Gran Turismo

As rare as they were dev­as­tat­ingly dom­i­nant on track, Nismo’s on-road prow­ess started with these two all-paw beasts, the R33 400R and the R34 R-tune


Rarer than hen’s teeth and faster than bats out of hell, Nismo’s 400R and R-tune are ul­ti­mate GT-Rs

FOR AL­MOST 50 years the GT-R badge has been the premier pin-up for Ja­panese car fans. Win­ning races (be­com­ing so dom­i­nant in the early ’90s that it was es­sen­tially banned from com­pe­ti­tion), break­ing records and mak­ing a big noise wher­ever it went, the GT-R has al­ways been a spe­cial car, no ques­tion. But the pair of cars we’ve got here to­day are more spe­cial than most be­cause they’re the work of Nis­san’s tun­ing and rac­ing arm, Nismo.

Now that Nis­san’s mar­ket­ing de­part­ment has got its grubby hands on the badge you can even get a Nismo-branded 370Z, which is ac­tu­ally a de­cent steer de­spite its age (see page 32). How­ever, in other parts of the world the fa­mous name­plate has found its way onto the Mi­cra and Note. Al­though if you’re look­ing for some­thing with only slightly more per­for­mance, 2016’s Le Mans dis­as­ter is prob­a­bly worth even less.

But back in the ’80s, ’90s and ’00s, (es­pe­cially with the DR30, HR31 GTS-R and mighty R32 GT-R in Aus­tralian tour­ing cars with Gib­son Mo­tor­sport), Nismo was strictly se­ri­ous. The name – a con­trac­tion of Nis­san and Mo­tor­sport – is easy enough to un­der­stand, but the com­pany ac­tu­ally came about through the merger of Nis­san’s two sep­a­rate rac­ing di­vi­sions: One that dealt with pri­va­teer rac­ing, and an­other that looked after the fac­tory ef­forts. Rac­ing was al­ways the fo­cus, so when Nismo did turn its at­ten­tion to road cars, the re­sults were spec­tac­u­lar.

The R33 400R and R34 R-tune cars we’ve got here are fast, rare and hugely valu­able. But be­yond the parent­age, what makes them so much more spe­cial – and does the driv­ing ex­pe­ri­ence live up to the hype? Look­ing ab­so­lutely stun­ning in Deep Marine blue paint off­set by sil­ver stripes run­ning end to end along the flanks, it’s clear from your very first glance at the Nismo 400R that this is no or­di­nary GT-R. It’s the bon­net that does it, specif­i­cally the huge vent that looks like a not very se­cret trap door. And maybe it’s the colour-coded front spoiler that doesn’t jut out, but drops ag­gres­sively to­wards the floor all the same. No, scratch that, it’s def­i­nitely those gor­geous split-rim Nismo LM GT1 wheels.

The 400R ex­ists as a cel­e­bra­tion of Nis­san’s at­tempts at Le Mans in the mid-1990s with the GT-R LM, a car you might re­call from your Gran Turismo days. The list of new parts that went into cre­at­ing a 400R is mas­sive, and touches ev­ery sin­gle area from the head­lights right through to the tail spoiler. And al­though the 400R isn’t as ex­otic as the racer, or the one-off road car that ho­molo­gated it, it’s still in­fused with some of the same tech. For a start, this thing was cut­ting edge for com­pos­ite use for its time, the most ar­rest­ing pieces be­ing the Le Mans-in­spired bon­net and dou­ble-wing rear spoiler. Hid­den away be­neath the floor, the

prop­shaft is made from car­bon too, and is 50 per cent lighter than stock.

Un­like mod­ern per­for­mance cars, that car­bon fetish doesn’t ex­tend to the in­te­rior, which is mostly stan­dard R33 fare, and very much plas­tic-fan­tas­tic. There’s a proper old-school three-spoke wheel though, and a cou­ple of 400R lo­gos, one in the wheel’s hub, and an­other above the glove­box. Then you no­tice the in­stru­ments. Other R33 speedos read to 180km/h, re­flect­ing a top end re­stricted by a from-the fac­tory speed lim­iter. But the 400R’s reads all the way up to 320kmh, and the rev counter is only yel­low, rather than red-lined at eight grand, the new danger zone start­ing at 9K.

His­tory and hubris can carry an old car a long way, eas­ily per­suad­ing you to over­look the fact that the driv­ing ex­pe­ri­ence hasn’t aged well. But 20 years on, the 400R is still sen­sa­tional... but not per­fect. The clutch is fierce and the sus­pen­sion is def­i­nitely harsh by mod­ern stan­dards, be­cause we’re so used to the breadth of abil­ity of cars run­ning adap­tive dampers. But it’s bear­able at low speeds, and starts to flow bet­ter with some de­cent num­bers on the speedo. And the up­shot is ex­cel­lent body con­trol.

