The Nissan Skyline GT-R was never intended to stay stock.
While impressive in showroom guise, a standard GT-R is merely a blank canvas for aftermarket artists to create their motoring masterpieces, men like Kazuhiko ‘Smokey’ Nagata of Top Secret, Hironao Yokomaku of Veilside, Goichi Kitagawa and the late Hiroyuki Hasegawa of HKS and Michizo Niikura of Mine’s.
For many years Mine’s was the quiet achiever of the Japanese tuning industry. It didn’t build nine-second drag weapons, wild winged track monsters or neon-coloured Auto Salon stars, instead focusing on sensible, thoroughly-developed and attainable performance bits. In the words of Niikura-san: “We try to be as realistic as possible when we develop cars and parts … we don’t want to offer something the customer won’t understand.”
But what happens when Niikura and his crew let their hair down? The above quote was taken from an episode of the iconic Japanese video series Best Motoring, which featured the Mine’s 'Ultimate Response R34' GT-R.
You’ve probably seen the clip: it features a couple of Japanese racing drivers – think of Manabu Orido and Keiichi Tsuchiya as Japan’s John Bowe and Peter Brock – uttering expletives as they desperately try to keep one step ahead of a machine that’s re-arranging their concept of speed, Tsuchiya commenting: “It’s so fast that even a dead man will scream. I felt more fear than pleasure.”
With typical understatement, Niikura describes the Ultimate Response GT-R thus: “We’ve been quite soft on tuning in the past, leaving the engine stock and just replacing turbo kits, but on this one we did the engine as well. We didn’t just pursue big power but focused on balance and response.”
The car you see on these pages isn’t the Best Motoring star but its sister, reportedly one of three built in the same spec and livery. It’s owned by Melbourne GT-R experts V-Spec Performance, who generously supplied both cars for this feature.
The heart of the Mine’s R34 is its fully-built RB26DETT engine based on the toughened N1 block (stamped 24U). While the Best Motoring car retained a standard capacity, this example is a 2.8-litre; according to V-Spec, it was built for Niikura himself as a more street-focused package, sacrificing the smaller engine’s 9000rpm ceiling – though it still revs beyond 8000rpm – for greater mid-range torque.
A 1mm bore increase and 4mm extra stroke expands the swept volume from the stock 2568cc to 2771cc, the bottom end is strengthened by lightweight Tomei internals and the crank, con-rods and forged pistons all balanced.
In the top end Mine’s strengthens the valve springs, head studs and Nismo-sourced oil pump and installs new camshafts – 260 degrees with 10.25mm of lift on both the inlet and exhaust sides, if you’re curious.
Boost is developed by modified HKS GT2530 turbos and the end result is claimed to be 441kW and 629Nm, figures which align nicely with the at-the-wheels dyno readings of 370kW and 538Nm of our feature car.
If those outputs seem a bit modest in comparison to the 750kW-plus claimed by some cars, consider this: the Mine’s machine essentially offers the same grunt as a current GT-R Nismo with 200 fewer kilograms to haul.
Speaking of Nismo GT-Rs. Formed in 1984, Nissan’s official motorsport arm first turned its attention to the GT-R in 1990, producing 560 R32s with an aero bodykit, steel-wheeled turbos and the deletion of the ABS, rear wiper and radio. Its R33-based effort was far more serious.
Just 44 Nismo 400Rs were built at a cost of ¥12,000,000 each, which equated to about AUD$155,000 in 1997 and about $270,000 in today’s money. Funnily enough, not far off the cost of a current R35 GT-R Nismo.
Like its modern successor, no part of the car was left untouched. The flared guards add 50mm of width and allow the fitment of 18 by 10.0-inch wheels wrapped in 275/35 tyres for an extra 30mm of rubber at each corner. The new wheels expand the track by 20mm front and rear and the whole show sits 30mm lower thanks to new Bilstein dampers.
That comprehensive bodykit includes air intakes in the front bumper and ducts for the oil cooler and brakes, which use Nismo pads. The bonnet is carbon, the rear wing scores carbon fibre elements and there was the option of HID headlights.
Inside, unique instruments include a 320km/h speedometer and (highly optimistic) 11,000rpm tacho plus a titanium shift knob and bespoke 360mm steering wheel. Once again, however, the main focus was extracting more power from the under-stressed RB26.
So comprehensive were the changes that the engine received its own code, the RB-X GT2. It set the template for the Mine’s R34 by increasing bore and stroke 1 and 4mm respectively, its capacity once again 2771cc, while a hefty boost increase from the standard 8.5psi to 15.6psi lifted outputs to 294kW/469Nm.
