Shedding light on Nissan’s other iconic car

LISTEN 08:20

When we talk about legendary Nissan cars, the first one to come to mind is always the GTR, also known as “Godzilla”. Other significant models of the brand include the Silvia and Fairlady Z models, but there is one more that has largely been forgotten – the R390. Skyline’s heritage and success largely overshadowed anything else the brand came up with. In addition, the 1990s spawned many great supercars, one of which the McLaren F1. Whether that’s the reason for the Nissan R390’s fall into obscurity, these are all the important facts you want to know about Nissan’s mid-engine supercar.

It replaced the Skyline GTR LM

1997 Nissan R390 GT1 Exterior
- image 978226

We all know the Skyline, especially in GTR form, was a very successful racecar, both on its home turf and abroad. It also had moderate success at Le Mans, but by the mid-1990s, other manufacturers started exploiting a loophole in the rule book, allowing them to enter cars that had little in common with the production version, e.g. Porsche 911 GT1 and Mercedes CLK GTR. Godzilla was suddenly outpaced and Nissan was forced to come up with a dedicated mid-engine racecar.

It was co-developed with TWR

1997 Nissan R390 GT1 Exterior
- image 978228

In order to create the R390 GT1, Nissan’s motorsport division (NISMO) turned to Thomas Walkinshaw Racing. The overall design was entrusted to Ian Callum, at the time part of TWR. The mechanical and aerodynamic aspects of the R390 racecar were tackled by Tony Southgate of TWR and Yutaka Hagiwara of NISMO. A total of eight race chassis were made.

It shared some features with the Jaguar XJR-15

1997 Nissan R390 GT1 Exterior
- image 978229

The Jaguar XJR-15 was another mid-engine supercar, developed by Thomas Walkinshaw Racing. The car was based on the Jaguar XJR-9 Group C racecar and featured a 6.0-liter naturally-aspirated V-12, producing 450 horsepower (335 kW) and 420 pound-feet (569 Nm). The Nissan R390 GT1 used the same cockpit, tub, and entire upper body structure (roof and greenhouse). The chassis, however, was lower, wider, and slightly shorter than that of the XJR-15. The suspension was also unique to the R390 double-wishbone (front and rear) design.

They changed the RB26DETT for a V-8

1997 Nissan R390 GT1 Exterior
- image 978238

NISMO took the decision to retire the RB26 from GT1 racing because it was starting to feel outdated (for a racing engine). Its cast-iron block meant it was heavy and it also had a high center of gravity. A decision was made to bring back the V-8 engine from the R89C and R90C racecars, which brought Nissan quite a success in Group C. The VRH engine architecture was chosen. The Nissan R390 GT1 ended up with the VHR35Z - a 3.5-liter (3,495 cc) twin-turbo V-8, producing around 650 horsepower (478 kW) at 6,800 RPM. Peak torque was more than 521 pound-feet (706 Nm). Power goes to the rear through a six-speed sequential gearbox. At the same time, the car was very lightweight, tipping the scales at just 2,264 pounds (1,027 kg). This allowed for a 0 to 60 mph (97 km/h) time of 3.3 seconds and a top speed of 221 mph (355 km/h).

1997 Nissan R390 GT1 Exterior
- image 978240
Nissan R390 GT1 specifications
Engine 3.5-liter (3,495 cc) twin-turbo V-8
Horsepower 650 HP @ 6,800 RPM
Torque 521 LB-FT
Transmission six-speed sequential
Weight 2,264 pounds (1,027 kg)
0 to 60 mph 3.3 seconds
Top Speed 221 mph (355 km/h)

It needed to feature mass-produced parts

1997 Nissan R390 GT1 Exterior
- image 978245

This was due to the homologation rules, which required racecars to share some parts with road-going cars. Similar to the Porsche 911 GT1 and Mercedes CLK GTR, Nissan went with the headlights. They came off the Nissan 300ZX (Z32). Fun fact: the facelift of the Lamborghini Diablo also borrowed its headlights from the same Nissan model.

The R390 name came from the 1960s

1997 Nissan R390 GT1 Exterior
- image 978228
The R390 name follows in the tradition of the Prince/Nissan R380 racecar from 1965.

