Sunday, July 22, 2018

Project CRS Part 7 - The Underfloor

Since the very beginning I thought that being able to witness my car transformation every step of the way would not only be a once in a lifetime opportunity, but also the coolest way to learn and gain mechanical knowledge. 

So, for the past few weeks, I spent most of my Saturday mornings at Omori Factory, hanging around the workshop, inspecting parts and refining options. A special tanks goes to both Ochiai-san and Takasu-san: nothing of this would have been possible without them and their patience and hospitality have been off the scale.

Now, what I really wanted to avoid was to simply have everything replaced and the whole Nismo catalogue thrown in with no questions asked. 

I figured that being able to inspect each and every component and subsequently choose whether to refresh, replace, upgrade or customize would, not only be the best way to build something unique, but also serve educational purpose as well as avoid spending money unnecessarily (as reminded by the carbon fiber cash tray at the reception).

By the time I paid my first visit Ochiai-san had already spent a few days on my GT-R, and he surely didn’t waste any time. Taking a car apart is not a big deal for a master mechanic, but his knowledge of each and every component (including most prices and stock availability), and ability to dismantle it down to the last nut and bolt, and put it back together without the aid of any manual is absolutely impressive. I must admit that I was really adamant to see my car. Although we had already run a through condition check few weeks prior, this time he had removed all the front body panels, the engine and stripped away big chunks of the chassis. This was the moment of truth as I was about to know the actual conditions of the vehicle.

But the reality is that Ochiai-san spoiled the surprise long before we got to the workshop area as he sat me down and informed me that he couldn’t believe his eyes once he started to take the car apart. He explained that, no matter how good a car looks, once they start disassembling the chassis there is alway at least a bit (or a lot) of rust hidden somewhere, but this time he could not find any, not even a scratch, and he had seen only an handful of cars in this condition over the past several years. 

My initial reaction was skeptical, worried that I was receiving some lip service, I kept repeating myself that the car has exactly 80,000 km on the clock: to put it in perspective, it’s the equivalent of driving the distance around the Earth at the Equator, twice. However, when both him and the body specialist repeatedly insisted that I should leave the underfloor untouched (which would see Omori Factory losing a considerable amount of money), that’s when I started listening and asked to move inside the workshop area.

To my surprise, he was right: as hard as I looked all I could find was some dirt and a couple of very minor scratches, but not a hint of rust or even light surface corrosion in sight.

The car was so clean in certain areas that Ochiai-san jokingly asked if knew much about the driving habits of the previous owner (well, he used to live in Nerima...).

He showed me how the lack of rust or corrosion coming out of the drainage holes (red arrows) is also a sign of great health.

One of the true Achille’s tendon of this car subframe are the several areas where different metal sheets (usually 2 or 3) are simply pressed against each other and bent, with no sealant or protection whatsoever to prevent water from getting stuck in between. In case of rust, cutting and welding are the only options to this issue and I was so relieved to see that there was not even a hint of corrosion blossoming through the inside.

This is a cheap and fast way to assemble cars (Nissan was struggling financially in the late 90s), yet the main cause behind so many strut towers being plagued by rust, so a proper inspection of the wheel arches was due.

Again, I was quite happy to see all the four corners of the car being given a clean bill of health.

Another detail that surprised me was the complete absence of corrosion on the brake rotors, an area that is notably prone to this issue; as well as the never replaced, yet pristine Brembo calipers with no signs of fading on the red lettering.

I hope this is not coming across as a lame attempt to overly praise my car - quite the opposite: I always assumed that there was going to be rust and was ready to expect the worst, which is why my original plan was to have the underfloor treated and repainted! The idea behind it was that there is no way that modern products and materials cannot improve manufacturing technology that date as back as the late 90s. To my surprise, I was wrong.

During the original production frames are dipped in zinc and galvanized, which is one of the most rust-resistant treatment available even today. Repainting the underfloor would require sanding off the original paint - an extremely stressful process for the metal to begin with. Even if resprayed with comparable products, body shops (even the one affiliated with Nismo) don’t have access to the proprietary mass-production technology used by Nissan in its factories, which would ultimately leave the car with a - yes - shinier, yet weaker underfloor.