To cope with the added stress the RB-X uses a reinforced block, forged pistons, crank and con-rods, 1.2mm metal head gasket, steel-wheeled N1 turbos, a Nismo intercooler, air-cooled oil cooler and a titanium exhaust. Other upgrades include a titanium front strut brace, reinforced engine mounts, a twin-plate clutch and carbon propshaft.
The last time I saw a Nismo 400R it was a mass of polygons, slowly rotating to the sound of cheesy pseudo-jazz music. Like many petrolheads of my era, Gran Turismo and its sequels was a big part of my automotive education, providing information and access to little-known brands and models, particularly those from the Japanese market.
V-Spec’s 400R is build number 007, painted in iconic Midnight Purple, and rightly leads a sheltered existence these days. It wasn’t always so, its previous Japanese owner using it regularly judging by the more than 66,000km on the odometer. Nevertheless, even in its homeland a 400R sighting is a rare event; in Australia you’ve almost got better odds of being hit by lightning.
Its provenance is lost on the general public. Filling up at a busy BP the 400R barely scores a second glance; to the masses I’m just another Paul Walker wannabe in a modified Skyline. Heathens. Later, faith in humanity is restored by NB MX-5-driving youngster Alex, who swerves into our photography location, mouth agape, exclaiming: “I never thought I’d see one in the flesh.” It’s unclear which car he’s referring to – it doesn’t really matter.
You sit a little high and slightly reclined in a 400R, but the seat is beautifully supportive and the unadorned steering wheel is perfect. It can’t be coincidence that both Nismo and Porsche have settled on 360mm as the perfect wheel diameter.
The alloy pedals are well-spaced, though the accelerator is a bit high for natural heel-toeing, but by far the biggest impediment to driving the 400R smoothly is the twin-plate clutch. It’s not evil – a bit of familiarity is all that’s required – but its sharp operation provides the potential for embarrassment.
Even at slow speeds the Nismo’s qualities shine through. Its suspension is firm but not uncomfortable, only jostling the occupants on particularly poor surfaces, the steering jiggles in your hands across cambers like a GT-series 911 and the engine is incredibly tractable, pulling without hesitation or complaint even when I accidentally select fourth from first. All the while the RB-X orchestra plays its symphony, every metre accompanied by growls, hisses and sneezes as boost is built and dumped and revs rise and fall. It sounds like it has 900hp, not 400.
Today’s turbocharged engines are all about boosting low- and mid-range torque, but in the 1980s and ’90s turbos were the key to unlocked power and lots of it. As such the RB-X initially feels disinterested, needing around 3500rpm or so to get into its stride, but take into account the 8000rpm redline and there is a 4500rpm-wide powerband to exploit. You quickly adjust, learning to keep the tacho hovering between 4000-5000rpm through corners so that you’re in the meat of the torque delivery on exit.
The steering is weighty and extremely responsive without being heavy or darty. Inputs are answered immediately and the feedback is superb, every corner of the car providing information about the road beneath. Arguably the greatest myth about GT-Rs is that they drive themselves.
There is a tremendous amount of technology in the chassis – even this 22-year-old model has ATTESA active all-wheel drive, a torque-vectoring active rear LSD and all-wheel steering – but it’s up to the driver whether they get themselves into trouble and whether they can then extricate themselves from it, especially as the R33 lacks ESP or traction control.
It’s unclear when the Dunlop Direzza DZ10Z tyres were last replaced and the 400R initially feels very short of rear grip. As the kilometres pass it becomes clear that this sensation is merely a combination of the quick steering, rear-biased ATTESA and all-wheel steer working together to get you to corner exit as quickly as possible.
It’s unnerving at first, particularly in a car this rare and valuable (it’s insured for $300K) but as kilometres pass the behaviour becomes reassuring, as you know the front end will stick and the amount of rear-end involvement depends on how hard you press the throttle.
More than 20 years on, the 400R is still a very fast car; once on boost it accelerates in a sustained rush right to 8000rpm. Performance figures are hard to come by, but in one of Best Motoring’s famous Tsukuba Circuit battles, Nismo’s tweaked GT-R showed a clean pair of heels to the likes of the Honda NSX-R, Porsche 993 911 Turbo and Ferrari F355, instead trading tenths with the 993 GT2.
Perhaps unsurprisingly given its OEM roots, it’s also very well resolved, with strong brakes, plenty of traction and solid body control, though the dampers run short of travel over bigger compressions. In short, the 400R lives up to the legend.
Even if you had no idea what the Mine’s Ultimate Response GT-R was, its staccato, almost rotary-like idle is a dead giveaway of its intent. Like the R33, the driving position is slightly reclined but the seat is much lower and the semi-quartic wheel – a step backwards from the standard R34’s perfectly round item – adjusts higher.
