The 1980s were the glory years of international motorsports—with massive turbos pushing horsepower into the four figures, ground-effects, terrifying cornering speeds, and safety still in its infancy, this was an era of heroes and legends, courage and tragedy. All of this combined to make the IMSA GTP Championship and its savage, fire-spitting, monster-horsepower cars like Nissan’s GTP ZX-Turbo an extraordinary moment in world motorsport …
From DATson to Datsun to Nissan: how a brand change created a motorsport monster
Datsun, the venerable Japanese car brand, was flying high. Brand recognition, along with cars that were dominant on-track and indestructible on-road, had seen them rise to become the second-largest Japanese manufacturer in the all-important US market throughout the ’60s and ’70s. The DAT motor company had come a long way since their founding back in 1914 by three men whose names—Den, Aoyama, and Takeuchi—would combine to make up one of the world’s most recognizable brands.
In 1931, DAT had created a small two-seater named the DATson. It sold well—a dozen were even exported to New Zealand—and two years later, the DAT Automobile Co. merged with the Jitsuyo Automobile Co. to create Nissan Motors. The Datson branding—soon to become Datsun (the sun added during the imperial phase of expansionist Japan pre-World War 2)—was retained for global exports of all their cars, while Nissan was badged onto their trucks. Only in Japan were Datsun cars branded as Nissan, while from Johannesburg to Jalalabad, Datsun became synonymous with cheap, reliable, dependable, fun automobiles.
Datsun could do no wrong in the post-war world, either. With global sales at a high, Nissan decided, in 1969, that the time was right to create a premium motor car. The Fairlady Z (the race version is in Project CARS 2) was their first shot at this segment, and it proved instantly successful—Nissan sold a million Datsun Z cars in a decade. It took Chevy a quarter of a century to shift as many Corvettes.
Then, in 1981, riding high on the crest of the Datsun wave, Nissan made the decision to scrap the Datsun brand and refocus the global brand back to Nissan. All new Datsuns, overnight, would be badged with Nissan branding, and the Datsun brand would be no more.
The decision was costly. As Top Gear Magazine notes, ‘Changing signs at the 1,100 Datsun dealerships cost $30 million. Changing the marketing epithet from “Datsun, We Are Driven!” to “The Name is Nissan” cost $200 million. Then there was another $50 million spent on approved but redundant Datsun adverts. All in, it was a $500m exercise.’
The name may indeed have been Nissan, but for the US market, Nissan was not that well known, and Honda soon replaced Nissan as the second-largest Japanese car maker. That left Nissan, by the mid-’80s, with the unenviable task of having to, once more, build its brand for the US market.
How to build a brand? Go win some races
Beginning in 1981, prototype racing didn’t get a lot better than the action at the Camel IMSA GTP (Grand Touring Prototypes) Championship. Unlike their brothers on the World Endurance Championships, the US-based series saw little need for fuel efficiency—these cars were violent, loud, dangerous, and seriously quick. This may have been a US-centric racing series, but its appeal was global and its stars and cars featured on the pages of auto-sport mags around the world. By the mid-’80s, the series was being dominated by the Porsche 962s, the most successful prototype of its, or any, era. It would take an act of desperation for a manufacturer to try and usurp Porsche’s stranglehold on the series.
When a couple of dudes from California with no budget humbled Porsche and Jaguar
Electramotive Engineering was a small tuning shop working out of El Segundo, California, run by Don Devendorf (he made his money working for Hughes Aircraft Corp.) and his buddy, John Knopp, when Nissan came calling. Electramotive had been running Datsuns in the lower classes of IMSA for much of the ’70s and early ’80s, winning on a small budget, and creating a reputation in the US as the go-to guys for all things Datsun. If you wanted to tune your Datsun or run it in a local series, Electramotive was the place to get it tuned and sorted.
As it turned out, if you were one of the world’s biggest car manufacturers with a failing brand, Knopp and Devendorf were also your go-to guys. Nissan approached Electramotive in the summer of 1984 with an intriguing proposition—build us a car capable of beating the Porsche 962, and do it on the cheap. Electramotive would build the car and run the whole race program, while Nissan would provide the engine—the 3-litre VG30ET, based on Nissan’s ‘Z’ car—along with the funding (within solemn limits), and technical assistance.
Electramotive were given six months to create the first car, to be ready for the 1985 season. They went off to England where they secured a Lola chassis—based on the T810, it came with ground effects—and shoved in the Z’s 3-litre V6 turbo that was heavily modified in-house by Knopp, and built to Electramotive’s specs by Nissan in Japan.
