spoiler bears the legend V-Spec.
The V stands for Victory, and celebrates the GT-R’s success in racing, but it also means the four-wheel-drive system has an active rear differential instead of a passive mechanical LSD, and worth the extra 10kg of kerb weight. Swing open the door and the interior is as charmless as any mid-1990s Japanese cabin, a reminder of a time before we all become obsessed with slush mouldings, cupholders and phone connectivity. Ugly four-spoke wheel. Acres of dull grey plastic. Great seats, though – plus genuine room for four adults, and the driving position is spot-on. Excellent visibility, too.
A quick fumble with the aftermarket immobiliser and a flick of the key has the starter churning the straight six into life with a distinctly serious growl. The RB26DETT is a legend of an engine, a huge chunk of cast iron with an aluminium head, solid valve lifters and six individual throttle bodies, and strong enough to hang together when asked by greedy tuners to produce as much as 1000bhp. Transmission? Dual-clutch gearboxes were just a glint of swarf in the Nissan engineers’ eyes (and a forgotten note in Porsche’s racing history) when this car was built.
It gets a five-speed manual, mounted up front behind the engine, delivering power to all four wheels. Andy has pointed us in the direction of some decent country roads, but first we’ve got to cross town to get there.
We’re drawing some admiring glances as we creep through St Helens, and it’s got nothing to do with the muggins behind the wheel. But any smugness is tempered by the woeful ride quality. The GT-R is showing its age, feeling harsh and fidgety on its passive dampers, struggling to smooth away the kind of surface imperfections that you’d barely notice in a modern Golf. The V-Spec package included firmer suspension and this particular V-Spec is desperate to get out of town. You and me both, Arthur.
Finally there’s the welcoming sight of the diagonal back stripe of a national speed limit sign – and the even more welcoming sight of a snake of tarmac uncoiling away from it in the background. Squeeze the accelerator and there’s a touch of lag as the turbos take in a lungful of air before knocking the air out of yours. Next thing you know is a chop to the spine that’s every bit as savage as you imagined it would be back when the accelerator was under your right thumb, and not your right foot.
OK, so performance-wise it can’t hold a candle to the latest R35 GT-R, despite weighing almost 300kg less. Even if Nissan was telling porkies with its 276-rated horsepower to keep the gentleman’s agreement going with the other manufacturers, the 300-320 it actually makes is little more than half of what you get out of a new GT-R. But from where I’m sitting – which, with the right pedal flattened, is about an inch further into the chair than I was before – half feels like plenty.
‘That 8000rpm redline isn’t just for show, it’s a clarion call demanding you clip it before every gearchange’
Plant the throttle and what feels like a whole heap more than the claimed 276bhp courses through your senses.
The big six feels hugely strong as you pile on the revs, and just look at how many you can pile on – that 8000rpm redline isn’t just for show, it’s a clarion call demanding you clip it before every gearchange. Short-shift and you’ll be short-changing yourself not just on the rate of acceleration, but the angriest of the engine notes. And this is an angry motor. Not harsh like an Evo’s, but menacing, though tempered by the smoothness of those six pistons. It’s not hard to see why so many owners fall in love with their Skylines, but without Andy Middlehurst it’s difficult to see how this now legendary car would have made the waves it has. It all started with persistence.
Besides running the family garage, Andy was, and is, an avid racer, competing with Senna in Formula Ford and probably fast enough himself to make it in F1 if he’d had the finances to step up. Through his day job, and the weekend one racing for Nissan in the BTCC, Andy was aware of the R32 and bought a race-ready car from Janspeed to campaign in the National Saloon Car Cup. ‘Because we were racing them, customers came to us,’ remembers Andy. ‘And when the R33 came out in 1995 we brought a couple in to the UK. It was around this time that Jeremy Clarkson was asking “why is this not on sale?” so Nissan asked me if we could do 100 cars. We ended up selling 20 cars in just one day at Goodwood.’