There’s pre­cious lit­tle roll from the Bil­stein-equipped sus­pen­sion, and colossal grip from the fat 18-inch rub­ber, mean­ing you can lean on the light, feel some steer­ing with­out fear of the front wash­ing wide, then ease onto the ac­cel­er­a­tor and feel the rear tyres take up some of the strain. The LM racer lost its front drive­shafts, but there’s no dis­ap­point­ment in the R hav­ing kept them. The 400R fizzes with feed­back and the GT-R’s four-wheel-drive sys­tem was al­ways

With a third more mus­cle, the 400R was al­ways go­ing to per­form at a dif­fer­ent level

heav­ily rear bi­ased, mean­ing it feels like a se­ri­ously flat­ter­ing rear-driver, and never like a nan­ny­ing all-paw that’s for­saken en­ter­tain­ment and in­ter­ac­tion in the pur­suit of erad­i­cat­ing wheel­spin.

And com­pared to a stock GT-R, there’s a stack of more power for the clever four-wheel drive sys­tem to shuf­fle about. In place of the stan­dard RB26DETT GT-R mo­tor, the 400R got a de­riv­a­tive called the RBX-GT2 that was re­lated to the race mo­tor and built by Nis­san’s mo­tor­sport en­gine builders, Reinik. Open­ing up the bore from 86 to 87mm, and stretch­ing the stroke 4mm to 77.7mm, re­leased an­other 200cc, which, to­gether with high-lift cams, pol­ished ports, larger ex­haust man­i­folds and new tur­bocharg­ers, helped pro­duce a heap more power. Stronger in­ter­nals, mean­while, en­sured it held to­gether while do­ing it – the pis­tons were forged in­stead of cast, the rods were beefier and the lu­bri­ca­tion sys­tem up­graded.

Ev­ery­one knows that Nis­san un­der­rated the power of reg­u­lar GT-Rs to hon­our the 206kW gen­tle­man’s agree­ment among man­u­fac­tur­ers re­gard­ing max­i­mum out­put. The true fig­ure was more like 224kW. But the 400R makes 300kW, along with 470Nm of torque. Enough to get to 100km/h in four sec­onds, and to top out at a true 300km/h. You’d never ac­cuse a stock R33 GT-R of be­ing slow, though the thought does briefly cross your mind once you’ve un­corked the 400R for the first time. But with a third more mus­cle, it was al­ways go­ing to per­form at a dif­fer­ent level.

You need to see 4000rpm on the rev counter be­fore the 400 shows you what it can re­ally do, but from there on it’s prop­erly savage, kick­ing you hard into the el­e­gantly sculpted sports seat be­tween gasps for air when you snick the next of its five gears with a tug on the sur­pris­ingly light and easy gearchange.

Nis­san had planned to build 100 ex­am­ples of the 400R, but in the end, just 44 were pro­duced for Ja­pan-only, and pre­dictably, they’re worth huge money. Just how much is hard to say be­cause they come on the mar­ket so in­fre­quently – es­pe­cially out­side Ja­pan. How­ever, you can bet on spend­ing at least $250K if you can per­suade some­one to part with one. And that’s a big if, be­cause for many, the 400R is the de­fin­i­tive road-go­ing GT-R. But not ev­ery­one would agree. For some, any car claim­ing to be the de­fin­i­tive road-go­ing GT-R would have to be based on the R34, the last and most de­vel­oped of the Sky­line GT-R se­ries, the fi­nal car be­fore Nis­san’s su­per­car jumped

The R-tune is fast enough to make your palms moist and your throat dry

ship from the Sky­line se­ries al­to­gether, be­com­ing, in the R35, sim­ply GT-R. Shorter, lighter, and even sharper to drive than the R33, the R34 was a per­fect plat­form for Nismo to do its stuff.

Most fa­mous and well known of those R34-based Nismo cre­ations is the Z tune, cre­ated when Nismo got the go-ahead from Nis­san to buy back and mod­ify im­mac­u­late low-mileage ex­am­ples of the R34 that had re­cently ceased pro­duc­tion to cel­e­brate its 20th an­niver­sary. These cars had the en­tire cat­a­logue of Nismo goodies thrown at them. Only 20 were made, and the en­tire run sold out, fast.

But long be­fore the world had clapped its eyes on the Z-tune, Nismo was happy to help cus­tomers cre­ate their own ul­ti­mate GT-R. If you took your own R34 to Nismo – and it didn’t mat­ter which; Nismo would mod GT-Rs, V-specs and even the su­per rare Nür ver­sions – and if it was deemed fit enough, you could ap­ply some of the same flavour of com­po­nents that would later make up a Z. The R34 we’ve got here is one of those.

