The Nissan Skyline R33 GT-R was a high-performance machine that had its rivals well and truly licked in terms of technology and innovation. We take a look at the pros and cons of buying this powerful behemoth of the late ’90s.
The all-new R32-series Skyline might have brought the GT-R badge back with a bang in 1989, but it was the thoroughly updated R33-generation of six years later that really hit the headlines. The R33 was bigger than its predecessor, boasting an altogether larger bodyshell and longer wheelbase; but it also offered more power than before, helping the newcomer to provide one of the most exhilarating driving experiences of the ’90s.
It didn’t take long for unofficially imported examples of the R33 GT-R to start appearing on British roads, leading Nissan to finally announce in 1997 that official imports would begin – albeit limited to just 100 cars, each one carrying an official list price of £50,000. Those UK-spec GT-Rs were all V-spec versions, which meant they came with stiffened suspension and an even more sophisticated all-wheel drive system than the standard R33.
At the heart of the R33 GT-R was Nissan’s latest 2568cc DOHC fuel-injected 24-valve straight-six, an engine that relied on Garrett T25 twin turbochargers and dual intercoolers for its sheer brute force. But it was the Skyline’s chassis that helped to create such an impressive driving experience, aided by what Nissan called ATTESA ET-S PRO – a part-time electronically-controlled four-wheel drive system with active LSD.
This directed all of the GT-R’s drive to the rear wheels under normal conditions, with electronic sensors then monitoring individual wheel speed, longitudinal and lateral acceleration, throttle opening and brake light activation to give a clear idea of wheelspin, stability and driver intention; when the need arose, the whole system could then transfer up to half the engine’s torque direct to the front wheels for the ultimate in stability.
Then there was the Skyline’s impressive four-wheel steering (referred to as Super-HICAS), involving hi-tech sensors to deduce whether a driver’s steering input matched what the car was actually doing. Any discrepancies would bring the electronically-controlled rear-wheel steering into play via an electric steering rack. In a corner, the rear wheels would initially steer in the opposite direction to the fronts, to create oversteer and to sharpen the steering response; on sensing that the car had responded, the rears would then steer the same way as the front wheels, creating understeer and helping to bring the machine safely out of any corner.
POWER AND TECHNOLOGY
A standard 277bhp from the R33 GT-R V-spec may not have been much more impressive than the Honda NSX’s output of the time, but in reality the Skyline’s figure was probably significantly higher – with some specialists suggesting that a factory-fresh car produced more like 300bhp-plus. Nissan also quoted an official torque figure of 271lb.ft. at a commendably low (by turbo standards) 4400rpm, which brought benefits in terms of performance. A 155mph top speed and 0-60 time of less than five seconds were impressive enough, but it was the R33’s mid-range acceleration that really thrilled – with 30-50mph in second gear taking just 2.3 seconds.
It takes more than power and speed to make a car fun to drive, of course, but the Skyline really knew how to deliver the thrills. This was one of the most rewarding, most communicative performance machines of its era – but would British buyers really be willing to stump up £50,000 for a Nissan? The answer was a resounding yes, with the company having no problem shifting its allocation of UK-spec GT-Rs. Even more powerful versions of the R33 were also introduced in its native Japan, including NISMO’s LM Limited of 1996 and the NISMO 400R of the following year.
Hardened enthusiasts obviously didn’t need to wait for the arrival of the officially-imported Skyline, as this was a car that made a name for itself as a grey import, creating a strong but niche following among fanatics bored with what else was around at the time. And it still enjoys loyal support to this day, with no shortage of fans seeing it as the ultimate in high-performance modern classics. So what should you know if you’re tempted to take the plunge?
Bodywork: It’s more than twenty years since Nissan announced it would be bringing limited numbers of R33 GT-Rs to the UK, and even longer since the model first went on sale in Japan. Not surprisingly, potential buyers therefore need to be on the look-out for rust issues, even though this is a less corrosion-prone model than some of its contemporaries.
It’s worth remembering that the GT-R was a JDM model that was offered here thanks to Single Vehicle Type Approval (SVA) legislation. That means there’s a complete lack of underseal (or similar) underneath – so even if the GT-R you’re buying appears to be completely rot-free, we’d advise investing in some anti-rust treatment via one of the specialists in that field, such as Rustbuster or Krown UK.
When inspecting an R33, be on the look-out for any structural issues. The front strut towers are particularly vulnerable (by the time you see rust here, it’s rotted through from beneath and has caused a major problem), as are the rear wheelarches, the rear lower sill pockets (where there’s a mud trap) and the boot floor. The floorpans themselves don’t usually rot, but if a car has been jacked up incorrectly, this can cause splits in the floor seams and can let in rust-creating moisture.
If you buy an R33 that’s in decent structural condition and you want to keep it that way, The GTR Heritage Centre offers a complete underside floor restoration programme, a labour-intensive process that sees around five days spent on each car. The underneath is treated with a degreasing agent before being blasted with deionised water. The car is then thoroughly dried in a heated oven before being treated with a marine-grade rust inhibitor, followed by a zinc-based sealant and a choice of three different finishes depending on whether your R33 is everyday transport or more of a show winner. The price of this treatment starts at around £2325 including VAT, which sounds like good value for the amount of work involved; and with R33 GT-R prices currently on the rise (as we’ll detail later), protecting your investment is an excellent idea.
