Friday, 29 June 2018

Reaching for the Sky

The events of 1987 and the failure of the World Touring Car Championship rather knocked the wind out of Group A. The momentum had vanished, replaced by a hollow uncertainty and unease about where things were supposed to go from here. After 1987, just two manufacturers bothered homologating new cars for Group A in Australia – Holden, who had no other choice, and Nissan Australia.

The new HR31 Skyline wasn't really a feature of the Australian Touring Car Championship in 1988, and neither would it be in 1989, only coming into its own with some helpful rule adjustments in 1990. In season '88 you simply wouldn't have noticed if wasn't there: George Fury didn't give it its maiden outing until Round 5 in Adelaide, where he suffered an inglorious DNF; he didn't finish a race (a lowly 8th) until Round 7 at Sandown. Glenn Seton likewise didn't see the chequered flag until the finale at Oran Park, where he finished an unspectacular 6th.

Yet 1988 was where the HR31 had its awkward, unheralded birth, and the reality for the roadgoing version couldn't have been further from its staid on-track image. For Nissan Australia, the R31 was a make-or-break model.

When I Were A Lad
Confession time: although I'm a Ford driver from an old Ford family, I actually really like Nissans as well. This isn't just because I'm a Millennial and the R34 is God (although I am, and it is): it's also because when I was a kid, our family cars were Nissan Patrols (for which Dad gave my Land Cruiser-driving uncle no end of shit). Our first Patrol was a poverty-pack MQ wagon, a machine from an age when terms like "poverty pack" really meant something: with its brown plastic interior, it was only a gun rack and a rising sun badge away from being a troop carrier. Its former owners weren't the Army however, but the Central Mapping Authority, which explained its highly noticeable yellow-on-brown colour scheme (we called it Coco Pops, because again, kids). A consult with the Old Fart has revealed it had the 3.3-litre turbo-diesel SD33T engine, which gave it a scarcely-believable 70 kW at 3,800rpm and 237 Nm of torque at 1,800. I suspect ours had rather less, but Dad never let it hold us back. We took it on holiday to Fraser Island, and made a bundle of memories I'll treasure for a lifetime.

Like this, but in daffodil yellow. People were always telling us where we'd been. (Image via YouTube)

One of the best was negotiating Ngkala Rocks Bypass, a patch of diabolically soft sand about a third of the way from Waddy Point to the northenmost tip of the island. Here you had to leave the beach-highway and box around the aforementioned Ngkala Rocks: the complication was the sand here was so fine it was almost powder, and deep enough to swallow even high-riding 4x4s up to the guards. When we arrived it was already strewn with casualties, and we watched as a few more hopefuls had a go, got bogged, winched out and decided to quit while they were behind. Everyone was milling around letting more and more air out of their fat tyres, and one bloke wouldn't stop muttering about how not even "his best gear" was up to the job. Dad had a couple of goes and, being the incredible driver he is, somehow got us through – in our ageing MQ, with no lift kit or other mods, on skinny standard tyres. We were free to explore all the way up the Sandy Cape and trek up to the lighthouse, which was powered by a battery of large solar panels, a rare curiosity in those days.

Sadly, delays in packing up on our final day meant we missed low tide. Heading back to the barge, we had to drive through seawater up to the door sills including a few scary moments where the waves washed against my window and knocked us badly sideways. We made the barge, but after its saltwater bath the old Patrol was never the same, developing endless faults that needed constant maintenance.

Inevitably Dad traded it in, which brought us our second Patrol – a GQ ST wagon in dark olive green, with the 4.2-litre TD42 engine, a naturally-aspirated diesel inline six with [consults notes] 85 kW at 4,000rpm, and 264 Nm at 2,000. That was all it had to shift its 1,839kg bulk (and with us and all our camping gear on board, it was probably over three tonnes) – and again, being secondhand, ours probably had less. But it did have the extra pair of seats in the back, or "Catholic pack" as Dad insisted on calling it, making it a five-seater with cargo space during the week ("I'm feeding four men!" Mum would despair as she brought in the shopping), but a seven-seater on weekends when we had friends over – de rigueur on soccer-mum transport nowadays, but an optional extra back then. This was also the poor abused vehicle that had the honour of bearing my L-plates, for which I repaid it by not screwing the radiator cap on properly one day and cooking the engine. That was one of only two mishaps I've ever had in a car: I never reversed into a tree or hit a roo (Dad), I never stormed through a puddle and lost a hub cap (bro), just this one oversight that happened to cost $10,000, more than all their bumps and scrapes put together. In retrospect, that kind of set the tone for my adult life: I make no small mistakes.

