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The beginning of the Skyline legend

For more than half a century, motor racing has drawn crowds in Japan. But for many motorsports fans, one Grand Prix still stands out: the 1964 event at Suzuka. It was the day the Skyline legend began.

It was for the GT-II race that a team of Prince Skyline GTs were entered and they were modified sedans. The Skylines nearly didn’t get to the race at all. To qualify, a hundred units of the production version of the car had to be made. Prince Motor Company, later to merge with Nissan, only just made the target.

The Skyline GT had a longer nose and a straight six engine with three carburettors. It was the brainchild of the chief engineer, Shinichiro Sakurai. With this car, Prince was about to do the unthinkable – challenge the established champions from abroad.

“We had extended the car by 20 centimetres,” said Yoshikazu Sunako, one of the drivers. “The body balance was very bad and the tyres were ‘out,’ so that’s why we could only drift when we turned. We slipped and drifted because the tyres were bad. But these issues actually turned out to be good for us.” After a few practice runs, Sunako knew the car was something special.

Recalling the race 53 years ago, Sunako remembers that, at first, the modified car seemed far from perfect. “We finished a lap in 2 minutes, 47 seconds but at that point, I was proud to say this was the fastest car at Suzuka.”

The Skylines were up against powerful rivals, especially a Porsche 904 Carrera GTS which came with a fearsome reputation. The Skyline would not defeat the Porsche, which could hit a top speed over 250 km/h, but Sunako’s team mate, Tetsu Ikuzawa, would get ahead for a lap that all Japan would remember.

“Just before the hairpin curve, Ikuzawa overtook the Porsche, so I thought, ‘Wow, he’s the man!'” said Sunako. As the Skyline led the Porsche, fans at Suzuka – and around Japan – went wild.

The title ultimately went to the German car, but the Skylines had a clean sweep from second place to sixth. Sunako was in the No. 2 spot, and the plucky driving of Ikuzawa had captured a nation’s imagination.

Toshiyuki Shiga, who once served as Nissan’s Chief Operating Officer, said that day decided his path in life. “I was just 9 years old at that time but I can still remember the big news,” he said. “1964 was the moment Japanese motorization began. Nissan always led the initiative with motorsports. I was so happy. It was my dream, and I wanted to enter Nissan.”

Veteran race driver Kazuyoshi Hoshino, who himself would become a national hero at Daytona nearly 30 years later, said the Skyline also fired his imagination. “This was the car that became a trigger for Japan motorsports, and I was obsessed by it,” said Hoshino. “The reason I got into motorsports was because of this. I chose this path in life because of this and if it didn’t exist, I would have chosen another path in life.”

Even though the Suzuka result in 1964 didn’t produce a win, it inspired the development of the Prince R380 Series cars that would beat Porsche just 2 years later. “It was because we lost against the Porsche at that time that the R380 series was born, so it was actually a good thing that we competed against the Porsche Carrera,” said Sunako.

The winning car is so significant today that, a few years ago, a team of volunteers put hundreds of hours into restoring it, working in Nissan’s Zama heritage garage where the car was stored to make it ready to return to the scene of its greatest success – the Suzuka racetrack.

The restored No.39 Skyline
The restored No.39 Skyline

“It was a very emotional moment,” said Shinichi Kiga, project leader of the restoration team. “It’s really a car that needs to be seen driving on a circuit. As long as it is stored in the garage at Zama, it’s as if it’s asleep – almost dead. But when it came to Suzuka, it was really radiant.”

It was the car that started the Skyline story, a legend that has continued through 12 generations of the car. It was also a fitting memorial to chief engineer Sakurai who passed away in 2011, leaving a legacy of innovation and excitement that endures to this day.

[Chips Yap]

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