Friday, December 28, 2018

The Eternal Engine Mechanic

Earlier this month I stopped by the Omori Factory stand at Nismo Festival to greet the staff when I ran into Nagatsuru-san, one of their top engine mechanics. Engines are built in a separate building from the main workshop area, so we don’t get the chance to talk often when I visit. After a brief chat he was adamant to introduce me to the man who was going to build the engine of my very own car, which is something that I hand’t thought about yet. Until I found myself shaking Kosaka-san’s hand: Omori Factory’s longest serving engine builder, also known within the family as eien-enginmekaniku, 永遠のエンジンメカニック (literally “eternal engine mechanic”) and revered as a true legend within the company.

Kosaka-san started his career at Nissan Motorsport International as a race mechanic and honed his skills on the circuit building and maintaining engines for Group A cars, starting with the FJ20 and then the RB26. In 1998 he was assigned to Omori Factory and over his career has built over 1,000 RB26 engines: the all time record within Nismo and most likely in the world. We live in the click-bait era, where superlatives are usually thrown around with little care, but there is no question that Kosaka-san’s experience building the RB26 is unrivaled and he single handedly wrote one of the chapters of Omori Factory history. So you might understand my excitement when I was told that not only he would build my engine, but that I was also welcome to come over and watch him at work. Christmas surely came early this year.

Few days later I paid my first visit to Omori Factory along with a fried who generously offered to let me drive his S1 BCNR33 to our destination. The 20 minutes drive from Tokyo to Daikokucho is a nice stretch of bends and bridges with elevation changes, which combined to the super smooth Japanese expressways tarmac makes it for a real treat and ideal environment to appreciate the lower end torque of the S1 engine.

The drive was nothing short of fantastic and reminded me how much I miss driving around Tokyo and its spectacular architecture. This wasn’t exactly a planned visit, so once I parked I realized the irony of the fact that I ended up at Omori Factory again, despite having visited every week for the past month and a half. Oh well, surely there are worse ways to spend a Saturday morning.

Once inside we passed through the main workshop area and then a small hallway filled with scale model prototypes of various race cars built for wind tunnel testing purposes (each costing in excess of ¥40,000,000). We then made our way through the customer racing area: this is where GT500 and GT3 cars are built and maintained, and also where Nismo historic racers (like the Pennzoil R34 or Group C prototypes) are restored and kept in perfect condition for Nismo Festival. No cameras allowed here, unfortunately.

We eventually made our way to the second building, which looks a lot more spartan and purpose-built than the shiny red and black showroom. Here, however, is where the true magic happens and state of the art competition race machines are built by artisans like Kosaka-san and Nagatsuru-san, who have perfected their craft hand building one engine at a time for years.

When we entered the main workshop room Kosaka-san was busy taking apart my engine and had kept a few elements on the side to show me. This might sound strange to some of you: why would they spend time dismantling my old engine if I had just ordered a new one? You might be surprised to know that all Nismo engines reuse at least a few parts of the old donor and that Omori Factory has never built an engine out of 100% brand new parts over its 20 plus years of operations, and yes, that includes Z-tune cars as well (hence they had to be under 30,000km in mileage). I apologize in advance for the lack of photos, but here I was standing in front of a man who dedicated a whole lifetime to his craft and I felt I should be respectful of his kindness and time and not be overly intrusive with my camera.

Kosaka-san started by taking us around my N1 block, which had clocked 80,000km without skipping a beat and had no cracks in sight to be seen. During a second visit a few days later, he explained how the GT500 JGTC racing engines were based on rebored N1 blocks, with the maximum displacement ever used in competition for a BNR34 being 2,708cc. The Falken team fielded their R34 GT-R at the Nürburgring 24 Hours for several years using an Omori Factory built RB26 based on a standard N1 block that at its peak developed 540ps at 6,800rpm. Although they encountered some reliability issues none of them was ever related to the block. 