Under the Button plan the GQ was also sold as the Ford Maverick, advertised by Peter Brock and his jumper.

But my time in the tank-like Patrol meant I could immediately tell the team behind rFactor's Touring Car Legends mod had done their homework. The first time I took the HR31 Skyline for a blast up Mountain Straight, I had a good laugh when I looked across and realised the heater controls had come straight out of our old Patrol. And given how Australian car manufacturers had to recycle parts to keep costs down, that's probably exactly what had happened.

There are prettier mods out there, but for physics and sheer carfeel, TCL is the gold standard for rFactor mods.

Hard Times Bring Good Cars
Did you know we made Skylines in this country? I didn't, not until I read Joe Kenwright's column on the Shannons Club (again, if you don't have a Shannons Club login, let me encourage you to sign up: there's some rigmarole involved and a small amount of email spam, but it's a minor aggravation relative to the benefits). In those days "Skyline" still meant a perfectly ordinary compact sedan, however, so the cars rolling out of Nissan's assembly plant in Clayton had less in common with today's hi-tech turbocharged GT-R super-coupé and more to do with its great rival that also began local manufacture about this time, the Mitsubishi Magna.

The origins of Nissan Australia lay in the far-off days of 1966, when the Pressed Metal Corporation started assembling Datsun 1600s in Enfield, Sydney; when that venture failed, Motor Producers Ltd took over over from the early 1970s, putting together 1600s in their Clayton plant in Melbourne (the same factory where Volkswagen Australia had once manufactured the Beetle). The 1600, sold as a Datsun in export markets, was nothing less than a revelation over here, the car that made Australia sit up and begin to take notice of this funny little Japanese brand. We were left scratching our heads at how its willing 1.6-litre overhead cam engine (a copy of an earlier Mercedes engine) could possibly generate 70 kW only a year after Holden had reached that benchmark with their 2.4-litre six, and although a long way from its intended role as an urban runabout, its independent suspension meant the 1600 loved our rough roads. At a time when even basic things like heaters and seatbelts were usually optional extras, the Datsun had them as standard.

Calling it a "Deluxe" seems amusing now, but at the time it was very well equipped.

So the 1600 established Datsun, but the follow-up models (like the 180B and 200B) never quite hit the sweet spot the same way, and the brand remained banished to the small-car ghetto the Japanese had made their own. This was an era of increasingly gutless engines as Australia followed Jimmy Carter's America in leading the world for emissions control. John Wright bemoaned this as an era of "regress not progress," but I'm not sure in what world breathing in less leaded smoke is a bad thing.

Either way, what brought the Japanese manufacturers to prominence was the Second Oil Crisis of 1979. The first one in 1973 had rattled the windows here in Australia, but not much else. The second, kicked off by the Iranian Revolution and the outbreak of the Iran-Iraq War, however, made its conventions grimly familiar. Long queues at petrol bowsers and odds and evens days for buying fuel became the norm in the early '80s, and the very term "V8" almost became a dirty word. Fights were even known to break out if someone jumped the queue, which inspired a young paramedic-turned-moviemaker create a sequel to his earlier PSA about the dangers of reckless driving.

