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Two hundred grand for a Datsun? Okay, it’s a Nissan not a Datsun.
And they were never sold in the UK anyway, so park your 1970s visions of dreary (but annoyingly reliable) family motoring for folk who had basically given up on life.
This Nissan/Datsun is as far away from a budget shopping car as it is possible to get.
Unassuming yet subtly aggressive, the late-’60s three-box hardtop coupé you see here is a Skyline GT-R, a stripped-out and lightened factory-approved hot rod built as a no-expense-spared exercise in giving Nissan a profile in Touring Car racing.
Making its competition debut in May 1969, the earlier four-door version won first time out and went on to take 33 outright victories in domestic tin-top events.
The coupé had boosted that figure to 50 before the works team was disbanded in October 1972.
The fact that Skyline GT-Rs of either description are so rarely seen outside Japan only adds to the air of mystery that surrounds these forbidden-fruit classics.
It would probably be true to say that, apart from the Toyota 2000GT (or perhaps the Mazda 110S Cosmo), no other Japanese classic makes collectors’ hearts beat faster than the ‘Hakosuka’ (boxy Skyline) GT-R of the 1969 to 1972 generation.
Most of them were beaten to death in racing; others lost their exotic but expensive-to-maintain twin-cam engines in favour of a 240Z-type single-cam straight-six.
To encounter one as bone stock as DD Classics’ mint example perhaps explains the heady price-tag.
Handily, Danny Donovan was also able to furnish our counterpoint classic, a 1965 Pontiac GTO.
First of the true muscle cars, the GTO invented its own market by putting affordable high performance front and centre of the model’s appeal.
Despite the implications of the name, the GTO was not homologated for anything competitive and was never earmarked for racing glory.
Why bother, when projected sales of 5000 per annum (General Motors didn’t want to risk getting stuck with unsold cars) had topped 70,000 a year by 1965?
The success of the GTO earned the Pontiac Division’s John Z DeLorean a promotion to chief engineer.
Inspired by the success of the Super Stock Dodge Dart, he conceived the GTO as a less uncompromising white-collar muscle car that was really nothing more than a $295 option package for the 1964 Tempest Le Mans.
It exploited a loophole in a GM ruling that stated engines of larger than 5.4 litres could not be used as standard in the intermediate A-body platform.
On the other hand, he reasoned, there was nothing to say that a big-block engine – such as, say, the 6.4-litre, 325bhp V8 from the full-size Pontiacs – could not be fitted as an option.
Throw in stiffer springs, thicker anti-roll bars, wider tyres, a floor gearchange and dual ‘splitter’ exhausts and you’ve got yourself a Pontiac GTO with a choice of coupe, hardtop or convertible bodywork.
At 17ft long and 6ft 2in wide the ‘mid-size’ GTO had soon inspired a whole slew of imitators, many from within the jealous ranks of the GM divisions, and from 1966-’71 it became a model in its own right.
Then, having come in with a bang the GTO seemed to exit stage left with a whimper, reverting to option-package status for its final few seasons as environmental and safety legislation began to emasculate it.
High insurance premiums put it out of the reach of its intended audience of young buyers, too.
While Pontiac massaged and tweaked the GTO concept through the 1960s the Japanese were still establishing their motor industry, exporting the first economy runabouts but tending to keep most of the interesting stuff for the domestic market, at least at first.
The third-generation C10 Skyline, on which the GT-R was based, was launched in 1968.
Strictly speaking, the Skylines were not really Nissans but had their origins in a range of cars built by Prince Motors Ltd, which had merged (by government mandate) with Nissan in 1966 but retained a degree of autonomy.
The Prince badging was dropped, but the Skyline continued as a four- or six-cylinder model between the Bluebird and the Cedric.
It was still very much a Prince design: routine 1½-litre saloons and station wagons with clean mid-Pacific styling, but only distinguished technically by European-style semi-trailing-arm rear suspension, and only sharing their basic shell with the rip-snorting 124mph GT-R that retailed at ¥1.5million.
It comes as no surprise to learn that many cooking C10 Skylines have provided the basis for GT-R clones.