The car—dubbed the Nissan GTP ZX-Turbo—made the grid for the 1985 season opener at the SunBank 24 at Daytona. It did nothing special there, or at Sebring, and was dogged by unreliability for that entire season. The intent, though, was always about learning and evolving the car and engine throughout their debut season.
By 1986, the Nissan GTP ZX-Turbo was starting to make inroads: a pole at Portland thanks to the new aero’ body designed in Japan by Yoshi Suzuka a sign of things to come. But the car was still evolving, bits and pieces slowly making its way into the program on the back of a restrictive budget. For 1987, improvements to the gearbox brought a first win, with Geoff Brabham and Forbes-Robinson running from pole to checkers at Miami. The win was made all the sweeter given who ended up second—the all-winning Rahal-Mass Porsche 962. Things were on the up, but not even Nissan, surely, could have anticipated what was about to happen.
’88 and chassis 8801—Elvis is alive in Project CARS 2
For 1988, Electramotive came to the IMSA championship under pressure to deliver. The car, now in its third season, had evolved significantly: Gone was the Lola chassis, and in came a chassis built by JC Prototypes from a design by Trevor Harris. Gone, too, were the Goodyear tyres, and in came Japan’s own Bridgestone. Gone, too—or at least, that was IMSA’s intent—was the enormous power coming out of the turbos, and in came restrictor plates. That rule change (and the subsequent mid-season change) did nothing to curb the power of the Nissan—Knopp created an electronically-controlled wastegate in response to the new rules, and power was actually upped … into the holy 1000hp territory.
On the grid for the opening round of the 17 race 1988 IMSA GTP Championship at the SunBank 24 at Daytona were the two elite marques that would do battle against (the absent) Nissan that season: The all-new Jaguar XJR-9 (featuring Martin Brundle) with its enormous 6-litre V12 (making its debut Stateside), and the dominant Porsche 962 (IMSA GTP champs since 1985) with the legendry Porsche pairing of Hans-Joachim Stuck and Klaus Ludwig.
Jaguar won the Daytona 24 hours on debut (they’d win Le Mans that year, too), and Porsche roared home to take the Sebring 12 hours. Nissan sat out both events, knowing their strengths were not the 12 and 24 hour events. Their season would begin in April, at the 500km Atlanta Journal-Constitution Grand Prix at Road Atlanta where Geoff Brabham pummeled the Jaguars and Porches before, astonishingly, going on to win the next seven races on the trot—a sequence that began in April and ended at Sears Point in August.
Eight wins in a row from chassis ‘8801’ in ’88 meant Brabham was IMSA’s champion while Nissan narrowly missed-out on the manufacturer’s, losing to Porsche by one point. (That was the 962’s final championship in a sequence that extended from 1985 through 1988—from 1989, Nissan would seize control of the series until Toyota came with their AAR team for 1992-’93 … but that’s a story for another day, and maybe another game …).
Chassis 8801 was responsible for all 9 wins by Nissan that season—it was ‘the King’. It was Elvis. And it won despite a shoestring budget, beating the world’s best.
The King in Project CARS 2
Elvis is the car that has been recreated in Project CARS 2. Chassis 8801. It will be one of the most violent and savage cars you have ever driven. With ’80s levels of power and lag from the turbo, and ground effects pushing enough grip to tear the skin from your grinning face, this is not a car that is easily tamed.
It comes with some peculiarities, too—the lack a front roll bar being one. In common with most ground effects cars of that era, you’ll find this animal reluctant to turn through the low-speed stuff. Back in the day, they’d run it with some serious toe at the rear to counter the severe low-speed understeer. This, though, is largely irrelevant because, once you start flinging it through the quick turns, you’ll understand why it was so dominant.
The engine is a 3-litre V6 turbo and when the thing spools up, you get about 960hp shoving 860kgs along with all the deliciously insane lag you’d expect. It’s also a bit of a pig in terms of visibility—the car was designed for aero’ balance, and you’ll be seeing precious little of the world outside. With no back window, you’re also reliant on some awful little mirrors—not that you’ll spend too much time worrying about what’s behind you.
When you lose it, you’re going to lose it big time—the car was notorious not only for its grip, but also for being difficult to bring back over the limit. You’re also going to be surprised at how quiet it is—you’ll definitely hear the brakes and the turbo spool at 9000rpm. In the low-noise cockpit of the Nissan GTP ZX Turbo, everyone will hear you scream.
Project CARS 2 will be released in late 2017 for the PlayStation®4 system, Xbox One, and PC