In this environment, the traditional large car with its big six or V8 engine seemed as outdated as beehive hairdos and disco. From now on, the thinking went, the mainstream car would have to be more compact with a 2-litre four-cylinder engine that sipped fuel rather than guzzled it. Fleet buyers responsible for choosing next year's company cars switched over to the "small three," the Mazda 626, Mitsubishi Sigma (the Galant under its local name) and Nissan Bluebird. Of the Big Three, Ford axed its V8 engine range and made ready to switch to the front-wheel drive Telstar, Holden downsized to the compact Commodore and lopped two cylinders off its Red six to create the Starfire-4, and Chrysler shut up shop entirely. Basically, at the dawn of the '80s the local manufacturers who'd dominated for two decades all found ways to stumble, creating an opportunity for those who were used to getting the most out of a small floorplan.

Unfortunately, it soon emerged that the 2-litre compact sedan was a false economy. Used to the lavish interior space and lazy torque of a Falcon or Kingswood, the sales reps came to hate their new cars with a passion, and drove them accordingly. With so few cubes the lack of power was most noticeable at this level, with Nissan's 2-litre engine unable to provide even as much power as their own 1.6 had 15 years earlier. To keep up with the traffic you had to rev them until the valves bounced through the bonnet and launched into the stratosphere, and given that speed limits were an innovation only six years old (and one that Australians were in no hurry to pay attention to), the end result was that these new cars spent their lives being ragged without mercy until all the fuel savings were eaten up in extra maintenance costs and steep depreciation.

The Toyota Corona was another of this unloved cohort, so boring it barely rated a mention, even to complain.

But the same problems affected Holden's Starfire-4, which was soon dubbed the Misfire-4, so even with these missteps the Japanese still managed to steal sales from Australia's Own. Having taken over Chrysler's operation in Adelaide, Mitsubishi saw their opening and pounced, gearing up to create a wide-body version of the Galant called the Magna that would come with an optional V6 as well as the standard inline-four. Mazda would probably have done something similar had they not been joined at the hip to Ford, who were never going to allow a rival to the domestic Falcon (the real winner of this troubled time, thanks to holding firm on the big-car concept and fitting a more economical six tweaked by Honda). For Nissan, however, the turning point was most extreme, for the next Bluebird was in no way suitable for the Australian market – too small, too gutless and now front-wheel drive.

Rear-wheel drive was almost essential to succeed in the Australian market at this time: when the weekend came around, Australians all hitched up trailers, boats and caravans and headed out for some serious work or play, depending on the breaks. A car that couldn't tow was a car that couldn't sell, and FWD, so conventional wisdom said, was useless for towing. A FWD car would only see its drive wheels lifted off the ground by the weight of a trailer, especially if it was a light Japanese compact, so RWD was needed to give the necessary traction. Very well, Nissan's product planners reasoned: since they couldn't keep doing what they'd been doing anyway, they might as well see if they could deliver a well-made RWD compact with both four-cylinder and straight-six engine options. Succeed at that, and they just might beat Holden at the game they were trying to play, and at last have their foot in the door of the mainstream family and fleet car markets. If they could pull it off, not even the sky would be the limit.

Immigration Reform
Like the Bluebird before it, however, the Skyline would have to be localised before it could begin manufacture in Australia. To our chagrin, this generally this meant getting rid of anything high-tech that was too expensive to produce at our tiny volumes, so the first thing to go was HICAS.

Nissan's HICAS system, or High Capacity Active Steering, was a rear-wheel steering device designed to counter the toe-out roll-steering effect native to semi-trailing arm suspension designs. Anyone who's driven a VT Commodore hard with any substantial weight on board will probably be familiar with the problem – because of the way the suspension works, too much load would angle the rear wheel outwards until the whole car started crabbing sideways. The usual way of controlling a car stepping out at the back wouldn't always work, because the car wasn't sliding, but steering itself sideways. HICAS was intended to correct the problem by mounting the rear suspension on a subframe attached to rams energised by the power steering pump: as the rear wheel toed outwards, the rams would move the whole subframe in the same direction as the front wheels, correcting their toe setting and letting the car sail smoothly through a turn.

