Last month, an R33 Nissan Skyline GT-R sold for US$235,200 during RM Sotheby’s Monterey auction. It was built in 1995, had covered 46,000km, and was finished in LM2 Midnight Purple.
If you needed further proof the world of Japanese sports cars has gone completely insane, here it is quite literally presented to you on a plinth. I’m not sure if the buyer thought this was a charity auction, because there’s no parallel universe in which a 46,000km R33 GT-R is worth that kind of money. Not unless it has ‘400R’ scribbled on the back.
There are a few takeaways from it, though. That ‘bubble’ all slightly interesting cars fall within is showing no signs of bursting. If anything, it’s getting worse. And with a platform like RM Sotheby’s getting in on the action, the Skyline GT-R is now firmly within the mainstream collector’s market. And I don’t think that’s a good thing for us.
Obviously, if you’re lucky enough to own one of these cars you should be rubbing your hands with glee right now. But the reality tends to be a bit different, and chances are you bought a Skyline to use, to tune, and to check a childhood box rather than tuck away for a future auction.
That’s how car ownership should work in an ideal world. But these high-profile sales bring a lot of added attention to the GT-R market, from those who suddenly view them as the next big investment opportunity rather than something to drive.
Higher values bring higher insurance premiums, parts are hoarded which leads to higher running costs, and every owner with a not-so-good example suddenly floats their car on the OSE (optimistic stock exchange) otherwise known as eBay. The result? Less cars actually being used.
This all sounds very doom and gloom, but let’s be honest – anyone prepared to spend $235,200 on an R33 GT-R is probably covered if it were to go wrong. But part of the GT-R’s attraction has always been its underdog status and relative affordability – until recent years.
I paid £8,000 for an R32 Skyline GT-R back in 2009. I blew it up, broke it for bits, and got my money back despite the (lack of) working engine. Two years later I bought an R33 GT-R for £6,500. It had bronze TE37s, HKS GT-SS turbos and 470bhp. That too detonated while chasing more power and – having no cash to fix it again – went to Skyline heaven in many boxes destined for mainland Europe.
In hindsight, I really should’ve stuck with at least one of ‘em rather than simply throw in the towel. But the point being made here is that you buy a Skyline based on its potential rather than what they left the factory with. That doesn’t mean you need 1,000bhp, but with a bit of budget you could always justify one against any of its more expensive rivals.
‘996 Turbo? Yeah, it’s got 450bhp, but I can get 500+ with a set of GT2530 turbos and still be under half the cost of the Porsche…’
Oh how times change.
I’m not dismissing any standard GT-R, but it’s the world of tuning which is responsible for the model’s notability and that’s carried on even further with the R35. People don’t ask you what it’s worth or how many miles you’ve done; all they want to know is what power it’s pushing.
For anyone growing up in the 1990s and early-2000s, most of this obsession came via tuning magazines, VHS tapes, and in later years online videos showcasing these ‘wacky’ Japanese cars doing absurd things both on and off track.
They’d sail past 200mph in a tunnel, lap Tsukuba faster than any production supercar, and always make the right noises. GT-Rs especially were two fingers up to the established sports car market, wrapped in a gawky-yet-aggressive aero package which hinted at its potential.
Maybe I’m being precious because it’s a model I’ve obsessed over for many years, but after the R32’s dominance in motorsport it was Japan’s tuners who firmly took over for both R33 and R34 generations.
There’s a part of me that thinks you need to earn your Skyline wings to get into this circle; trading examples of halo tuner cars like the JUN Super Lemon, Top Secret Drag R and Veilside Combat R32 to prove your worth. All while recounting the old 0-300km/h videos hosted on exvitermini.com
To have these cars made unobtanium because of their sudden collectability feels like an entire generation will be deprived of that experience. The moment value is asked before power with a Skyline, it’s too late.
That’s not to say there aren’t people out there keeping the traditional GT-R name alive. There is – handily for this feature – and they’re also one of the best in the world right now. Harlow Jap Autos, a name you might already be familiar with on account of their inventory looking straight out of a video game.
That’s no accident either. Brothers Ozz and Arooj – who started HJA in the early 2000s – came from that same background of Japanese car nerdery listed above. It was a business formed by passion, and over 15 years later it’s now grown into what I would consider to be one of the world’s best dealerships for iconic Japanese cars.
Because while others are focused purely on the stock and low-mileage examples, HJA are famed for their big-power examples and tuner demo cars from the likes of Top Secret, Hosaka Tuning Factory and ATTKD. The term ‘investment’ doesn’t get thrown around here, because everyone who’s ever owned a GT-R knows they’re financially crippling if you actually use ‘em.