But Andy didn’t just sell the cars. ‘I produced the promo video and doing the driving for it, plus the durability testing at MIRA – even the colours were down to me.’ Andy claims the lighter but otherwise mechanically very similar R32, the car that stuffed the homegrown Aussie talent at Bathurst and promptly got banned to appease the locals, is more fun to drive. But you can tell that he’s got a soft spot for the R33.
Me too, more so now than ever. We’re moving along at a decent lick now and the GT-R has shrugged off its urban tensions. It’s not a small car but it feels so alive and agile with pleasingly sensitive, surprisingly high-geared steering pointing the front end, and the combination of Super HICAS four-wheel steering and a heavily rearbiased four-wheel-drive system pointing the back. It’s one of the reasons I find these earlier cars so much more fun than the current GT-R; that sensation of the whole car shifting attitude as you turn into a corner, hinting at oversteer, but then settling, waiting for you to make the next move.
Whatever your skill level, the R33 is more flattering than a teenage girl’s Instagram selfie, and delivers something far closer to traditional rear-drive thrills than a 4WD Evo or Impreza. Choose not to keep things neat, to push those rear tyres wide and it’ll oblige, but no matter how extreme you go, as soon as you signal you want to recover some semblance of normality, you sense the power at the front axle tugging you straight again. Not in the disappointingly joy-killing way you get with most all-wheel-drive cars, just a helping hand to stabilise the yaw. That’s the genius of the R33 GT-R, as well as the rest of the Skyline clan.
The Modern Classics view
So you know Skylines are a driver’s car par excellence, and specialists like Middlehurst Garage will keep any GT-R running as it should. But what of the future? And how much? A pristine R32 GT-R already commands strong prices – probably £30k and up for something decent, while the later, less loved, R34s are beginning to look conspicuously pricey at over £40k.
This leaves the R33 as the smartest GT-R buy. You’ll pay £25k for an original UK car with the oil coolers it needs for hard driving. But as little as £15k will get you a grey import. Neither as light as an R32 nor as finely honed as the R34, it’s still a brilliant piece of machinery, a cultural icon and a passport to a bygone time for gentleman of a certain age. I wonder if that PS1 is still in the loft?
The only way to go from A to B quicker is by being fired out of a cannon. Andy Middlehurst and his Group N R32 grew GT-R love in the UK – with it he won the National Saloon Car Cup twice.
Interior is as plastic as the joypad you first drove an R33 with. That doesn’t matter at 8000rpm.
Iconic twin-turbocharged RB26DETT can withstand 1000bhp-worth of tuning pressure.
DIRK SCHOYSMAN AND THE EIGHT-MINUTE ‘RING LAP
Before YouTube and Gran Turismo made laps of the Nürburgring Nordschleife commonplace to millions, there was a greater sense of mystique about the track, and the cars and drivers that tamed it the most convincingly. In the late 1990s, the name on everyone’s lips was Dirk Schoysman, a chassis development test driver turned touring car racer.
Schoysman began his career in karts, and scraped into British single-seater racing despite having no money. In the early 1980s he raced briefly against Ayrton Senna, but when the cash dried up he found himself doing a desk job for Avis leasing. Answering an advert from Nissan, he began work as a test driver in 1987. He helped develop all three Skyline GT-Rs, as well as the R35 GT-R. His greatest claim to fame was taking the R33 GT-R road car under eight-minutes in 1996, an unmodified lap record (although he has said the chassis set-up was bespoke and boost was raised). His 7m59 was fast enough to still eclipse the first Porsche 996 GT3 three years later (8m03), but while the eight-minute barrier is still regarded as a good barometer of pace, even the current FWD lap record for a hot hatch now stands at 7m49.
SPECIFICATIONS: NISSAN SKYLINE GT-R V-SPEC (R32)
Power 276bhp @ 6800rpm
Torque 271lb ft @ 4400rpm
Maximum speed 155mph
Fuel consumption 18-24mpg
Transmission Five-speed manual, four-wheel drive
WHAT TO PAY