1990 Nissan Skyline GT-R
1990 Nissan Skyline GT-R. Click image to enlarge

Story and photos by Michael Clark

At first glance, Japan and the city of Winkler, Manitoba have about as much in common as sushi and Mennonite sausage. The relaxed country pace seems more attuned to coffee shop conversations about agri-business or the latest RV, but at the local Timmy’s, the gossip is all about Hilux, Skyline GT-R and steering wheels on the wrong side. And that’s fine with Karl Krebs of Garage Auto Sales, who has handled over a dozen Japanese Domestic Market (JDM) import sales in a little over six months’ time.

While JDM vehicles are increasing in number throughout Manitoba, Krebs is unique in that he maintains a regular inventory of right-hand drivers. The JDM bug bit Krebs while at a family reunion in Edmonton last year. His second cousin, Clayton Kernaghan, is a full-time Japan resident with a passion for cars. He had already sent a few vehicles over to Canada for sale when Krebs got wind of his hobby. The resulting partnership has several advantages over simply rolling your dice on the Internet. Kernaghan makes the bulk of the purchases through Japanese dealer auctions, which operate much like those in North America. “He physically sees the car before we buy it,” Krebs says. “He does sometimes buy from end users. We get the nicest stuff that way.”

Karl Krebs
Karl Krebs, General Manager of Garage Auto Sales in Winkler, Manitoba, poses with a 1990 Nissan Skyline GT-R in his indoor showroom. Click image to enlarge

Transport Canada strictly enforces JDM vehicle entry. “They have to be fifteen years old to the month,” says Krebs. The fifteen-year rule gets around issues such as lighting, seatbelts, and where the steering wheel is. In some cases, Kernaghan will purchase a vehicle a few months before its fifteenth birthday, storing it until it is ready to ship.

Another advantage over Internet sales is that shipping on JDM dealer sites averages between $2,500 and $3,000, and reflect a shipper that will actually deliver your vehicle in a reasonable time. “I’ve talked to a few people who have done it on their own,” Krebs says. “One buyer waited eight months to get the car he had prepaid for.”

While most JDM vehicles are in stunning condition for their age, there are tactics that are coming to light that the used car business in North America would rather forget. “Odometer fraud is rampant in Japan,” says Krebs. With the Pacific Ocean as the ultimate warranty buffer, some unscrupulous individuals will roll back odometers to obtain higher purchase prices. To help combat the problem, dealer auctions require full disclosure of consignment vehicles from private parties. At present, there is little information that is easily obtainable about a vehicle’s collision history.

1987 toyota Land Cruiser
How do you say “mint” in Japanese? ’87 Land Cruiser wears original paint, decals, and is rust free, with only 112,000 original kilometeres on the clock. Note Power Take Off winch and removable hardtop. Click image to enlarge

While getting the vehicles has been painless for Krebs, service and parts posed a problem; a car like the 1990 Nissan Skyline GT-R currently in the showroom has no parts interchangeability with North American vehicles. “I was concerned, as a dealer, as to how I would support this if there were problems,” he says. The solution was Kernaghan, who undoubtedly walks into a Japanese version of Partsource for any needed items, and provides a turnaround of about a week for delivery. (And let’s face it; a Skyline GT-R in your driveway with a dead fuel pump will still attract the masses.)

Thanks to regular maintenance and inspections in Japan, the majority of Kreb’s inventory has needed little or no attention to pass the required Manitoba safety check. Japanese roadways are glass-like compared to our pothole-laden asphalt, causing minimal damage to suspensions.

4WD engagement directions
Koneechi-whuh? The 4WD engagement directions are lost in translation on JDM-spec vehicles, such as this Toyota Land Cruiser. Click image to enlarge

Rear badging for 1990 Toyota Hilux Surf Limited
Rear badging for 1990 Toyota Hilux Surf Limited. Note Japanese dealer sticker at bottom right. Click image to enlarge

Distances traveled are much shorter, with most fifteen-year-old JDM vehicles showing an average of 100,000 kilometres on the odometer.

While Skylines and Silvias may be top-of-mind amongst the tuner set, Krebs has also opted to import such items as Toyota Land Cruisers and Hilux trucks. There is plenty of delightful weirdness: on the 1987 BJ73 Land Cruiser, the 4WD how-to directions are printed entirely in Japanese. This vehicle has a removable hardtop, as well as a power take off (PTO) winch driven by the vehicle’s transfer case. Krebs had to install rear seat belts, as the Land Cruiser was never equipped with them. While some vehicles possess impressive sound systems, they are almost useless in Canada; the FM band is completely different in Japan, with a much shorter useable range. JDM vehicles are also equipped with varying degrees of automatic speed alarms. In the case of the Surf, exceeding 110 km/h results in a chiming reminiscent of an open door or unlatched seat belt, although this feature is easily disabled.