Interestingly, the 2.8 liter RRR GT block developed for the Z-tune was never tested in competition; the higher displacement revealed to be the easiest way around the emission guidelines imposed by the authorities at the time, compared to using a highly boosted unit with smaller capacity as developed in real motorsport application. The bespoke IHI Z-tune turbines, on the other hand, were tested on the Falken car during one of its last outings on the Nordschleife in 2004. The takeaway is that this is an extremely strong block that can last a lifetime if not abused by reckless tuning in the quest of silly power figures.

One detail that he pointed out however was the presence of a slight surface corrosion, which he possibly attributed to the use of high pressure steam cleaning machines, perhaps by the previous owner (which might explain why my engine bay was in absolutely spotless condition when I bought it). Despite his reassurance that the block was still reusable and that in some cases they can even be rebored twice, I had already opted to go a different route and use new parts.

We then moved onto my N1 pistons which, despite having reached the end of their lives, Kosaka-san had neatly arranged for me to see with their individual conrod cap and bearing metals. Talk about attention to detail.

Both Kosaka-san and Ochiai-san asked if I had been generous with the application of my right foot on the accelerator, explaining that racing DNA of the RB26 demands that its clearances must be revved out properly for it to stay in good shape. Apparently I had done a good job in such department, although credit goes to the first owner, who had put most of the mileage on the car.

Tell tale sign of a well used RB is the absence of carbon residual below the piston rings area, as Kosaka-san proceeded to point out by grabbing on of them.

A closer look and I realized what he meant as there was a very stark contrasts between the top portion of the piston and the almost spotless area below the oil ring groove.

I then started wondering around and couldn’t help but soak in all the details of a room so simple yet filled with so much history, like Kosaka-san’s very personal Snap-on toolbox that he has carried with him throughout his career. The photo on top was taken at Fuji Speedway over 30 years ago during the Group C era (Kosaka-san is the second from the left in the front row and Aguri Suzuki is the third from the right in the rear row): at the time I was 4 years old and Kosaka-san was already building engines. He then explained how Nissan and Nismo had their own garage and development facilities just right trackside, down the main straight.

During a following visit I was able to tour the state of the art engine test bench facility where 8 custom made bench rooms, each costing in excess of $1,000,000, are used to test and develop both race and road car engines. Half of them are for motorsport application while the others are divided between VR, VQ and RB engines. The RB room is one of its kind and is completely tailored to its dedicated application. The engines are mounted to the rig and connected to a Nissan transmission that goes straight into a dynamo capable of withstanding over 1,000ps. A custom ECU pre-programmed with every Nismo engine setting (S1/2, R1/2, F-sport, Z2, etc) is plugged in and the engine is then connected to a radiator and a custom intercooler. Finally, an air-conditioning system can feed hot or cold air into the airbox as well as different humidity levels to simulate winter and summer conditions. Different exhausts set-ups are available and a complex diagnostic system can pretty much simulate every single possible scenario, including running the engine through a lap of Fuji Speedway or other circuits. Each customer engine goes through a day of tests in this room before being fitted to the car and then subsequently road tested again.

Earlier in the post I mentioned how my engine was assigned to Kosaka-san; the reason behind my choice of words is that, after over 30 years of service the “eternal engine mechanic” will finally hang his Omori Factory apron for good in summer 2019 and retire. With each engine taking between 3 weeks to one month to build he has very few units left to assemble in his career; Nismo decided to assign his last months of work to selected projects only, which so far included building the 1,000th customer engine and overhauling the Z2 of Z-tune #15. I have recently been revealed the serial number of my engine and construction will undergo shortly.