It’s tempting to call it Japan’s answer to the BMW CSL, but it was not strictly speaking a homologation special, rather a customer version of the Skylines that raced with conspicuous success (in the hands of privateers as well as the Nissan works team) in local Touring Car events.
Powered by an exotic twin-overhead-cam 2-litre straight-six (originally designed for the mid-engined R380 Group 6 sports-prototypes built to take on the Porsche 906), its standard 158bhp was readily tweaked to 200bhp with new exhaust manifolds, more aggressive camshafts and by swapping the Mikuni carburettors for Weber 45s.
Power went through a five-speed gearbox to a limited-slip differential at the rear but, in the name of saving weight, you didn’t even get a heater.
Just 1917 GT-Rs were built: 832 of the four-doors (coded internally as PGC-10) and the balance as the coupé (KPGC-10) – with a 2¾in shorter wheelbase – that replaced it in 1970.
The similarly shaped hardtop body on this 1965 Pontiac Tempest Le Mans was unique to the GTO.
It was ordered new from Luke Pontiac of Arlington, Texas, its $2550 basic price lifted to $4026 by the choice of 21 options, the principal items being air conditioning and ‘Wonder Touch’ powered steering and brakes.
Bigger all round than a MkX Jaguar, it has relatively modest rear legroom but its boot is every bit as huge as the apparently tail-heavy but graceful proportions suggest.
Fitted with aftermarket front disc brakes it looks, to me, like a bargain at £34,000 when you consider it is effectively new in most respects.
This example runs the 325bhp engine rather than the $180 ‘Tri-Power’ set-up, which was not officially available with air conditioning: dealers would deliver it in the boot for owners to fit to their cars.
Apart from the chrome dress-up kit for the valve covers (part of the GTO pack), the all-iron V8 looks functional and industrial compared to the neat, elegant and modern feel of the Nissan’s straight-six installation.
Inside, the GT-R’s low-slung, embracing but non-reclining bucket seats are a strong hint that hard cornering is to be encouraged, whereas the wide expanse of slithery vinyl offered by the Pontiac’s individual front chairs mean it might as well have a bench for all the support they provide.
The GTO door furniture and carpets are generic mid-’60s GM but the six-dial dash includes the optional rev counter.
There is a not dissimilar Fablon-and-fake-appliqué vibe inside the Skyline but, once under way, this pocket rocket gives you little opportunity to reflect on the niceties of your environment.
The sound of the engine lingers long in the memory.
It looks much bigger than its 2 litres under the GT-R’s forward-hinged bonnet and sounds it on the move, revving out with a throaty and sophisticated boom that has pure straight-six harmonics and somehow allows you to visualise a light flywheel, gulping open carburettor chokes, eager valves and the constant flow of combusted fuel through its elegant exhaust manifolds.
Super-smooth and sonorous, the four-valves-per-cylinder ‘six’ has lightning throttle response and will spin effortlessly to a howling 7500rpm.
It does not start producing worthwhile power and torque until it is turning at 4000rpm at least, thus compelling you to use the gears freely in a close-ratio five-speed ’box that is as sweet, accurate and quick as you could ever wish for.
There is more sound and fury than actual forward motion but, as ever, it’s the experience that counts.
The chassis lives up to the promise of the power unit. Set up to be neutral and flat in corners, with all the main controls requiring roughly equal levels of effort, the joy of the Nissan is the way everything about it responds so faithfully to your inputs.
The low seating position feels immediately correct and the firm, non-boosted brake pedal gives both a solid fulcrum for heel-and-toe shifting while lowering your chances of inadvertently locking everything up at the wrong moment.
The GTO is a fully ‘assisted’ experience compared to the ‘manual’ GT-R.
Sharing its perimeter frame and coil-sprung live rear axle with other intermediate GM models, such an expanse of steel cannot hope to feel as rigid as the compact, 1000lb lighter Nissan – and it doesn’t.
Yet the Pontiac is far from being the greased blancmange you might expect.
Certainly the steering is far too light, compounded by being low-geared, thus tending to disguise the fact that the GTO corners fairly faithfully.
After a few minutes the unsettling sensation of guiding, almost suggesting, your intended direction through the big faux-wood wheel fades.
You begin to trust in the Pontiac’s basic stability and lack of roll, even if you never get to the point of casually throwing it into corners.
