Life’s a drag for Kiwi Skyline owners – the extraordinary (local) story of Nissan’s BNR32 GT-R Pt 3

It’s funny (as in funny-odd, or strange, rather than funny ha ha!) the way ‘things’ work out way down here at the bottom of the world; case in point the leading role we as Kiwis played in developing the very real quarter mile (or ‘drag race’) potential of Nissan’s original ‘everyman’s Supercar,’ the 1989 BNR32 Skyline GT-R.

In the first part of this two-part ‘yarn’ (published three weeks ago now on TM) I looked at the role success at Bathurst played in developing the unique Godzilla persona which has stayed with the BNR32 to this very day.

In this column – which is nominally Pt 2 of my look at the BNR32 but is actually the third in a row in which Nissan’s acclaimed 4WD/4WS twin-turbo RB26-powered BNR32 plays a pivotal role – I am going to bring the whole kit and kaboodle altogether closer to (your and my) home – Aotearoa/New Zealand.

And, by using some real-world examples, both from here and overseas, I’m going to (or, at least, I’m going to ‘try’ to) explain, why Skylines in general, and the hi-tech yet tough-as-nails BNR32 model in particular became so popular here in the first place.

Along with this I’m also going to reveal how and why Kiwis found themselves in on the ground floor when the time came to unleashing more power & torque from the already feisty RB26 engine as well as more and better grip from both ends of the new-look 4-wheel independent suspension system Nissan had introduced across the then all-new R32 line-up back in 1989..

So, hop in, do up your seat belt and leshgooooo! We’re in for a wild – and yes at times rather confusing – ride.

Nissan Skyline BNR32 ex-factory

The year, for instance, is 1989 and even, if you had been able to buy – say – a nice tasty 4-door/4-speed-auto, RWD RB20E-powered R32 new here in NZ it would probably  have cost you  well over $60K….a lot of money for  car at the time…which is why (I’m thinking anyway) NZ followed the lead of our cousins across the Tasman by effectively abandoning Nissan Japan’s line up of fully built-up Japanese-assembled RWD R32s, R33s and R34s in favour of local assembly of CKD kits of FWD models with made-up names, like the first and second generation Maxima models…

The fact that you hardly see any of these volume sellers (at the time) still in use today says (IMHO anyway) as much as anyone really needs to know about the success – or otherwise – of Nissan NZ’s grand plan…..

Fortunately greater brains than yours and mine were in play here at the time and just as local Nissan dealers were trying to interest their clients in big, bland 3.0 litre V6-engined FWD ‘super saloons,’ their equivalents in the Used Japanese Imports trade were making a killing, shipping in models (like the R32) Kiwis actually wanted to buy, pitched at pricing points ($19,999 was one of the most popular) the vast majority of us could actually afford.

Not all of them, true, were Nissans; however, with a limited number of basic RWD drivetrains but virtually limitless mix of chassis, engine, and gearbox options the country soon became known as the de facto second home for four-door Nissan Cefiros, Laurels and – of course – two as well as four-door Skylines, plus two-door S13, S14 & S15 coupes.

Many of the more prosaic four-doors, of course, arrived here equipped as standard with anaemic non-turbo RB20E 2.0 litre engines and 3-speed automatic transmissions.

Some Laurels even arrived here in full ‘Taxi-spec’ complete with (more often than not) smoky old LD28 diesel engines.

Not that it mattered in the long run. Because, pretty much at the same time as a group of Kiwi second hand car dealers were setting up the various pieces of infrastructure required of a multi-million dollar car importing organisation, similar moves were being made – here and in Japan – to make sure that these new-fangled JDM cars arriving here in such numbers would never lack for the correct repair or service parts.

This is important for any number of reasons, particularly in regard to the BNR32 GT-R, which was produced between 1989 and November 1994, but with little thought given to future demand.

Which meant that – particularly early on in the piece – any number of lightly damaged BNR32 GT-Rs were sold for a pittance at auction in Japan before being cut up into ‘clips;’ as in ‘front clip’ (engine/gearbox/bonnet/front guards etc, etc) and sold, often for not much more than their scrap value, to canny punters keen to either power-or toughen-up their more prosaic Nissan models.

Because they were built extra-tough ex-factory to cope with the rigours of competition, the demand for these clips skyrocketed.

Drifters in particular were quick to source RB26 engines for their Laurels (Fanga Dan Woolhouse), Cefiros (Adam Richards) and S15s (Drew Donovan) and rear subframes for their S14s (Gaz Whiter).