Why the spotlight now? Surely HJA should be loving this JDM boom? You’d think so, but when your reputation relies solely on obtaining the absolute best examples – be it stock or modified – this new wave of attention makes getting hold of any GT-R difficult. Let alone anything special.
Then there’s the name, Harlow Jap Autos. No longer are the boys based in Harlow, and if you check their inventory, there’s a decent amount of non-Japanese cars listed too. But we’ll cover that in a bit more detail later on.
Ozz and Arooj first started selling cars in the early 2000s, initially as a bit of a hobby which rapidly got out of hand. That may have coincided with their attendance of a Japanese car auction in Southampton circa 2005, and shortly after the pair knew exactly what they wanted to do in life.
“We were working out the back of our family home, so you can imagine how happy our mother was when we moved to our first unit in Harlow Pinnacles Industrial Park shortly after,” explains Ozz. “It felt like a massive move for us at the time, but we had to take this step to be taken seriously. We always knew this would be a steppingstone to something bigger. Our current showroom is something we envisioned years ago; it doesn’t even feel real!”
This passion was formed at an early age while watching Formula 1 and BTCC every weekend. But when the two became teenagers – and magazines like Max Power and Fast Car were being stocked at their dad’s newsagents, suddenly that interest became a full-blown obsession.
“We had hundreds of magazines stockpiled,” laughs Arooj. “Back then they featured mostly European cars. There was very little information about the JDM sports cars, but when they did we’d just be in awe of the specs. Max Power’s ‘Beasts From The East’ DVD and Gran Turismo were major turning points; suddenly we had actual resources for these Japanese cars.”
Textbook credentials, but where I struggle is the idea of having to sell them all after. Tracking them down and bringing them over sounds like a dream, but how do you muster the discipline to actually make it a business?
“We do keep some, but in total I reckon we’ve imported and sold several thousand cars,” Ozz explains. “We were regulars at the Southampton auctions, but quickly found that the quality and variety of cars available just weren’t up to scratch. The only viable option for us was to buy direct from Japan.”
“This wasn’t an easy process,” continues Ozz. “We spent days and nights sifting through endless web searches looking for exporters but there was very little. These days there’s plenty of good businesses specialising in exactly that, but in the early 2000s it was non-existent. With no contacts and little information, we couldn’t even verify if the cars we were looking at were real.”
“After some searching, we decided to buy two cars from two different contacts; the first a 180SX and the second a Mazda RX-7. Money wired, we never heard back from the 180SX seller… ever. That was devastating. Not only did we lose a load of money but our confidence too – the worst combination for any small start-up. Thankfully, the other supplier came through and that contact is still one we use even today. Had that not happened I don’t think HJA would be where it is today.”
Those early rookie days taught Ozz and Arooj some important lessons. Aside from finding the right cars, establishing a good relationship with trustworthy contacts is paramount to making each sale go through without any hassle.
“The Japanese work culture – much like us at HJA – is based on trust and respect,” Arooj adds. “We built this up over many years, but most importantly by sticking to your word on every deal. Today we’re fortunate to have many connections with all the major players out there, most of whom have become good friends. Sometimes we have to pinch ourselves when talking to some of the top-end dealers, especially when they compliment our work as they were the people we looked up to in the early days.”
Looking over Harlow Jap Autos’ UK inventory, there’s one trait you’ll notice with every car in stock or previously sold: quality. That’s the name of the game with HJA; Japanese imports have a (deserved) reputation for being a bit rough around the edges here in the UK, and that’s usually a result of those who haven’t done their homework or simply want a quick flip before moving onto the next one.
After being stung themselves with the 180SX, HJA wanted to make sure this treatment was never passed on to potential customers. But how exactly do you guarantee that when all your deals are happening halfway around the world?
“It’s all in the prep work,” explains Ozz. “That starts in Japan; you check vehicle history and inspect it long before it goes under the hammer. You have to take auction grades and car images at face value only; they don’t paint a true picture of what you’re buying.”
“That’s why I love all the big-power builds from those RH9 tuning shops. If you know of their work – and have witnessed the cars in action – you know what you’re getting into, and they’re typically much better maintained too. Those will always be my passion regardless of what happens with the market. I couldn’t imagine HJA without them.”
Go back five or six years ago and these types of cars were readily available with countless tuner cars going through the auctions or being privately sold. We’ve seen what happens as soon as the 25-year-old rule passes in the USA, but is this really the main reason for price jumps or is it part of a bigger issue?