I consider myself extremely fortunate: for a kid who grew up consuming his eyes on low resolution Best Motoring videos and that in 2001 used to wake up at 3:00am to check JGTC races results using a 56K modem, to find myself today having visited these places more times than I can recollect and developed with some of these people what I can now call a friendship is something that I would have never, ever imagined. After all these years and visits during which I’ve been lucky to touch, see and hear almost every single race car, prototype and special BNR34 ever made I thought I had seen it all, but meeting Kosaka-san and watch him at work has been the experience of a lifetime and an humbling one at that. I cannot think of a better embodiment of Japanese craftsmanship and dedication and I’m beyond honored that they decided to let me have one of his final works.

This is the final post for 2018: a huge thanks to all of you who stopped by this year. Wish you a great holiday season and see you in 2019.

Until next time.

Sunday, December 23, 2018

OEM Parts: an Endangered Species?

Over the past 12 months OEM parts have quickly climbed on top of most owners’ wish lists. Even the BNR34, the youngest sister of the RB26 trio, will turn 20 years old next year: that’s a respectable age, especially for a performance car, and rightly most owners have shifted their attention on ways to keep their prized possessions in good shape.

Nissan has recently started to address the problem as well, by releasing the Nismo Heritage Parts program for the BNR32 in 2016 and announcing its extension to cover the BCNR33 and BNR34 at this year’s Nismo Festival. This hasn’t happened without raising a bit of criticisms from some owners, especially overseas one, lamenting a lack of availability, increased prices and some issues with parts previously sold as OEM being simply relabeled with Nismo stickers. As I am rebuilding and restoring my own car (and was lucky to be able to do so by using Nissan Japan FAST, NPTC and Omori Factory’s very own private stash of parts) I thought I’d share a few updates and personal thoughts that I hope can help owners who are still unclear about the current “parts situation”.

First off, I will start by addressing one of the most common reasons of frustration amongst owners: why are parts being discontinued? The answer is rather simple and requires just a bit of sentimental detachment from our beloved cars. The cost of keep producing them is simply not justified anymore by the lack of demand. Nissan doesn’t just randomly choose what parts go out of production, but bases its decision on demand and future forecasts: what might be an extremely sought after, unicorn part for one owner could easily be ignored by the masses.

When consulting Nissan FAST (the intranet parts database and order system used by dealers in Japan) the staff can check the number of a certain part left in stock and whether is still in production or not. If still in production, the date of when the new batch will be available will also be shown, otherwise it will read either as TBD or out of production. What is the difference between the last two options? Sometimes Nissan produces a potential final batch of one part and their decision on whether keep producing once it goes sold out or stop altogether is based on demand. Parts on the “endangered list” usually end up there due to a consistent decline of orders over prolonged periods of time.

Obviously Nissan and Nismo also rely on third party suppliers to manufacture certain parts and, sometimes, they face challenges on their own. One example could be the Nismo Circuit Link and Circuit Link Pro II sets: these parts are manufactured by an external supplier and have been now out of production for a few months. Unfortunately seems that the supplier has encountered major manufacturing issues affecting their production line and costs, and has communicated their decision to cut supply of these items. A quick glance at these relatively simple looking suspension arms naturally raises the question: why not looking for another supplier? And when I did challenge Ochiai-san with such a question his answer confirmed what I already had in mind. Despite their simple look such parts are rather expensive and difficult to make and, after looking into other options for several months, they regrettably come to the decision of giving up as there is not enough demand for them. What is even worse is that the brand new carbon brake air guides that were released just this past January can only be fitted on the Circuit Link arms as the standard BNR34 ones are not compatible. As you can see this is an issue that affects Nissan and Nismo as well.

Why are parts becoming more expensive? Beside an obvious re-alignment with different demand levels and modern economy, the other factor that seems to be largely ignored are the three magic words that for decades have been synonymous of quality and are still printed on almost every single Nissan OEM and Nismo label: “Made in Japan”. Skyline GT-R parts are all manufactured in Japan, which is obviously not the cheapest place on Earth and surely doesn’t help containing costs. Additionally, Nissan and Nismo parts are often produced in completely separate plants and with different methodologies which result in price gaps; for example, as of 2018 the stock OEM carbon bonnet of the V-spec II and V-spec II Nür models has become a good ¥100,000 more expensive over the Nismo Z-tune version. Same principle can be applied to the new, revised N1 engine blocks, and so on.