What about re-dipping the frame altogether? This was an option that I originally contemplated, especially after inspecting the restored white frame on display at Nismo Festival last year. However (beside the astronomical cost), it turns out that these frames are not re-dipped (and neither were the 19 Z tune models back in the days) for several reasons. To begin with, while the exterior paint can be sanded off, the same process cannot be applied to the hollow structures of the frame and, apparently, the combination of different zinc-based paints is detrimental to the metal. Additionally, the same inaccessible cavities are usually filled with dust and small debris which would prevent the fresh paint from properly adhere to the surface. Lastly, besides causing a weight increase due to more paint filling the frame again, the process would result in altered tolerances that would make refitting the parts harder and the car overall clunkier. 

So, the conclusion to this was that, when it comes to the bare metal frame, factory finish is the healthiest option possible and Ochiai-san reassured me that, if it hasn’t developed rust so far, it will probably never rust as long as I stay away from unnecessary rain and salt. This turned out great because, not only I now have full reassurance that the car is in great shape, but also saved some good money in the process! So, we picked a few options: I chose a complete underfloor clean up and decontamination, full nut and bolt restoration, ordered a few new parts that don’t look great anymore and specced a few others with additional powder coating for a bespoke touch.

This was definitely a great educational experience for me and I hope it helps owners around the world with ideas for their own cars. Thanks for stopping by today.

Until next time.

A 300,000 km GT-R?

Restoration and future proofing have become two extremely popular topics amongst Skyline GT-R owners, and rightly so: with an increasing number of cars leaving Japan as well as genuine OEM parts being discontinued we all want to make sure that our cars are healthy and running well.

In my two and a half years of ownership I have regularly taken the car for servicing at Nissan Prince Motorsport Tokyo every 6 months, while making countless visits both there and at Omori Factory as I was planning my CRS project. Here’s a few of the things I have learned so far. First of all, the good news: despite having its weak points, the BNR34 (and Skylines in general) are fairly robust cars. They were built and engineered in an era when Japan was really on top of the word in terms of quality and reliability and its main components can endure the test of time, if properly cared for.

The latest GT-R Magazine is dedicated to this specific topic and includes spotlights on cars with over 300,000 and 400,000 km on the odometer. One of the highest mileage cars, a BNR32, has been certified with 598,222 km at the time of publishing.

The magazine staff’s BNR34 V-spec II Nür has recently surpassed the 300,000 km mark and, having ran into it in person at Nismo Festival, I guarantee that you would never guess its mileage as it looks super fresh inside out, thanks to regular usage and meticulous maintenance. Main parts replaced during the past 200,000 km include: N1 turbines, steering rack and power steering pump replacement, main rod bearing, A/C evaporator and compressor, several sensors, power window motor, headlights refurbishment and strut towers sealant refresh.

The RB26 is also fairly robust and, according to Koyama-san at Nismo, if properly maintained, it can run healthy up to 120,000 km, after which starts showing signs of power loss and a proper overhaul is recommended. Good quality oil changes every 3,000 km, a healthy water pump and compressor and a robust timing belt are your engine’s best friends.

Cracking gaskets, turbines (especially standard ones with ceramic blades) and pistons are the usual suspects when it comes to major engine issues, while the block and crankshaft are quite robust and usually can enjoy a second life after a good overhaul.

This is nothing new, but regular use combined with meticulous maintenance will prolong the car’s life for many years and really keep it in top condition. As simple as it can be, this is actually where most owners (myself included) make rookie mistakes. Mistake number one is buying into the equation that less mileage equals to less deterioration. The allure of having a low digits odometer can be hard to resist, but, as Ochiai-san said during my last visit at Omori Factory, the worst thing you can do is to let these cars sit for years. Plastic and rubber harden and eventually crack if not properly used, while humidity and moisture can easily build inside the internals of the engine and transmission. I’ve kept my car in storage up to two months and this is definitely something that I won’t be doing again.

