Empty roads, self-isolation and a 700bhp GT-R. Doesn’t sound like the worst way to spend the next few months, does it?
Apart from two small issues. First off, it’d be massively irresponsible to drive anywhere unless absolutely necessary. But more obvious than that, it’d require access to an actual working car for more than five minutes.
It’s been several months since I introduced Project Thirty Four to Speedhunters, and if you can remember, it was all a very romantic affair. ‘Realising a dream’ I think was the phrase used. Well, confession time: It was, for the most part, a load of bollocks.
Before I’m glared at like a pensioner coughing in a supermarket, let me try and explain myself all over again. Everything documented was entirely true, from the chain of events through to the physical buying process. It was that ‘happy ever after’ bit at the end I stretched slightly. In reality, it’s been a total pain in the arse.
Whenever I write a story like this, I feel it’s important to float some form of disclaimer handily disguised as a get-out clause. This one’s no different. As I’m writing this based on my own experience, it’d be wrong to tarnish all Japanese cars – or Skylines – with the same brush. Admittedly, this faeces-stained brush is one most owners have used at some point. I think import cars come with one just under the flare holder.
You shouldn’t buy a modified Skyline on a whim. You shouldn’t buy a modified Skyline if you’re particularly clever with money. And you definitely shouldn’t buy one if you enjoy the whole ‘get out and drive’ mentality. It’s more like get out and listen for odd noises. Get out and wonder if that puddle is from the air-con or the engine. Get back in, drive a bit, consult a forum about a new noise instead. Less urban outlaw, more urban anxiety.
I’d imagine it’s quite similar to dating one of those high-profile Instagram models. On the outside it looks like a proper riot; someone’s clearly played their cards right and life must be peachy. But behind closed doors lurks a world of pain, expense and arguments. A prospect best observed from the sidelines rather than up front.
Unfortunately, I’ve spent the best part of 14 years conditioning myself by owning as many unreliable cars as possible. It’s often a trade-off to drive something quirky or interesting, which explains the ’90s V12 Merc and FD RX-7 also in my garage. I did have an M5 Touring (E61) which just set itself on fire; a fitting metaphor for the past five years of ownership. I digress.
Anyway, when those stupid cars work – no matter how infrequently that might be – it’s a hard feeling to beat.
Where do we start with R34 GT-R ownership? Well, a bit of background on this particular car. It’s a 1999 model (non V-Spec) imported by the guys over at Harlow Jap Autos whose workshop truly is a treasure trove of bonkers Japanese stuff. It came with a load of service history, including £60,000 (approx US$74,500) worth of receipts showing that all its tuning was predominantly done in the mid-to-late 2000s. This is important, because (unsurprisingly) by today’s standards that makes it fairly old tech.
Now, if you’re starting from scratch, using nothing but new parts and all the latest tech, I’d argue you could build a pretty reliable big-power Skyline without too much grief. But I’d also argue you need significantly deeper pockets than mine to get there, or at the very least a more reasonable approach to horsepower. Like thinking 600bhp is enough for any road car.
The problem is, my brain seems to be stuck in the era of Japanese tuning circa 2001. That era of Top Secret, Veilside and Garage Saurus – it’s what I grew up reading about and obsessing over. Any Skyline I bought would inevitably end up going down that route regardless of how it started, stock or tuned. I just love the mentality used when bolting it together all those years ago.
‘Mark-san, it is necessary to monitor many variables on a new engine. Oil, fuel pressure, boost. But space is not good. As the passenger side of the dashboard is not in use, we will drill five holes to place gauges instead.’
It’s basically a bodge but done with a little more finesse. No German or Italian would consider that an acceptable workaround; they’d either stick ‘em on the dash for ease or merge them into a single display. But the Japanese? Oh no, cutting into the dashboard must be the perfect solution.
Right, back on topic. You’ve got a ’90s sports car fitted with tech from the early 2000s. It’s been used hard for many years and its service history makes no sense outside of Japan. That’s a tasty recipe for a brutal headache at some point – could be weeks, months or years down the line if you’re lucky. But at some point, it’ll happen, and if you’ve never owned a fussy car before you may as well sell up and jump into a GT3 now.