Lastly, a lot of people underestimate the cost of R&D that lots of the parts, especially the new Nismo ones, require. Disclaimer: Nismo did not pay me (I wish!) to write this, but I can guarantee that the amount of time and testing put into developing these parts is unlike any other third party tuner. From engines packages (like the S2 and R2) being extensively tested for thousands of kilometers, including at higher altitudes and -20°C, exterior paint colors taking over one year to develop and aero parts tested in wind tunnels and derived from real competition-grade components. As they say, you get what you pay for.

Now, onto the more positive news: lots of parts are still available and the number of key functional components (like blocks, subframes, body panels, etc) that are out of production is very limited. This means that most owners can easily keep the cars running and in OEM condition, albeit having to deal with the increased prices. Everything else is a bit of a hit and miss, so it will be increasingly hard to keep cars in shiny, showroom condition. Nismo has confirmed that they have no plans to stop producing the existing carbon parts since they are hand-made to order and require no production line. OEM electronic parts are also mostly available, except the stock speedometers and the Nismo upgraded MFD for BNR34. Interior parts, on the other hand, are all out of stock and out of production, so I would recommend looking after your panels. Nismo will also release a new GT500 shift knob (hopefully with the new logo) in 2019, which is something to keep in mind if you were planning to spend silly amount of money for the old ones on Yahoo! Auction. Same for the LM GT4: it’s pretty clear that they will be kept in production, maybe adding new finishes or smaller changes. The front core support assembly (which is the main victim in frontal accidents) should also make its way into production with the Heritage Parts program. The Circuit Link suspension kit for BNR34 is no longer in production and, at least at present, there are no plans to re-release it. Engine cam cover set, rear spoiler, stock suspension and front differential are also discontinued, while stock M-spec suspension are still available in limited quantity and OEM brakes (zenki and kouki) are still manufactured. The GETRAG transmission is currently out of production, but it seems pretty much confirmed that spares from the Nismo Heritage Program are in the works.

So, my final take on the whole situation is this: if I had money to invest on my car in 2019 I would rather spend it on a OEM parts refresh than a Nismo parts upgrade. With the amount of money you’d fork out for a Nismo intercooler or set of carbon air inlet pipes you could easily buy a really good number of parts to freshen up your car that most likely will be unattainable in 6 months from now, and could potentially become cause of major headaches once they will break or time out. Based on my personal experience and knowledge I am very, very confident that this is the way to go. Despite being lucky to have access to the best stock inventories of them all and receive huge amounts of support, I still ran into major challenges when it came to some specific parts, often ordering some of the very last in stock, having to wait months to finally find specific ones or even having to go custom-made by Omori Factory. The Skyline GT-R is not anymore the reasonably priced sports car that it used to be and is surely turning into a modern day classic that can justify the extra running costs. While expensive, this adds a new dimension to the ownership experience and the feeling of seeing your pride and joy all fresh and sharp looking is as good as driving it. Now it’s time to grab pen and paper and start compiling our Christmas wish lists.

Until next time.

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Project CRS Part 10 - Final Chapter

Weeks before sending the car over for frame cleaning and painting I paid one last visit to Omori Factory to check out some final bits and pieces, including the engine.

This was actually one of the very first parts that was taken out, but since it took me a few months to decide on the spec it had been sitting for a while. Interestingly, it was in very good company as you can tell from the photo below.

Restoring and building the car from scratch has been the experience of a lifetime, but I tend to get attached to things and the N1 engine is such a defining part of the Nür spec that I’m sad to see it go. This was far more than a light tune and a new badge as Nissan developed dedicated block, pistons, turbochargers, oil and water pumps and few more bits to create a more robust engine, all while testing them in my favorite race in the world: the Nürburgring 24 hours. I’ll make sure to pay it a worthy tribute in my build.