It was the company’s first mid-engine project and was based on the Brabham BT7 chassis. The R380 was meant to end the Porsche 904’s winning streak. In its later version, the Prince R380 had an output of 220 horsepower (164 kW), from a refined GR8 inline-six engine.

Initially, the R390 GT1 was not race-worthy

1997 Nissan R390 GT1 Exterior
- image 978243

Prior to the 1997 24 Hours of Le Mans race, the R390 cars failed scrutineering. They had to be modified, which initially led to the transmission overheating. Despite that, the cars were ready before the race and three cars with a red and black color scheme entered. One of them took pole-position during qualification, while another finished the race second in its class (behind a Porsche GT1) and fourth overall. For next year, the cars were upgraded to blend with the new rules. Increased “luggage” space, a longer tail, a new diffuser, and a revised rear wing were introduced. By 1999, the R390 was retired in favor of the newer R391.

Only one road version of the R390 exists

1997 Nissan R390 GT1 Exterior
- image 978246

Nissan built only one road-legal version of the R390 GT1, which was the required minimum for race homologation. They never intended to sell the car, as it was built for development purposes, as part of their LMGT1 racing program.

Nissan initially planned to build more road cars and sell them at a price of $1.0 million.

This never happened. The only road version of the Nissan R390 GT1 is proudly displayed at the NISMO warehouse in Zama, next to the Calsonic R390 Number 32 GT1 racecar.

The one-off road version used the exact same hardware as the racecar

1997 Nissan R390 GT1 Exterior
- image 978227

The only road-legal R390 GT1 is virtually identical to the racecar, which means it is a true racecar for the road. The engine is a de-tuned version, codenamed VHR35L. It produces 550 horsepower (410 kW) at 6,800 RPM and 470 pound-feet (637 Nm) at 4,400 RPM. Once again, power goes to the rear wheels through a six-speed sequential transmission. The road car is slightly heavier at 2,420 pounds (1,098 kg). Still, it manages to do the 0 to 60 mph sprint in 3.9 seconds, on its way to 220 mph (354 km/h). The road version does not feature a big rear wing, like the LMGT1 racecar, which is why it has a near-identical top speed, despite having 100 horsepower (74 kW) less. The road car also featured additional headlights in the bumper, as well as a cozier leather interior.

Nissan R390 GT1 road-going specifications
Engine 3.5-liter (3,495 cc) twin-turbo V-8
Horsepower 550 HP @ 6,800 RPM
Torque 470 LB-FT
Weight 2,420 pounds (1,098 kg)
0 to 60 mph 3.9 seconds
Top Speed 220 mph (354 km/h)

McLaren’s V-8 powertrains are based on the Nissan R390 engine

1997 Nissan R390 GT1 Exterior
- image 978230

By now, you are probably familiar with McLaren’s M838T and M840T engines. The capable 3.8 and 4.0-liter powerhouses, used in the British supercars are actually based on the Nissan R390 VHR35 engine. McLaren actually bought the rights to the TWR development engine, based on the Nissan VRH platform. The engine was heavily modified and the only thing that remained identical to the Nissan unit was the 93 mm (3.66 in) bore. The VRH abbreviation stands for V - V-layout, R - racing, H - eighth letter in the alphabet (eight cylinders).

Dim Angelov
Dim Angelov
Born in 1992, I come from a family of motoring enthusiasts. My passion for cars was awoken at the age of six, when I saw a Lamborghini Diablo SV in a magazine. After high school I earned a master’s degree in marketing and a Master of Arts in Media and Communications. Over the years, I’ve practiced and become skilled in precision driving and to date have test driven more than 250 cars across the globe. Over the years, I’ve picked up basic mechanical knowledge and have even taken part in the restoration of a 1964 Jaguar E-Type and an Alfa Romeo Giulia Sprint. Lately, I’ve taken a fancy to automotive photography, and while modern cars are my primary passion, I also have a love for Asian Martial Arts, swimming, war history, craft beer, historical weapons, and car restoration. In time, I plan my own classic car restoration and hope to earn my racing certificate, after which I expect to establish my own racing team.  Read full bio
About the author
What do you think?
Show Comments
Car Finder: