My brother and I spent a lot of the late 1990s playing the original Gran Turismo, and like many people of our generation, it was the gateway to a world of Japanese Domestic Market (JDM) cars we never even knew existed. Models like the Subaru Impreza WRX, Mitsubishi GTO, and Honda Civic Racer were neat, but they also resembled their US-bound variants. For something truly exotic, Gran Turismo offered up the Nissan Skyline GT-R.
Although we didn’t know it, Christian and I (and countless other car fans of our generation) were being indoctrinated into a not-so-secret society obsessed with Nissan forbidden fruit – the Cult Of GT-R, as author Ryan ZumMallen puts it. That's the title of his latest non-fiction book, available now at the Carrara Media website or wherever books are sold.
Gallery: Cult Of GT-R Book Excerpt
The story delves deep into the history of the iconic Nissan super-coupe, from its beginnings as a luxury touring car to the mighty R34-generation Skyline of the 1990s and modern-day R35 sports car. The author spans the Pacific Ocean, bouncing between tuning companies and storage facilities in Japan and dealerships and importers in Southern California, telling a much larger story than I initially thought.
The author has a talent for decadent prose, pulling me into the drama surrounding the GT-R by the end of the first chapter. ZumMallen’s writing can be a bit rosy – he describes an owner meet in Chapter Two with such luscious detail that the mental picture looks like a watercolor painting – but the facts and research he includes ensure the GT-R story is more saga than melodrama.
ZumMallen even manages to tie the Nissan Skyline GT-R and its eventual popularity in the United States to two separate events of American intervention in Japan: the 1854 visit of Commander Matthew C. Perry to the nation and the occupation of the US military following World War II. Whether a result of ever-expanding globalization or 20th-century American imperialism, the Nihon Sangyo corporation – the company that later evolved into modern Nissan – slowly became a capitalist force, one that would serve up a cold dish of revenge to Westerners decades later.
"Americans had demanded, over and over again, that Japan abandon its old-fashioned ways and adopt more modern business practices," writes ZumMallen. "And one more time, the Japanese were going to use their exports to sell those lessons right back to us."
Gallery: Nissan Skyline R34 GT-R by Kaizo Industries Driven by Paul Walker in Fast and Furious Bonham's Auction
Cult Of GT-R also deftly examines the criminal history of the hot Nissan sports coupe. Its presence in animation, live-action movies, and video games led it to be irresistible to its fans in the West. Faked importation paperwork, smuggling, and fraudulent DMV documents got Skylines into the US, but often, those vehicles would be seized by the government, sometimes after new owners had unwittingly taken possession of the contraband. ZumMallen touches on ongoing legal battles resulting from unscrupulous dealers and con artists, and he will hopefully provide an epilogue as soon as those criminal cases end.
If Cult Of GT-R has a weakness, it's that the large cast of characters can be hard to keep straight. US-based vehicle importers, Japanese mechanics and engineers, famous owners, race organizers, and others weave in and out of the story, so I had to reread some passages to understand what was happening in ZumMallen's book.
Gallery: 2024 Nissan GT-R
But I’m still not surprised at the brisk pace at which I devoured Cult Of GT-R. His previous book, a compendium of interviews about Millennial car culture entitled Slow Car Fast, is a similarly delightful page-turner for car fans. ZumMallen's work as an automotive journalist gives him the context he needs to spin hay into gold, and he founded Carrara Media specifically to give authors like frequent Motor1 contributor Victoria Scott a venue for interesting, people-driven car stories. As ZumMallen’s latest long-form non-fiction, Cult Of GT-R is an excellent, intricately told story that proves irresistible.