Well, folks, you can color me blue and send me to heaven, because after driving all kinds of great cars for this Modified column over the past five years, I finally got a crack at what I feel to be the ultimate iconic tuner car. And believe me, it didn’t disappoint in any way shape or form. You can see from the pics that I’m talking about a Nissan R34 GT-R V-Spec II Skyline, and I’m here to tell you that, yes, they are as cool from behind the wheel as they look driving down the street. The opportunity to drive this killer hot rod came through Tony Skirza at UMS Tuning, who is the go-to man for tuning on these beasts in the Phoenix area.
When Tony told me that he had a customer’s R34 for the mag, I had a hard time believing it. After all the machines that I’ve sat at the wheel of for Modified and the old Modified Luxury & Exotics, the R34 was always missing. It left a gaping hole in my “to-drive” list that I really wanted to fill. I suppose the fact that R34s in the States are so rare—due to stringent importation and registration regulations—was in part what made the car so important for me to drive, but I like to think of it another way. Just before the R34 was introduced, Porsche debuted the technology-laden 959 and Ferrari offered up its sleek and brutal F40, both to the unending acclaim of the world motoring press. It was at precisely this time that Nissan offered the third-generation Skyline, restarting production after a 16-year break from the original versions in the late ’60s and ’70s. In 1989 the R32 came to market, and in many respects it was just as, if not more important, a machine than the much lauded supercars of the same era.
It’s debatable whether or not Nissan truly intended to compete with its European counterparts when it reintroduced the Skyline, but the fact of the matter is that the car dominated the racing scenes in which it was entered from its inception. Because Australia was the only country the Skyline was exported to made the Aussies very lucky and also made it extremely difficult (and expensive) for American consumers to get one. And yet, there were a few U.S. customers who decided that they absolutely had to have a GT-R. And thank God for those folks, because that’s exactly why I found myself sitting in the seat of one of the best cars ever made.
The owner of the Skyline that we shook down wanted to have an out-of-the-ordinary machine that he could drive on a daily basis, which is the way he kept it for several years. However, he eventually decided to track the car and knew that the rigors of such use would require some changes, if for no other reasons than reliability and longevity. With the mods he chose, it seems he was also trying to squeeze more raw performance from his R34.
The RB26-based motor was enhanced with twin HKS 2530 turbos and HKS 272 cams. On the intake and combustion side, the owner chose a NISMO intake plenum and the charged air was run through custom-designed and built intercooler and piping. Exhaust duties were left to a custom downpipe and an HKS carbon-titanium after-cat system.
A Pro-Efi stand-alone ECU was employed to handle the critical balance of fuel, air and the subsequent combustion, and a Carbonetic carbon twin-disc clutch replaced the stock unit. The net result of the engine mods, based on data gathered from UMS Tuning’s Dynapack chassis dyno, was a whopping 654 whp at 7100 rpm on race fuel. For our shakedown, we went with the more conservative and (most likely) more reliable street fuel setting that produced a still impressive 495 whp and 395 ft-lbs of torque on 91-octane juice.
The mods weren’t limited to power-making goodies, though. Gorgeous 18x10 Magnesium Blue Volk RE-30s wrapped in sticky 275-35-18 Nitto NT-05 meats filled the wheelwells perfectly. The owner also addressed handling in an attempt to make the car turn as sharply as it looks and lowered the car with a set of Impul coilovers fitted with Öhlin dampers. The blue R34 was low, wide and downright menacing—exactly the way a R34 should look. It’s like Mike Tyson in a blue silk Armani suit—part pit bull, part showstopper and all performance. Pictures have never done these cars justice, and with all due respect to my photographer, with this car it was particularly true. To be honest, the car was so clean it was hard—very hard—to believe that it was close to a 10-year-old daily driver.
I settled into the perfectly supportive driver seat and realized that it was only the second right-hand-drive car I’ve driven. It also dawned on me that hurting this car because of a missed shift could have dire consequences for the car and for me! It was not a problem, though, because the gearbox feel was nothing short of stellar. Wonderfully precise, the operation of clutch and shifter was so easy that it actually became a very intuitive feel, and even heel and toe downshifts came with ease. The gear ratios, which were stock, were perfectly spaced and seemed to work well with the power delivery from the twin-boosted motor.
I don’t have any experience with a stock R34, so all I can tell you is that the power I felt in this UMS-tuned example was very impressive. A little lethargic down below 3500 rpm perhaps, but only because above 4000 the car became brutal in its accelerative force. I shifted consistently a solid 500 rpm below redline, mindful of potentially hurting the pristine Nissan (there was no way I was going to do damage and have to live with this car’s motor oil on my hands). The strong pull from the motor was linear, except for an intermittent boost flutter in long, high g-force, left-hand corners at 5000 to 5500 rpm.
While muted at idle, the exhaust note built steadily as throttle load increased and engine revs climbed. The higher the revs, the more ferocious the RB26 powerplant sounded until it became a snarling, spitting wild animal straight out of a JDM fairy tale. I can’t tell you what animal it might have been; all I can tell you is that the car was very much alive, and the harder I pushed the more visceral it became. I didn’t intend to drive the car all that intensely, but the experience behind the wheel in this oh-so-correct vehicle was downright intoxicating.
The Brembos, as one would expect, did their job in efficient style, shedding off the considerable energy built up in short and controlled order. Initial bite was good and felt very much like a good street pad with a sticky street tire. There was no sign of fade and the chassis responded to brake application with minimal dive.
One of the strongest elements was the sharpness of feel and response at initial turn-in. I was surprised at how easily I could get the car to rotate at corner entry with some subtle trail brake pressure and an increased rate of steering. However, once the car took a set in the corner the considerable mass of the GT-R made itself clearly known and with any changes in pavement height, the settings on the Öhlin/Impul combination were pushed to their limits. The car began to slightly “float” through bumpier corners, and a little more rebound to “hold” the car down would have been a nice adjustment. In that respect, the car was more street than track oriented, but personally, I would have kept it that way unless I could make the changes easily—which we couldn’t. I was very sorry to see the GT-R leave the driveway of the Bondurant School circuit at the end of my test, and it’s one of those machines that I’ll miss. The UMS car was everything that I thought a R34 GT-R should be—and more.
People are going to ask if the car was as quick or as good as the new GT-R and the answer, of course, is no. But that’s not what makes the R34 such a desired commodity and what, in my mind, makes the older car the one I would choose of the two. What the R34 is all about is the idea—the fact that Nissan produced a true and viable supercar contender when supercars were so much more rare. It’s also arguably one of the single most important cars in the tuner culture that has spanned the last three decades. I am humbled to have been able to take a drive in one of these machines, and I can’t wait until I get another chance.
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