It was a clever idea, but the execution was mechanical rather than electric, so it was neither consistent nor effective and it absolutely destroyed the suspension bushes. To keep costs down and durability up, HICAS was binned in favour of an Australian-made five-link Borg Warner live axle, the usual upper rods and lower arms supplemented by a Panhard rod similar to the local Bluebird. Other JDM trinkets like fluorescent instruments and electrically-adjustable dampers were likewise left on the shelf. They did, however, spring for a bigger Nissan CA20E engine, a 1,974cc twin-plug inline-four with Multiport Fuel Injection taken from the imported Gazelle, capable of 78 kW at 5,200rpm and 160 Nm at 3,200. The business case required that they not abandon their four-cylinder faithful, so the R31 Skyline with the four-cylinder engine launched first as the new Nissan Pintara.

The Pintara, featuring some very '80s styling by origami, dropped in June 1986 and was followed a month later by the six-cylinder Skyline. Nissan differentiated the two with separate grilles and headlights: the Pintara had a simple and crisp fine bar grille with quad square headlights; the local Skyline had an impressive six-headlight face with a single bar grille unique to Australia. Also separating the Skyline from the lesser Pintara was a Nissan RB30E straight-six, one of a versatile family of iron-block, alloy-head overhead-cam engines designed with capacities from 2.0 to 3.0 litres with various layouts of carburettor or EFI, single-cam/two-valve or twin-cam/four-valve heads (some with butterfly intake runners), and naturally-aspirated or turbo induction. Nissan Australia had negotiated to import the big 2,962cc single-cam version to provide the low-down torque Australians expected, with the "E" signifying electronic fuel injection to comply with 1986's ULP emissions restrictions. The key to the project was that Holden was already importing this engine for the VL Commodore, and it was already going into other Nissans like the Patrol, which helped the numbers come out right in the accountancy department.

The RB30E was standard in all: the GX and GXE sedans and wagons, and the sedan-only Ti luxury and performance Silhouette. It offered 117 kW at 5,200rpm and 252 Nm at 3,600, and although derided as "high tech" (meaning "fragile") at the time, it has since proven an extremely durable engine, many showing 400,000km on the odo with little more than routine servicing (the camshaft was driven by a toothed rubber belt that needed replacing every 100,000km, but thankfully the RB's pistons didn't smash into the valves if it broke). It came with either a 5-speed manual gearbox or a Jatco electronic 4-speed auto, and with the manual could make the run from 0 to 100km/h in 9.3 seconds (which compared very favourably with the equivalent Magna's 10.3 or the XF Falcon's 11.4, if a little behind the lighter VL Commodore's 8.5). All models came with power steering and four-wheel discs – plush for the time.

The different engines allowed Nissan to pitch a single model against Mitsubishi's Magna and Toyota's Camry in the four-cylinder compact market, as well as muscle in on Holden and Ford’s dominance of the six-cylinder family and fleet markets. That said, being based on a design from Japan, where smaller cars incurred less tax, the Nissan was narrower inside than the Commodore (the Holden was just over the 1,700mm width limit, the Nissan was just under it), and much more cramped than the wide-body Falcon. So although it had belts for five, in Australia it was realistically only a four-seater, which counted against it for both families and fleet buyers – Telecom weren’t likely to abandon their Falcon wagons for GXE Skylines. But for those with smaller families or an eye on build quality, the Skyline made a certain amount of sense, and Nissan's core buyers were already accustomed to trading cabin space for build quality and a proper engine. Wheels tested it back-to-back with the VL and declared the Skyline to be the better-built, quieter, better-handling and better-performing car. There was even a unique Australian performance version called the Silhouette GTS, which I talked about last year, and which I'd still love to drive one day.

The Racer – GTS-R
The ultimate version of the R31 however was the Japan-only HR31 GTS-R coupé. Released in August 1987, this stripped-out version of the two-door R31 featured a reworked version of the normal RB20DET engine, a 1,998cc turbocharged twin-cam fuel-injected straight-six, but equipped with a much larger turbocharger on a tubular steel exhaust manifold, as well as a much larger front-mounted intercooler and a 5-speed manual gearbox. Power was boosted to a claimed 154 kW, which in race trim became more like 300 kW, about 50 more than the outgoing DR30. The purposeful-looking spoilers front and rear added some much-needed high-speed stability, and although it shared similar chassis architecture to the DR30, with same the MacPherson strut front and semi-trailing arm rear suspension, continual development had done much to eliminate the weird arcs and spooky handling that made the DR30 such a handful.