1990 Toyota Hilux Surf Limited
4Runner? Say hello to a 1990 Toyota Hilux Surf Limited. Hilux is the prominent brand name for JDM Toyota trucks and SUVs. Click image to enlarge

What’s in a name? What appears to be a standard issue 4Runner is actually a 1990 Toyota Hilux Surf Limited. The only giveaways are the RHD and the rear tailgate badging. Rear belts, which were three-point in Canada by 1990, are lap-style in the Surf. There are rear temperature and fan controls, and a curious gauge pod on the passenger-side dashboard. It appears to measure altitude, as well as the angle of the vehicle for extreme off-roading. It has a definite aeronautic feel, though its purpose seems to be more to amuse (or terrify) your passenger. As with the Land Cruiser, the Surf uses a diesel powerplant. “Diesel is very common,” says Krebs. Both 4x4s wear their original paintwork and decals, and are rust-free.

1987 JDM Toyota Land Cruiser
1987 JDM Toyota Land Cruiser. Click image to enlarge

But what about the right-hand drive? “Drive it for a day, and you’ll feel like you’ve been driving it all your life,” Krebs says. And so I get in behind the wheel of the Skyline GT-R to see.

The Nissan Skyline GT-R is a legend, in film, in video games, and in the growing influx of JDM vehicles into North America. Tuners around the world wedge oversized mills into Honda hatches, but this is the car they aspire to own.

What’s not to love? This particular GT-R is an R32 generation, equipped with a 276 hp, 2.6-litre RB26DETT inline mill. Dual overhead cams, 24 valves, and twin turbos for good measure. Throw in Nissan’s ATTESA-E-TS all-wheel-drive and Super HICAS four-wheel steering, and you begin to understand that a GT-R is a control freak you can live with.

1990 Nissan Skyline GT-R
A face only a NISMO engineer could love. What the GT-R lacks in aesthetics is more than compensated by its driving personality. Click image to enlarge

While I might incur the odd death threat for saying this, the Skyline GT-R is truly one of the most homely-looking 1990 vehicles to ever wear rims. It has a face that only a NISMO engineer could love, which is the whole point. The car was ultimately devised and built for competition, resulting in the creation of new racing classes to accommodate its dominance. The spin-off from Japanese and American street racing movies was just gravy. Want pretty? Go order a Fairlady.

1990 Nissan Skyline GT-R
No-nonsense cabin gives few hints as to the underhood fun factory. Click image to enlarge

The cockpit is all business, with a downright corporate feel. While painted door panel inserts and white-face gauges may be the current order of the day, the GT-R hides its potency; squint slightly, and you’d swear you were in a vintage Maxima.

The wrap-around buckets are everything that the aftermarket has aspired to, sans Day-Glo colours; the only interior cues to a sleeping giant are the aftermarket boost meter and turbo timer. No chrome, no carbon fibre, no nothin’.

Turn the key, and you start to understand. Exhaust gases tumble through a three-inch exhaust, allowing for ample exhalation from the twin-turbo thrust. There is nothing in the idle or valve train that hints at anything untoward. It is seamless and refined, what “Made in Japan” built its reputation on.

1990 Nissan Skyline GT-R
Engine bay holds the RB26DETT quite nicely. Note NISMO factory strut brace. Click image to enlarge

GT fender emblem
GT fender emblem. Click image to enlarge

There is a term that accompanies the lifelong switch from LHD to RHD, which I call “discombobulation”. Every reference point you’ve ever known is gone. At first, your brain needs to re-teach where to look as you proceed down a typical street. Your tendency is to look away from the intended path towards the former driver’s seat. You’ll quickly discover this doesn’t work; imagine driving down the street looking at the road at an angle and you’ll get the idea.

Once lined up in a traffic lane, you’ll notice the reverse shift of weight on your left hand as you shift the gears. Readjustment of shifter force, as well as left-hand shifting, is another brain “re-train”.

The shifter is a close-ratio five-speed, with almost zero play for a 15-year-old unit. The clutch is definitely heavier, though certainly not immovable, and the steering wheel is thick, like hanging on to a rounded-out version of a Louisville Slugger. Particularly pleasing is the GT-R’s manners at regular urban speeds. Throw in the fact that the GT-R is AWD, and you’ll be hanging up the car cover for some winter skins – after ample rust proofing, of course.

1990 Nissan Skyline GT-R
Here’s the view most commonly seen of a GT-R. Click image to enlarge

Launch is quick and sure-footed, and turbo lag is practically non-existent. Throw it into a corner, and you come out of the corner. Slam on the four-wheel discs, and you run the danger of removing your fillings by inertia. Regardless of the velocity recorded, the GT-R never feels out of place; this car can make anyone look good. If you’re still not convinced, think of it as a G35 coupe with an extra axle and a $30,000 rebate.

While pricing and modification levels vary, my recommendation would be to consider a “gentlemen’s GT-R” before embarking on expensive mods – horsepower is useless if you can’t put it to the ground. As an all-weather sports car with Nev-R-Break tech, the GT-R should provide years of trouble-free enjoyment, with an added benefit of safety, practically unheard of in this segment. And don’t forget all those great right-hand-drive gags you can pull on your friends.

For more information about Garage Auto Sales, visit www.garageautosales.com, or write garageautosales@mts.net.

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