Nissan R31 Skyline: The Australian Industry Needs You Now
On its July 1986 launch, the first locally built Nissan Skyline was a breath of fresh air. Compared to its local six cylinder rivals, Ford’s reshelled 1966 Falcon and Holden’s re-engineered 1977 Cortina rival from Opel, it was at least new.
It wasn’t the prettiest car on the block nor was it the roomiest. But it was a tough, long-life alternative powered by a six cylinder drivetrain ahead of anything previously offered in an Australian car, even if it was shared with the VL Commodore.
By 1988, the Skyline had the added advantage of being the only compact rear drive 3-litre family sedan still built in Australia for those buyers who needed the six cylinder towing capacity and performance without the bulk. In an unusual reversal of local production car racing history, the Skyline was built locally after the race teams firmed up plans to replace their racing Bluebirds with the Skyline.
Three enthusiasts within Nissan, the late Howard Marsden, former Holden designer Paul Beranger and Walter Roso then convinced local Nissan management to do the same for all Australians!
The Skyline-VL Commodore Relationship
In an inspired move that replicated early LJ Torana success, Nissan offered a better than average four cylinder Pintara version of the R31 Skyline in June 1986 then followed up with its giant killing six cylinder Skyline version a month later.
Nissan’s main local family car entry had evolved from the 510/1600 through to the 180B, 200B and Bluebird. After the Bluebird’s “four cylinder limousine” tag sent expectations soaring, poor quality compared to the local Corona and wheezy engines compared to the Sigma hurt its local chances.
For 1986, Nissan reached the same crossroads as Mitsubishi. The global Bluebird became a petite and narrow body front drive model similar to the Japanese Sigma. Faced with widening this smaller Bluebird for the Australian market as Mitsubishi did with the Magna, Nissan identified a market for a tougher and better quality rear drive alternative. A modern, more frugal fuel injected four cylinder engine built locally could offset costs of an imported six cylinder engine. Hence the Skyline-bodied Pintara arrived first.
The icing on the cake was the last minute deal with Holden to supply a specific RB30E engine for the Commodore that could also be fitted to the new local four cylinder Nissan model as a premium alternative. This new multi-point fuel injected single overhead cam six also brought Australia’s first standard 5-speed manual and optional 4-speed auto in this type of vehicle.
There was a big enough difference in size and styling for the Commodore and Skyline to co-exist, even if Nissan advertising later suggested otherwise.
Key dimensions told the real story. The Skyline at 1690mm wide was pegged to the usual 1700mm Japanese narrow body width limit. The 1722mm wide Commodore wasn’t. The Commodore had a wheelbase of 2668mm for a length of 4766mm. The Skyline had a 2610mm wheelbase for a length of 4653mm. Despite the VL Commodore’s longer nose, the Skyline was all overhang front and rear with the usual repercussions inside the cabin.
Because the wheelbase was only marginally longer than an LH Torana and shorter than the Toyota Cressida, it was more successful as a serious four-cylinder family car contender. Like the Torana, rear legroom was tight as Nissan had allocated extra space under the bonnet for the Skyline’s domestic focus as an inline six cylinder.
There was another key difference. The base Skyline weighed 1320kg compared to the Pintara’s 1255kg and the base VL Commodore’s 1245kg. Both Nissans felt more substantial and durable than the Commodore. The Pintara’s 78kW/160Nm compared favourably with the six-cylinder VH Commodore 2.8’s 76kW/192Nm with superior fuel economy. For those restricted to four cylinder company cars or companies concerned about the VL Commodore’s new found grunt, it was a popular choice.
The local Nissan Pintara proved to be one of the best balanced and toughest four cylinder family cars offered in Australia. It won many fans because of the way it drove.
The local six cylinder Skyline then remained faithful to the very first Prince Skyline GT sold in Australia.
In 1965, the Skyline was a 1.5-litre four cylinder model with a powerful inline six under the bonnet. In 1986, the formula was exactly the same. Australians were already comfortable with purchasing a Datsun 240K (a rebadged Skyline) or later Skyline knowing that it meant trading interior space for a sublime engine and superior handling. The 1986 series was even designed by Shinichiro Sakurai, as had most Skyline generations before it.
Australian versus Japanese Skyline
The big changes were under the bonnet and the rear suspension.
All local Skyline imports since the 1974 Datsun 240K had independent semi-trailing arm rear suspension and variations of the L24 2.4-litre inline six.
The Japanese R31 Skyline came with a choice of a four link live rear axle or the semi-trailing arm independent rear suspension. There were also two and four door pillarless hardtops not sold here.
On upper level Hardtops, the subframe for the independent rear suspension was mounted on voided bushes. Rams controlled by the power steering system pushed the subframe against these voided bushes for a rear steering effect called HICAS (High Capacity Active Steering).
