Sunday, June 17, 2018

The Rarest Production BNR34 in the World

One of the reasons for my very regular visits to both NPTC and Omori Factory, besides picking up parts, is that I just really like roaming around the workshop areas. Watching these artisans at work is always educative, fascinating and allows me to get up and close with cars that often carry some very nice touches. Skyline GT-Rs are not a rare sight in Japan, but the cool thing is that some of the customer cars are simply a bit more special than others. I have already published dedicated posts to the Nismo 400R and the Nismo Z tune, but last week I ran into what is, from a production standpoint, the rarest BNR34 in the world.

Like most of us, during my first visits to Omori Factory, I have literally glued myself to the glass walls that separate one of the most beautiful workshop areas in the world from the rest of the showroom. Pristine democars, Z tune prototype and all sort of Skyline goodness are sitting just mere meters away, yet inaccessible - so frustrating. Think of the annoying kid knocking on the walls of the dolphin tank at sea world: I’ve been that guy. Luckily - as we say in Italian - “tutto il mondo è paese”, which roughly translates to “the world is just a big town”: once you become a regular paying customer the invisible barriers are lifted and the guys will happily show you around (if you have an appointment).

Last week I stopped by the factory to discuss a few more options and, as I am always seeking new ideas and inspiration, I prefer doing so in the workshop area rather than at the consulting desk. As always there was no shortage of car goodness, including a street focused BNR34 CRS based on a V-spec model. But what caught my attention the most was this Pearl White car with R tune livery.

As I previously mentioned, Omori Factory offers maintenance service only to works cars, which means that all the vehicles in the workshop are either having some Nismo bits fitted or have had, at some point, some serious work done either to the engine or chassis. The car surely didn’t look like a knock off: besides the Nismo stripe livery being period correct, it looked very well travelled, with some evident yellowing on the rear FRP bumper, typical of the Pearl White finish. The color itself looked a bit unusual, but the intense lighting and shiny epoxy coated floor can sometimes play tricks on the eyes.

Besides the R tune front bumper it also had some early production LM GT4s which suggested that this was a very early works car. The bonnet is also a early production model, with no exposed carbon on the inside. It didn’t take me long before I asked if I could get close and this is when Ochiai-san said - “this is a car we are very familiar with: we owned it for many years”. He went on and explained how this was one of the first development mules for the R tune engine, Sports Resetting ECU and suspension packages. Remember the Best Motoring video where Keiichi Tsuchiya tested both the Z tune prototype and a white R tune R34 at Tsukuba? This is the car!

But the biggest surprise came when we opened the hood: despite being a V-spec II model the car was fitted with a zenki blue VIN plate, typical of Series 1 cars. That in itself makes this one of the very last BNR34 produced at Murayama plant, which was later sold and dismantled in March 2002. Nissan still owns BNR34-010107, which is the very last one produced at the site; sort of pre-production, but some of them were actually sold to customers. These cars were fitted with a number of different parts compared to the normal V-spec II, such as V-spec carbon diffuser (the carbon construction was later revised) and some interior trim bits. Those with sharp eyes will recognize the zenki fuse cover box on the left (with white lettering instead of yellow). Some of these cars were also fitted with the old Nissan logo badge, before it was updated in 2001. After the R tune packages were finalized Nismo went on and started testing the N1 engine on this car, including sending it to the Nürburgring for data collecting purposes. In its current form it runs a development spec hybrid R1 engine with Sports Resetting based on a N1 power plant. 

So, lots of cool anecdotes, but what earns this car the title of “rarest production BNR34 in the world”? Well, a closer look at the VIN plate will reveal that this is the only model ever finished in QT1 Pearl White, a very similar shade to the QX1 hue, maybe just a touch less pearlescent. As you can see the koujo (工場 - factory) code reads 5, for Murayama. What happened to this color and why is this the only unit ever produced in it? Unfortunately I do not have the answers, but my best guess is that Nissan just slightly revised the paint formula and renamed it once they moved the R34 production to Tochigi plant. 

