Nissan Skyline Silhouette GTS

Note: This car is featured in my paperback book, Weird Cars.

The ’80s were a strange time.

As the seeds of modern motoring began to take root—turbocharging, microprocessors in cars, and a push for better fuel economy included—automakers were busy trying new ideas in order to satisfy ever more niche markets.

Like how evolution and natural selection go hand-in-hand, as these new products were introduced customers began to make choices. 

In the battle for people’s wallets, millions of decisions were made. Volkswagen Golf or Ford Escort? Mitsubishi Mighty Max or Nissan Hardbody? BMW M3 or—

I think I’m correct in saying that if you wanted to race—and win—in Group A competition with a production-based sedan, hindsight shows the BMW M3, Ford Sierra RS Cosworth, and Nissan Skyline were the best choices. Group A was perhaps the best racing rules package from the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA) since Formula 1. The governing body for motorsport introduced a set of simple criteria aimed at making racing more affordable for entrants and more exciting for spectators.

To qualify, a model had to be made in a series of at least 2,500, out of a total production run of 25,000—this introduced several unique performance cars with the express purpose of homologation for Group A, including the BMW M3 Sport Evo and Mercedes-Benz 190E 2.5-16 Evolution. When watching period race footage, it’s clear that in contrast to the money-take-all results in Group B and C competition, Group A seems both more balanced and more exciting. The vehicles that tended to do well were those with good bones: a chassis, engine, suspension, and braking system that provided strong performance or were easy to modify.

Being based on a range of standard road cars also meant that for most Group A-eligible vehicles it was relatively easy to cherry-pick the best parts used on its platform, something that helped both race teams and enthusiasts wanting to upgrade their cars. Even better, many of the vehicles used in the series were no more exotic than the Volvo 240, Toyota Corolla, and Subaru Impreza. High-dollar supercars they were not.

Before the Skyline GT-R morphed into the supercar named just GT-R, Nissan’s solid engineering and powerful turbocharged engines meant that fans soon got used to seeing Skyline drivers spraying champagne after the race. The R30 and R31 generations shared several characteristics with the BMW M3, including rear-drive and straight-six engines. Where they differed was in their approach for the truly top-spec models: BMW favoured normally-aspirated engines and Nissan fitted turbochargers.

Remember my bit about natural selection? As automakers were trying new things, they often teamed up: you get to use my engine, I get to use your dealer network. In Australia, Nissan and Holden had a deal that saw VL Commodores fitted with Nissan RB30E engines. Why? Tough emissions standards left the General Motors subsidiary without a clean enough motor for the car.

Part of the deal meant that the high-performance RB30ET variant would be used for certain Commodore models, including those special-ordered by the police as interceptors. But here’s the twist: in Australia, Nissan didn’t put its powerful turbocharged RB30ET into the Silhouette (which was a Skyline by any other name). Some sources claim it was because the General Motors supply deal guaranteed Holden exclusive use of the motor, and others say it was because Nissan wasn’t interested in bankrolling an Australia-only hot Skyline. After all, at that time the car was really only sold in Japan, Australia, and other Australasian countries.

Without the use of turbocharging, what would Nissan Australia sell to enthusiasts who wanted the ultimate Skyline?

Built in a series of just 400 across both Series I and Series II variants, the Skyline Silhouette SVD GTS was Nissan’s hottest sedan in Australia between 1988 and 1991. Using a normally-aspirated RB30E the company made some internal engine modifications, including a hotter cam. While its live rear axle wasn’t the best way to get power to the ground, a standard limited-slip differential and Bilstein shocks ensured the car’s handling was among the best in its class. Series I cars left the factory with 176 horsepower, while Series IIs had a strong 190 horsepower.

Telling them apart is easy: Series I cars were limited to white paint with white wheels, while Series II cars had red paint with—you guessed it—white wheels. There are a few other differences that Nissan aficionados can pick out, of course, but the model remained largely similar through its limited run.

Its lighter engine, largely electronics-free drivetrain, and simpler interior left the Silhouette SVD GTS series as an evolutionary dead end—but such an interesting piece of history.