Though it may be hard to recall today, the world was fascinated by and enamored with the idea of computers in our cars for a great many years. In the days before GPS was commonly offered across various makes and models, and certainly before you could plug in your phone in to play media and get directions, infotainment displays were reserved for the most luxurious marques, and even then, they looked terrible and were frustratingly slow.
It’s with that boundless enthusiasm of 20 years ago, free of the fears of technological overreach, that today I’m pouring one out for the R34 Nissan Skyline GT-R’s multifunction display. The R34 GT-R launched in 1999, and each model within that generation, from the original to the V-Spec revisions and the more luxurious M-Spec trim, came with Nissan’s groundbreaking multifunction display, or MFD for short.
The MFD incorporated a 5.8-inch full-color LCD screen mounted above the center of the dashboard with four navigation buttons — Display, Return, Menu and Mode — alongside a four-way joystick with a selection button inside the dial. Most of the MFD’s duties pertained to relaying performance data in a few different visual arrangements, though there was one curious non-driving feature we’ll circle back to later.
If you’re looking for an extensive walkthrough of the MFD from an R34 owner who knows it well, find YouTube user danox574, who uploaded a series of videos titled American Skyline 10 years ago, when systems like these were only then starting to become common in performance cars. Volume 5, Part 1 and Part 2, deal almost exclusively with the MFD, as danox574 cycles through the MFD’s various menus and features.
The main panel many R34 fans are likely familiar with shows up to seven readouts (V-Spec models got the full seven, while earlier variants peaked at five). The MFD in the car in this video is actually the Nismo kit, offered as an option from the factory. It consists of meters for boost pressure, oil pressure, injector duty cycles, oil temperature, water temperature, exhaust temperature and intercooler temperature.
There are two aspects of this particular screen that intrigue me. First, the readouts themselves update in a smooth and responsive manner for that time. The earliest in-car screens — whether used for performance, like the R34's MFD, entertainment, navigation or otherwise — tended to be painfully slow to react to user input or data from vehicle sensors. The screen employed for the MFD, it also has to be said, appears extremely high-resolution for its day, which not only let Nissan stuff a lot of information onto screen at once, but it also let drivers view minute changes in that data at a frequent clip.
For 1999, that alone would have been a commendable leap for in-car technology, but Nissan went a step further by giving drivers the ability to set and adjust redlines for each of the seven readouts. For example, if oil temps passed a threshold deemed too high by the owner, the bar itself would turn red. Again, an ordinary feature for modern sports cars, but a surprising level of customization for 20 years ago.
Other screens let you to zero in on one or two of those metrics, with an even greater selection of available readouts beyond those initial seven, like a dial that tells you how much power is being sent to the front wheels at any given time. The single-readout display carries with it a line graph that presents the recent history of the performance metric in question over the previous 30 seconds.
Other features include the ability to record your own lap times, controlled by a stopwatch button located near the shifter; a G visualizer in meters per second squared; and a rev LED that blinks at a redline that can be set to the driver’s preference. Strangely, this LED is located within the MFD housing and not within the instrument cluster or on the steering wheel, where you’d probably expect it to be.
What amazes me about the MFD is that rather than spend time and resources developing a system like this for a vehicle with broader appeal, Nissan lavished all this attention on a niche sports coupe. The MFD was designed primarily to help you go faster and keep you informed while doing so, with almost no functions devoted to other aspects of the driving experience, like in-car comfort or media. I say “almost” because the MFD did include one non-performance feature worth noting: a TV tuner.
Yes, the MFD allowed you to watch TV over the air, on a high-resolution color screen in your R34 Skyline GT-R in 1999. No, you couldn’t watch TV and drive; even then, Nissan knew folks would foolishly test the limits of their own attention span, so the MFD display stops showing TV programs at any speed above 5 kph. However, you can still hear TV audio while driving, which at least offers an alternative to the radio. A cursory glance at a few GT-R owner forums suggests some drivers have wired up the TV mode to display other media sources or a backup camera feed, since over-the-air TV doesn’t have quite the same draw now as it did when the car debuted.
The trove of data the MFD captured was neat enough to view in the moment, but most valuable when analyzed after the fact. To that end, the R34 GT-R carried a serial cable that could be plugged into a laptop. Owners could then offload the data in a spreadsheet, or with the use of special software from Nissan that I’m sure has long since dissolved into the ether, sift through it in a more graphical format that was probably a bit easier to decipher.
One of the things I love about cars is that the good ones age gracefully, and can be enjoyed for to their fullest for as long as they’ll run. Technology is a different beast though. As much as I like the idea of toying around with a computer from 10 or 20 years ago, all too often the experience is agonizingly slow and limited by hardware and software that is woefully underequipped to handle modern needs, like the ability to display rich, animated web pages. Those machines that were so stunning in their day are functionally lost to time.
The R34's MFD is different, though. Everything the system could do 21 years ago, it still does now and does well (barring the TV component, of course.) Nissan later improved upon this iteration of the MFD with the R35-generation GT-R, which ran software designed by Polyphony Digital, makers of the Gran Turismo racing game franchise. Nevertheless, the MFD’s inception in the R34 is impressive to behold in a historical context, and stands as a testament to the technological ambition of one of the most legendary sports cars of all time.