Indeed, they might have overdone it: as a road car it shared the basic R31 malady – a willingness to be driven so fast but no faster – which it combined with much greater turbo lag to produce a rather frustrating driving experience. The turbo didn’t spool up until 5,300rpm, so with a 7,000rpm redline the usable power band was woefully narrow, which left you with no way to deal with the understeer that reared its head early in every corner. Driving the GTS-R required a slow-in/fast-out approach, timing the turbo boost to fire you down the next straight and just accepting that you were going to lose a bit in the corners. Overall, it felt like a collection of cool parts needed for racing rather than a cohesive whole, which as a homologation special is almost exactly what it was. 823 were ultimately built for Group A, all of them in Bluish Black – that's not a description, that’s what it was actually called!

Although the GTS-R didn't do much in its first year in Australia, it showed tremendous potential racing on the other side of the world. Nissan had finally taken the hint and embarked on a toe-in-the-water programme in the European Touring Car Championship, which in 1988 was basically the WTCC in witness protection. The drivers were not Hasemi Masahiro and Hoshino Kazuyoshi* as you might've expected, however, but Australia's Allan Grice and his co-driver from Bathurst last year, Britain's Win Percy. Grice was probably there because of his personal sponsorship deal with Yokohama, who provided the Nissan team's tyres; Percy was probably there because of Gricey. The pair knew they could work together and trust each other with the machinery, so they were a good choice for a Nissan company probably not overly keen to have this exploratory season become common knowledge in the home islands.

The new Nissan Motorsports Europe team made their debut with a single car at Britain's Donington Park. Despite the brand-new car, they gave the Eggenberger Ford and BMW Motorsport establishment a fright right from the word go. After three and a half hours, with just half an hour to go, they were leading the race by a whole lap! Unfortunately, whatever development work they'd done hadn't revealed their existing brake package was a bit weedy for the strain of racing. In theory, with a 2.0-litre engine that worked out as a 2.8-litre by the FIA's turbo equivalence formula, the Skyline had the same 1,035kg minimum weight as the Sierras. In reality, this was a minimum weight it struggled to reach, Fred Gibson later revealing that in its entire career the GTS-R never went racing with less than 1,100kg on the scales. The extra weight took a toll on its brakes, which gradually faded over the course of the race until Percy pitted to have the team inspect them. They had a quick look and sent him back out, only to find his brake pedal was still soggy and he spun off at Redgate, leading the team to withdraw the car after 95 laps. It seems the team was bit green, having left the tools needed to change the brakes at home! You could also see that it was an unsorted new car, just look at the way it porpoised through Goddards at 2:51 above! Understeer, suspension tune and engine response all needed some attention there I think.

After their surprisingly good showing at Donington, the Nissan team skipped Estoril and Jarama to make their second appearance in the 500km de Bourgogne, at France's Dijon-Prenois circuit (starts at 3:36 in the video). Again they raised some eyebrows by running with the Fords early on, but again teething problems cut their performance short – this time, the gearbox packed up. From there the team skipped the Vallelunga round in Italy but returned for the Grosser Preis der Tourenwagen at the Nürburgring (doesn't show up in the video), where they finally made the finish, albeit in only 19th place.

In the pits at the Nürburgring (source).

