Rising Sun - 1965 Prince R380

After the horrors of the Second World War, former industrial powerhouse Japan was struggling to get back onto its feet. Relentless bombardments by the Allied forces had left much of the country in ruins. Through hard work and determination the country was rebuilt in record time, and work could resume. During the war the country’s industry had been transformed to produce aircraft, tanks and other milirtary vehicles with extreme precision and speed, but the Allied occupation caused a ban on the production of such machines.

The ban meant much of Japan’s industrial sector had to switch gears drastically to remain economically viable in a post-war world. One of these companies was Tachikawa Aircraft Company, responsible for the production of several types of warplanes. After the war the company changed its name to Fuji Precision Industries, and turned its focus to the emerging Japanese automotive sector. In 1946 the new company released a small electric vehicle, the Tama.

The Tama electric vehicle.

The Tama electric vehicle.

With the Tama and subsequent gasoline-powered designs, Fuji Precision industries quickly gained a foothold in the untouched Japanese car market. In 1952 the company changed its name again to Prince Motor Company, honoring the coronation of Crown Prince Akihito. In its third iteration the company expanded its grasp on the market by moving upward with luxury automobiles like the Gloria, and the sporty Skyline sedan.

Around the same time, Japan was discovering the noble art of motorsport. The driving forces behind the revolution were Honda and Mitsubishi, who each instigated the construction of a major Grand Prix circuit. Under Honda’s direction the wonderful Suzuka Circuit was established, while Mitsubishi was involved in the development of Fuji Speedway. A major breakthrough came in 1963, when the recently completed Suzuka Circuit hosted its first non-championship Formula One race, creatively named the 1st Japan Grand Prix.

The completion of Suzuka Circuit kickstarted the Japanese motorsport revolution.

The completion of Suzuka Circuit kickstarted the Japanese motorsport revolution.

Prince Motor Company had been witnessing the increasing interest in motorsport all around the country, and wanted a piece of the tasty new cake as well. To this end they prepared a racing version of their midsize S50 Skyline model, for use in the lower GT support class. As the standard Skyline was only available an underwhelming 70 horsepower 1.5L G-1 four cylinder engine, a lot had to be done to make it competitive. The solution was very simple. In classic racing tradition, Prince simply lengthened the engine bay by 20 cm, and fitted the 2L G-7 straight six from the larger Gloria.

Now with a substantial 105 horsepower on tap, the racer that resulted was ready to tackle the mighty Porsche 904 GTS at the 2nd Japan Grand Prix. The little hot-rodded sedan proved to be a runaway success for Prince. The car delighted racing fans all over the country by occupying places 2-6 on the grid, just behind the mid-engine Porsche. The armada of Princes was even able to challenge the more advanced German for the lead, when Tetsu Ikuzawa dove to the inside. Ikuzawa was unable to retain the lead though, and gave the baton to team mate Yoshikazu Sunako. Sunako fell short of catching the Porsche, which took the victory. Despite the losing the race, the Skyline’s performance quickly became the stuff of legends.

The wildly successful Skyline 2000GT filled the top 10 at the 1964 Japanese Grand Prix.

The wildly successful Skyline 2000GT filled the top 10 at the 1964 Japanese Grand Prix.

Delighted by the amazing impact of the Skyline 2000GT, Prince sought ways to improve performance even further, and beat the Porsche once and for all. It was clear the Skyline had already reached its limit against the highly advanced mid-engined designs, so Prince went back to the drawing board for a radical rethink.

Under the direction of chief engineer Shinichiro Sakurai, work started on a purpose-built mid-engine racing prototype. Propelled by the sales success of the Skyline 2000GT road version, Sakurai was given carte blanche to do whatever he saw fit with Project Racing 38. The only problem was, he didn’t know how. What he was attempting to do was unprecedented in Japan, which meant no one had any experience which such exotic designs. To overcome this massive hurdle, Sakurai purchased a used Brabham BT8 chassis. After studying the car meticulously, Sakurai was able to reverse-engineer his very own mid-engined weapon.

The Brabham BT8 was used as Prince's design template.

The Brabham BT8 was used as Prince's design template.

Eventually Sakurai produced a steel tube frame chassis housing the familiar straight six engine in the middle. The powerplant looked very similar to the G-7 found in the Skyline, but had received an extreme overhaul. Contrary to the bone stock Gloria engine, the new unit featured 4 valves per cylinder, dual overhead camshafts, a much shorter stroke, a cross-flow cylinder head and three much larger Weber 42DCOE-18 carburetors.

Designated GR-8, the 2L beauty pumped out just over 200 horsepower at a deafening 8400 rpm. This was double the output of the old G-7. Torque also improved slightly from 157 nm (116 lb ft) to 172 nm (127 lb ft), due to the engine’s high revving nature. The manic motor was then coupled to a 5-speed manual transmission produced by specialists Hewland. In all the exotic machine weighed just 660 kg (1455 lbs). The stage was set for a titanic battle between Prince and Porsche.

The Prince GR-8 as fitted to the R380 chassis.

The Prince GR-8 as fitted to the R380 chassis.

Sadly Prince were denied their chance at revenge. Issues with management of the event meant the 3rd edition of the Japan Grand Prix was cancelled. Prince was stumped. All their hard work trying to design a Porsche-slayer had been for nothing. Not content on letting the R380 waste away in a storage facility, it was put to good use at Yatabe Test Track.