Luckily my GT-Rcame with full maintenance history (at a Nissan Prince dealership too) so I knew exactly what work was done to it, however, most auction cars come with very little history. In this case, according to Ochiai-san, running a few cycles of oil and fluid changes can be beneficial and help flushing out impurities. You don’t need to visit Omori Factory for any of this stuff: just find a reputable shop and make sure you stay on top of maintenance schedule.

The electronic components are also fairly robust, although it’s not uncommon for sensors to fail. Most of these parts are still available, albeit at increasing prices. On the other hand, several parts are now either discontinued or running on extremely low stock, which is one of the main reasons why I decided to start the CRS project now instead of a few years later.

As the works on my car have started I have been inspecting components and was generally surprised by how many of them stood the test of time in great shape. I have also had a chance to attend a masterclass about frame and underfloor restoration, courtesy of Ochiai-san, but more on this in my next post. 

Until next time.

Saturday, July 7, 2018

Project CRS Part 6 - The Last Ride

And finally the day came: after years of tinkering, planning and researching, few weeks ago I drove my BNR34 over to Omori Factory and handed over the keys. 

To say I am excited would be an understatement; over the past few months I waited in anticipation of the moment. And I also took advantage of the first summer days to take the car out for a couple of final drives around Tokyo. Ah, so much drama...

But seriously: driving around this city in a R34 Skyline GT-R is as close as it gets to any 80’s kid PlayStation-infused dream.

And so I woke up nice and early on a Saturday and headed to Tatsumi Parking for a morning coffee.

That’s when I thought it would be cool to get an up and close shot of the Sparkling Silver paint: in a few months there will be one less model in this particular shade on the streets.

A smooth trip towards Daikokucho and its massively intricate expressway junction.

And finally the familiar sign; I have been here so many times that I wonder if the guys would rent me a room.

Once inside I was greeted by Morita-san, one of the chassis mechanics who, over the years, has earned the title of “BCNR33 Meister” due to his leading role in both the full ground up restoration of the 400R and the BCN33 Grand Touring demo car project. He ran a preliminary inspection of the body, looking for damages, scratches and dents, which will be later cross-referenced by the bodyshop.

This felt liberating: the car is in great shape, but obviously collected a couple of dings and a bit of stone chipping over its 16 years of life - invisible in photos, but they are there. If you have OCD, you know what I’m talking about. He then proceeded to apply the Omori Factory covers on the license plates, which is when I ticked another little childhood dream box off my check list.

And another sentimental moment when I realized that this would be the last time I would ever see my car in its original stock form. 

A quick look around the workshop helped stopping the sobbing and weeping fairly fast: now I finally have the chance to build my own car according to my own specifications, instead of driving what somebody else ordered at a Nissan showroom in 2002.

Some of the specs have already been decided, while others will be added and fine tuned as the works progress.

Although I will further update the car in the future with two more steps, I almost feel like I want this process to last as long as possible. There is so much to choose from and it’s honestly as exciting as driving the car itself. 

Now that I’m officially without the GT-R I must admit that the need of a second car is stronger than ever. The Grand Touring BCNR33 demo car was as tempting as ever!

And this is it, but I had to turn around for one final look. 

Looking forward to documenting and sharing all the process step by step!

Until next time.

Why Everyone Should Visit Japan Once in their Lifetime

As of last month I have been rolling into my 11th year living in Japan: I moved here when I was 21 and basically spent my whole adulthood on this side of the planet - time flies. Let me start by saying that, whether you are into cars or not, everybody should visit this place at least once. However, if you happen to have been bitten by the JDM bug, Japan can easily turn into the trip of a lifetime. Whether you need extra motivation to start planning, or a convincing argument (in photo format) for your other half, this post is for you.