Fuel economy? Nowhere near as terrible as you’d think. A huge, laggy turbo that spends 90% of its time off boost will do that. At no point would I suggest ditching a daily for it, but 17-20mpg on a run is pretty common. The bigger issue is the fact you get out stinking of fuel thanks to the swirl pot, pumps and filters fitted in the boot.
The diffs clunk at low speed, the exhaust is pretty loud on idle. Ganador mirrors have shit-all visibility and the Xenon headlights may as well be Maglites. Although that’s being unfair to Mag Instrument, Inc.
None of those in isolation are particularly bad, but like hearing the words ‘I’m fine’ from your partner it’s only a matter of time until the real bomb detonates. Mine happened a good few months into ownership when the headgasket decided it’d be more effective in three pieces. The cause is still a mystery, but I’d imagine my approach of ‘high boost all the time’ may not have helped.
When applying for your unreliable car licence, one of the final tests is the ability to find good in a situation that absolutely isn’t. For this exam, I decided that – while the headgasket failure was both annoying and expensive – it at least meant the car would be issue-free for its future. Consider it an expense for peace of mind rather than a repair. How many e’s are in the the world naïve?
Driving to Germany for Destination Nürburgring is hands-down one of my favourite things to do. The ‘Ring is addictive, unforgiving and full of absolute lunatics, and an exclusive track session held by Darren and the DN team is a brilliant way to remove that last variable at least. It does require actually reaching the ‘Ring to take part, however.
Somewhere on the Autobahn, the GT-R’s temperature gauge did its familiar dance all over again. Turns out the turbo water hose split, causing a slow leak followed by massive overheating. Being 650 miles from home and having the patience of a diabetic toddler, I worked out that six litres of Evian was enough coolant to get me round the ‘Ring twice before needing a top-up. I think I cleared out three shops of fresh spring water, but 17 laps and a cracked engine block later the GT-R at least made it home. Bugger.
In the UK we’ve got a little thing called ‘Trigger’s broom’. It’s the act of replacing every component of something over a duration of time, meaning that no original part remains even if the object is ‘original’ from appearance. That’s GT-R ownership in a nutshell. By the time you’ve replaced every weak component, the first one is just about ready to fail all over again.
Block swapped and head skimmed, everything remained peachy… again. But the next chapter would undoubtedly become the GT-R’s biggest headache to date, one worse than any form of overheating. Yup, it went for mapping at a ‘reputable’ tuner.
I’ll avoid naming ‘em for the simple reason I wouldn’t put it past the owner trying to sue me. His customer service skills are on par with a stale block of cheese after all. But I’d like to hope my car was a one-off and not the norm, so let’s give them the benefit of the doubt. For the sake of this story, I’ll refer to them simply as Terrible Disappointing Insufferable Tuning, which are random words that describe my experience and nothing to do with the actual name.
It’s a familiar story this one. I took the R34 along to have its map checked initially – it’d just undergone major surgery and peace of mind is a necessity. Within an hour I’d been told the HKS ECU was junk and sold into a nice new Link G4, which they could supply, fit and map for a set figure. Not ideal, but once it’s done it’ll be worth it, right? This was at the start of week one, and I was promised the ECU would be with ‘em by mid-week and mapped by the weekend. Happy days.
That week then turned into several more weeks, where a multitude of ‘problems’ cropped up including a faulty wastegate, boost controller and sensors. Ironically, I sold all those parts as ‘spares or repair’ and later learned they were absolutely fine. Very strange I’m sure you’ll agree.
I think it was around week four or five that my patience started wearing thin, having been told the (new) ECU was also faulty and its replacement had only just come back in stock. Amazingly, it was going to be delivered the same day as my phone call… apart from I’d just spoke to Link directly who’d informed me that order had only just come through and its delivery would actually be 1-2 days later. “We’ve only just received the order for that ECU today Mr. Riccioni, they’ve been in stock for months.”
