Follow the man with the keys, I was told. He pushed a small metal dolly, the size of a mini-fridge, with tiny grocery cart wheels that rattled over bumps and cracks in the pavement. I skipped nonchalantly to keep pace, but inside my stomach was leaping with excitement. The cart’s bottom shelf held oil jugs, jumper cables, and tackle boxes. Bright blue tackle boxes, full of keys. With each tiny crack along the way, the keys clanked and jangled around inside. I had traveled thousands of miles to see what they could unlock.
My hosts asked me, politely, not to photograph the man, his cart, or the building. Not that the building itself is that interesting – located 20 miles outside of Tokyo, the structure goes unnoticed by thousands every day. But inside it held treasures that, to some, are worth spending a life pursuing. My guide and I followed closely as the man and his cart moved noisily across the lot. It was a slightly awkward, low-tech parade toward something so hallowed. I had to laugh.
When we reached the structure, the man with the cart stopped by a large roll-up door. He removed the massive padlock holding the door in place, then pressed a button on the wall.
As the door lifted, midday sunlight inched across the ground, creeping into the room and exploring all its corners and walls. My guide and I ducked underneath the door and stepped into the cavernous space beyond, eyes slowly adjusting to the darkness and the hoard within. Rows and rows of forbidden Japanese sports cars. Everywhere the eye could see.
The following is an excerpt from the new book Cult of GT-R: A True Story of Crime, Obsession and the World's Most Coveted Car, provided exclusively to Motor1.com. The book is available to order or download today at CarraraBooks.com or wherever books are sold.
I had come to Japan to chase a ghost. At least, that’s what I thought at first.
Japan has its own world of quirky, cute, and exclusive cars. Often they’re incredibly small or bizarrely skinny, with bubbly headlights and curves that smile at you from all directions. Each reflects pieces of Japanese culture, which treasures principles like politeness, gratitude, and pride in a shared common identity. And when it comes to sports cars, no single model unites people like the golden child of the Japanese auto industry: the Nissan GT-R.
The first GT-R, boxy but shockingly quick, appeared in 1969. But the versions that came later, those that would be immortalized in films and video games and street racing lore, were the third-generation "Skyline GT-Rs." Nissan made them from 1989 to 2002 in three different versions that captured the attention of the world. Enthusiasts refer to those models by their code names: The first, the R32 GT-R, arrived in 1989, followed by the R33 GT-R of 1994 and the R34 GT-R of 1999. Each version achieved global fame on its own terms, and each has a fervent fanbase. In recent years, each has become hugely valuable.
None of these GT-Rs were originally sold in the United States. You couldn’t walk into a Nissan dealership and buy one new, and for the most part, you couldn’t find one overseas and bring it to America yourself, either. The Skyline GT-R was as close to banned as any car could get. This was due to an obscure U.S. law, passed in 1988, that expressly prohibited any vehicle not originally certified for American sale from entering the country. Instead, you had to wait until the vehicle turned 25 years old before you could bring it in.
Insiders call this the "25-year rule." The law’s history is long and complicated, its enforcement shared by dozens of state and federal agencies, but its core edict is clear: If a vehicle is less than a quarter-century old and wasn’t sold here when new, then you’re going to have to wait.
Over the last three decades, the R34 GT-R has steadily built a legend in the United States. Once, simply knowing the car existed made you part of a small, select group. These days, the R32, R33, and R34 GT-Rs are cherished icons. Yet most Americans have never seen one – to them the Skyline GT-R exists as more of an idea than a real, physical car you can drive on the road. For professional vehicle importers and sellers, the GT-R was once the equivalent of the Italian black truffle, or a rare and exotic jewel – worth its weight in gold. And for US authorities and regulators, the GT-R has been nothing less than a huge pain in the ass.
I stood frozen. Inside the hangar-sized space, with its gray walls and aged steel support beams, the building could easily have passed for a Soviet-era bomb shelter. The cars consumed it. There were at least 60 of them, parked side-by-side in rows of 10, with scarcely enough room to squeeze sideways between them. Stragglers nestled neatly in the corners or wedged into whatever small pockets of open space could be managed.
Nearly all of them were Skyline GT-Rs – the R34 version, to be exact. Today, it’s the rarest and most coveted of the trio. Built for the Japanese market, each one was right-hand drive with a manual transmission. The R34 GT-R is unmistakable with its boxy body, gaping bumper intakes, and enormous rear spoiler. Stare at it from the rear and a pair of comically large, perfect-circle dual taillights will stare right back.
The first two versions of the Skyline GT-R, the R32 and R33, are now more than 25 years old. As a result, they’ve been eligible to legally import into the US for years. But when I visited the secret storage warehouse, that time had not yet come for the R34. It’s incredibly rare to see one in America. They are the forbidden fruit of the car world. There, laid at my feet and basking in the Japanese dusk, were dozens.