Besides a bit of dirt and gunk the engine appeared to be in pretty good conditions as previously tested at NPTC. I must admit that for a while I contemplated the idea of either overhauling or replacing the engine with a brand new, fully original N1 one, but eventually decided that the car deserved more power.

All components remained unchanged, including the stock clutch and it was good to get up and close with it for the very first and last time!

As for the rest of the car, it was still sitting on its original Unisia Jecs suspensions which, again, were slightly firmer than the ones on zenki models.

The exhaust is also one other item that won’t be compatible with the new build; my trusty Nismo Pro-spec was sitting in a corner in the storage area. This was a dealer option that the previous owner had fitted to the car before taking delivery and surely added a touch more character to it.

I could also inspect other minor parts that would usually go unnoticed from afar, like the back up light: I never realized how much the plastic on the main cover had yellowed until it was taken off the car. The difference between the main surface parallel to the bumper and the “inside” that bends towards the number plate is night and day.

So, we have been adding this and other items to the menu on my folder that the mechanics have been updating step by step as we go through the build.

In order to make improvements we often used their own CRS democar to cross reference parts and think about new ideas. After all the original CRS project is now 6 years old and, not only new Nismo parts have been released in the meantime, but Omori Factory has also been experimenting with new restoration techniques for the chassis and individual components.

For those of you who have been asking the CRS package can roughly be broken down in 7 different main areas: engine (S2 or R2), powertrain (clutch, LSD, ETS unit, etc), suspensions, brakes, aero, interior options and optional color. These packages can then be individually customized as in the owner can choose (where possible) to use Nismo parts, Nissan OEM, refurbish the existing items or, if deemed as still useable, leave them untouched. 

The end result is that each car is true to the owner’s vision and preference. One of the best examples I can think of is the CRS inspired model based on a white zenki V-spec car that was delivered in June. This is the first and only BNR34 officially finished in the signature Dark Metallic Grey color and was built with street and touring use in mind, sporting an S2 Engine, standard suspension arms, stock brakes and R-tune bumper.

This is the main reason behind my almost weekly visits to the Factory: we have been able to take individual components, like bolts, brackets, mounts, hoses and chassis parts and analyze the best way to improve them. Lots of them are not necessarily expensive or fancy, but I always thought that in projects like this the value of a car is bigger than the sum of its components. As we are approaching the end of the spec list, we eventually came up with almost 500 new parts over the original CRS democar.

As the car will be built from scratch we have also opted for ditching the standard Chassis Refresh menu. This is because most of the components that the menu consists of (engine & transmission mounts, bushes, suspension, brake mounts, wheel hubs) are already included in the individual options that I chose for the spec. Instead, the tuning advisors came up with three separate mini menus for suspension, flywheel and subframe. This means that the parts that weren’t included in the packages originally ordered (like refreshed steering racks for example) will be added, and items that are not part of the Chassis Refresh menu (like the Yamaha Performance dampers, flywheel, etc) will be added as separate options. Finally, some of the standard parts that are usually just swapped with brand new OEM will be treated to additional powder coating for added resistance to the elements. 

There was also one custom ordered modification that will require to have the car to be re-approved by the authorities and additional paperwork to be submitted to the Road Transport Bureau. The car will be re-registered as a “BNR34-改” (“BNR34-kai” from kaizo,  改造 - modified) as this is a change that the Omori Factory mechanics will need to prove to be safe and roadworthy despite changing some of the original engineering of the car. Lastly, one final, small surprise that Nagatsuru-san announced me during Nismo Festival will involve the engine build. This was something that the mechanics and staff had decided and one I’m very excited about; hopefully I will be able to make one dedicated post for it.