Next up however was the big one, the Spa 24 Hour classic (6:20 in the video). For this race you needed three drivers, so the team roped in former Volvo star Anders Olofsson. Gricey had already won the King's Cup here in a Commodore two years ago, but that had been thanks to his private effort being counted with the factory-backed Mobil Holden Dealer Team cars. This year his Nissan was the sole entry, so they'd be fighting a war of attrition against Ford of Europe and BMW with no backup if things went wrong. In truth things didn't go very badly wrong, the stability of the GTS-R probably finding a good match in the long, fast curves of the Spa-Francorchamps circuit, its moderate power not such a handicap when the Sierras also had to wind back the boost to make the finish. There were niggling problems of course (there always are in a 24-hour race), but nothing serious – the video shows Gricey tossing the knob off the gearstick to Nissan product planning manager Howard Marsden in one of the pitstops, and by evening Percy was telling the cameras how their extreme camber setting had put unexpected stress on the front-left wheel bearing, requiring a precautionary change – but the car was still running, much to the surprise of onlookers. Indeed, by 1:30am Gricey was able to point out that they were actually gaining laps on the leaders, not by going faster but simply by maintaining their pace when everyone else was slowing down with one mechanical malady or another. They finished the race with 485 laps to their credit, 27 behind the leaders – an incredible achievement given they'd stopped to replace the entire front assembly five times over the course of the race! Had they had the parts to do the job, it's not inconceivable that they could have won.

But in the end it was another Spa 24 Hour trophy for BMW, a glorious 1-2-3 in fact, but 6th outright went to the #23 Nissan Skyline, a fine achievement for a car in its rookie season. From there though the remainder of the season never quite reached the same heights – they DNF'd at Zolder (gearbox), although they claimed fastest lap; they DNF'd again at Silverstone (another gearbox) where Dick Johnson made the rest look silly; but they managed a strong finish at the Circuit Paul Armagnac in France. Here the round was run over two heats, and in his heat Grice fell off the road and incurred yet another DNF. That left Percy to start his heat from the very back, around 30th place, and they'd just been informed they wouldn't be allowed to race the GTS-R at that Bathurst in a month's time. That meant this was effectively Percy's last drive in the Skyline, so he ragged it for all it was worth, rising from dead last to cross the finish line 2nd outright after 250km, beaten only by the Sierra of Steve Soper.
Boy did I have fun. Starting from the back of the grid to a 2nd place finish, only to be beaten by Steve Soper in the works Cosworth, I just wanted to show what the car could do, and I did. – Win Percy
Sadly, Gricey's off bumped them back to 11th in the final standings, largely hiding Percy's achievement in the history books. Nissan finished the year with just 41 manufacturer's points, compared to 310 for returning champions Ford.


All Revved Up With No Place To Go
The really heartbreaking part of the video was when commentator Richard Hay mentioned Nissan was running this season to prepare for a full tilt at the ETCC in 1989. Problem was, there wouldn't be an ETCC in 1989. For two years the series had been dominated to the point of boredom by the established marques, Ford nearly always winning the races outright, BMW usually taking the lower class, and the two giants fighting it out for the title without ever running wheel-to-wheel on the track. As a consequence spectator interest had fallen down a mineshaft, and with so little interest from the teams and circuit owners the FIA simply neglected to run it the following year, letting the concept lapse into a coma that would last the next 15 years. Not until 2005 would we see another Europe-wide championship pick up the torch.

So Nissan were left with a brand-new, rather promising car, and no major international series to run it in. Our own ATCC hardly counted on that front, however crucial it was to the local branch's marketing plans. Nissan Australia needed to get the Skyline name out there and in the public consciousness, which partly explained why they'd been so keen to hand Fred Gibson a ready-made touring car team in 1986, complete with factory-supplied DR30 racecars. The funny thing was, for nearly half its life the Australian Skyline was represented on the track by the older DR30; by the time the GTS-R turned a wheel as a racecar, the road version was nearing its Series III facelift.

But then again, it mightn't have made any difference either way. The roadgoing Skyline was a fairly beige car whichever way you sliced it: a friend of mine says her family actually had the four-cylinder Pintara version when she was young, but when I pressed her for an anecdote to put in this blog, she couldn't think of any. That probably says all you need to know about how memorable it was. In the end, the HR31 was the awkward middle child, a transitional fossil layered between the monstrous DR30 and the sublime R32. It's day was worse than over; it would never really begin.

*Names written according to the Japanese custom, with the patronymic first. I ummed and ahhed over which way to put them longer than I'm proud of.

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