A digital screen on the dash displays an incomprehensible amount of vehicle data; commonplace these days, science fiction in the early 2000s. The Mine’s car is even easier to drive than the 400R: the clutch is much more progressive, the steering is lighter, the pedals better spaced and the throttle pedal long in its travel, only revealing its riches when the driver really asks for them.
Do so and the acceleration is, frankly, berserk. As with the 400R there is a pause – though a shorter one – before the engine responds, like the ebb of the ocean prior to the tsunami arriving. You barely notice the hesitation as the sound of enormous quantities of air being ingested focuses the mind on what’s about to occur.
When the boost arrives it’s like being rear-ended by a speeding train, the front tyres scrabbling for purchase while the rears dig into the tarmac and catapult 1500kg of GT-R down the road. It’s little wonder Orido and Tsuchiya disbelievingly exclaimed the Ultimate Response was “too fast!”.
But the Mine’s car has a secret beyond expertly applied engine tuning. Sitting in the rear diff is a 3.9:1 final drive, significantly shorter than the standard R34’s 3.545:1. At the same revs the Mine’s car is travelling about 10 per cent slower, but the torque multiplication effect of the shorter gearing makes it accelerate much harder. It’s this rear diff – a horrendously expensive Nismo item that's no longer available, according to V-Spec – as much as the monster engine that’s key to the ‘Ultimate Response’ tag.
Drive the R34 hard and you’d never guess its vintage; or if you were forced to, you’d perhaps hazard 2011 rather than 2001. The gap between it and the 400R might only be a handful of years but it feels like a decade or more.
Like the 400R, Mine’s has subtly enhanced almost every area of the GT-R’s chassis, with lighter wheels, wider rubber and pillow-ball joints rather than traditional bushes. It’s less playful than the R33, the all-wheel drive system favouring traction over agility; the steering is slower to respond and requires lock to really weight up, but is also razor accurate. Its behaviour is incredibly confidence-inspiring which makes it very easy to drive quickly, but its outright speed is such that do so still requires concentration.
It’s difficult to think of many modern cars that could match the Ultimate Response GT-R for pace on a twisty road and fewer still for enjoyment. With its combination of insane speed, driver feedback and everyday usability, it’s one of the most amazing cars I’ve ever driven.
Better yet, Mine’s will build you one, though you’ll need (extremely) deep pockets as the engine alone costs ¥3,218,400 (around AUD$42,000). But when offered the choice of one more drive in either car, it’s the 400R I choose.
There’s something special about the factory extracting the maximum potential of a model – after all, no one knows the car better than its creator. Drive a 400R, Subaru WRX STI 22B, Mazda RX-7 SP or Mugen Civic RR and standard machinery will never have the same appeal.
|Nismo 400R||Mine's R34 GT-R|
|Body||2-door, 2+2-seat coupe|
|Engine||2771cc inline-6, DOHC,24v, twin-turbo|
|Bore x Stroke||87.0 x 77.7mm|
|Power||294kW @ 6800rpm||441kW @ 7200rpm|
|Torque||469Nm @ 4400rpm||629Nm @ 5400rpm|
|Suspension (f)||multi-links, coil springs, anti-roll bar (f/r)|
|Tracks||1480/1490mm (f/r)||1500/1510mm (f/r)|
|Steering||hydraulically assisted rack-and-pinion|
|Brakes||332mm ventilated/grooved discs, 4-piston calipers (f/r)||356mm ventilated/grooved discs, 6-piston calipers (f);
330mm ventilated/grooved discs, 4-piston calipers (r)
|Wheels||18 x 10.0-inch (f/r)||18 x 10.25-inch (f/r)|
|Tyre Sizes||275/35ZR18 (f/r)||265/35R18 (f/r)|
|Tyres||Dunlop Direzza DZ 10Z||Bridgestone RE-71R|
|Price||$300,000 (and rising)||We're not game to estimate...|
|Rating||5 out of 5 stars||5 out of 5 stars|
The one that didn't quite make it
We wish boats sailed faster. In a dream world this would have been a three-car test, with the third car being arguably the most special of all. In January 2019 V-Spec Performance successfully bid for one of just four HKS Zero-Rs, paying AUD$212,000 for the ultra-rare R32, one of which resides with the Sultan of Brunei.
So comprehensive is the work done by HKS, the Zero-R wears no Nissan badges. Similar in spec to the Mine's Ultimate with a 441kW 2.8-litre engine, the HKS is nonetheless a very different beast. We'll hopefully beg and bribe V-Spec into doing a feature in a future issue.
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