In saying that it was really on the country’s drag strips where the BNR32 GT-R’s bespoke 4WD platform really came into its own; year’s before it did so across the Tasman and the rest of the world…

The reason was simple too – with no domestic car manufacturing base, and the CKD assembly alternative being phased out – the job of selecting which models to sell here was very much left to the market to decide.

While other countries dithered over the supposedly negative effects on their own economies if they allowed the importation and sale of second-hand vehicles ex-Japan at the time, it was very much business as usual for all the Kiwis working in the trade, here.

If there was a demand for Nissan BNR32 GT-Rs then they would endeavour to satisfy it, it was as simple as that. And at the time, few – if any of us, in fact – realised just how far ahead of the global ‘Bell Curve of Demand’ we actually were.

Other countries – Australia and Great Britain, by way of example – have always had, so-called, Gey Import laws, meaning that, should you want to acquire some sort of extraordinary vehicle, ex-Japan, the US, or wherever you could.

However, in both cases you paid a serious premium for doing so. I know, the last time I travelled to Melbourne for the Aussie F1GP, which would have been (way) back in 2009, my digs were 5 or 6 stops north of the CBD in a suburban hell the equivalent of Auckland’s Otahuhu.

Like Otahuhu the suburb was chock full of second-hand car yards, most specialising (if that is the right word) in the budget end of the market.

The exception was a yard on a prominent corner site halfway between my $85/night ‘bargain’ room, and the commuter railway station (more a siding, really) where I caught my train into ‘town’ and eventually to Albert Park each morning.

On the yard was a selection of Kiwi-style Japanese Domestic Model (JDM)‘sports cars’ all looking original but well used, and all with asking prices 4 & 5 times those which a reasonable owner might expect to recoup for a model of similar style, age, use, mileage, and condition in NZ at the time!

Speaking of which, while I was definitely around at the time, and lived (still do, in fact) within cooee of the Lincoln Rd, Henderson, West Auckland) epicentre of the first BNR32 ‘outbreak,’ my memories of the time and what went down are all a little bit fuzzy.

Fortunately, as the editor of NZ Performance Car magazine at the time, colleague Brad Lord had a box seat; one from which he was later (Thank God!) able to write the definitive history of the era for his book; Revolution – Japanese Performance Car Culture in New Zealand. (Harper Sports Copyright Brad Lord 2010.)

As Lord relates in the fifth chapter on the subject of ‘The Rise of Import Racing,’ it was the chance purchase of a supposedly damaged BNR32 by Nick Jenkins, the CEO of Auckland-based Skyline specialists Croydon Wholesalers Ltd, which really kicked off the whole Kiwi fascination with BNR32s and the quarter mile.

Croydons BNR32

The car Jenkins acquired back in 1999 was a 1994 model, which had already been subjected to a range of performance upgrades in Japan.

Chief amongst these was the use of a large single turbo (a Trust T88-33D) in place of the factory-fitted twin (turbo) system.

Once the car landed here it was resprayed in the distinctive split white front/yellow rear ‘corporate’ colours of the Croydon Group then put to work – repping the retail arm of the company’s business, a car yard just off Lincoln Rd in West Auckland – and put to work pretty much straight-away. …….as you can see here in this (very) early in-car video shot at a NZ Performance Car magazine track day at Pukekohe Park Raceway in 1999.

Initially, its custodian, Nick Jenkins did most of the wheelwork. However, with interest in New Zealand’s fledgling Import Drag Racing scene booming, it became obvious where the immediate future of the Croydon’s BNR32 lay; and tuner Glenn Suckling was handed the responsibility of driving the car as well.

As it turned out, Jenkins, Suckling et al were not the only Kiwis plainly excited by the quarter mile potential of a well set-up BNR32, waiting in the wings was another determined Aucklander, Reece McGregor.

Having already set a new NZ record for AWD cars with a low 11 second run (at a Night Speed Drag Wars meeting in 2001) in a road going Nissan Skyline R33 GT-R; then dropped in the 10s not long afterwards, the car’s owner/driver, Reece McGregor, faced a dilemma; stick with the R33 or pull the Mike Healy/Turbo Vehicles-tuned RB26 engine and use it as the basis for a dedicated Kiwi BNR32-based drag build.

Heat Treatments – 198 mph

The result  – once he had decided to go down the latter BNR32 route – was nothing short of spectacular, the all-new Heat Treatments-sponsored GDZ1LR-plated BNR32 running a 10.02 on debut at the 2001 4 & Rotary Nationals meeting at Meremere over Labour Weekend then dipping into the 9s with a 9.88 @ 228 km/h when – a couple of weeks later and on slicks for the first time –  McGregor gave the newly-built machine it’s second official run at the November round of the popular Night Speed Drag Wars series, also at Meremere Dragway.