Back in 2000 the full R-tune pack­age would have rep­re­sented well over half the value of the car be­ing con­verted. But you cer­tainly got your money’s worth. Like the 400R pack­age, the com­plete R-tune kit cov­ered ev­ery­thing from sus­pen­sion to aero mods. But the heart was the R1 en­gine. Nismo pro­duced 70-80 of these mon­ster straight-sixes, based on the tougher N1-spec RB en­gine, but only around 25 R34s re­ceived it as part of the full R-tune up­grade, mak­ing them al­most as rare as the leg­endary Z-tune.

Hun­kered down close to Rock­ing­ham’s tar­mac this R34 looks like evil per­son­i­fied, and all the bet­ter for the non-stan­dard spac­ers fit­ted to push those LM GT4 wheels right out to the edge of the gen­uine Nismo arch ex­ten­sions. A mas­sive plank of a spoiler – mounted on Mi­dori car­bon ris­ers – tow­ers over the rear end whose bootlid wears the fa­mil­iar GT-R badge in one cor­ner, and the im­por­tant (but pretty nasty­look­ing) R1 sticker on the other.

The car here is even rarer than most be­cause its built around a GT500 block, a com­po­nent nor­mally reserved for Nismo’s full-blown com­pe­ti­tion ma­chines. That doesn’t mean more power, but it did mean more strength for tuners who re­ally wanted to push the en­ve­lope, plus it makes for some se­ri­ous brag­ging rights at GTROC meets. Though giv­ing away 200cc to the 400R, the R1 mo­tor makes sig­nif­i­cantly more power, al­most 335kW, com­pared to a claimed 206kW (but ac­tu­ally more like 246kW) from a stock R34. Like the 400 you need to wind it up first, again, to around 4000rpm, be­fore the fire­works start. This time there are six gears to play with, in­stead of the R33’s

Both Nis­mos are any­thing but bor­ing and com­puter-like to drive

five, mean­ing it should be eas­ier to keep the en­gine buzzing, al­though the change isn’t as sweet.

This is a quick car. Not R35 quick, maybe, but fast enough to make your palms moist and your throat dry, and def­i­nitely fast enough that you haven’t re­ally got time to spend look­ing at the reams of data avail­able on the dig­i­tal dis­play plonked on top of the dash­board above the cen­tral air vents. It’s still pla­s­ticky in here, and much of the switchgear feels dated, but the cabin is de­cid­edly more mod­ern than the R33’s and those seats with their big shoul­der wings and strange cov­er­ing of grippy spots, feel fab­u­lous.

The ride – not so much. The R-tune coilovers feel op­ti­mised for scyth­ing through Rock­ing­ham’s fast banked turns or har­ness­ing the R34’s 1600kg mass through the in­field’s left-right tran­si­tions. But on the road they feel harsh and un­for­giv­ing. The steer­ing is great though – per­fectly weighted and full of feed­back, and the brakes, with six-pot Brem­bos up front in place of the 400R’s fours, feel im­mensely strong.

De­spite the ar­ray of tech­nol­ogy on­board this pair, in­clud­ing four-wheel steer­ing and four-wheel drive, both are any­thing but bor­ing and com­puter-like to drive. Ben­e­fit­ing from a newer base car with a shorter wheel­base and lower weight, plus an en­gine push­ing out more power, the R-tune is just that bit sharper to steer, though a bit short on bumpy-road com­po­sure.

How­ever, flick­ing through the pic­tures as I write, it’s the 400R I keep com­ing back to. Those now very pe­riod looks, its his­tor­i­cal im­por­tance as a gen­uine full Nismo car and, of course, grainy mem­o­ries of hooning one around Trial Moun­tain with a worn-out hand con­troller all those years ago. Back then I didn’t re­ally ap­pre­ci­ate what made cars like the 400R and R-tune so spe­cial, so much more than sim­ply GT-Rs. Con­sider that fixed.

Just 44 400Rs were built – and it was only ever of­fi­cially sold in Ja­pan. Car num­ber seven off the line is the only known 400R in Aus­tralia. Nismo ap­pendages in­clude the ‘subtle’ rear wing, dif­fuser and body de­cals

Three-spoke steer­ing wheel is the high­light of the typ­i­cally 1990s Ja­panese cabin in the 400R, which dif­fers only slightly from the base car

The PlayS­ta­tion and Gran Turismo has helped so­lid­ify the le­gacy and leg­end of both the 400R and R-tune

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