Curbside Classic: 1997 Nissan Skyline (R33) GTS – Fat And Spurious

It’s not easy being an automotive legend, especially one that has some sort of performance legacy to uphold. Your Corvettes, Mercedes SLs, Mustangs, Quattroportes and so on all have to stay current, keep up with the competition and yet carry on with a certain amount of baggage (also known as “tradition”). It’s a tricky tightrope to walk on. How did Nissan do with the ninth generation Skyline?

When Nissan took over the Skyline from Prince in the late ‘60s, the pedigree had been set. It was a saloon with sporting pretensions, with a 2-litre-ish engine (four or six cylinders), with a companion wagon and, since the 3rd generation (C10), a two-door variant. The wagon was deleted after the 7th gen (R31), but there were few other significant changes to the original recipe.

Alas, by the time the R33 came to be in mid-1993, Nissan were already in peril. Too many platforms, too much waste and darkening economic times called for the precious Skyline to share its bones with the bigger C34 Laurel and forego 4-cyl. engines entirely.

This growth spurt was well known to the buying public ahead of the R33’s launch. Interestingly enough, that was probably a deliberate strategy on Nissan’s part, enabling those who were really keen on the svelte R32s to buy one and thus boosting the outgoing model’s sales. The R32 GT-R coupé in particular became extremely sought after, so Nissan just carried on making it a year after the rest of the range switched to the R33.

Skyline fanatics knew that the R33 would not just be wider and heavier (and therefore be in a higher tax band) than the R32, but also quite a bit longer. To compound this issue, Nissan elected to use the saloon’s floorpan for the two-door, as opposed to a shortened one. The fear was that the R33 GT-R would end up being a big, fat disappointment, which explains why there was such a rush to get the last R32 coupés.

It also explains why I’ve seen so few R33s about, comparatively speaking. Skyline aficionados turned up their noses at it at first, and it took a while for Nissan to turn the higher end sporty Skylines back into the lust object they always were. They eventually got there, but it was a hard sell, especially since Nissan had undercut the model themselves by allowing its predecessor to go for extra innings.

On the other side of the range, i.e. at the bottom, lay the GTS saloon – our humble, but very clean and obviously well cared for, feature car. It was a relatively reserved 2-litre machine with only 130hp to propel it forth, and although it was wider and longer than its R32 predecessor, it sure didn’t seem much bigger inside. This is a perennial peeve many folks had with the ‘80s and ‘90s Skyline saloons: they were a very tight fit, especially compared to the arch-rival Toyota Mark II / Chaser / Cresta.

Our feature car is a late (i.e. post 1996 facelift) model base saloon, which probably makes it the least desirable of all R33s today. Most Skylines of this generation came with a 2.5 litre DOHC straight-6; some had turbochargers, AWD and HICAS (Nissan’s four-wheel steering), so if you wanted to shell out the yen for a fancier model, you actually got quite a lot for your money.

Eventually, the word got around that the higher-spec R33s were worthy successors to the Skylines of yore, and Nissan managed to shift quite a few of them. But the bottom end of the range didn’t fare so well. This is borne out by the numbers: Nissan sold about a third fewer Skylines of the ninth generation compared to the eighth one.

Even adding little nostalgic touches, such as these GT badges straight out of the Prince era, was not enough to entice punters to buy these in droves. The Skyline, which was supposed to be one of Nissan’s more reliable best-sellers, became another drop in the ocean of red ink that submerged the carmaker by the last years of the 20th Century.

This did not deter Nissan from devising a tenth generation, which took over from the R33 in May 1998. Those R34s are still around in relatively sizable numbers in 2021 Tokyo (certainly compared to the R33), so I’ll wait for a particularly nice one to come along so I can do a little post about those, but they’re well known to a wider audience thanks to the Fast and Furious series. Unlike this base-spec saloon, which is just all kinds of fats and quite spurious. Still, not the worst-looking Nissan of the era, at least in this unadorned / unmolested state and with this dark colour. Pity you can’t really have rear passengers over about five feet tall.