Since the R380 was their most powerful car ever, Prince wanted to see how fast it would actually go. On the big banked oval at Yatabe the car powered along in search of speed records, and it found plenty. In addition to easily bettering the Japanese speed record, the R380 also performed at a world-beating level. In World Speed Record Class E, the car set three new records covering 50 kilometers (31 miles) at an average of 266.37 kph (165.51 mph), 100 kilometers (62 miles) at an average of 262.44 kph (163.07 mph) and 200 kilometers (124 miles) at an average of 261.22 kph (162.31 mph).

The R380 undertaking high speed trials, Yatabe 1965.

The R380 undertaking high speed trials, Yatabe 1965.

With the potential of Prince’s supercar proven, the company was delighted to hear the Japan Grand Prix would return for 1966. Finally they had their chance at beating the fearsome Porsche 904. Unfortunately, Porsche hadn’t been sitting on their perfectly dressed behinds for the year. In the meantime the 904 had been retired, and a new flat-6 powered 906 Carrera 6 introduced.

Keeping with good German tradition, the 906 trumped the R380 in virtually all areas. The 2L flat 6 produced 220 horsepower, 20 more than the straight six in the Prince. In addition the 906 was lower, sleeker and more aerodynamic. Lastly the Porsche had a weight advantage, tipping the scales at just 580 kg (1278 lbs). The R380 hadn’t been designed to take on this much Teutonic violence. Prince definitely had their work cut out for them.

The arrival of Porsche's sleek 906 put a dent in Prince's confidence.

The arrival of Porsche's sleek 906 put a dent in Prince's confidence.

Prince took a squadron of four R380’s to Fuji, taking no chances against the lone Porsche. Despite the mechanical advantage of the German missile, Prince prevailed. The 906 dropped out with mechanical issues, leaving the win to 1964 second place finisher Yoshikazu Sunako. Split by a Toyota 2000GT, two other R380’s occupied the 2nd (Hideo Oishi) and 4th spots. Prince had finally executed their sweet, sweet revenge.

Rare photo of the 3rd Japan Grand Prix, 1966.

Rare photo of the 3rd Japan Grand Prix, 1966.

The amazing achievement further cemented Prince as Japan’s leading lights in the world of motorsport. In the process the small company had attracted the interest of the much larger volume manufacturer Nissan Motor Corporation. Shortly after the Grand Prix win Prince and Nissan merged, and the Prince name was swiftly dropped.

As a result all Prince designs were rebranded with the Nissan badge, including a heavily reworked version of the R380, which Prince had been developing as a reaction to Porsche’s 906. In relative secrecy, Nissan had been working on a car of their own to beat the original R380. But when Nissan’s engineers stumbled upon the R380-II, it was clear their prototype never stood a chance. Nissan cancelled its own project, and gave priority to Prince’s design. Fitted with Nissan badges, the car was prepared for the 4th Japan Grand Prix.

The gorgeous R380-II was built to directly counter the Porsche 906.

The gorgeous R380-II was built to directly counter the Porsche 906.

The R380-II featured much needed aerodynamic improvements, utilizing a much lower and sleeker bodystyle copied from rivals Porsche. The smoothed lines prohibited the use of conventional doors, so the car made use of gullwing-style doors which hinged upward.

Further improvements were made in the engine bay. The Weber carburetors were ditched in favor of a mechanical fuel injection system, boosting power to a Porsche-rivaling 220 horsepower. the weight remained relatively unchanged however, so the car was still lagging behind the 906.

With the improvements in place Nissan sent a team of four R380-II’s to the Japan Grand Prix. Driven by Moto Kitano, Kunimitsu Takahashi, Hideo Oishi and Giichi Sunako, the cars faced off against a force of three Porsche’s 906. Prince defector Tetsu Ikuzawa clinched pole position for Porsche, followed by teammate Tadashi Sakai. Kunimitsu Takahashi was first of the Nissan aces in 3rd. Shintarou Taki completed the Porsche contingent with 4th, followed by Moto Kitano’s Nissan.

Kunimitsu Takahashi (10) chasing Tetsu Ikuzawa (8) for the lead.

Kunimitsu Takahashi (10) chasing Tetsu Ikuzawa (8) for the lead.

On race day it became painfully clear to Nissan that the Porsche was the superior car all along. It too had received a ton of development in the intervening year. The R380-II proved to be no match for the 906. Tetsu Ikuzawa took the checkered flag for Porsche, some 1 minute and 46.1 seconds in front of Kunimitsu Takahashi’s Nissan. Giichi Sunako recorded 3rd, Moto Kitano was 4th, and Hideo Oishi came in 6th.

The R380-II's record breaking speed was handily used in American Datsun advertising.

The R380-II's record breaking speed was handily used in American Datsun advertising.

The embarrassing loss to Porsche lead Nissan to abandon the R380-II in racing entirely. Instead they drew inspiration from the extreme Can Am class, which was starting to gain popularity. With a new Can Am-style design in the pipeline, the R380-II was employed at Yatabe Test Track once more. There it would manage to improve on the speed records set by its immediate predecessor, gaining very helpful publicity for Nissan.

The R380-II at Yatabe Test Track, 1967.

The R380-II at Yatabe Test Track, 1967.

The Prince/Nissan R380(-II) represented a major breakthrough in Japanese motorsport. It was the first deadly serious attempt to beat the massively more experienced Europeans at their own game. Amazingly, Prince hit the bullseye on their first try, and managed to beat Porsche with a trait the Japanese would become infamous for: bulletproof reliability.

After a takeover by Nissan, the R380-II was granted a second attempt at fairly slaying Porsche for its obvious superiority to Nissan’s own design. But as Nissan and Prince would painfully find out, the playing field changes instantly in the world of motorsport. After a year of development, the Porsche’s struck back in full force, killing the R380-II for good. Although its racing success might have been a fluke, it remains in the history books as the first Japanese car to beat the best of the best.