And so, little more than a month after work on it had been completed, the Heat Treatments’ BNR32 had not only set a new benchmark quarter mile time here in NZ, that sub-10s time had also eclipsed the best time set by an AWD car across the Tasman.

Not bad for car built – after hours and on weekends – in a private workshop in Auckland’s Mt Roskill, not to mention one still equipped with a factory H-pattern gearchange.

As impressed as anyone, was Glen Suckling and the team at Croydon Wholesalers just up the north-western motorway, who after the inaugural iDrag Nationals meeting in early 2002 set to, to make their car even lighter and more powerful.

First up was a major engine freshen based around one of Nismo’s ‘hens’ teeth’ N1 blocks and one of specialist Japanese tuning house, Trust’s, 2.7 litre stroker kits which when stitched back together again produced a hearty 727kW (or 975hp) of peak power, more than enough, as it turned out for a freshly lightened Croydon’s BNR32 to break the 10 second barrier itself, Suckling stopping the clocks with a 9.9 sec run @236km/h pass at a small club meeting at Meremere in July.

Croydons BNR32 in action

Driven as much by the rivalry between the two Auckland-based squads, engine and chassis development work continued apace.

A shot of nitrous oxide proved its worth at meetings towards the end of 2002, before Suckling broke into the 8s in March 2003.

Keen to go even quicker he and the Croydon team packed the BNR32 into a container and shipped it to Queensland’s Willowbank Raceway, for a major drag race meeting later in the year.

The smooth, manicured, track surface proved to be a revelation, and before the muti-day, day/night meeting was over Suckling had powered the 1061kw (1424hp) Skyline BN32 to a new (AWD & DoT tyre) world record time of 8.55 seconds down the quarter mile.

Back home and with (yet) another turbo upgrade, Suckling matched the 8.55 time he set in Queensland, at the big South Island 4 & Rotaries event in 2004.

That, however, was effectively ‘all she wrote,’ owner Nick Jenkins making the difficult decision to retire the car while it was at the top of its game.

Incredibly, (1) rather than being stripped of all it’s ‘good gear,’ and on-sold for a pittance, or – worse – ‘parted out’…the ‘Croydon’s car’ was simply parked up, first here in New Zealand, then – when long-term owner Nick Jenkins decided to move to Japan to live full-time a couple of years ago now – back at ‘home’ in Japan.

Where – ‘Incredibly (2),’ I read recently in a post on the Speedhunters website in which Jenkins confirmed plans which would see the familiar colours of the Croydon’s BNR32 back on track after a 20-year hiatus, in Thailand.

More on a THAT in a later column though.

Closer to home, however, and these days, Glen Suckling is very much living the Kiwi dream, doing advanced tuning work from a purpose-built dyno cell (room) in a workshop built on a rural property northwest of Auckland.

Red Baron machine – Speedhunters

20 years ago, however, the talented young wheelman and mechanical engineer was putting the finishing touches to a BNR32 build of his own, the GDS Motorsport ‘Red Baron.’

Taking its lead from where the Croydon’s BNR32 signed off, the new Red Baron machine was lighter by 250kg and equipped with a methanol-chugging, single turbo-converted 2.7 stroker version of the BNR32’s signature RB26 engine; good, apparently, to produce at least 963kw (1300hp) of peak power.

In his first season in the car (2006) Glenn went from running a 9 – that’s a 9.82 @259km/h – to reliably running mid to low 8 second passes later on.

Performances like that attract sponsors of course and for the next two seasons Glenn ran the car in the familiar blue/turquoise fade of the Mag & Turbo Warehouse.

Development continued throughout this period, Glenn constantly gunning for a high 7-second run but never quite able to break out of the low, low 8s.

Frustrating. Or at least it was until early in 2010, when his number – a 7.92 @ 291km/h – finally came up.

Back at the Mt Roskill, Auckland, HQ of the Heat Treatments team, meanwhile, and the first major upgrade (after driver Reece McGregor’s 9.88 second pass back in 2001) was the fitting of a pukka sequential shift 6-speed Hollinger gearbox.

Then not long after that, came a definite windfall, courtesy NZ’s HKS importer who offered the team one of the revered Japanese tuning compsny’s‘1000hp” RB26 engine rebuild kits at cost.

The difference was plain to see too, McGregor slicing more than a second off his best 2001 time with a best run of 8.72 @ 254km/h.

