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All the Way from Japan – The Journey of a Rare Nissan Skyline GTR R33 LM

Some cars are rare because they are so insanely expensive only the elite (and fortunate) can purchase them…and then some cars are rare because only a few of them still exist. Either way, you’ll pay a ton of money to own a rare vehicle. But what if you found something so rare, yet so surprisingly obtainable? Enter the 1996 Nissan Skyline R33 GTR LM Limited street car. Never heard of it? Don’t worry you’re not alone. In fact, I’ve been to all kinds of car events and shown this car to literally thousands of people and I can count on two hands how many people have known about the LM. As I see it, the best thing I can do for the car world is help share the history behind the LM and what makes it so rare. Continue reading if you enjoy obscure car knowledge. Who knows, it might come up in a trivia game sometime and you will know the answer! Winning.

‘One in a Thousand’ is rare or even ‘One in five hundred’ is rare, but how about one of 98 total vehicles ever produced in the world? Let’s stop and dwell on that for a second, shall we? Here come the fun car facts! Let’s think about how many of these cars are actually on the road worldwide. The 1996 R33 GTR LM is now 20 years old and if just one vehicle per year was totaled in an accident that brings the total to 78 vehicles remaining. We are talking an endangered species here! This vehicle was never sold in the United States, so not one single person out of the 400,000,000 people in the United States was able to purchase this vehicle, EVER. An owner in New York and I were able to navigate the United States red tape, find willing sellers searching the entire world, buy the car, bring it into the U.S., and park it in our garages. Two of us total in the United Sates! That offers a little perspective on how rare this car is, and unfortunately most people will never see this car on the roads in their lifetime. It’s basically like a blue unicorn.

Now that we’ve established this car is a pretty darn rare item, let’s give a little history. The Nissan Skyline GTR model earned the name of ‘Godzilla’ by the Australians after winning 29 out of 29 straight international events in competition. Hashtag beastmode. While we’re on the subject of ‘rare’, that feat has never been repeated. Nissan then turned their focus to the 24 hours of LeMans. Rules for participation in the event require the race car to be based off of a manufacturer’s street legal car. A minimum number of road legal cars must be sold to the public in order to participate. Nissan built 2 LM race cars (these are museum items) and decided to run a special version of their R33 GTR platform to commemorate their participation in the LeMans race. These cars started as normal R33 GTR models and five specific changes were made before leaving Nissan. Carbon Fiber rear wing, Commemorative Checkered Flag Decal on the C-Pillar, N1 air ducts, N1 bonnet lip, and the most noticeable, BT2 Championship Blue paint. 99 total units were produced with chassis code 001 remaining in Nissan’s collection. The rest were sold to the public and if you were one of the 98 lucky customers, good for you!

So let’s talk about this particular car. If this were an article written in Japan, it would be pretty short and simple. I imagine it would go like this: “I wanted a rare Skyline so I called around to a few dealerships, found one, bought it.” Article finished. However, things become much more complicated when you live in the United States. The first step for me was to establish a great network of United States citizens who knew about these cars in Japan or who had worked on them before. I built a great network of the top GTR experts in the US over the course of 7 years. There weren’t a ton of people in this niche so we all became close and information traveled fast. In 2013, a good friend of mine named Steve McCarty, Owner of Rivsu Imports based out of Florida, called me and said “I have a car that I know you know about and it will be the first one to enter the United States in a decade. Do you want to talk about it?” We had a long discussion about the logistics and how we’d get this little project to the finish line but at the end of the conversation I was sold. Personally, I really hated the idea of trying to modify a United States Domestic Market (USDM) car enough to be rare. It was kind of a bucket list item to be “the only” one of a type of car at an event, so it was something that I really wanted to make happen. I of course talked to my wife, who lucky for me, is a little bit of car enthusiast that likes being unique as well, and she approved! Excited like a kid on Christmas, I made a deposit to purchase the car from a dealership in Japan.

In most stories here in the United States, purchasing the car is where the story ends. For this car, that’s where the real story begins! If you need to go grab some popcorn or a soda now is a good time to do that…I’ll wait for you…Ok let’s get in to the good stuff!

The only avenue to get this car in to the United States and be legally titled and insured was under a little known Voluntary Clean Up Program (VCP) 32. VCP32 specifically identifies the 1996 to 1998 Nissan Skyline R33 passenger car as being legal to import to the United States and gives you step by step instructions to get to the finish line. The entire compliance package is hundreds of pages and in the interest of everyone’s time I’ll just hit the high points.