This back-and-forth of excuses and coincidental solutions carried on for a few more weeks. I think my favourite part was when I missed the dyno slot (pushing back tuning by another week) because a part they’d forgot to order wouldn’t now arrive in time.
Anyway, cutting a fairly embarrassing story short, the initial quote had now doubled in price and the timeframe went from a week to almost three months. At least the work carried out was worth all the hassle…
Except that it wasn’t. The car now struggled to start (I was told poor starter motor; was absolutely fine before), the air-con didn’t work and the battery would go flat every night unless you disconnected it. I’d been told the car made 744bhp on the dyno. It actually made 620bhp. Obviously, all dynos are different, but a 124bhp ‘discrepancy’ seemed a tad strong.
To say it over-fuelled was a slight understatement. It smoked so much on boost I could’ve scribbled out ‘RB26’ and replaced it with ‘Cummins’. Even off boost the best you could get was 120 miles from a full tank of fuel.
All the while, zero responsibility was accepted from Terrible Disappointing Insufferable Tuning. Every query was met back with the phrase “the car has been optimised” and it couldn’t possibly be their fault. Realising the owner had now morphed from a block of cheese into Wilson from Cast Away, I drove the car home – after stopping for fuel twice because they’d left it with the fuel light on – and pondered what kind of dictator I’d been in a previous life to warrant this kind of experience.
Work rectified elsewhere, everything was once again ‘peachy’. But as is the theme of this update, the worst thing you can do is assume that everything will be fine from now on. At this point, I’d say the Skyline had become a toddler who’d been quiet for way too long. Tantrum imminent.
Actually, it was more of a rat-tat-tantrum as one of the exhaust valves snapped while in the middle of another track day.
I didn’t actually realise I’d snapped a valve; I assumed I’d spun a bearing… because Skyline. So, in a fit of rage, I drove the 15 miles home to jump in my BMW so I could carry on with the rest of the track day. In hindsight, I probably should’ve waited for recovery as I ended up smashing the piston, head and various other components in the process. If you’re wondering why I’ve persisted so long with it, please comment below with detailed explanations as I’m keen to find out also.
Joking aside, if a dodgy garage can make car ownership unbearable, a properly good one can make the whole situation infinitely better. This is where RK Tuning come into the picture.
Anyone familiar with Skyline tuning in the UK will know RK – led by Ron Kiddell – as one of the original shops from back in the day. Bryn actually shot Ron’s old race car in 2012 which you can see here, however Ron’s love for GT-Rs goes back to the early ’90s when he jumped ship from Sierras and Cosworths to become one of the first Skyline specialists in the UK.
Thankfully, that passion is still shared by Ron and his son Jamie some 30 years on, and RK Tuning have been the life support for this car over the past 18 months. While Ron’s retirement looks fairly healthy thanks to Project Thirty Four, his knowledge, understanding and ability has kept me sane when I should be rocking back and forth in rehab.
That’s the real key to enjoying these types of cars. It’s been a rocky process so far, and aside from the negligence I’ve been massively unlucky too. But keeping things positive for one last moment, it leads me neatly into the final chapter – Project Thirty Four’s latest (and hopefully final) engine build.
Contradicting everything I said at the start of this update, I’ve decided to junk the bulk of the ’90s parts in favour of all-new tech from America, New Zealand and beyond. Not necessarily through choice; had the valve not exited the head I’d be quite happy with the old HKS 2.8 kit. However, the wheels, gauges and aero will all be staying.
It’s not going to be a quick process, and I say that with confidence because it’s already well underway. But with limited budget it’s always going to be a compromise between what I can afford, and what’s going to be best for the build. This is where someone like Ron excels; having built hundreds of RB engines over the years, he knows exactly where to put your money and where to reuse original or refurbished parts.
Obviously, I’m going to get carried away while the engine’s out and cause Ron a multitude of headaches along the way… like changing the entire turbo setup. Take a look at the Walton Motorsport manifold above, how could you not when it looks that good?
Anyway, I’ll be bringing a much more detailed update on that including a step-by-step process of building one from scratch. But until then, here’s hoping Ron doesn’t block my number.