Tokyo can be extremely frenetic, but it didn’t take long before the craziest aspects of living here became daily routine. However, earlier this month I had my family visiting for a holiday. That, combined with the several recent trips to get my car project started, revealed to be a great opportunity to slow down and rediscover the little things that really makes this place so special. 

To begin with, Tokyo is as diverse as it gets: in a matter of minutes you can move from that urban jungle and neon chaos that is Shibuya.

To the absolute quiet of Hamarikyu Gardens, planted in the middle of the city.

You can experience the most amazing modern architecture blending in with traditional style buildings.

I am Italian and I’ve never seen old and new co-existing so well together in one place.

Now, whether you are GT-R owner or overall JDM enthusiast, understandably, you will want to check out car related stuff as much as possible. Good news are that automotive culture is deeply rooted in Japan and it’s not difficult to run into cool places worth taking your DSRL out for, like Nissan Crossing.

Today it’s a state of the art showroom filled with all the latest tech and styling exercises, but you would be interested to know that Nissan very first Ginza gallery dates as back as 1963.

Tokyo and its surrounding offer plenty of things to see that can be easily paired up with city sightseeing, starting from the artificial island of Odaiba.

Definitely pay a visit to Toyota History Garage, where classic racers are regularly displayed. Currently, to celebrate Toyota challenge to the Le Mans 24 Hours, a very cool selection of endurance racers is on display.

You will also find plenty of classic cars from all eras and makers, not just Toyotas.

Now, if you are visiting in summer, go and spend a weekend trackside at a Super GT race, easily the most advanced GT series in the world. The cars have an incredible presence and the sight of watching them lap the track with Mount Fuji in the background is worth the trip alone.

Round 2 and Round 5 usually take place in May and August respectively, which makes Fuji Speedway the only circuit to host two rounds of the series in one year, as well as R’s Meeting and Nismo Festival later in the year.

If you are around autumn, then a visit to Twin Ring Motegi in Tochigi prefecture for the final round of the series could be part of your plans. This area is famous for its hot springs and mountains.

You can easily put together a great weekend, spending a day touring the area, including Edo Wonderland (a real life reconstruction of a Edo period village with actors playing as local characters), before you head to the circuit.

Twin Ring Motegi is a great track, very easy to get around.

Besides, the Honda Collection Hall alone is worth the visit.

Here you’ll find some of the most iconic cars and technology that ever came out Japan.

The collection is incredibly vast and diverse and includes some of the most legendary machines.

If you are in Yokohama for the day, then you are definitely at the right place for all things Nissan.

The new Global Headquarters  building is huge and usually hosts at least a few racer or classic sports models that are worth checking out.

This is an obvious statement, but, the next logical stop from Nissan HQ is Daikokucho, direction Nismo Omori Factory.

If you are reading this blog, this place needs no introduction.

The Mecca of everything Skyline and GT-R related, this place represent the ultimate expression of Japanese automotive craftsmanship.

From here you have multiple options: you can stop by the famous Daikoku parking  area, visit Minatomirai or, if you plan ahead, head down to Zama to visit Nissan DNA Garage (you’ll need to book in advance on their website).

Japan offers a virtually endless menu of options: you can hop on a Shinkansen and reach some of the most amazing locations in a matter of hours, or just stay local.

Spring and summer are my favorite seasons and, as long as you avoid the heavy rain in June, you should be fine.

From cherry blossom viewing to local matsuri, you can rest assured that there is plenty to satisfy whoever is tagging along with you.

The country has a lot more to offer than just cars, which is why I’d recommend to go and explore as much as possible. 

If time and budget allow, visit Okinawa and the surrounding smaller islands.

Easily my favorite place on Earth; if it’s your first time, you are in for a treat. 

Lastly, and this is pretty obvious, you’ll finally have a chance to taste one of the most refined cuisines in the world.

Forgot the California roll, this is the real deal.

And there you have it: as somebody once wrote, you just have to see, feel, taste, and hear everything on your own to truly understand the Japan experience. Some people end up returning, even multiple times.

I ended up never leaving. 

Until next time.