The Prince of The Track: Japan's First True Racing Car
Back in the early 1960s, one of Japan's best racing cars was the Prince Skyline GT (S-54). However, in 1964 during the second Japanese Grand Prix, the Prince Skyline GT narrowly loss the race to a purpose built Porsche 904.
Humiliated by the loss, Prince Motor Co. put the chief of design for the Skyline, Shinichiro Sakurai 桜井眞一郎, in charge of developing a purpose built "純レーシングカー" or "pure racing car" to compete with Porsche. (As you can tell from my previous article on the Nissan Mid4, Nissan gets a lot of motivation from Porsche). Planning and design for the car began in the summer of 1964 and proved quite a challenge for Prince Motor Co. Realizing the advantages of a mid-engine layout utilized by the Porsche 904, Prince was set on creating its own mid-engine racer. However, at the time, Japan had never built a chassis for a mid-engine car before, so Prince imported a BT8A steel pipe frame chassis from British racing car manufacturer, Brabham for its R380-I prototype . After testing with this chassis, the pipe frame was strengthened and redeveloped for the R380A-I while also utilizing a double wishbone suspension. Other parts such as transmission, clutch, and damper were imported from Europe as domestic products at the time were not deemed reliable such as the 5 speed manual transmission from ZF, a German manufacturer for car parts.
The R380 also utilized an all aluminium body with the front cowl made from fiber reinforced plastics to save weight with the design taking heavy inspiration from the Porsche 906(they must really like Porsche) and was further refined using the wind tunnel in the Aerospace Department of the University of Tokyo.
Underneath, the R380 utilized a GR8 engine (pun intended) , an upgraded version of the G7 straight six engine of the Skyline GT, that produced up to 220 bhp. By 1965, the first prototype R380-I was completed and underwent rigorous high speed testing, during which, the R380-I broke six domestic land speed records. However, a series of accidents halted any further testing.
After multiple refinements after the accidents that occured with the R380-I, the new and improved R380A-I was completed and deemed ready for the 1966 Japanese Grand Prix in which the R380A-I destroyed its competition. 1966 marked a momentous victory for Prince Motor Co. but it also marked its end as by August of that year, Prince was swallowed by Nissan Motors.
Luckily for the R380, Nissan was also working on its own racing car before the takeover of Prince and decided to further develop the R380 after the merger, rightly renaming it the Nissan R380. By 1967, Nissan engineers developed the R380A-II which broke seven world land speed records at Tsukuba in Ibaraki Prefecture.
In 1968, the work of the R380 was seemingly over as Nissan developed its successor car, the R381. However, the R380 would have one last hurrah as the GR8 engine underwent a major overhaul and the final iteration of the legendary R380 was born, the R380A-III.
The R380A-III went on to compete in not just the Japanese Grand Prix but in other Japanese competitions as well and even went on to race in Australia in 1969.
Although the R380 received a new lease on life with the R380A-III, the lease was not long lived as two years later, in 1970, Nissan announced that they would not participate in the Japanese Grand Prix and would take a hiatus from any large scale competitions with the last run by the R380 taking place in September of that year.
The R380 signalled a new era in the Japanese auto industry as it showed the world that Japan could produce racing cars that could compete with the likes of Porsche and other European manufacturers. The legacy of the R380 lives on today in Japanese racing cars such as the Le Mans GT1 class Nissan R390. The R380 was truly an inspiration for the Japanese auto industry and now, the Prince has left the world as the King.