The first major hurdle for us was the “Registered Importer” hurdle. According to the VCP32 document, only a Registered Importer (RI) could import the vehicle, and more specifically, the VCP32 identifies JK Technologies as the only RI who can complete the process. Enter, the lawyers. Rivsu Imports has to legally sell the vehicle to JK Technologies and ensure JK Technologies will legally sell the vehicle back once the compliance is complete. We buttered up Lois and Jonathan at JK and they agreed to take on the project! Yay! Next stop for the car, the port!

Fast forward about 60 days and the car lands in Baltimore, MD. When the car is released from Customs and Border Patrol, we have already made history! This is the first R33 GTR passenger car to enter the United States in more than a decade. Unfortunately, breaking one record doesn’t get the car to my driveway. On to the compliance package! JK Technologies is a great partner with us and has a no quit, no give up attitude to get this project to the end! Everything is firing on all cylinders (pun intended), until we come to a screeching halt. EPA requires the vehicle to perform several cold start, warm start, and various speed emissions tests to pass Unites States emissions requirements and the vehicle developed a problem during these tests – “Rod Knock.” If you are a motor head, you instantly know those two words equal “expensive!” Rod knock is essentially when a bearing in the motor fails and the motor will have to be rebuilt to perform correctly again. My car developed this dreadful condition while going through the EPA testing and JK Technologies halted testing immediately. This brings us to our second major hurdle. According to VCP32, the vehicle must pass the EPA compliance with the motor that cleared customs. This requirement exists to prevent importers from importing vehicles with nonconforming motors, swapping them with USDM motors to pass emissions and then swapping the non-conforming motor back in later. Knowing this, we all knew the test would have to be completed on a damaged motor, unfortunately no one wanted to take the blame if the motor blew up before the tests were finished. Enter the lawyers. The ultimate agreement was for Rivsu Imports to “hold JK Technologies harmless” if the car failed during the tests but to continue the tests. Heavy motor oil was put in the car to help the damage and the tests continued.

It made it! The EPA testing was completed with the motor intact. Upon completing of EPA testing the car was given its NHTSA, EPA, DOT and FMVSS approval letters to operate legally on United States roads. Phew, what a victory. It was the first time in a year and a half I sighed a moment of relief. Once the papers were issued there was no more risk of the car ever having to leave the country. I was so excited to see the car on an actual road, I scheduled a flight down to Florida to see the car in real life at the Rivsu Florida facility. What a bitter sweet moment. The car was there, I saw it, touched it, sat in it, started it up… and heard the rod knock.

Just to do a quick recap. I purchased the car in 2013 and it was released from the government as a legal vehicle in 2015. I hit the high points but there were months of waiting and working in between. All the while, I decided to build this car in the image of Nismo (Nissan’s racing division). I had 2 years to find some of the most difficult to find and discontinued Nismo parts ever made in the world. I stockpiled them all at an RB26DETT shop in Arlington, TX; Alamo Autosports. I was ready to throw the whole Nismo catalog on this car the minute it landed!

Back to our story. The car was finally ready to ship to Alamo Autosports to get it ready for the street. Thankfully, all of the parts we needed to rebuild the motor and all of the Nismo parts that I had been saving were ready to go when it arrived! The next 3 months of reconstructing the car were far more difficult than the previous 2 years. It was finally almost done and ready to roll, and I couldn’t wait to show this piece of history to the world!

December 2015, the car was FINALLY ready. I wanted to debut it at Hot Import Nights Houston, so that was our goal. It made it! I was ready for the jaw dropping reaction of spectators similar to those who see the Mona Lisa for the first time. At least that’s what I thought was going to happen after all I went through to bring this car to them. Needless to say, I was disappointed. There were a lot of patrons who enjoyed the car, but labeled it as a regular ol’ every day R33 GTR and not an ultra-rare, limited edition. I got mad. I wanted to correct everyone who walked by and told their friends “Oh damn, an R33 GTR, so cool” and walked on by. No one had a clue. No one even knew why I had the license plate LM GTR. It was supposed to be the best moment of the last 2 years and it was noticeably underwhelming.

I had to take a step back. After HIN I realized there are only two handfuls of people who truly knew what this car was. The rest, just knew of this forbidden fruit from Japan and that was it. How was I supposed to expect them to know all of the history that I knew, and all that we went through to get the car here? That’s not fair to them and certainly not fair to myself. To say I didn’t care about other people’s reactions would be a lie. No one is supposed to derive their self-worth from others but it’s kind of nice when people build you up. Come on, that’s part of the reason why we all want to own awesome cars!

After the show I drove the car home and parked it in my driveway next to my R35 GTR and left the garage door open for a minute longer than usual to simply look at what I had achieved. A network that started 10 years prior, took multiple companies, lawyers, time zones, miles, countries, languages, shops, family, and friends was finally sitting in my garage, and I had the keys, the title, and the papers to prove it. No one else needed to tell me I had done something amazing, at that moment, I knew I had.

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