This early HICAS system was designed to counteract the toe-out roll-steer effect inherent in semi-trailing arm designs. As an outside rear wheel toed outwards under cornering forces for the traditional snap oversteer (well-known to early IRS Commodore drivers), the HICAS system would then move the whole rear subframe. As the voided bushes yielded under pressure from the rams, both rear wheels turned in the same direction as the front wheels.
It followed the same principle as the RX-7 Series IV of the same year. Mazda introduced a floating hub at the end of each semi-trailing arm located by a voided bush that would distort under cornering loads for a similar toe-in effect except the RX-7’s was a passive system that operated only on one wheel at a time.
As could be imagined, HICAS was neither effective nor consistent and played havoc with the bushes. For consistent handling and local content, Nissan Australia specified a unique five link live rear axle design on both Pintara and Skyline versions. There were the usual upper rods and lower arms supplemented in this case by a Panhard rod similar to the VL Commodore. The standard rear disc brakes were a welcome feature but the park brake operating on the rear pads was marginal.
The Pintara diff and axles were lighter. The heavier Skyline items were similar to the VL Commodore which is why it was puzzling that the Skyline experienced diff problems and the Commodore did not.
Engines were also very different. In Japan, there was a choice of a basic CA18S four cylinder 1.8 carburettor engine and a range of 2.0-litre RB20E inline sixes with single cam, twin cam (RB20DE) and twin-cam turbo (RB20ET) versions. There was also a 2.8-litre diesel (RD28).
For the local Pintara, the twin-plug carburettor inline 2.0-litre four introduced in the Bluebird Series III was upgraded with fuel injection for local emissions laws based on 91 RON unleaded. This CA20E engine was the same specification as the imported Nissan Gazelle.
The local Skyline was offered with the RB30E 3.0-litre inline six shared with the VL Commodore, allegedly developed with Holden input. It was initially quoted as having 117kW/247Nm later revised to 114kW in line with the Commodore. Holden offered the RB20E version in export VL Commodores and an RB30ET turbo option that was a designated Holden engine only. Neither were offered in the local Skyline. This time there were problems with the engine in the Commodore that did not apply to the Skyline.
The R31 Skyline was also built in South Africa and was different again to both the Australian and Japanese models although engine choices were similar to Australia. South African Skylines had leaded versions of the C20S, RB20E and RB30E hence outputs that were higher than Australian engines tuned for the poor quality 91 RON unleaded at the time.
A carburettor version of the Skyline’s 3.0-litre six powered an entry version of the Nissan Patrol until 1997 which blunted its easy-going delivery somewhat.
Local Skyline Appearance Changes
The local version of the seventh-generation Skyline was very different from the Japanese version. Although styling was related, Nissan differentiated the local Pintara and Skyline versions with separate grilles and headlights, not related to the Japanese models.
There were no less than four different fronts on local Pintaras and Skylines, six if you count the special GTS models.
The Pintara had a simple and crisp fine bar grille with quad square headlights which it retained until the end. This was the closest to the entry level Skyline front in Japan which had a more open grille style.
The local Skyline had an impressive six headlights with a single bar grille, a variation of the local Bluebird Series III grille style and unique to Australia. This applied to local Series I and II Skylines.
The final local Skyline Series III shared an almost closed wedge front similar to the Japanese GTS-R model. The top of the range Skyline Ti Series III was different again. Its deeper honeycomb grille was similar to Japanese Skyline luxury models but the overall front profile was still sleeker than the square six headlight fronts of previous local Skylines.
The “hot plate” tail lights of Japanese sedans were covered by a conventional red and amber rectangular tail light lens for Pintara and Skyline Series I and II, similar to the wagon. A clear lens cover specified for Series III Skyline sedans only, allowed these “hot plate” tail light units to be visible.
Confusing the issue was the fact that Nissan Australia raced the old R30 Skyline coupes for at least half the R31’s model life in Australia. Although the R30 and R31 Skylines were always close in appearance, the R30’s slightly rounded profile and front were quite easy to tell apart on the road.
The R30 GTS-R version was given a different front that didn’t resemble other R30 road cars in any way. It was actually closer to the local R31 Skyline Series III road cars with a bonnet that extended between the headlights to bumper level.
Because neither the R30 nor R31 coupes were seen on Australian roads at the time, the average spectator had little chance of knowing that the Skylines racing on local circuits between 1986 and 1988 were based on the previous imported R30 Skyline, not the current R31 road cars made in Australia.
The Local Skyline Range
Pintara Series I (June 1986-87)
GX and GXE sedan and wagon. Factory TRX dress-up option.
Pintara Series II (September 1987-October 1988)
GLi, GX and GXE sedan and wagon (as for Series I plus minor tweaks to paint, decals, protection strips and bumper caps where applicable)
Pintara Series III (October 1988-October 1989)
Executive, GLi and GXE sedan and wgaon (as for Series II with tweaks to grille and bumper colour, trim and GXE two-tone paint where applicable)
Pintara Series III Wagon (October 1989-December 1990)
Executive, GLi and GXE (sedan replaced by front-drive “New Pintara” in 1989, the wagon stayed in production until local Superhatch arrived at the end of 1990)
Skyline Series I (July 1986-87)
GX and GXE sedan and wagon,
Skyline Ti sedan only (September 1986)
Silhouette sedan only (October 1986)
Skyline Series II (September 1987-October 1988)
GX and GXE sedan and wagon. Silhouette and Ti sedans. (as for Series I plus minor tweaks to paint, decals, protection strips and bumper caps where applicable).