"It’s a jaw-dropping moment," my host whispered. "You know how much these cars cost."
All told, the warehouse probably held $10 million in GT-Rs. Every one of them had already been bought and paid for, the vast majority by American customers. Since they were unable to take delivery at home due to the 25-year rule – at the time of my visit, the closest R34s were still almost a year from that milestone – the cars’ owners had paid to keep them stored safely in Japan. One GT-R had been kept in that building for seven years.
Some buyers made special trips across the Pacific to "visit" their cars, journeying to the warehouse as if it were the Louvre. Others had been waiting years to bring home a six-figure object they had only seen in photographs. All of them were paying hundreds of dollars in rent each month to store a vehicle an ocean away, and when those machines eventually came of age and got shipped off to America, there were more parked outside, waiting to take their place.
Gallery: Cult Of GT-R Book Excerpt
GT-R owners aren’t turned off by the fact that the car they love is difficult to acquire and own. On the contrary, they live for it. They are consumed by it. The lengths to which they will go, I would come to learn, are often fanatical. The rewards they seek can appear meager, the risk astronomical. This is, after all, a Nissan. People have smuggled GT-Rs into the US by gambling their careers, their life savings, and even their freedom.
The criminal aspect and those it drew in helped make the cars irresistible. People wanted to own one, and movies, TV shows, and video games wanted to showcase one. Maybe you saw a GT-R racing through the streets in The Fast & the Furious. Maybe you drove a digital version on PlayStation or Xbox, in Gran Turismo or Forza Motorsport. That small taste, a brief screen glimpse or a virtual recreation, was enough for some. The rest became obsessed.
This was the world I wanted to explore. The journey would take me from the gray and black markets of Los Angeles to 19th-century Japan, the roots of illegal street racing in Tokyo, and back to L.A. again. Over ten months of research, interviews, and travel, I examined hundreds of GT-Rs and met countless owners. Each of those people had a version of the dream that was different and unique. More often than not, those dreams had just one thing in common – the dreamer was determined to make them come true.
And when it comes to making your GT-R dream a reality, and doing it the right way, most everyone agrees that there’s only one person to call.
Sean Morris is the director at Toprank International Vehicle Importers, a registered importer and dealer with its US headquarters in Cypress, California, a quiet suburb of Los Angeles. Tucked away in an innocent-looking business park, the company’s office gives no outside clues to its status as a pillar of modern car culture. Except, of course, for the spotless Skyline GT-Rs that are usually parked out front.
In the murky underworld of privately imported cars, the Toprank name carries a rare air of sophistication. As one owner told me, "It’s almost like you can have a GT-R, or you can have a Toprank GT-R." The firm does more than just imports and sales – it conducts in-depth vehicle inspections, offers service and repairs, and can help customers track down hard-to-find parts or specific models upon request. Toprank has also helped build a cottage industry around Japanese Domestic Market (JDM) machinery, vehicles built specifically for sale in Japan, with extravagant services and practices that many outside the car world might find hard to believe.
Morris can come off as gruff. He is known for chewing people out and famously has no problem telling someone if he thinks they’re wrong. He once described a positive friendship to me with the words, "I think I only threatened to punch him in the face once." One of his favorite stories to tell is the time he offered to lecture a local branch of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers on the various ways they commonly misunderstand their own laws.
"I don’t know everything," the 48-year-old Morris told me, "but I know a lot."
Confusion abounds in the Skyline community. Lying and cheating are rampant. People regularly come to Morris when they want something done the right way or to fix their mistakes after they’ve ventured too far down the wrong path. His straightforward style isn’t always gentle, but he likes to think it helps people make informed decisions. One person with more than 20 years in this world told me that Morris is, in his experience, "the only guy to truly be straight-up."
Plenty of unscrupulous dealers promise easy solutions that leave customers high and dry. For every company like Toprank, there are many others that will bungle the process, resulting in the government seizing your vehicle or even sending it to the crusher. Some of those firms demand nonrefundable cash down payments, then fail to deliver a car at all. In a business where passionate customers often hand over deposits of $20,000 or $30,000 for an unseen car an ocean away, trust is everything. "You can’t afford to do it wrong," Morris said.
Soon, I was hanging out at the Toprank office all the time. I dodged Nerf-gun fights during Christmas break when employees brought their kids to the office. I was there when an associate walked through the front door and handed Morris the elusive California environmental certification for a JDM Honda Civic Type R, a document he had waited on for nearly a year. This piece of paper meant the importing process was complete, and the car that had been taking up prime real estate in his lot could finally be shipped to its owner. Morris hugged it tightly to his chest, and smiled mockingly, then danced around the room with it.
If anyone could help me find a true understanding of the GT-R dream, I thought, it was this guy.
We discuss these GT-Rs on Rambling About Cars: