The Skyline GT-R Legend Begins With the KPGC10

With the 2009 Nissan GT-R, a legend has been reinvented. Beyond the exotic technology and jumble of numbers generated by Nissan's new supercar — the twin-turbo 480-horsepower V6, the fearsomely complex all-wheel-drive system and even the 7:29 lap of the Nürburgring — you'll discover a car that has literally become a heroic character in Japan's car culture. It's even been the hero of a comic book.

And in this 1971 Nissan Skyline GT-R, you can see where the story began. It might look like a boxy Japanese car from a particularly unimpressive era, but you'll notice the impressive badging and wide tires. And under the hood you'll find a souped-up engine from a pedigree racing car.

This is Skyline GT-R KPGC10, the place where the Skyline GT-R legend began.

Tapping the Source
The story of the GT-R starts back in 1964, when Japan had begun to become motorized at breakneck speed. Interest in motorsport had grown rapidly, and the Grand Prix of Japan had been organized in 1963. For the second race, Prince Motors entered its Skyline GT, a four-door sedan stretched 8 inches to accommodate a 165-horsepower, 1.5-liter inline-6 engine. During the race, the Japanese spectators stood on their chairs and watched breathlessly as the humble Skyline GT succeeded in leaving behind a Porsche 904 GTS for a whole lap! Kozo Watanabe, the engineer responsible for the development of the Skyline GT-R of the 1980s and '90s, still remembers this racing moment from 1965 as one of the greatest he experienced in his long career.

Nissan gobbled up the small Prince operation in 1966, and the Prince-engineered Skyline GT-R was introduced in 1969. Known by the factory code PGC10, the car was packed with all of Prince's extensive catalog of racing hardware.

The Prince-built R380 sports car that won the 1966 Japan Grand Prix provided the engine, a triple-carburetor DOHC 2.0-liter inline-6 that could spin to 10,000 rpm. For the GT-R, the engine delivered 160 hp at 7,000 rpm, as much as a Porsche 911. The torque peaked at 133 pound-feet at 5,600 rpm. A 5 speed transmission sent the power to the rear wheels. Though this lowly four-door sedan looked generic, it had a strut-type front suspension and independent rear suspension + semi-trailing arms.

Nissan soon developed a full-race version that delivered 250 hp and weighed only 2,094 pounds. Within a few years it had recorded no fewer than 28 racing victories, becoming known as "Hakosuka," the boxy Skyline. In March 1971, the Skyline evolved into a two-door hardtop, the KPGC10. (The car is based on the C10 developed by Prince, while the "G" stands for GT, the "P" designates Prince and the "K" means coupe.) It recorded a further 22 racing victories in the next two seasons.

The four-door GT-R was dominated by understeer on the track thanks to its long 103.9-inch wheelbase and narrow tires, and drivers were forced to brake late and throw the car sideways into corners to compensate, which helped make it a favorite with spectators. For the KPGC10, the wheelbase had been shortened to 101.2 inches to make cornering dynamics less spectacular and more efficient. Masahiro Hasemi, one of the most famous GT-R racing drivers of the time, remembers the KGPC10 as one of the best balanced Skylines ever.

Embrace the Legend
In Japan, if someone hands you the keys to a KPGC10, you are beside yourself with joy. It represents an honor, not just an experience.

The car that is to be ours for a couple of hours is owned by Yasuhito Aoki, an enthusiast who has had his 1971 Skyline for 25 years. "When I was young, I tried to persuade my parents to buy a Skyline," he says, "but they found it way too fast for a family car. So, all I could do was wait until I could afford one myself. Four years after I passed my driving license, that day arrived."

Yasuhito is a member of the Skyline 2000 GT-R Owners Club Chubu, which has only 10 members. As a club, they own their own GT-R racing car, which just happens to be the very GT-R with which Masahiro Hasemi became champion in 1971.