Skyline Series III (October 1988-December 1990)
Executive, GX and GXE sedan and wagon (as for Series II with extended wedge nose, different bumper colours, new trim, revised sedan tail lights and GXE two-tone paint where applicable). Silhouette sedan (new nose and tail lights as per entry levels). Ti sedan (specific nose with chrome-surround mesh grille)
Special Note: After the front drive “New Pintara” joined the Pulsar on the main assembly line at Nissan’s Clayton plant, a small sub-assembly line was added to continue building the last Skylines and rear drive Pintara wagons. At the end of 1990, the Aussie-designed Superhatch version of the “New Pintara” replaced the Skyline-based Pintara wagon. The imported Maxima V6 (a stretched version of the “New Pintara”) replaced the Skyline. This sub-assembly line was closed in 1990 followed by the entire Nissan plant a year later.
Special Versions (to be covered in future article)
There were two special Skylines developed in Australia by the Nissan factory SVD (Special Vehicles Division) hot shop. Nissan Japan vetoed Holden’s RB30ET Turbo engine as it was not fitted with an intercooler and did not meet other Nissan requirements.
Skyline Series II Silhouette GTS-I
Launched mid-1988, just before Series III release, pick the all-white GTS1 by its specific grille combined with the Series I/II Silhouette front spoiler. 5-speed manual only with 130kW/255Nm. Engine, interior, wheel upgrades. Just 200 were built. Several examples supplied to Tasmanian police for high visibility police presence.
Skyline Series III Sihouette GTS-II
Launched mid-1989, pick the all-red GTSII by its body colour grille blank between bumper and bonnet and specific front spoiler. Extra engine mods delivered 140kW/270Nm. 103 delivered as autos, 97 as manuals.
20 sets of GTS-II mechanicals were installed in Series III Skyline Executive sedans with steel wheels and supplied to Victoria Police.
This MG TD replica was not an R31 derivative but an important contributor to its ongoing local viability after it shared so many parts with the Pintara. Nissan contributed to its later development as part of a combined Pintara-Skyline export effort to other right hand drive markets. It was also going to be part of Nissan’s retro range in Japan. On the eve of this being announced at the Tokyo Motor Show, Australian Classic Cars, the local manufacturer, had to cease trading after its parent company ran into difficulties.
What happened to the Australian Skyline?
Many factors killed it. When it was first placed in local production in 1986, there were promises of healthy export volumes until other governments encouraged Nissan to set up competing facilities.
This was a critical body blow under the Button Plan as exports could be the critical factor to a business case, if local volumes didn’t stack up. The Button plan’s minimum volume requirement then meant that model sharing was critical. Following new arrangements between GM and Toyota in Detroit, Holden had to switch from Nissan to Toyota locally.
This in turn forced Nissan to forge an alliance with Ford. The last thing Ford wanted was a shared model creating volume issues for a Falcon that wasn’t being exported. Nissan had no option except to revisit a later version of the front drive Bluebird it had earlier rejected and present it as a Nissan Pintara and Ford Corsair to replace Ford’s imported Telstar range. The plan forced Nissan’s local closure after the Aussie Superhatch export version failed to generate enough sales in Japan.
Nissan was also experimenting with a local wide body Maxima not dissimilar to the Toyota Avalon to replace the Skyline. It would have bombed like the Avalon. The R32 Skyline had since moved further upmarket. Nissan claimed that its small size and higher pricing could never work in the local market as an import or a locally built contender. Ironically, this occurred at the very point when Holden exited the compact six market and left the Skyline niche wide open.
Holden chief Peter Hanenberger later believed that the Aussie rear drive Holden of the future for both export and local consumption needed to be closer in size to the VB Commodore. The much larger VE was defined by the Caprice export version. Intensive efforts to sell a reborn-Torana second vehicle line to other GM divisions failed at the 11th hour.
Parallel to this, Mitsubishi came close to defining a new rear drive Aussie Magna/Verada. Based on a superseded C-class Mercedes-Benz platform, it was going to be repackaged as an export Chrysler 200C before the brief liaison between Mitsubishi and Daimler-Chrysler spectacularly fell apart. The 380 was a desperate last minute fill-in similar to the “New Pintara” with the same outcome: the closure of Mitsubishi’s Australian plant.
The local R31 Skyline and its VL Commodore nemesis had clearly left a deep impression. Their legacy is a nagging question: would the local industry be in better shape if it had re-defined itself as the global source of compact, affordable and sophisticated rear drive passenger cars that filled the huge gap under pricey German models?
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