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
1234

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

Wheels
Life & Style editor's choice
FROM THE NETWORK
  • How racing slicks were discovered by accident

    In the Sixties’ era of cross-ply racing tyres, all were treaded, be they dry or wet weather tyres. This is the story of how, during his time with Firestone’s European motorsport department, legendary racecar engineer Nigel Bennett and his team changed the racing world forever, with their accidental discovery of slick tyres

  • Richard Whitehead
    Is Amsterdam a motorist's nightmare?

    Avid traveller and chronic petrolhead Richard Whitehead talks about his trip in The Netherlands

  • 19_sp_impressive_5.jpg
    UAE grown motoring talents now world known

    Racers who’ve honed their skills in the Middle East are garnering plenty of attention overseas

  • WH_140815_NTFH
    Not Their Finest Hour: Volkswagen Phaeton

    Celebrating the greatest cock-ups in automotive history. This week we look at the Volkswagen Phaeton

  • Copy of WH_ALL_AD [59]
    Porsche 964 RS

    It’s already skyrocketed in value, but the 964 RS is only going to get more expensive. If you’ve got a cool million or so, buy one now while you still can

More from Wheels

More from friday

More from alpha

More from aquarius

More from insideout