Nissan’s legacy in international sports car racing starts with the 1,000 horsepower R90CK that didn’t quite win Le Mans in 1990 and ends with the R390 GT1 that didn’t quite win Le Mans in 1998. But there was an intermediate car that, sadly, didn’t even make it to Le Mans.
This is the 1992 Nissan P35. It had an in-house V12 engine built for endurance racing but also to the qualifications of Formula 1, as was the standard for the World Sportscar Championship starting in 1991. That means ‘VT35' is a 3.5 liter engine, naturally aspirated.
I will say that this all sounds very straightforward now. Nissan’s a big company, they made a V12, seems fine.
Making your own F1-spec V12 is not a small undertaking for any organization. This had to have been a hugely expensive program, one that would have rivaled any top team in the world at the time. A V12 is a jewel in the crown kind of undertaking, and it’s never cheap.
What a gorgeous motor, though. Look at this one alone, with twelve intake trumpets gleaming.
Nissan claims the VRT35 produced a good 620 horsepower (not quite the most powerful car in the field, but not very far off) and redlined at a staggering 11,600 rpm.
Remember this was an endurance racing car. It was meant to run for hours at a time.
One test driver Johnny O’Connell later interviewed by the excellent Mulsanne’s Corner remembered the engine as “about the most amazing sounding engine I have driven. It totally screamed.” Listen to it run. It is ear-shattering. It is almost painful:
Four chassis were built. The third and fourth were all-carbon, but the first two had to be aluminum-carbon hybrids as Nissan was only just figuring out how to make the stuff work at the time. Minimum weight for the series at the time was 750 kilos, and Nissan doesn’t quote exactly how much over that minimum the P35 was.
Nissan had been plugging away at endurance racing in Europe, Japan and America for years without any Le Mans wins, and when Japan’s bubble economy burst, this program got axed. Technically, this program started out in Nissan’s American racing division Nissan Performance Technology Inc. (NPTI) and it got axed first, then Nissan in Japan made a new chassis they dubbed the NP35 (pictured at the top of this article) in the hopes of making it work for the Japanese endurance racing series. Sadly, that got nixed after it ran only a single race.
At the Mine Circuit 500km, the final race of the Japanese season, the car qualified fourth and finished last, 10th out of 11 starters. I can’t really blame it for a poor showing. The program was only just starting, and died before it could get its footing.
If this all sounds sort of weird how there were different international teams all racing for Nissan but not exactly working with each other, yeah, it was weird. Different continental teams wouldn’t share information with each other during the period in the hopes of getting some intramural advantage but sometimes costing Nissan its big wins, as former American team manager Ray Mallock explained to me years ago when I was investigating a different story.
Another version of the car did run, however. One test chassis in America had its roof chopped off and a 3.4 liter Ferrari V8 good for a claimed 535 horsepower (American test teams had rarely gotten more power out of their Nissan VT35 V12s in testing). It got the name ‘X-250' after the 250 American employees Nissan fired when it ended its P35 program. As Mulsanne’s Corner notes, Nissan didn’t exactly fire everybody, it was more like it pivoted its American racing team towards Indy, but that program also went stillborn and NPTI closed shop.
Damn if that’s not sad, and a really bitter conclusion to this could have been awesome program.
At least the X-250 is still kicking around by the looks of things. Here it is at Laguna Seca last year.
It’s wild to think of how much performance this car could have had. Wind tunnel testing showed it producing 10,000 pounds of downforce at 200 mph. Mulsanne’s Corner mourns that these “efficiency and downforce levels will probably never be seen again.”
I often dream about the Le Mans cars of this era. They had some of the most exotic engines ever fitted to endurance prototypes. They showed a level of cost and development rarely seen in racing.
This P35 Nissan could have been the last and greatest of them.