The car was owned by Nismo for several years and even featured on the Sports Resetting brochure, before being sold to somebody “within the family”. It is regularly driven and maintained at Omori Factory where is still revered as the grandmother of Nismo works BNR34s. As always, a special thanks to the Omori Factory guys for the hospitality and I hope you enjoyed this little piece of R34 history.

Until next time.

Saturday, June 16, 2018

How to Navigate Tuning Shops in Japan

Japan is famous for its attention to detail, precision and offering one of the highest level of customer service in the world. While this is absolutely true for a simple retail experience, it can get awfully complicated when it comes to more complex transactions. If you are contemplating to get some serious work done on your car locally, I wholeheartedly suggest to learn Japanese language and culture first, as they are fundamental tools to break through the cultural and communication barriers. 

This is important because, in order to avoid miscommunication that could lead to misunderstandings and potential embarrassing situations, Japanese people usually prefer to take the “easier way”, even if it’s not necessarily the best. A simple example can be found at restaurants: English menu with color photos, very easy to understand and “bulletproof” will be available, but ask for the Japanese one and in 90% of the cases you will find a lot more options, variations and seasonal dishes that are never available in the translated version. Between the embarrassment of not being able to explain (and possibly lead to mistakes) and not offering these options at all, Japanese businesses would often make the latter choice. This is one of the reasons why I’m making plenty of visits to Omori Factory these days: the more we build our relationship, the more they get to know me and become comfortable with the fact that we can clearly communicate in Japanese - all of the sudden a bunch of new options and finishes becomes available overnight! When it comes to artisanal products and services, relationships in Japan will often get you what money alone can’t.

There is also a tendency to please the customer unnecessarily, which sometimes leads to not pointing issues out in fear of hurting their feelings. This can be extremely annoying for Westerns, but is very true especially in the car universe, where owners are clearly emotionally attached to their rides. I have witnessed this first hand several times, starting with my early visits to NPTC, where the staff greeted my car with a plethora of unnecessary “ah, kirei” (綺麗 beautiful) just to make me feel good. They will fix everything that needs fixing, but you will need to push them to actually go the extra mile and spot the smaller stuff that perhaps doesn’t necessarily need urgent attention, but could clearly be improved. The most extreme example I can recollect actually happened at Omori Factory during the planning phase of my project, as they showed me some of the cars they were working on, including one with pretty much the whole Nismo catalogue poured into it. But once the car got on the lift, the underfloor revealed some very serious rust blossoming from the beneath the metal panels. Right away I asked - “why wasn’t this fixed?”, to which they candidly answered - “well, the customer didn’t ask for it”. Truth is that the car did need some serious attention, but, as it was perfectly running, they preferred let things as they were. This has noting to do with lack of professionalism, it’s just Japanese culture: expect little to no initiative unless it's something that could mine safety or basic function.

Same goes with parts availability and orders: don’t expect staff to make promises about keeping an eye on parts for you - nothing is more embarrassing for the Japanese than not being able to keep their word. If the part is temporarily out of stock they will avoid commit to a date they are not fully sure about and will be as vague as possible. An example? In March I visited NPTC looking to order the Nismo tow hook just to learn that it was out of stock. When asked about future production plans, Yamazaki-san launched himself into a very elaborated yet vague answer, quoting a 1 year plus timeline; fast forward to today (4 months later) and the tow hook is already back in stock. He simply wasn’t sure and just gave me the safest answer possible.

What about special requests and customization? In the Nissan/Nismo corporate world the basic answer can be summed up with the golden Japanese rule of “If it’s not on the menu, we can’t do it”. This is true, but not entirely. Rules can be bent, but you will need to invest serious amounts of time building a relationship to do so: it took the owner of the Midnight Purple III Z tune several months to convince Nismo to leave the car in its original color, but eventually they accepted. Don’t expect to simply splash some money and let it do the work. This is one of the reasons why they took the VIN plate off the Z tune prototype: tired of receiving absurd offers from unknown Asian and Arab collectors approaching them out of the blue, they preferred making the car unsellable.  