Always keen to explore other options and with their eyes now firmly set on a ‘7 second prize,’ Reece and his father Keith took a quick fact-finding mission to the US, returning extolling the virtues of the new Pro Style slider clutches and air-shifted ‘automated manual’ transmissions.

Sure, once the Heat Treatments’ BNR32 was so equipped it was definitely quicker, with Reece now able, apparently, to peel off 8.40 second quarter mile runs at will.

Or at least he was until his original RB26 engine finally cried enough. The good news in this case was that as part of the rebuild process a contact in Japan sourced a rare HKS-modified Nissan N1-based 2.8 litre block, identical to the one ‘under the hood’ of the car that set the original AWD benchmark – the HKS R33 which laid down a 7.672 run @291 km/h @seconds over the quarter mile in Japan back in 2001.

It takes way more time and effort to build an engine to take on the world’s best. Yet that’s exactly what Reece and his dedicated team at Heat Treatments Racing did over the next 12 to 18 months.

First, they got the new engine – complete with HKS T51R SPL turbo – pulling some serious numbers (1400+hp) on the dyno. Then, after getting tantalisingly close at a meeting at the Masterton Motorplex strip in the Wairarapa, Reece finally got his first taste of a 7 second run (with a 7.92  run) at a round of the Night Speed Drag Wars Series at the end of 2004.

The next step was a move to methanol; one made with the very much hands-on help of (then Wellington-based) tuner and successful import drag racer in his own right, Andre Simon.

With Simon calling the shots progress then came thick and fast; first a series of ‘easy 7s’ (the best a 7.81secs @ 25km/h) at Meremere here in NZ early in 2006 followed by a promising top speed figure (299km/h) at the 2006 Australian Winternationals at Queensland’s Willowbank Raceway dragstrip, then just a week later at the same venue, Reece re-wrote the record books, with a scintillating 7.59 sec run’@ 309km/h, easily eclipsing the existing HKS’s record of 7.672 @ 291 km/h.

The Heat Treatments’ Nissan BNR32 Skyline was now, officially, the quickest AWD car in the world!

Incredibly 7 years on, and not only had no other team revealed itself as a serious challenger but it was Reece himself who re-set his 2006 record at the 2013 Willowbank meeting, firstly with a 7.45 @ 310 km/h, followed by the record setting 7.41 @ 310km/h, which you can watch here.

Finally, no story about successfully modifying Nissan’s classic RB series engines here in NZ would be complete without mentioning the name Robbie Ward.

Ward and his Ngongataha-based business R.I.P.S (Rotorua Import Pro Shop) has developed an international reputation (not to mention client as well as fan base) for his innovative work combining the 3.0 litre block from Nissan’s local market-only RB30 engine with the high-flow RB26 cylinder heads originally developed for the BNR32 Skyline GT-R.

And so it was that after just two more years (2015) it was Robbie Ward’s turn to claim the world AWD record, eclipsing the 7.41 @ 310km/h time set by Reece McGregor in 2013 with a 7.32 @ 308.9km.h run in MGAWOT111, the ex-Glenn Suckling ‘Red Baron’ GT-R at the annual IHRA Nationals meeting at the Meremere dragstrip in March that year.

RIPS Racing Mgawot 111 in action


A lot has happened of late in the world of AWD drag racing, a 6.472 @353.9km/h set by Aussie tuning ace Anthony Maatouks in June 2020 in the western Sydney squad’s purpose-built BNR32 record-breaker ‘Metro’ which you can watch here if you like ( just the latest in a veritable flurry of successful 6 second attempts to keep the record out of NZ hands.

While the majority have used Nissan’s latest GT-R35 platform from which to launch their 6-second assaults on the World AWD record, the three most successful  to date have each retained BNR32s to ‘do the business.’

The first of these to ‘bust out a 6’ was Aussie Robert Margan, the first to relieve Kiwi Robbie Ward of his world title, with a best run of an amazing 6.868 @328km/h in April 2019 in his JUN11 BNR32 Skyline GT-R.

Then came the 6.472 @353.9km/h set by Aussie tuning ace Anthony Maatouks in June 2020 followed by company associate Nader Nader driving the second Maatouks Motorsport BNR32 (King32) with a 6.840 second @ 336km/h set on the same day.  

Who’s next, at the moment anyway, is anyone’s guess…

See also: When the Sky (Line)’s the limit

See also: Win on Sunday, sell on Monday…the story of Nissan’s extraordinary BNR32 Skyline GT-R Pt 1

Ross MacKay is an award-winning journalist, author and publicist with first-hand experience of motorsport from a lifetime competing on two and four wheels. He currently combines contract media work with weekend Mountain Bike missions and trips to grassroots drift days.

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