Future Classic: Nissan Skyline R31

By: Kian Heagney, Photography by: Unique Cars Archives, Nissan

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The square rigger Nissan Skyline is an affordable Aussie classic

With the prices of our go-to Holden, Ford and Valiants of just about any vintage rising by the minute, it pays to look at the left of field examples if you’re hunting for a classic on a modest budget.

A perfect example of this is the locally built R31 Nissan Skyline. Despite winning Modern Motor Magazine’s (now known as MOTOR Magazine) Car of the Year Award on debut in 1986, the R31 was often referred to as the smaller, boxier and uglier cousin to the VL Commodore, with which it shared the same 3.0-litre Nissan RB30 straight six powerplant.

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The GTS models were true drivers cars

This was the seventh generation of the Skyline, and marked the start and end of Nissan’s fully fledged assault on the highly competitive family sedan market in Australia. Nissan invested millions into their Clayton assembly plant, where the R31 Skyline and lower-spec four cylinder Pintara sedan and wagon were built from 1986-1990, after which Nissan shut shop on local manufacturing.

The R31 struggled in the sales figures against much more popular XF Falcon and VL Commodore, largely thought to be due an undersized interior and the boxy 80s exterior. However time has been kind to the R31, and those shortcomings are now irrelevant and seen as cool classic quirks.

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Some colours didn’t help

As mentioned, all variants of the Australian built R31 Skyline came fitted with Nissan’s smooth and brilliant SOHC, 3.0-litre straight six RB30 also used in the VL Commodore. The R31 also uses same four-speed auto or five-speed manual transmissions found in the VL, but sadly the R31 missed out on the turbocharged version of the RB30 that turned the VL into a cult icon. To keep production costs down, the independent rear end suspension used in the Japanese versions of the R31 had to be binned for a Borgwarner live axle unit, also using locally sourced disc brakes and steering racks.

During its production run the R31 Skyline went through three generation changes, the most important being the facelift from Series 2 to Series 3 late in 1988, with a more modern front end and the addition of quad lamp tail lights known by enthusiasts as ‘hot plates’, a look associated all over the world with the Skyline name.

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Inside the limited-edition GTS

Trim levels started at the basic Executive level, moving slightly up spec to GX and GXE before the top of the range sporty Silhouette and luxury Ti models. The Silhouette scored 15-inch alloy wheels, two-tone paint, a rear spoiler, buckets seats and critically an LSD rear end, while the Ti took on a Calais guise with power everything, auto-only transmission and plush velour upholstery.

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The most desirable iteration of the Aussie R31 is the limited edition SVD-built Silhouette GTS. SVD (Special Vehicle Division) was Nissan Australia’s in-house tuning company that was responsible for Nissan’s motorsport efforts in Australia through Gibson Motosport. Two generations were made of the Silhouette GTS, commonly referred to as GTS1 and GTS2. The GTS1 was the first, with all cars painted in white and manual only with a special bodykit, bigger 16-inch wheels, super comfortable bucket seats and a power increase thanks to a different camshaft, exhaust and piggy-back ECU. The later GTS2 was facelifted and only offered in red, also with a unique bodykit, wheels, upgraded Bilstein suspension and even more power thanks again to a beefier camshaft and tuning tweaks. The GTS were lauded as being one of the best performance sedans on sale in their day, but with only 200 per generation built, examples are hard to come by.

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Blue was the hue for many Skylines

Due to the R31 being made and sold in Australia, the grey market import scene for the HR31 Japanese variants is small compared to later model Skyline’s and Silvia’s. The main thing we missed out on was the HR31 coupe and Passage sedans, Japanese-exclusive models which featured the 2.0-litre, dual overhead cam RB20DET turbo straight six in the higher spec GTS-X trim levels.

The irony to that is while we missed out on coupes in local showrooms, Nissan Australia designed and built the R31 wagon specifically for our market. It was the last wagon to wear a Skyline badge and ended up being sold in Japan in limited numbers.

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Two door only came here as a race car

Despite being outsold by rival Commodores and Falcons of the time, the R31 Skyline still left dealerships in solid enough numbers that there’s still a decent amount in circulation today. They also weren’t as rust prone as other 80s sedans and their bullet proof reliability means there are plenty of examples with north of 300,000km showing on the ticker. However, being less desirable than the later and sleeker R32, R33 and R34 models means R31 prices bottomed out for years before a recent jump, leaving them prone to young buyers who thinned the herd of clean examples by turning them into budget P plate drift machines.

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Silky smooth six in Skyline and Commodore

The main things to watch out include rust behind the front guards and underneath the bottom of the windscreen. The LSD rear ends were also known to be troublesome, along with leaky steering racks.

The most desirable pick next to the limited edition GTS models would manual Silhouettes, with prices for honest and untouched examples ranging anywhere from $5000 - $15,000, depending on condition and mileage. If you’re hungry for a GTS then plan to go shopping with north of $25,000 and be prepared to be patient, as examples rarely come up for sale and owners are fully aware of what they have. That may seem like a lot for a Skyline, but it’s a far cry from prices being asked for genuine VL turbos or XE ESPs.

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GTS is pick of the crop

FOR
• Affordable Aussie classic
• Brilliant engine
• Getting rare

AGAINST
• Boxy looks
• Rust issues
• Some parts are hard to find

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 Cop this: Tassie interceptors

1986-1990 Nissan R31 Skyline

Body All-steel, integrated body/chassis four door sedan and wagon
Engine Inline six, 2962cc with fuel injection
Power & torque 114W @ 5200rpm, 255Nm @ 3600rpm
Performance 0-100km/h: 9.2sec, 0-400m 16.6sec
(5 speed manual)
Transmission 5-speed manual, 4-speed automatic
Suspension Front McPherson strut with lower control arms, five-link live axle rear end
Brakes Discs front and rear

 

From Unique Cars #453, May 2021

 

 

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