We have to be very careful with the GT-R Coupe that has been left in our care. Not only because it's so beautiful, but also because only 2,500 of this particular version were built, of which there are only 1,500 left. According to Yasuhito, you'd have to cough up between $80,000 and $110,000 for a tip-top specimen.

Badges of Honor
Judging from the diversity of the messages plastered on the flanks of the silver Skyline, Nissan must have had a lot to communicate in those days. On the back there are badges that say "Skyline," "GT-R" and "5 speed"; on each flank there's a "Skyline GT." The nose bears the GT-R name and the cabin tells us we are dealing with a 2000 GT. Hence, the metal insignia gives a fairly complete idea of what the car is all about. There is even a plaque in the car that reminds us that it began as a Prince .. it says PMC-S, for Prince Motorist Club Sports. It measures 170.5 inches overall, tapes out to a narrow 65.6 inches in width and stands 53.9 inches. It tips the scales at 2,205 pounds when the fuel tank is empty.

Under the hood, we find the Prince-engineered, iron-block 1,989cc inline-6. This S20 engine made 160 hp with its 40mm Solex carburetors, but 3 x 40mm DCOE Webers were optional and Lucas fuel injection became standard just afterward. Yasuhito installed larger 45mm DCOE45 Webers, the setup used for racing. The original red airbox has disappeared over time but everything else is original right down to the Elephant Oil sticker. Thanks to the high-lift camshaft and advanced ignition timing, this engine makes 210 hp.

When you get in a bucket seat welcomes you. There is no trace of a radio or heater or clock. Apart from the speedometer and rev counter (orange at 7,000 rpm, red at 7,500 rpm) we see only temperature and fuel gauges. The car has a Nardi steering wheel, which is great to the touch. Although the backrest of the seat isn't adjustable we feel comfortable right away. A tall spindly shift lever controls the 5 speed transmission, rare technology in those days.

Light It Up
The engine fires immediately, although it requires some encouraging jabs from our right foot to keep it running, a reminder of those days when a high-performance engine would barely run except on the racetrack. It'll only take full throttle above 3,000 rpm and it bucks and stutters at anything less.

The intake noise from the three two-barrel carburetors is sonorous but fierce. The flywheel can't be too big, for the revs rise and fall quickly, and the intake noise from the Webers practically barks in response. But don't expect an impressive exhaust rip when this GT-R whizzes past, as the exhaust will not produce more than a deep hum, of which you are mostly unaware.

As long as we make sure the S20 is in the right rev range, the Skyline GT-R is happy on the roads around Fuji Speedway. We have to be constantly alert though, as the wide ratio gearbox isn't suited to the narrow powerband. We have to accelerate to a festively bleating 5,000 rpm in order to be above 3,000 rpm in the next gear. It gets to 100 km/h (62 mph) in 8.2 seconds, and 124 mph is as fast as it'll go.

The first few kilometers, we're swamped with memories of other cars from this era of the early 1970s. The shift action reminds us of a Lotus Cortina — so precise yet also so delicate that we can't believe the transmission can tackle 250 hp. The thin steering wheel resists numbly until you finally overcome the springiness of the tall tire sidewalls and the car dives toward an apex. The temperamental yet eager engine recalls an Alfa Romeo.

A Sport Sedan of the '70s
For its size and weight the GT-R sits on surprisingly wide 195/60R14 Yokohama Advan tires. There's plenty of cornering grip as a result and you can't break traction with power alone. It steers surprisingly sharply and this Skyline proves to be a wonderfully easy-to-drive car that feels particularly at home on winding roads. It energetically goes on the offensive when you can manage to maintain speed in long, open bends.

Overall, the Skyline listens obediently to your steering commands and its handling is free of any dirty tricks. It's an honest, transparent machine. Because all the power is bundled at the top of the rpm range, it's best to apply the power pretty early in the corners and wait for the acceleration to begin.

If you approach the 1971 Nissan Skyline GT-R with an open mind you will conclude that this car deserves your full admiration. The car is not a mirror image of European sport sedans but instead a cleverly developed car that fuels your passion for the concept of a sport sedan.