Back in the 1990s, some of the coolest cars on the street were Japanese-built sport compact cars like the turbocharged, all-wheel-drive Subaru Impreza WRX. As a result, the most desirable automotive hardware became high-tech stuff from specialized speed shops in the Japanese domestic market (JDM). And the poster child for the whole JDM scene became the Nissan Skyline GT-R, a grown-up, turbocharged all-wheel-drive coupe that was available pretty much only in Japan—kind of like Godzilla, for which it would eventually be nicknamed.
Some people tried to import the GT-R into America using expertise gained in the 1980s, when so-called gray-market cars were imported from Europe and then modified to meet U.S. regulations for air emissions. Unfortunately the few attempts to certify the GT-R were messy, frequently involved legal penalties of chilling dimensions, and were abandoned quickly. And yet here is Gary Lamphear driving this 1989 Nissan Skyline GT-R on the street as if anyone in America could. Which now they can.
As it turns out, we just had to wait until the Skyline GT-R was old enough. A few years ago, some high rollers were eager to drive the turbocharged, all-wheel-drive Porsche 959 of 1986-’89 on American streets, and they helped inspire a rewrite of the rules about importing cars for private ownership. Basically, you can now import a car without much legal hassle if it is at least 25 years old and it meets the safety and air emissions regulations of its country of origin at the time of manufacture.
These rewritten NHTSA standards also explain why International Vehicle Importers (www.importavehicle.com) in Ontario, California, has become noted for bringing examples of the Skyline GT-R to the U.S. In the first 18 months after the company came together in the summer of 2014, it imported about 150 Skylines for private buyers. “The legal steps that you have to accomplish to make this possible are quite specific, and there are a lot of them,” says company executive Takeshi Takahashi. “But we know what the steps are, and we can get a Skyline GT-R rolled onto a boat in Japan and then rolled off the boat here in the U.S., and you’ll be able to drive it away with a license plate on it.”
Lamphear was part of the sport-compact scene in the 1990s, and he has been a fixture at track events in various high-performance cars for more than a decade. Because he speaks Japanese, he has a special enthusiasm for JDM hardware, specifically the Skyline GT-R. “People talk about European high-tech exotics from the 1990s,” Lamphear says, “but no one realizes that Japan was the real leader in automotive technology back then. The Skyline GT-R R32 is a no-expense-spared, high-tech car that’s a real landmark in Japanese automotive engineering. It is the reason why Nissan developed the all-new GT-R that we know today.”
The Skyline model traces its roots to a slightly luxurious, high-performance Nissan coupe of the early 1970s, and the GT-R represented a race-bred version of this model. Nissan revived the Skyline GT-R in 1989 to create a suitable platform for touring-car racing in Japan and Australia. The Skyline GT-R R32 was produced from 1989 to 1994 in large numbers, followed by the GT-R R33 of 1995-’98 and GT-R R34 of 1999-2002 in much smaller quantities. Of course, the only GT-R of these later desirable models eligible for import is the R32, which is the best of them, we think. But remember, the actual date of any individual car’s manufacture must have been at least 25 years ago to render it fair game.
When you sit behind the wheel of a stock GT-R R32, the austere interior doesn’t deliver many clues about this car’s racing heritage. But once you take a tour of the hardware, you get the message, particularly in Lamphear’s car with its track-ready suspension and cosmetically enhanced engine compartment. The centerpiece is the ATTESA E-TS all-wheel-drive system, which incorporates a fast-acting electronically activated center differential, mechanical-type limited-slip differentials front and rear, and four-wheel steering. The twin-turbo inline-six RB26DETT engine seems a little quaint now, with its old-school iron block and direct-action, bucket-and-shim, DOHC valve actuation, yet these features—plus racing-type details such as an intercooler and forged connecting rods—help make it possible to boost this engine’s output far beyond its street rating of 276 hp. Indeed we’re told the engine can produce 400 hp in a mild state of tune, and 600 hp can be had in track-ready NISMO N1 configuration.
It’s far easier to navigate a right-hand-drive car on the road in the United States than you’d expect. As long as you’re careful to look far ahead, you’ll instinctively line up for the proper cornering apexes. Of course, it takes a long while to get used to shifting with your left hand. And it will take forever to keep yourself from reaching for the left-hand control stalk on the steering wheel every time you want to engage the turn signals, only to find that you’ve instead triggered the windshield wipers.
|Engine||2.6L twin-turbo DOHC 24-valve I-6/276 hp, 260 lb-ft|
|Front Suspension||Strut-type, coil springs|
|Rear Suspension||Multilink, coil springs|
|Original Price||$31,000-$35,000 (Nissan Japan)|
|Value Today||$25,000-$35,000 (importavehicle.com)|
Importavehicle.com in Ontario, California, has imported from Japan many different cars—from the Honda Beat to the NSX Type R—that meet NHTSA’s new standard for vehicles at least 25 years old. The Skyline GT-R is the most popular of these, and we’re told that the 49-state certification of this car is relatively straightforward and affordable. Certification of the R32 to meet California standards is far more expensive, yet it is possible. Lamphear’s car came to the U.S. through a private broker, and it’s pretty stunning, a high-mileage chassis with an upgraded interior and track-ready chassis tuning, plus a low-mileage, tricked-up engine. The R32 has even become common enough in the U.S. to inspire attention from private tuners such as Shutoko Engineering in La Puente, California, which specializes in Japanese-brand competition parts.