This process has taken almost double the time originally forecasted and we eventually set last week as the deadline to define the final spec of the car so that it will be ready for delivery in Spring 2019. It was supposed to be ready by September, then pushed back to November/December and eventually we were looking at March, just to realize that my shaken will be coming up that month, so realistically it will be April. This is largely my fault as I have kept changing my mind and adding new parts, but eventually I think that everybody enjoyed seeing how far we could push things and we are now excited to see what the final product will look like. And who knows, I might take it back for a step-2 upgrade sometimes in 2020?

As for this series, this is the final official post: it’s now time to let the mechanics and staff work with calm. Originally I thought I’d cover the build process step by step, but this is not possible as cameras are not allowed in certain areas (the paint shop, for example, was absolutely off limits and they wouldn’t even take me for a tour, nor send any photo). There are also certain parts that I thought it would be cool to keep under wraps for a little longer.

I hope you enjoyed the posts so far and I will keep sharing other GT-R related content in the coming weeks. I have been off to an early Christmas break since last Friday and will make sure to release a few more posts before New Years.

Until next time.

Monday, December 3, 2018

Nismo Festival 2018

Maybe it’s because it falls just few weeks before the holiday season, or maybe there is something about those racing liveries that remind me of simpler days, when happiness was a few laps on Gran Turismo during the Christmas break, but Nismo Festival is still my favorite event of the year.

I thought long and hard about an original way to cover an event that I have featured already for two years straight, but I’ll leave that to the pros.

To me Nismo Festival is just a celebration of all the things that really got me into cars as a kid.

Those exaggerated silhouettes, those liveries that used to exist only in videogames.

The sound that these cars make is just incredible and no video will ever do it justice.

The event also embodies aspects of Japanese culture, like preserving things and looking after them. None of these cars are museum pieces, and while they surely demand respect, they all are capable of running like in the good old days.

I mean, what car maker would allow fans to ride shotgun in their third place finisher Le Mans racer?

Hard to pick a favorite, but the original Motul livery #22 car is surely one of them.

And while technology has obviously moved on, you can tell that the original JGTC spirit has been carried on and over the latest Super GT machines. I am not sure if there is a better maintained racing heritage collection in the world.

The rest of the event gives fans and owners an opportunity to source parts and gadgets that would otherwise be very hard to find.

The choice might not be as vast as R’s Meeting, but you will literally find everything, including whole cars for sale.

The offer is so vast that sometimes can even be controversial, like the privately owned Robson Leather democar showcases.

Would you swap the hand-stitched interior of one of the only 9 Silica Breath M-spec Nür in the world for carbon and alcantara? I’m not sure I would.

The Skyline/GT-R surely take the center stage of the event, but they are not the only cars. Maybe it’s because I'm getting older, but I liked this resto-modded Fairlady Z a lot.

One day I would love to own one of these, although I’m sure that the owner must have poured a serious amount of time and money to obtain such an end result.

And I’m sure that the same could be said for this crazy pair of time attack cars.

Having visited again just last weekend (and almost every weekend before for the past few months) I didn’t spend much time at the Omori Factory stand.

However, I thought I’d share a shot of the new titanium strut tower bar that I hinted about in my previous post.

Slightly lighter than the previous one and with a design that reminisces of the early 2000s model, it should go on sale soon, probably early next year. New menus for the R35 are surely in the works as well.

The other news, which most enthusiasts should be aware of by now, was the announcement of the Nismo Heritage Parts program for BCNR33 and BNR34, just one day ahead of the Festival. The lists of parts available is still limited, but expect it to expand like it did for the BNR32.

I also had the opportunity to make new friends and found a renewed respect for overseas owners, especially after hearing stories of owners on the brink of carrying whole dashboard panels on a plane in order to restore their car. 

I can only imagine the amount of time and dedication that would take to keep cars fresh and in shape, especially outside the main markets like Australia and UK. 

As always days like this go by fast: this year I (relatively) took it easy with the photos and just enjoyed the event as much as possible.

Thanks for stopping by and, if you haven’t already, I would surely recommend putting a visit to Nismo Festival on your checklist!

Until next time.