If you are considering less “corporate” options such as small tuning shops, you should expect an approach a lot less “by the book”. Usually several details are simply discussed verbally and you should account for a variable margin of change that will be mostly entirely up to the shop. Pretty much imagine going to a Japanese restaurant and order the omakase (お任せ - chef selection) course: not everything you will receive will be of your liking. Personally I have never used any of these shops, but, after listening to friends experiences with renowned names like Mine’s and Worx, I would not recommend such options if you are OCD and very meticulous about details.

To summarize, navigating Japanese shops can be complicated and a bit frustrating at times, mostly due to language barriers and the slightly “safer” treatment reserved to people that are not in their inner circle yet. I would suggest doing as much due diligence as possible and, whenever possible, try and get directly involved.

Until next time.

Monday, June 11, 2018

Project CRS Part 5 - Which Color?

From an aesthetic point of view few things can make a difference as big as selecting the right color when speccing a car. This is quite possibly the most subjective topic of them all: tastes are personal and there is no “wrong” color, but, as always, I found myself over-analyzing everything, courtesy of my OCD.

Let’s make a step back: like many of us my bedroom poster car was a Bayside Blue BNR34 V-spec. This was the flagship color that Tamura-san (who was product specialist on the R34 project) advocated for. It’s said that he used to carry samples of the color at night to analyze their reaction under the glowing lights of Tokyo parking areas. The name was also supposed to be Wangan Blue, but eventually Nissan executives axed it in fear of having their latest and greatest GT-R associated with illegal street racing, so they went ahead and simply translated it to English: Bayside Blue. It was a hit, so much so that roughly 25% of all BNR34 production was in this shade. 

However photos rarely do justice to colors and shapes and you have to see things in real life to really appreciate them. The R34 is famous for its boxy look and sharp lines, which can be clearly seen cutting through its sides, especially the rear quarter and fenders. This is where the flagship color of the car actually works against it in my opinion, as it smoothens away some of the aggressiveness of the lines, especially from a side or three-quarters view. This is an issue that I also found common with the purple colors. White, being associated with race cars in Japan, but a bit too simple for my tastes, was also a very popular choice amongst owners and it accounts for over 30% of total production. So, basically, more than half of the R34 produced were either blue or white.

Truth be told, I had this project in mind way before I bought the car, so I chose purely on condition and color was never a factor (although, knowing that I would have kept the car stock for a while, I tried to avoid black as it’s really not my cup of tea). You may be surprised to hear that for a few years Millenium Jade demanded a slight premium on the used market over the other shades, although, with a total of 300 units painted in this hue, is the most common and least rare Nür color. On the other hand, despite being one of the rarest today, with only 81 units produced, Sparkling Silver was one of the least desirable colors until a few years back and cars in this shade were traded for a couple of hundred thousands yen less than others. Nowadays, with the current speculation, none of this really matters anymore.

The relatively poor color selection for the R34 has often been a topic of criticism and, after seeing in real life all the original OEM colors ever released, I couldn’t deem any of them as a perfect match for the car. But things did turn around a bit when Nismo released the Z-tune in the signature KY0 (often labeled as a bespoke color, but it’s actually a Fairlady Z33 option). A brighter, more modern silver, it really gives the idea of the car lines being cut through by a Japanese katana. It looks extremely simple yet way sharper than any standard color and makes look the late 90’s lines of the BNR34 a good 5 years younger. All of it is amplified by the full Nismo aero kit.

Omori Factory offered to respray the car only in Nissan OEM colors. Besides the above consideration I thought it wouldn’t make any sense to repaint the car in a standard R34 factory hue: I should have just bought it in that color in the first place. Sure, Nür spec cars did not come in certain limited edition finishes like Midnight Purple or Silica Breath, but, and maybe I’m a bit of a purist, I think that the allure of those colors is in the fact that they are limited. A respray would never be like the original. Or so I thought, because after inspecting a freshly resprayed V-spec II in LX0 I must admit that the “purist” argument can easily be thrown out of the window. Heck, even McLaren F1s and Pagani Zondas get resprayed: just pick the color you like! And speaking of purple cars, it seems that something else will also come out of Omori Factory in a similar shade soon. So, what did I pick? Well, all in due time, but I selected a color that in my opinion really suits the character of the car and that I feel will never get tired of.

