There are cars built for SEMA and there are cars so special that showing up at SEMA is only a formality. Los Angeles-based tuner Bulletproof Automotive knows this, and its latest tag team of Nissan R35 GT-R displayed at last year's annual all-industry Las Vegas trade show makes that all the more obvious.
Bulletproof's beginnings are much more modest, though, and aren't necessarily the makings for two of the most outrageous GT-Rs around. Founded in '00, the company was among the first to distribute high-end Japanese goods to U.S. consumers...from a one-bedroom apartment, but has since become among the most renowned to do so. So renowned that the company's gone on to pioneer GT-R tuning in America, debuting some of the first upgraded R35s in the States. A lot's happened since Nissan introduced North Americans to the GT-R for the 2009 model year, though, and it's all culminated into the sort of stuff nobody's expected.
Street Performance Lightweight
Here is Bulletproof owner and founder Ben Schaffer's most recent signature build, the GT-R SPL. Among other things, SPL is short for Street Performance Lightweight, and that means all sorts of measures have been taken to ensure this particular Nissan lives up to its namesake.
But first you've got to understand Bulletproof's build philosophy, which has nothing to do with throwing the most money or parts at a project and hoping for the best, and everything to do with all sorts of planning and a whole lot of experience. "We approach everything custom and as a unified whole," Bulletproof associate Avi Fischer says about how the company embarks on projects like the SPL. There's a creative process that the team engages in for every build, he explains, that, in the case of the SPL, considers stuff like how to transform a regular GT-R into a race car that's as comfortable on the street as it is on the track and without compromise.
The SPL's power modifications, which are still under wraps, are conservative and, instead, weight-reduction practices were applied throughout every nook of the chassis that Fischer says made this the company's most ambitious build yet. Performance-wise, the end result isn't terribly different than many other GT-Rs the company has churned out, but the SPL uses entirely different methods to get it all done. Like dry-carbon-fiber everything, from bits as obvious as the bumpers and hood to pieces as seemingly insignificant as the Recaro seats' harness slots.
The impetus for the project is as intriguing as the team's creative process. According to Schaffer, inspiration comes by way of Italian auto designer Horacio Pagani and his company's legendary machines, like its Huayra and Zonda. A visit to the company's headquarters where Schaffer saw firsthand the automaker's attention to detail and uncompromising use of materials is what directly inspired the SPL. "It isn't the big stuff that impresses me," Schaffer says of cars like the Zonda R, which is made of a carbon-titanium chassis and dry-carbon-fiber exterior, "it's the titanium bolts and the degree of care given to the details that nobody often ever sees." He goes on to explain how the SPL, although inspired by Pagani, is really an attempt at obtaining the perfect machine that wholly suits his own tastes before anybody else's.
It's also a project that, if you weren't to consider its astronomical cost, just makes sense. "We produce a lot of GT-Rs for clients, and these days, everyone seems to want 2,000 hp," Schaffer says. He goes on to describe the experience of an R35 with just half that power: "If you drive normally at 60 mph on the freeway and put the hammer down, within three to five seconds you're doing 120 mph." The results can often lead to jail time and almost always little practical use. "The fun of driving for me," Schaffer says, "is the number of seconds I feel I'm actually actively driving. If that number maxes out at three seconds at a time, that's actually less fun for me than a lower-powered car that [can be] more engaging." The advantages of less weight haven't escaped Schaffer, either, and include its superior handling capabilities, better overall driving feel, increased braking performance, better fuel economy, and less wear and tear on moving pieces. "The GT-R is an incredible car," he reassures, "but if it has a downside, it's that it is very heavy."
It's true that permanently yanking all sorts of pieces from the chassis and onto Craigslist would've also resulted in hundreds of shed pounds, but doing so would've contradicted the spirit of the build. "We knew that blending light weight and streetability meant that it could not [have] a stripped-down interior," Fischer says, "but would likely end up in a very expensive exercise in carbon-fiber and titanium." Which it has. The final result, he explains, had to justify what would ultimately be a "supercar price tag." For this, one-off, dry-carbon-fiber replacement pieces were manufactured by Overtake Japan, and added across the exterior and throughout the R35's inside, and where carbon isn't found, Lamborghini alcantara is in its place. Schaffer elaborates on the use of the exotic leather substitute in lieu of a stripped-down and arguably lighter-weight interior: "Most people who do [weight-reducing] modifications instantly think that creature comforts should be thrown out the window. While that would be the most cost-effective way of doing it, for me, it would be less satisfying to drive."
