Motoring | Features

Racing roots of Nissan's R cars

If you know your ABCs, you'll know that the letter R comes before Z. And so it is for Nissan too, which made its R series of racing cars famous way before Mr K ever even dreamt of the Z...

  • By Dejan Jovanovic, wheels magazine
  • Published: 00:02 May 4, 2012
  • Wheels

Nissan R cars
  • Image Credit: Supplied picture
  • You can thank this car for the Skyline GT-R's legendary straight-six engine.
Image 1 of 4

The letter ‘Z' may be sacred in Nissan's lexicon, but way before the legendary ‘Mr K' even thought of Z, there was the letter R.

So while the Z cars, the GT-R, and now the revolutionary Delta Wing are enjoying all the headline praise when it comes to Nissan and motorsport, we thought it would be a good time to remind everyone of the roots of this Japanese giant's racing aspirations.

It began with… well, it didn't actually begin with Nissan at all. A Japanese carmaker called Prince Motor Company used to build a certain successful saloon model dubbed Skyline. Yes, that Skyline. Nissan acquired the little carmaker in the Sixties, and with it gained the famous Skyline nameplate as well.

Turns out Prince was quite a handy firm when it came to sporty cars, and in 1965 the company developed the R380 racing car to compete in the prestigious Japanese Grand Prix against the dominant, mid-engined Porsches. The following year, and now with Nissan parentage, the car evolved into the Nissan R380 Mark II powered by a straight-six engine (the precursors to the Nissan Skyline GT-R's legendary S20 engine) mounted mid-ships in order to stay competitive with Stuttgart's hopefuls.

Nissan took over responsibility from Prince when it came to the bodywork, coming up with a graceful low-drag design. Amazingly the original R380 managed to beat the mighty Porsche 906s at the 1966 Japanese Grand Prix, but Porsche came back to reap revenge on the R380 Mark IIs.

Planning a memorable comeback, Nissan was inspired by the Group 7 rulebook of the Can-Am series run in North America at the time, populated by the most powerful race cars on the planet. The 1968 R381 thus earned a Prince-designed V12 engine, but because it was not completed in time, Nissan simply dropped in a sturdy Chevrolet V8, easily doubling the power output of its old 220bhp straight-six.

More wheels Legends

The aerodynamic body was influenced by Can-Am innovators over at Chaparral, with active wings, huge downforce, and lower drag from the Kamm tail. When Nissan learned of the monstrous Toyota 7 its rival was planning to campaign, the entire roof of the R381 came off to make a purposeful open racer. The formula worked, and the R381 duly beat all its rivals at the Japanese Grand Prix.

The R series kept evolving, and the R382 finally got its destined V12 engine. Even if in 1969 the R382 was now facing a solitary Porsche 917K, Nissan managed to beat the greatest racecar of its day and notch another Japanese Grand Prix victory with the legendary Motoharu Kurosawa, known as Gan-san, behind the wheel.

Reaching a summit of the R series with the following R383, Nissan unleashed 700 naturally aspirated horsepower, and even tried out a 900bhp turbocharged version. It was not to be though, because the Japanese Automobile Federation cancelled the celebrated race for 1970, and the R383 never turned a wheel in anger.

The famed letter did make a brief comeback though, as a designation for the Nissan R390 GT1 built to compete in the 1997 24 Hours of Le Mans. The car was fast, but it wasn't reliable, and the race was dominated by Porsches and McLarens. The glory days of the letter R were over, but at least there was plenty of glory.

Packed with the latest local and global motoring news, first drives, up-market car products, bikes and more

Life & Style editor's choice

More from friday

  • WH_141024_Lambo_Huracan_STF_Stefan065
    Unhinged Huracàn meets the UAE’s maddest road

    Al Taween. Renowned for its goat s, tiny grocery shops and one of the great est mounta in roads in the world. Ripping up the newly laid tar mac? A Lamborghini Huracán. Buckle up!

  • WH_141031_mywheels_rashed (1)
    Rashed Abdulla Bin Fahad’s double impact

    Ever since he was bitten by a Mustang Cobra, Rashed couldn’t look beyond American cars. So when it came to choosing a pick-up truck and a performance saloon, the decision was easy for him

  • WH_141031_Subarub driven (6)
    Subaru WRX STI driven

    Subaru’s iconic flagship sports saloon is back, and along with all the upgrades comes a welcome price, too

  • WH_141031_SUP_Fiat 500 (2)
    Fiat 500 Cult refreshed

    Fiat’s nifty city car star has been updated for 2015 to keep pace with its small car rivals. Does it still have the magic that makes it a style icon?

  • Jonathan Castle
    Shifting opinions

    In defence of the (gasp!) continuously variable transmission...

More from Wheels

More from aquarius

More from alpha

  • gold-leaf-bath
    Inside Downtown Design

    From chic and contemporary to modern and magnificent home wares, this year's exhibition is nothing short of extraordinary

  • Noura_Main
    Highly commended finalist: Noura Al Ramahi

    Along with our three fabulous finalists, the judges decided to include a Highly Commended category as the standard of entries to our competition was so high. This goes to Noura Al Ramahi for her stunning villa in Abu Dhabi. Well done Noura – it’s beautiful!

  • IO_141020_Home of the Year awar86
    In pictures: InsideOut Home of the Year Awards

    The InsideOut Home of the Year Awards 2014 party held at the Nawwara Bar at the JW Marriott Marquis on the 20th October went with a swing! Here’s our gallery of a really great night….

  • IO_141014_Casablanca_STF_Stefan07
    InsideOut Home Of The Year finalist: Dana Jaber

    Dana Jaber’s Al Barsha villa was considered by the judges to be bold, original and eclectic. We loved her individual approach to decorating which lends interest and unexpected touches to every room

  • Main_2
    InsideOut Home Of The Year finalist: Helena Brown

    Helena Brown’s home in Umm Suqeim was a favourite with the judges because of the many personal touches, and undeniable sense of comfort and style. Her interest in Feng Shui has helped achieve a calm relaxed ambience

More from insideout