Project Thirty-Four: The Big Winter Refresh… In Summer
“Get down here tomorrow. Your GT-R is going to be nothing but a shell by the end of it.”
I’m not sure if Steve Richardson is a closet sociopath or just really proud of his work. I think the answer lies somewhere in between both, because he insisted I visit SR Autobodies to watch my Skyline become a mass of bolts and washers.
A car I’ve obsessed over for many years. A car that – despite spending half its life being off the road – has still managed thousands of miles all around Europe. My GT-R holds mostly good memories, and some bad. But what car doesn’t?
It’s not broken. I even drove it to SR Autobodies without valves exiting the cylinder head. But, despite this being a solid, straight and rust-free car, it’s not exempt from needing a bit of TLC. The only difference here is that Steve – as you’ll quickly learn – is not a man who does things by halves.
He’s seen Skylines at their very worst and rebuilt ‘em to their absolute best. And actually, making me watch as 23-years of history is unravelled makes a lot more sense than I first gave credit to.
Because when you reach this point with a car, there are no longer any secrets. No jazzy bodykit masking past accidents and battle damage; no interior trim hiding that terrifying wiring. You might think you know your car, but if it’s got any skeletons, here is where they all come out.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock the past two years – which frankly doesn’t sound terrible given the current state of the world – you’ll be very aware that certain Japanese sports car prices have gone past ridiculous and now sit firmly in the ‘unwell’ bracket. Especially GT-Rs.
It’s a boring subject, and a massive shame too. The bulk of enthusiasts always viewed GT-Rs not as being cheap, but certainly attainable as they got a little older. Not anymore… unless you’ve stashed a load of crypto. But I’m fairly sure you can only drive a Huracan Performanté if that’s how you made your dosh.
Values may have doubled, tripled or even quadrupled, but the same can’t be said for their quality. That surge in collectability has meant most good GT-Rs are now being sat on by collectors as future investments, and the cars left behind end up with a massively inflated price or needing work. A lot of work.
Steve and the team at SR Autobodies know this fact better than most. They are to Skylines what rehab is to drug-addled celebrities – a necessary step required to get their lives back on track, ready to release a fitness DVD just in time for Christmas.
Fronted by Steve Richardson, you’d be forgiven in assuming that his SR Autobodies is named after his initials. It’s not. The name actually refers to the cars he’s come to specialise in over the years – S-body Silvias and R-body Skylines.. Although it’s safe to say that GT-Rs now account for almost all of Steve’s work.
“What we see a lot of is people who’ve spent good money on these cars assuming they’re going to be mint, only to find out they’re the complete opposite,” Steve explains.
“On the flip side of that, we then have owners like you Mark, who have used these cars for years before they were super expensive. But now they’re needing to restore and protect them like an asset rather than just a car, because of their values. We’re not interested in just doing quick patch-up repairs. We’re in this business to preserve these cars for generations to come, and that often means re-engineering the work from the factory too.”
That last point is quite important. Yes, we all know Japanese cars of this era were built without the use of any real rustproofing or underseal – something which is exacerbated the moment one comes to a country like England – but there are fundamental design flaws in all Skylines which Steve and his team set out to rectify.
From insufficient water drainage to sealant being missed or simply not used at all, Skylines were far from the pinnacle of engineering back in the late 1990s. However, give anything 800bhp and you’ll forgive most its shortcomings… that’s been my motto here.
You’ll always reach a point where intervention is necessary, and values aside this has been on the cards for over two years now. It had to be; Steve’s workshop is booked up well into 2024 and he’s not making an exception for me – I’ve been in line just like everyone else. I can tell you already, it’s absolutely worth the wait.
The pride Steve takes in his work – even while stripping a car – somehow feels overkill for a poxy old Nissan, and he’s been doing this long before the six-figure Skyline was a thing. During that waiting period, Steve and the SR team get to know you both as an individual but also an owner to establish what it is you want from your restoration.
Everyone is charged and treated the same; you can’t buy yourself to the front of the queue regardless of how many Skylines you own.