Until next time.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Tad’s Nismo S1 BCNR33 Driving Impression

The great thing about the internet is that it knows no boundaries (well, unless you live in China or North Korea) and really brings people together. Most of the readers of this blog live in US, Australia or Europe, but I was surprised to see that quite a few are also located in Japan, like fellow GT-R owner Tad. Besides owning a Skyline GT-R, Tad also happens to often visit one of my favorite coffee places during weekends.

We met already a couple of times last year over coffee and then again at Nismo Festival in December, but a few weeks back we actually just ran into each other by chance. Turns out that Tad was about to pay his first visit to NPTC just the day after and so we started talking. It didn’t take long before I asked him to show me his car again.

Tad has owned his 1995 BCNR33 V-spec for over two years and, like many owners, has enjoyed both driving and maintaining his car. We started chatting about chassis and frame maintenance, especially rust prevention and treatment. I quickly got around his car for a quick check and was surprised by its cleanliness - definitely OCD approved! But it’s perhaps under the hood where Tad’s car hides its most special feature: a Nismo S1 engine.

Eventually, I had to pop the question: “can I take it for a spin?” - to which  Tad agreed, despite the fact we just met a handful of times. I jumped in and started the car, which resulted in some pretty serious noise courtesy of the Tomei Expreme Ti titanium exhaust. Let’s just say that we didn’t leave the underground parking are unnoticed. 

As we were in the area we took advantage of the new elevated part of Harumi Bridge that connects directly to the Wangan and the loop around Tokyo bay. This was the second BCNR33 that I’ve driven after Aki’s Mine’s tuned car and Tad was keen to know how they compare. I am very realistic about my driving skills and experience, which is why I wouldn’t take this review too seriously. But, at the same time, because of my lack of technical knowledge, I feel a bit like a kid:
I just say what I feel without overthinking and analyzing much. Simple is best.

Let’s start with the engine: with around 400ps it surely doesn’t lack power, although, below 4,000rpm, you won’t really notice much difference compared to a standard RB26. Power delivery is very smooth and the S1 lives up to its name: the power is there, but it feels like a very strong and progressive push on your back, rather than the racecar-like kick provided by the Mine’s engine. Still, 400 is a number close to ideal in a real-world kind of situation and provides plenty of fun once the turbos start working; I can’t imagine needing any more than this on normal roads. If I have to point something out, response did feel a bit sluggish at times and I wonder if it’s because of the very small airbox snorkel that Tad custom built. The previous owner upgraded the radiator with a beefy GReddy unit, which sits just a bit too high to allow fitting the OEM snorkel, so Tad had to get creative, although the end result looks a bit more like an air restrictor than a higher capacity channeling unit. I’m sure this is an area that will be addressed soon.

With its mix of high speed bends, straights and changes in elevation the loop around the C9 is an ideal stretch of tarmac to feel the car's handling. Again, I’m far from being a dynamic specialist, but the HKS Hypermax IV coilovers felt great and adapted extremely well to the smoothness of the Wangan. Steering feeling was also very good and I really liked the Personal wheel, although it felt a bit numb at times. Tad equipped his car with a set of Spoon Rigid Collars and some Nismo extra bracing and body rigidity options, but looks like he’s still far from being finished.

Eventually we stopped at Tatsumi parking area for a quick break. Actually, I did ride as a passenger in the car few months prior and, back then, we were in great company as a Porsche GT3 RS and Ferrari F40 LM pulled over shortly after we did.

This time we weren’t as lucky, but Tatsumi always make for a great spot for car talk. A big thanks to Tad for letting me drive his prized possession and I look forward to the future upgrades.

Until next time.