It’s a bit complicated trying to explain what Nismo – AKA Nissan Motorsports International – wants to be. In its 30-plus years of operation its main focus has always been around racing, but the more consumer-oriented component has done a huge amount for the brand.
In theory it works wonderfully; you build race cars out of production cars and get enthusiasts excited over the race weekend, then create hop-up parts for these same guys to spice up their own cars with. Oh yeah, and then there’s the merchandize. But it’s never been quite so straightforward at Nismo, something perhaps due to the turmoil it had to endure during Nissan’s dark period, or more to the point – just down to poor management and a far from coherent marketing strategy.
The aftermarket parts business is something that Nismo successfully built up around the Skyline GT-R and a few other models, offering impeccably built components that would get you instant kudos out on the street. 1994 was the year Nismo built its first complete car for the masses, the 270R based on the S14 Silvia, and in doing so successfully emulated what the performance arms of German manufacturers were very good at. But with only 30 examples of the Silvia-based car built, the aspirations outweighed actual reality. It took Nismo three more years before it would create another complete car, the BCNR33 Skyline GT-R-based 400R you see here.
This, however, was a whole other thing. Not wishing to be left behind in the success that the Skyline GT-R was enjoying in the aftermarket, Nismo wanted to show the world how it should be done. Its approach was what separated Nismo from the backyard tuners; this was a factory-backed racing outfit after all.
The 400R boasted a stroked and blueprinted engine, the work to boost the RB26’s performance having been outsourced to Reinik who came up with the RB-X. The 2.8L engine sported a ton of refinements, from lubrication to head work and bigger turbos, and as the name of the car suggests, it developed an extremely conservative 400hp. This set Nismo’s way of doing engines for the foreseeable future: massively over-engineered for the power they would make, but at the same time bulletproof and with that all-important warranty.
The 400R boasted a bespoke aero treatment which made it instantly recognizable, even to the untrained eye. The race stripes 400R logos helped too.
The bumper got the N1 venting on each side of the license plate recess as well as a different lip spoiler with, you guessed, more venting. The intercooler was developed especially for the 400R – then later added to the Nismo catalogue – and sits within a carbon fiber air guide, a part that was curiously available as an option when you purchased the car at the Nissan dealer.
But the most sought after aero part of the 400R was the carbon fiber hood, which was designed to relieve as much hot air from around the RB-X as possible.
Fender flares gave a little visual boost to the R33’s girth, but they were more of an homologation thing to help keep the offset of the 18×10.5-inch LM-1s contained. The same thing had to be done with the R34-based Z-tune; if you recall it had even smaller strips of plastic to help it pass the antiquated shaken test. The stock Brembo brakes were deemed strong enough to cope with the 120hp boost in power (if you actually think that a stock R33 made 280PS, that is!), however, Nismo brake pads and upgraded braided lines were added for peace of mind.
All GT-R badging was removed and replaced with 400R emblems.
Along with the carbon hood, Nismo also created a carbon fiber wing element and yet more branding on the end caps.
In 1997, people went wild for this special car – it became an instant legend. There were plans to make 100 cars, but the $100,000 sticker price soon put an end to Nismo’s slightly miscalculated demand. Just 44 were built in total.
The cabin received Nismo sport seats and the Nismo steering wheel straight out of the catalogue, but a 400R horn button let people know they were looking at the real deal.
Besides being the legend that it is, the 400R does make me wonder. First of all, if Nismo really played its cards right it could have begun making its own performance versions of cars off the Nissan production line, like AMG or BMW M. But Autech, the coach-building side of Nissan, was and continues to be the subsidiary that’s tasked with that job. So the underlying confusion emerges.
So what is Nismo today and where is it going? I think that deserves a whole separate post, but am I certain that it shouldn’t be what it is today. I mean, there’s a Nismo-branded March, Note, Elgrand and Serena – seriously? Nismo should represent more than branding and marketing exercises, it should represent power and performance just like the 400R did for the brand back in 1997. Don’t you agree?
Dino Dalle Carbonare