Engine and transmission: Although Nissan quoted an output of 277bhp for the R33 GT-R, most experts agree that this was a conservative figure. Dave Warrener at The GTR Heritage Centre suggests 300-310bhp was the norm when new, and reckons the engine and gearbox were both substantially over-engineered – which is great news for today’s owners. By its nature, the R33’s RB26DETT straight-six is inherently reliable but doesn’t take kindly to neglect. Check the service history for proof of regular servicing (preferably by a GT-R specialist), as the R33’s previously low used values caused many examples to fall into the wrong hands.
One problem area surrounds the ceramic twin-turbos of the R33, with the ‘glue’ used to retain the exhaust wheel sometimes disintegrating at high temperature. The ceramic wheel is then drawn into the engine, wrecking the pistons, taking out the bores and so on. The end result is an engine that needs a full rebuild and turbos that need replacing, which inevitably means a major outlay. The GTR Heritage Centre charges from just over £3100 (including VAT) to rebuild an R33 engine using OEM parts, with rebuilt turbos adding around £1200 to that bill.
The five-speed ’box fitted to the R33 is a tough unit, although the GTR Owners’ Club (GTROC) reckons that synchro on the top two gears can get flustered by fast gear changes at high revs: ‘To check this, you need to get the revs above 5000rpm and change briskly between fourth and fifth. If it grinds, it means the synchro is on the way out.’
Steering, suspension and brakes: The R33-series GT-R inevitably features speed-sensitive power-assisted rack and pinion steering (with the Super-HICAS four-wheel steer mentioned earlier), independent multi-link coil-spring suspension (with front and rear anti-roll bars), as well as ventilated discs all round. And although there are few concerns when it comes to the overall reliability of this impressive set-up, the sheer complexity of the car makes it less than ideal in terms of DIY maintenance.
When checking any GT-R, it’s important to carry out the usual checks for wear and tear, as well as signs of abuse. Are the brake pads and discs in good order, for example, and are the tyres wearing evenly? Do the wheels show signs of being kerbed or look strangely out of alignment? On your test drive, it’s obviously important to pay attention to how the car handles and drives; is there any feeling of ‘sloppiness’, for example, that might suggest worn dampers, or are there any strange noises that could be attributed to worn ball joints, tie rods, driveshaft joints or suspension arm joints?
If you’re buying a grey import, check whether or not it’s a V-Spec car, with the latter being noticeably stiffer under hard cornering. The GTROC explains more: ‘If you do a lot of track days you will want something stiffer, but V-Spec suspension is probably as far as you’ll want to go while still retaining some drivability on real roads: Some cars will have been converted out in Japan, with really fancy damper kits fitted, but make sure you can live with the hard ride before you part with your cash.’
Interior, electrics and trim: The interior of the R33 is typical of its era, and in standard spec isn’t the most exciting of layouts. It wears well though, so if you spot any damage that somehow doesn’t tie in with the mileage and history of the car, you’ve every right to be suspicious. Carry out the usual checks for an over-worn steering wheel, wear to the side bolsters of the front seats, tatty carpets and so on.
As with most Japanese cars of the ’90s, the Skyline’s electronics are impressively reliable, although you should still check that all the gauges work, as well as the electric windows, mirrors and so on. If any aftermarket items have been added (the sound system will often have been changed or upgraded, especially on grey imports), make sure they’re operating as they should. Bear in mind too, that your insurance company will almost certainly insist on a Thatcham-approved alarm and immobiliser system, complete with fitting certificate – which is something you’ll need to budget for if not already in place. Watch out for degraded headlamp covers, but these can often be refurbed quite cheaply.
MODIFYING AN R33 GT-R
According to Dave Warrener at The GTR Heritage Centre, the R33 GT-R modifying scene has changed dramatically in recent years. There was a time when a good proportion of owners opted for some fairly wild mods in order to extract the most power, kicking off with the removal of the turbo’s boost restrictor. But the R33 is now attracting a different kind of buyer, explains Dave: ‘Most of today’s owners seem to want either factory-spec cars or what might be called OEM-plus, with any upgrades being relatively mild compared with some years ago.’
The GTR Heritage Centre is often asked to upgrade the Skyline’s airbox and change the exhaust system, with even the most basic of mods seeing power increased to a genuine 340-350bhp without much difficulty. Talk to The GTR Heritage Centre about what you’re hoping to achieve and they’ll advise on the best way forward for your particular car and budget.
PAYING FOR A SKYLINE R33
To say that R33 GT-Rs have increased in price over the last three years or so would be an understatement, with the days of excellent cars selling for less than £15,000 now well behind us. Dave from The GTR Heritage Centre recounts the tale of one particular GTR that he imported from Japan: ‘We sold that car less than two years ago for £13,000, and then resold it just six months ago for £25,000’. At the time of writing, we’re one month on from The GTR Heritage Centre selling that same car for the third time, albeit for £33,000: ‘We’re not that far away from a superb R33 being a £50,000 car,’ suggests Dave.
Around the £25,000 mark can still buy an R33 GT-R that’s in very good condition, but the fastidious owner might then want to spend another £5000-10,000 bringing it up to a more show-worthy standard. Even that total expenditure, however, means there’s long-term investment potential, particularly once the oldest models hit 25 years of age and can be exported as classic vehicles to the USA: ‘There’s a lot of pent-up demand for the R33 in America,’ explains Dave Warrener, ‘which should mean another hike in prices once they can be sold there.’
Feature from Retro Japanese. Words by Paul Guinness.