Nissan R390 GT1 "Road car"


People ask me all the time, "Michael, what's your favourite supercar?"

A silly question, of course, because there are 1,000 different answers. Like, do I get to keep it? Does it need to be road-legal in Canada? Does it need to still exist? 

I really like the Pagani Zonda, for instance, but then Lewis Hamilton bought himself one and had it painted douchebag purple. I'm sure it's an incredible car, but to be honest, I'd rather fly a bit under the radar—even if that's all but impossible with a class of car designed to go, like, fast.

There is one car that I first fell in love with when playing Gran Turismo 2, and it's a vehicle I've always wanted to see—being able to sit in it (or drive it) would be an act at the top of my bucket list. Obviously, that car is the Nissan R390 GT1 "Road Car".

Raphael Orlove has a great article on Jalopnik about how the world was gifted a handful of homologation-forced supercars thanks to racing regulations in the late '90s. What's important to understand is that the rules stipulated only one road car needed to be made for each year of competition—a big contrast to the hoops manufacturers usually have to jump through by making hundreds of homologation specials. 

Satisfying my thirst for rarity, there were only two R390 road cars built, and Nissan kept one of them. The second one, in blue, was completed in 1998 and wears many of the aerodynamic developments that made these cars competitive—but not winners—at Le Mans. Interestingly, as stated in the Road & Track road test article linked to below, the road car was developed before the race car.

The first R390—the red one—built in 1997 is my favourite, and is reportedly in a private collection somewhere—or, as some web forum posts state, stripped down and used for parts to complete a race car. (If the car does still exist and its owner ever sees this article, I'll happily bring my own fuel to the party and a briefcase full of maple syrup if I'm able to get within 10 feet of it.

If I could—as unlikely as this is—actually drive an R390? I'll sign over my organs. (Just make sure there's lots of ice in the bathtub I'll be waking up in.)

It's silly to admit this, but this admiration for the R390 is almost solely because of its rear end—a design that's only seen on the single 1997 road car. It's a tightly-packaged, falling, impossibly low tail that wears an integrated spoiler. Below, simple round lights and exhaust pipes kick out to the sides. The 1997 race cars had a larger rear wing, necessitating the removal of the far more svelte solution that the road car wears.

Sometimes called the "short tail" version, updates for the 1998 made the tail longer, with the bodywork ending with more of a duck tail. More effective on-track, sure, but not near as sexy. To make matters worse, given its mythical status, the only "good" photo of the 1997 tail that I could find was of a model car…

Who do we have to thank for this stunning design? I never thought I'd say this: Ian Callum. Apart from the Ford RS200 and Jaguar C-X75 Concept, I'm not a fan of his other work. And yet, when stationed at TWR, he penned this beast—even making its 300 ZX headlights look like they belonged on the nose. Even though Peter Stevens designed the TWR-built, V12-powered Jaguar XJR-15, somehow the two cars look related—it's probably the bubble-like roofline.

Powering for the 1997 R390 road car is Nissan's "old" racing engine, the VRH. While the 1998 R390 was fitted with a VRH in 3.5-litre, twin-turbocharged V8 specification with 550 horsepower, many sources claim the 1997 was normally-aspirated. (As always, if I'm able to verify that one way or another, this article will be updated accordingly.)

The VRH is so respected by rivals that—amazingly—McLaren Automotive bought the rights for it from Nissan and used it to develop its M838T family of engines. That's right: the engine that keeps winning awards was based on a Nissan design from many moons ago. 

Though likely far different now from the set of blueprints Nissan handed over to McLaren, it gives me great joy that—in some small way—a part of my favourite supercar lives on.

Better yet, for those who can afford one, McLaren builds more than a single supercar per year.