CC Twofer: 1990 Nissan Skyline (R32) Saloon & GT-R Coupé – The Most Exciting Car Of A Lousy Era

The year 1990, as I’ve written several times before, is situated right in the middle of a most inauspicious period in automotive design. Even Jaguars looked ugly back then, for crying out loud. So I’m effectively calling the R32 Skyline “the best of the worst.” Bit of a backhanded compliment, but a compliment all the same.

I know, I know, everyone has their pet bête noire when it comes to this subject. Some lament the gaudy excesses of the ‘70s Brougham epoch, others loathe the computer-assisted soullessness of the present times. And there is some truth to both of these points of view, but nothing compares, in my opinion, with the dark veil of mind-numbing blandness that descended on the world circa 1985 and remained in place for about a decade. I remember the period well. There was one type of hatchback, one type of big saloon, sports cars were legally mandated to have pop-up headlights and anything American other than minivans necessarily wore that stupid “formal” roofline. Rays of sunshine were few and far between.

But at the time, I was not aware of the intricacies of the Nissan range. All I saw were uninspiring Micras and Primeras puttering about my corner of Europe. Dour little things they were. Over in Japan though, Nissan were experimenting with the Pao and the Figaro, perhaps in an acknowledgment that automotive design was in such dire straits that looking to the past might provide an answer. But they also looked ahead, and the R32 Skyline is a case in point.

The predecessor: 1985-90 Nissan Skyline (R31) saloon and coupé

I have yet to meet an R31 Skyline saloon in the metal, but from what I’ve seen online, it seems they represented the species’ lowest ebb, though the R30 saloon was pretty bad too. I tend to judge a car design by its base model – a workmanlike four-door, if available – and by that measure, it seems the famous Nissan nameplate did not live up to its sporty image in that generation. The R31 coupé is a bit better, but hardly spectacular.

Above: Nissan Skyline (R32) brochure excerpt, 1989; below: 1989 Nissan Skyline GT-R

By contrast, when the R32 arrived in 1989, with the customary plethora of trim levels, Skylines started looking interesting again. The previous generation’s unimaginative square-peg-in-a-square-hole body, which looked like a rejected Volvo prototype, gave way to a more aerodynamic nose and a finer-looking cabin. The elongated headlamps provided a bit of sensuality. The rear end was still in the rectangular idiom, but it was less severe than the preceding generation’s blocky back-end. And if high performance was the client’s chief concern, the GT-R coupé was a credible alternative to a Porsche 911 Turbo.

One of the most distinctive features of the R32 saloon is its greenhouse. Again, where the predecessor Skyline displayed a damning lack of imagination or flair, this one reintroduced a curvy rear glass and simplified the C-pillar design to great effect. The hardtop look really suits the car and the compact, close-coupled nature of the beast almost makes it look like a four-seater coupé.

I understand that this appearance of compactness is confirmed when one sits inside the Skyline, especially at the back. It’s no Tardis, but then that’s what one should expect of a high-performance saloon like the R32. The only pity is that Nissan gave up the station wagon variant for this generation, so there really is no way to get something a little bigger. One merely had to wait until the Stagea came to fruition in 1996.

Speaking of inside, here’s what that looks like. Interesting little collection of “at your fingertips” buttons and controls on the leading edge of that dial pod, there. Would have made a ‘70s Citroën proud. Still, this looks mightily more appealing than most 1990 cars, which still usually ignored anything but straight lines.

As is often the case, this Skyline’s owner has taken the badges off, so one can only speculate as to the car’s engine. It’s probably not a base-spec model with the puny 1.8 litre 4-cyl. (a Skyline without a six? Booo!), so it ought to have the RB20DE 2-litre straight-6. Whether said six is a peaceful 125hp standard unit or a potent 215hp turbocharged version (or somewhere in between) is anybody’s guess.

One thing is certain: the four-door Skyline only received the 2.5 litre engine option when the R32 got its mid-life facelift in August 1991, so our feature car here does not have the bigger engine. I’m sure whatever’s under the hood is amply sufficient for a bit of a drift anyway. And if one really wanted a Skyline with serious performance, one just had to order the GT-R – but those had two doors only. So let’s take a look at one of those, too.

“GT-R” is one of those GT acronyms that made its way into the collective automotive unconscious, like GTO, GTV and GTI. When the R32 resuscitated the name, which had last been seen in 1973 on the Skyline C110, it was a masterstroke of branding. This time around, the famous three letters would only adorn coupés, and those would be armed with a twin-turbo 2.6 litre straight-6 officially providing 280hp, though some say the engine’s actual output was closer to 315hp.

This impressive cavalry was sent to all four wheels. Said wheels, all independently and multilink-ly suspended, also featured Nissan’s High Capacity Actively Controlled Steering (HICAS) four-wheel steering system. There were some even-spicier special versions made, but the standard GT-R was already plenty good for most people.

I didn’t manage to photograph this GT-R’s interior, so here’s a period brochure photo of one. Pretty much the same thing as the four-door, except those extra dials on the central stack. Probably turbo-related or whatever. Why is that handbrake trying to move in on the gear lever’s personal space though? I realize social distancing wasn’t a thing in 1990, but too close for comfort surely was.

On the track, the R32 Skyline GT-R wiped the tarmac with its competitors. It dominated the Japanese Touring Car Championship five years in a row and conquered the Australian one so definitively in 1991-92 that the Ozzies dubbed it “Godzilla.” So Nissan sold these as fast as they could make them, not even bothering with exports.

Actually, it seems they didn’t export the Skyline saloons, either, but at least they stopped making those after a while (i.e. summer 1993). When it came to the GT-R, the R32 coupé outlived the saloon by over a year. They just could not stop making them – maybe they knew the successor R33, both heavier and uglier, was never going to top this one.

As a result, these are not an uncommon sight in present-day Tokyo, despite being 30 years old. Very few cars can claim that, especially performance-oriented ones. If any Skyline ever deserved to be called iconic by Japanese enthusiasts, it’s probably the R32 GT-R.

Personally, I’ve got more of a soft spot for the four-door. It’s now becoming scarce and it probably can’t be of any use for anyone over six feet tall, but its combination of a lithe look with a steady stance is more attractive than the GT-R’s bulging fenders and tacked-on spoilers. Competition was at an all-time low when the R32s came off the assembly line. Makes them shine all the more brightly today.