If it doesn’t produce the compelling sounds that make the Nissan so special then there is something to be said for a big engine wafting such a huge car up the road so quickly without breaking sweat.
‘Waft’ is probably the wrong word because there are lots of throaty, macho V8 noises from both ends of the GTO to set the scene – and enough torque to make the body sway visibly as you rev it.
Rubber laying should be all in day’s work (even with the automatic), but this car just wanted to bog down with the throttle carpeted, suggesting a timing issue.
With only two speeds in its Hydramatic gearbox (a three-speed manual was standard, a four-speed optional) there is hardly any sense of changing ratios.
There is, allegedly, a full-throttle 4500rpm upshift into top at 55mph.
At first glance, pitching a machine as rarefied as the Nissan Skyline GT-R against the brutish Pontiac GTO feels about as appropriate as brandishing a lump hammer when your assailant is trying to stab you with a Stanley knife.
Built entirely for all-American profit rather than the pursuit of racing purity, the GTO shows how effortlessly the Detroit machine, in its gas-guzzling mid-’60s prime, could turn a collection of rather ordinary components into an urban myth.
As well as being one of the fastest cars of its time, the GTO was probably the most superbly marketed; can you name another car that inspired a number one hit?
G.T.O. by Ronny and The Daytonas was, of course, a creation of the Pontiac marketing department.
But there are parallels to be drawn here.
Five years and hugely divergent production figures separate the cars, yet both were factory-sanctioned performance versions of dull family saloons that achieved similar results by very different means.
And if the GT-R shows what can emerge for road use when a company decides to go racing, then the GTO is a prime example of what can happen when that opportunity is denied and the subsequent frustration of its engineers is harnessed.
With its bolt-on rear wheelarch flares and austerely purposeful demeanour, the Skyline GT-R (Grand Turismo Racing) occupies a grey area between road and track use, a formula that always captures the imagination – and flatters the ego – of frustrated racing drivers, who revel in the covert nature of this unlikely performance hero and delight in the connoisseurship of owning something so rare.
The great-granddaddy of its current super-high-tech namesake, the GT-R is a rare high point in the early post-war history of the Japanese motor industry that showed how quickly it was gaining on the West in terms of technology, innovation and ambition.
If any Datsun – sorry, Nissan – is worth two hundred large, then this is probably it.
Images: John Bradshaw
Thanks to DD Classics
Nissan Skyline GT-R
- Sold/number built 1969-’72/1917
- Construction steel monocoque
- Engine iron-block, alloy-head, dohc 1989cc straight-six, triple Mikuni-Solex carburettors
- Max power 158bhp @ 7000rpm
- Max torque 130Ib ft @ 5600rpm
- Transmission five-speed manual, RWD
- Suspension independent, at front by MacPherson struts rear semi-trailing arms, coil springs, telescopic dampers
- Steering recirculating ball
- Brakes discs front, drums rear
- Length 14ft 2in (4330mm)
- Width 5ft 4½in (1665mm)
- Height 4ft 5in (1370mm)
- Wheelbase 8ft 4¼in (2570mm)
- Weight 2425lb (1100kg)
- Mpg 24.3
- 0-60mph 8.1 secs
- Top speed 124mph
- Price new ¥1.5m
- Price now £150-200,000*
Pontiac Tempest Le Mans GTO
- Sold/number built 1964-’67/286,470
- Construction steel perimeter frame, steel body
- Engine all-iron, ohv 6377cc V8, single four-barrel carburettor
- Max power 325bhp @ 5000rpm
- Max torque 431Ib ft @ 3200rpm
- Transmission two-speed automatic, RWD
- Suspension: front independent, by double wishbones rear live axle, trailing arms; coil springs, telescopic dampers f/r
- Steering power-assisted recirculating ball
- Brakes drums
- Length 16ft 11in (5156mm)
- Width 6ft 1¼in (1862mm)
- Height 4ft 5½in (1359mm)
- Wheelbase 9ft 7in (2921mm)
- Weight 3470Ib (1575kg)
- Mpg 11
- 0-60mph 7.3 secs
- Top speed 120mph
- Price new $2783
- Price now £30-40,000*
*Prices correct at date of original publication
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