Steve’s not in the business of churning out quick work for quick cash. He’s much more of a craftsman, which has been the biggest eye-opener for me so far. We’re all familiar with switching up a set of wheels, changing the bodywork and other ‘typical’ aesthetic values. But I’ve never given any thought to the underside of a car, beyond it being clean and fitted with some nice suspension bits.
“Have a think as to what colourway you want to run with,” was one of Steve’s first questions to me. “You’ve got Bayside Blue exterior, so do you want the underside the same colour or do you want it black? Because that will also dictate what colour we plate all the bolts and other parts too. Typically, you’ll want to use maybe two or three colours throughout otherwise it’ll start to look messy.”
What a horrible first world problem. To me, it seems silly to spend so much time, money and effort on a complete underside restoration only to black everything out or leave it OEM. Little about this car is original; I get that approach on a bone-stock V-Spec, but less so on this. That’s not to say I want it to be too shouty or lairy.
How you convert that to the underside goes beyond me, but this is Steve’s bread and butter. After showing me several past examples,we settled on a grey underside to make the engine bay and exterior colour really stand out. Check out this example for inspiration. Details will be picked out in the form of the Ikeya arms, zinc plating and silver subframes, while the remaining ‘goodies’ will be blacked out to tie everything together. The only thing left now was to get stripping…
It’s a strange feeling watching your car be pulled apart. Mainly the feeling that, a few hours earlier, I could’ve put it up for sale and cashed out rather than throw more money at it. But as you’re reading this update, you already know my brain is wired incorrectly.
The thing is, because of those values, this will likely be the last GT-R I ever own. And when I’m old and watching re-runs Fast & Furious 31 on ITV2, I’d like to think I built an R34 ‘back in the day’ to the best of my ability. Even if that ability means paying SR Autobodies to do it instead…
“You’ve caught this just at the right time,” adds Steve. “Being a Harlow Jap Autos car, it’s super clean underneath. There’s no damage to the jacking points, there’s no sign of past crash damage and no rust either. You have a couple of small points beginning to bubble under the layers, but we can bring that back without any real hassle.”
‘The main work will be stripping all the underside to bare metal, and then welding the rear arches. The lips have been cut back in Japan for extra clearance on the TE37s but not welded. They’ve done a nice job… I’m amazed it hasn’t rusted or separated. But it needs properly sealing.”
Not that it’s all been plain sailing…
In the game of Japanese wiring bingo, I’ve got a full house. Starting with the headlights which have previously had strobes fitted, albeit the bulbs removed but the loom left intact. That also runs alongside wiring for a bunch of underbody neons which, truthfully, I’d happily run again for a laugh.
It arrived running on an HKS F-CON engine management system before being switched to a Link G4 a year into my ownership. Yet, it still has the wiring for an A’PEXi Power FC hidden under the carpet. And the cigarette lighter – the easiest live feed to draw from – feeds eight separate sources. Not a typo. Eight.
The one small live feed has not only powered a USB phone charger, but also a turbo timer. A pump for the differential cooler, a pump for the gearbox cooler, a set of six Defi gauges, an HKS lap timer (hidden under the carpet) and more. It’s hilariously Japanese; an exercise in professional bodging, but a slight fire hazard. Needless to say, the wiring is going back to factory.
If I were someone who wore manufacturer-branded gilets and used the word ‘asset’ a lot, the idea of a Skyline costing £150,000 before restoration would leave me feeling physically sick. That’s 991 Porsche GT3 RS or Ferrari 488 money, and I’m pretty sure they don’t have three different ECU looms in ‘em.
But that’s a very black and white outlook. Skyline GT-Rs were never meant to be priced like those kinds of cars; they were performance bargains capable of embarrassing exotics with a little bit of tuning.
Every random modification tells a different story. This is a car that’s lived over its lifetime, even if at points it maybe should’ve skipped certain owners. It’s been raced, it’s been tuned and it’s glowed its tits off around Tokyo late at night.
That makes it properly entertaining in my eyes. Way more than a car simply garaged its life with total focus on (low) mileage. The most interesting people you meet have led the most interesting lives, and I think the same goes for cars. Long may that continue, because a car not being used is just a big expensive paperweight.