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Banned in the USA: Driving a Skyline R32 GT-R in Hakone

Cole Pennington takes a piece of Japanese automotive history to the empty turnpike of Hakone near Japan's Mount Fuji.

Cole Pennington

September 19, 2017

Hakone, Japan

Japan is a nation obsessed with perfection, and when it comes to engineering, perfection is paramount. The roads around Mount Fuji, particularly the Hakone Turnpike, seem like they were dreamed up by civil engineers with a dark secret: They were obsessed with speed and driving dynamics rather than public safety.

All of my mental energy is dedicated to performing exacting inputs to the steering wheel, brakes, gas pedal, and clutch. My left hand is firmly on the shifter as the legendary RB26TT engine discharges almost 30 psi. I’m behind the wheel of a 1990 Skyline R32, affectionately known in car-crazy circles as “Godzilla.”

ABOVE: The Hakone roads feature some of Japan’s most famous sights, including Mount Fuji.

Like many Americans, my fascination with the Skyline started with racing video games in the late 1990s; the car appeared as a choice to drive on virtual tracks, but on real US roads, it was impossible. It was never officially imported to American shores. An automotive forbidden fruit.

It’s fast. It’s exotic. It’s illegal back home. And I couldn’t wait to drive it.

Fun2Drive is making up for decades of laws that prohibited Americans from experiencing what many hail as the best “driver’s car” ever made. The company, situated in the shadow of Mount Fuji, allows motoring enthusiasts to test out a fleet of cars that have defined Japanese car culture, dating from as far back the late 1960s. You’ll find a Skyline KPGC10, known as a Hakosuka, from the late 1960s as well as two darlings from the 1970s, the Kenmeri Skyline, named after a popular ad campaign featuring characters Ken and Mary, and then of course the sexy Fairlady Z, which single-handedly showed the world that Japan was capable of making a sports car that was reliable and downright gorgeous – not to mention fast.

But for me it’s always been the R-32 that stole my petrol-fueled heart. Before even getting in the car I took a moment to appreciate what the car represented and how it came to be.

ABOVE: Cherry blossoms along the Hakone Turnpike.

High times were upon the Land of the Rising Sun in the late 1980s. Massive Japanese corporations were flush with cash and optimism. It seemed there wasn’t any problem technology couldn’t solve. Domo Arigatou, Mr. Roboto, the popular catchphrase coined in 1983 by the American band Styx, rang true.

Nissan was to dump in however much cash it took and put their best engineers on the project to resurrect the GT-R title held by the aforementioned Skylines of the 1960s and 1970s. What they came up with was internally titled the BNR32, but it was introduced to the world as the Nissan Skyline.

ABOVE: After its release, the 1990 Nissan Skyline won every race it entered in the Japanese Touring Car Championship.

It won every single race it entered in the Japanese Touring Car Championship. It annihilated the competition, taking first at Australia’s Group A championships three times in a row from 1990 to 1993. The rules the Australian Touring Car Championship had to be rewritten to ban the Nissan Skyline from participating altogether.

Finally I was handed the keys and it was time to see for myself what the car could do.

The Skyline is a car that very quietly asserts its road superiority. It’s not much to look at, and people who aren’t into cars might not even give it a second glance. The car I had for the day was silver and decidedly low-key. That was fine, perhaps even ideal. At the speeds I was travelling I wanted to be as incognito as possible.

ABOVE: The minimal traffic on the Hakone Turnpike makes it ideal for testing out fast cars.

The straight six powerplant inside the R32 works best when you wake it up a little. Visions of playing Initial D in New Jersey arcades filled my head as I climbed higher and higher on the Hakone to the tune of a wailing straight six being force fed dense mountain air. These roads are well known among car enthusiasts, so it’s not uncommon to see modified Japanese sports cars with engines blaring whipping around the corners. A friendly nod and a quick exchange of glances is the unwritten etiquette of the spirited drive tribe. We all knew where to head: Hakone Turnpike.

ABOVE: At the wheel of the Skyline R32 on the Hakone  Turnpike near Japan’s Mount Fuji.

You pay the toll, and the Hakone is yours. Since it’s not a public road traffic is minimal, and it’s the place to go to test your own driving prowess and explore the complex relationship between man and machine. It’s incredibly well taken care of, despite the fresh rubber strips on the pavement that sometimes decorate turns. Japan runs on a tight schedule and red tape is everywhere, but all that bureaucracy seems to melt away on the Hakone Turnpike.

ABOVE: Cole Pennington in front of a Nissan Skyline R32 GT-R.

Dense green forest with cherry blossoms flank both sides of the road at sea level, but at appropriate speeds the scenery changes quickly. In early April, when I took the drive, small patches of snow littered the landscape at elevation, and they melted into a pleasant haze that settles nicely on the road, not enough to disrupt visibility, but enough to add an element of mystery to the spirited drive. These roads lie in the shadow of the ever-present Mt. Fuji, creating a sense of synergy between man, machine, and the natural world.

One day of driving isn’t enough to explore the entire Hakone area, and it’s not enough to become totally comfortable to push the car to the upper limit of the driving envelope, but it is enough to understand what makes driving in Japan – and driving the Nissan Skyline – so special.