“Everyone is quick to blame the US guys, but the simple fact is there’s a worldwide demand for these cars now,” Arooj explains. “Over the years we’ve built a wide spectrum of customers across all age groups. There’s a lot of collectors now that wouldn’t have considered a Japanese sports car if it wasn’t for all the press surrounding them, and a lot of the time we find these customers are intrigued to experience the hype for themselves rather than just tucking them away. On the flipside, you then have the die-hards who are now at an age where they can afford them, but in both cases it’s a good thing as it means these cars are getting the recognition we’ve always known they deserve.”
Arooj makes a solid point there, one I completely overlooked early on. It’s easy to dismiss these collectors for not wanting to keep the GT-R spirit alive, but then if I think back to my own ownership, I’ve wiped out more than I’ve saved. That’s a bit like saying I’m going green, before cutting down 10 trees and replanting five.
But I’m also a different owner now compared to 12 years ago. Back then, I was operating beyond what I could afford and I bought the cheapest examples possible before acting surprised when they inevitably shat themselves. I still own a GT-R; a 1999 R34 at that, but there’s one big difference with this purchase compared to those before: It came from Harlow Jap Autos.
“We mentioned it earlier, but the trap a lot of people fall into is auction grades,” explains Ozz. “These are a guide; they’re only checking what’s immediately visible and we’ve seen some auctions bump up grades on GT-Rs because they know a Grade 4 will fetch way more than a Grade 3. That’s why we have our own team based in Japan who will check chassis condition and repair history before it goes to auction. The same team help us maintain our relationship with high-end dealers across Japan, so in many cases we’re offered first refusal on cars before they’re listed.”
I’ve known Ozz and Arooj for years now; I’ve bought several cars from HJA and they’ve even helped me import my own car from Japan too. If it’s big-power or remotely interesting they absolutely cannot help themselves, but I also know there’s been a few cars sold which they really should’ve kept hold of…
“Oh man, so, so many,” laughs Ozz. “The ones I wish I’d kept? Top Secret R33 Drag R II, the one Nagata-san drove at 205mph through the tunnel. Then there’s the JUN Super Lemon that Jeremy Clarkson drove years back, and ATTKD’s R34 GT-R which lapped Tsukuba in 57 seconds. Not to mention the countless pristine Supras, Evos and RX-7s which came through years ago. But hindsight is a wonderful thing.”
“We’ve always got cars on the radar though,” adds Arooj. “Money no object, it has to be the R34 Z-Tune and R33 400R. A proper Group A R32 race car too, we missed out on one by just a few hours. As for non-Japanese stuff, I’d go Ferrari F40, XJ220 and a Cerbera Speed 12 for good measure.”
Not that their current collection is lacking. They’re the proud owners of the original Veilside top speed R34 GT-R (being completely rebuilt from the shell up) along with Sunline Racing’s full carbon R34, and another R34 from Friends Racing which casually holds the Skyline 0-300km/h record. If it’s big power, iconic or simply wild, you have Harlow’s attention.
Which leads us neatly into their next chapter. We touched on it earlier, but as they’re no longer in Harlow and they’re stocking European stuff too, does that mean HJA’s future is going to look more like a typical supercar showroom?
“Absolutely not!” states Ozz. “We’ve always imported the odd exotic sports car, but now we’re looking further into those really obscure and downright crazy cars tucked away in Japan. Cars that were (or still are) raced or have been tuned by the likes of Koenig Specials, Promodet, RUF and beyond.”
“For us, it feels like a natural progression. We’re not interested in simply stocking those expensive modern supercars; our passion has always been towards those unique tuner builds or the cars that truly stop you in your tracks if you see them on the road.”
“And Japan does that better than anyone else by actually road-registering these monsters – both the yellow 360 and white GT3R have the paperwork (and modifications) to be put back on the road. It’s not for everyone, but driving one of these on the road gives you a buzz like no other.”
You don’t need me to tell you I’m fully on board with this ethos; I’m already a fully paid member with Project 360 that HJA sourced at the start of last year.
Will I miss seeing some of the more attainable cars coming through the HJA showroom? Without a doubt, but it’s not like they’re short of good cars currently – like this Endless S15 casually packing 1,000bhp, a sequential gearbox and drag slicks for good measure.
What I’m actually looking forward to is seeing what this new chapter of madness brings. Because while everyone else is frantically trying to claw their way into the GT-R market, HJA have already opened the next door. And if a road-legal Lamborghini Diablo GT happens to lurk behind one of those in the future, expect a rather rapid sale of every possession I own.