Despite the capabilities of Bulletproof, Fischer explains how each aspect of the build was entrusted to specialists. "We believe that there's no individual or tuner capable of doing every aspect of car building at the highest level, so we make sure to match each aspect of each vehicle with the ideal person to handle it." In the case of its SPL project, that means more than a dozen craftsmen had their way with it, resulting in a build that nears perfection in ways that a carbon-fiber body hand-laid by an engine builder, for example, could likely never accomplish.
A bare-bones race car this was never meant to be, even if it is fitted with an entirely carbon-fiber body, carbon-fiber brakes, and Lexan windows; the fully functioning climate control and audio systems prove as much. All told, nearly 375 pounds have gone missing. The results of every titanium fastener and bit of fiber-reinforced polymer, according to Fisher, is something that allows everything to happen as you'd expect it to, only "faster and sharper than any stock GT-R."
GT1 Street Concept
Bulletproof's GT1 Street Concept represents one of the things the company does best: building R35 GT-Rs of uncompromising performance at no expense of drivability, even when 1,072 awhp, pump gasoline, and the ability to maintain its composure in rush-hour traffic remain prerequisites.
Bulletproof's client tasked the company with building something in the vein of NISMO's legendary GT1 race cars but without the race track-only characteristics and million-dollar price tag. "Trying to mix race car and street car can often end up all wrong," Fischer explains, "[resulting] in a car that doesn't work well on the street or on the track." As such, the team engaged in a comprehensive planning process, not unlike it did for its SPL project. Here, the appropriate aesthetics were achieved through a mix of parts from Phoenix's Power, Top Secret, Top Racing, Varis, and Esprit, and all was reworked and widened in unison, Fischer says, from bumper to bumper for a cohesive appearance. According to Schaffer, the exterior conversion began with this very mix of panels from Japan's top craftspeople only to be thoroughly resculpted: "[The car] was reworked enough that some of the panels blurred the line between a remix and something entirely new."
Half-measures like fender trimming have no place here and, instead, the custom-sized ADV.1 wheels rest inside body pieces masterfully sculpted to allow all sorts of important things to happen, like uninhibited wheel and suspension articulation, which is just as important to racing as it is traipsing along the expressway. Even the side skirts were reengineered to accommodate the side-exit exhaust system and prevent expensive exterior pieces from melting. Looking the part was only half the project, though, which meant that under the hood all sorts of serious business is happening. It starts with an SPI-upgraded engine and turbo system, which, according to Fischer, is good for race car-like horsepower but without expensive race car fuel. The carefully tuned Cobb Accessport V-3 engine management system is mostly to blame for that.
Similar to Bulletproof's SPL project, much of the GT1 Street Concept was commissioned to outside specialists. Schaffer goes on to explain how the company regularly makes use of all sorts of trusted partners, some of whom work directly out of Bulletproof's facility, others remotely. "We have a business style where we don't profit off of labor [or] try to do everything in-house," he explains. "Our greater interest is to maintain a network of the best partners in the industry so we can focus on the best outcome rather than trying to maximize profits by moving everything in-house and making the typical three-to-four-time markup." It might not sound like the most orthodox approach until you begin to eyeball anything from the company's project build roster.
None of the GT1 Street Concept's modifications came easy, though, nor were they expected to. A GT-R widebody conversion the likes of which has never been attempted has a funny way of doing that. According to Fischer, creating an aerodynamic package that stayed true to the race car in which it pays homage to yet is able to put up with the rigors of street use was every bit as challenging as it was a priority. "This car did not have the luxury of air suspension and show car-only functionality, nor could it be a hacked-up race car," he says. "That was a big challenge." Ask Fischer and he'll tell you they delivered, though, realizing the vision of an honest-to-goodness race car that could genuinely deliver anywhere, even if that means sitting at a stoplight for 10 minutes without ever overheating.
Like Bulletproof's SPL project, the company's steadfast belief that high-performance need not succumb to sacrificing driveability echoes true with its GT1 street build. Schaffer explains how important it is to him that a balanced approach be taken toward performance and that modifications be made without sacrificing the everyday enjoyment of which the car was originally intended-a characteristic that's arguably more Japanese than it is American. "I guess after 15 years of working with our partners in Japan, a lot of the [country's] tuning philosophy has influenced how I feel about cars," he says. "All of that said, three seconds on boost in a 1,000 hp car is pretty damn fun, too."