Story and photos by Zach Mayne
There was a time when very few classic Japanese cars were considered collectable to serious car guys. Sure, there were exceptions to the rule. The Toyota 2000 GT, Mazda Cosmos and other exotic Japanese sports car have always been highly desirable. Times have changed though, particularly in the last decade. Vintage cars from the land of the Rising Sun have finally come into their own, with everything from ‘70s Toyota Celicas and obscure Nissans and Mazdas getting the attention they deserve.
In turn, the desire of a growing body of car enthusiasts to own an older Japanese car has caused a huge uptick in importation of JDM-spec (Japanese Domestic Market) cars from their home country to the U.S. There are now several companies here in the States that specialize in finding cars in Japan and then importing them for use on our roads. When Eric Bauer wanted to import a vintage Nissan Skyline, he enlisted just such a company to help him make his dream a reality. JDM Legends in Salt Lake City, Utah is a shop that has made a successful business out of importing some amazing Japanese metal.
Bauer developed his enthusiasm for the original KPGC-10 GT-R coupe when he was living in Japan in the late ‘90s. The automotive and industrial designer left a job at Burton Snowboards to travel abroad. “I spent over a month in Japan exploring all aspects of the of their car culture and that’s where I saw and heard my first Hakosuka. It was a silver car with the GT-R look to it, but had a bored and stroked L28 single-cam straight-6. It looked and sounded mean as heck and I was hooked.”
While the latest Nissan Skyline is a well-know fixture on the supercar scene as a high-tech, all-wheel-drive monster, its roots are a bit simpler. The first Nissan GT-R was introduced in 1968 as a ’69 model, and was based on the already in production four-door Skyline platform. The 5-speed GT-R was powered by a 1998-cc, DOHC inline-6 that produced 160-hp, an impressive figure for its time. The GT-R was a winner out of the gate, dominating on racetracks almost immediately. The coupe version of the GT-R, the KPGC-10, came out in 1970. Using the same driveline, the coupe was far cooler looking and earned the nickname ‘Hakosuka’, which means ‘box skyline’ in Japanese. The sharp-edged, rakishly-styled coupe went on to win around 50 races in its first three years of competition.
It was the Hakosuka version of the Skyline that Bauer became so enamored with during his stay in Japan. When he returned home to continue his design education at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, CA he fulfilled his classic car needs with a Datsun 240Z. Around 2011 though, the decided to try to fulfill his dream of owning a Skyline.
To this end, he contacted Eric and Ryan at JDM Legends in Utah. After months of waiting, the dream finally became a reality when the company called him to tell him they had imported a Skyline that might fit his needs. When he arrived in Salt Lake City to see the Skyline, the car looked great and sounded even better. “As soon as I heard it I just about fell over,” he says, still marveling at the memory of the sound L28 straight-6 through its free-flowing exhaust.
While the Skyline wasn’t a real GT-R, the 1970 Skyline 2000 GT Coupe had been modified in key areas that turned it into a pretty darned good impression of the legendary GT-R. The body now wore a GT-R style front grill, lower chin spoiler, rear trunk spoiler and the distinctive rear fender flares. Bauer was OK with the visual nods to the GT-R, but removed the "GT-R" badging that had been added, since he didn't want to represent the car as something it wasn't. Rounding out the car's exterior aesthetics are a set of rare and highly coveted Watanabe RS alloys, sized 15x8-inches at the front and 15x10-inches out back. Tires are 205/50R15 and 235/50R15 Toyo 888 at the front and rear.
While the appearance of the Nissan does a pretty convincing charade of a real GT-R, the performance of Bauer's example is far better than a stock GT-R ever enjoyed. An L28 from a 280Z has been bored and stroked to at least 3.0-liters and a trio of Mikuni/Solex sidedraught carbs delivery fuel to the motor. With exposed air horns, they look the business too. A lumpy idle is a sure tip off that the motor also likely has a hotter camshaft. There are also tubular headers and glass-pack mufflers that at this point seem to have blown out most of the fiberglass. At least that seams to be the case judging by the glorious racket that pours from the exhaust. “I’m still exploring and finding new things about the car on a daily basis and so I’ve kept it pretty faithful to the way its former Japanese owner built it up,” says Bauer. When he opened up the MSD 6AL ignition box to see what the rev-limiter was set at, he was amazed to see it set over 8,000-rpm!
Coilovers of unknown origin were found at the front of the car, and there are also adjustable upper camber plates. NISMO (Nissan Motorsports) struts live at the rear and work with mystery springs. “The suspension could be a touch stiffer for my taste,” says Bauer. “But overall I’m really happy every time I get in and start it up.”
In person, Bauer's GT-R lookalike ticks all the right boxes. The profile of the car has hints of a lot of other attractive designs, from an Alfa Romeo 105 coupe to a BMW E9 and even has some Mercury Cougar thrown in. Whatever the case, this is one stunning car to see on American streets.
Inside, the original seats have been swapped for a pair of vintage-looking seats from Autolook which suit the car perfectly. A four-point rollbar, Nardi steering wheel and a smattering of additional gauges round out the interior changes. The seating position is laid back and low and feels special before we've even fired up the engine. Actually, the engine practically explodes to life after I pump the gas a little and turn the ignition. The barely muffled bark of the straight-6 engine echos off walls, announcing the car's presence whether you like it or not.
Shift action is similar to a Datsun Z car or Datsun Roadster, so it has a direct, very mechanical feel to it. The clutch is stout and takes a little finessing, and I also have the fact that I'm sitting on the wrong side of the car to contend with. Out on the road, the car is full of feel, tingling and vibrating like a barely cage animal.
In a straight line, the Nissan is pretty quick, and in comparison to other cars I've driven, I'd say it's easily putting out as much as 250-hp to the wheels. But while the acceleration is impressive, it's the wicked howl that the Nissan straight-6 motor makes that is the centerpiece of the driving experience. The intake snort of the triple carbs blends with a hard-edged howl spilling out of the exhaust. Lift off the gas pedal and the exhaust pops and bangs on overrun. It feels like a racecar that has been barely, just barely, civilized for the street. There's really no opportunity to explore the car's handling, but from my brief drive it's obvious that the Nissan has plenty of grip. Since acquiring, Bauer has discovered that the GT-R is a total head turner, even in a sea of Porsches, Lamborghinis and Ferraris. Of course, after seeing it- and more importantly hearing it's hair raising exhaust note- that's really not a surprise.