Photo Credits: Nissan

Back in the 1970s, Nissan was sort of stuck in a rut. The gas crises had ballooned the profits and export sales of the Japanese auto industry as a whole, but Nissan had lost its edge against Toyota and even the young upstart Honda. Particularly bad was Nissan’s prestige model, the Skyline, which had gone from a world-beating performance car with its own dedicated, high-tech engine to a soggy luxury coupe, heavy and bloated with an engine designed in the ‘60s.

Nissan needed something new to bring the company some attitude, so it designed a new Skyline to win back some of the spirit of its classic years, when it was winning in sales and on track.

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Enter the FJ20. A dedicated high performance engine, it broke Nissan out of its Gas Crisis doldrums. While it looks like a plain four-cylinder today, this was a serious engine back in the 1980s, basically the starting point of the modern performance Japanese car.

It’s still beloved by a small and hardcore set of fans around the world, but remains largely kind of obscure. And up until a week or two ago I never had even heard of it.

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That is the R30 Skyline, lighter than the Skyline it replaced and a throwback to the beloved “Hakosuka” Skyline GT-R of the 1960s. The Hakosuka got its own dedicated engine, the legendary four-valves-per-cylinder S20, and Nissan wanted the new R30 Skyline to get its own engine, too.

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And that’s how we got the FJ20. Debuting late in 1981, the FJ20E was a 2.0-liter with a tough, iron block, but also four valves per cylinder, dual overhead cams and the world’s first sequential fuel injection.

It was just a four-cylinder but even in naturally-aspirated form in its debut it made more power than the turbocharged six-cylinder in the Skyline it replaced. What’s more, as JapaneseNostalgicCar pointed out in a 2007 profile, the 150 horsepower FJ20 in the Skyline was way ahead of the two-valves-per-cylinder engines its big rival Toyota was producing at the time.

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The R30 Skyline was an instant hit, a nice return to form for the company. Nissan even “clothed the thing in respect,” as JapaneseNostalgicCar put it, with the 2000RS model, stripped down to more than 200 pounds lighter than a base Skyline—it didn’t even come with a radio.

The FJ20 was enough to get Toyota to come out with a 160 HP turbo four-cylinder to beat it. Nissan countered in 1983 with the turbo FJ20ET, good for 190 HP horsepower and then 205 HP with a factory intercooler.

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“It was a huge fight,” Stewy Bryant, an Australian drifter familiar with these FJ20 engines explained to me over Instagram. “[It] was realistically the beginning of the modern performance Japanese car. The chassis and engines completely changed in that era. There’s hasn’t really been as big of a jump since.”

I first noticed the FJ20 on one of Stewy’s videos. Pretty much all anyone uses in the drift and drag scenes in America today is the Nissan SR20DET, also a four-cylinder, dual-overhead-cam 2.0-liter turbo which debuted in the tail end of the ‘80s, in the height of the Japanese Bubble Years. I had figured everything before it had been made obsolete, so it was a surprise that the older FJ20 was still getting love.

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“They built everything overkill and to this day still is a stronger engine than the engines that came after it,” Stewy explained. “It was the preferred four-cylinder engine for drag for many years making huge power, only really was beat out by the SR20 as the FJ20 became so rare that it wasn’t feasible.”

Again, Nissan at first just wanted the FJ20 to go in the Skyline, but that was too niche for the company to justify, and it had to modify the engine so that it could be put in the contemporary Silvia sports coupe as well. Even then, it never made its way into family cars or really anything super high volume. It was a prestige engine through and through. (This was back before automakers were putting the same two or three engines into every car, like Nissan did with the ubiquitous VQ V6.)

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“The thing to remember with the FJ20 was it was the RB26 of the day,” Stewy told me. “The SR20 is a budget performance engine, the FJ20 was the premium option.”

The internals of the engine were bulletproof, with strong parts from stock, as well as a good layout that’s easy to modify. In Group A racing, these engines would make 400 horsepower with ‘80s technology, as FJ20.com recalls, and it’s easy to find examples making over 800 horsepower now, particularly down in Australia.

While the FJ20 and the R30 Skyline began Nissan’s push into the modern performance era, the later R32, with all-wheel drive and the six-cylinder turbo RB26 brought the company much more visible success. It was the RB-equipped GT-Rs that became Godzilla, beating everything else on track as well as coming just in time to slide into Gran Turismo and immortality.

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The FJ20, by contrast, built up some success in Group A touring car racing but mostly focused on the most popular kind of production-car-based series of the day, Group B rallying. Nissan bored out the engine into the 2.4 liter FJ24, ran a series of super aggressive cams in them and ditched fuel injection in favor of gigantic dual carbs.

Particularly cool is that Group B required carmakers to produce road-legal homologation special versions of their rally cars. Nissan not only made 240RSes right on its ordinary assembly line, JapaneseNostalgicCar points out that Nismo offered anyone a stroker kit to turn their FJ20 into a race-spec FJ24, complete with “short-skirt 11:1 pistons, the stroker crank, and the special manifold and throttle linkage to convert the FJ20 to twin Webers, and the Nismo headers, too.”

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But even with 280 horsepower, the engine was stuck in Nissan’s rear-drive, Silvia-based 240RS. The car and engine were outclassed by the turbo, all-wheel-drive competition from Audi, then Lancia and Peugeot and Ford. The FJ engine in its highest form got totally overshadowed.

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While the RB26 became an icon for making 1000-horsepower figures perfect for boasting in video games, in the real world where durability matters, I get the appeal of the FJ20. Particularly for somebody going on track on a budget, like in drifting, this first era of tough, iron-block engines in the first sophisticated, light chassis of the Japanese auto industry has a real draw.

“It’s the reason why making a drift car out of a ‘80s Nissan is fairly easy, but as soon as you dip into the ‘70s it becomes a tonne more involved,” Stewy Bryant points out, that these were the first generation of cars “you can just put coilovers in and weld the diff and it’ll drift as good as an S15, chassis wise at least.”

Still, it’s easy for me to see why the FJ20 engine remains somewhat obscure compared to more famous Nissan engines. By the time Car Internet really evolved into a thing, the FJ20 was already getting rare. “They were huge in the ‘90s and even in the early 2000s,” Stewy pointed out. “but to be honest they’d lost a lot of momentum by the time the internet really kicked off.”

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But it’s amazing that the little FJ20 was so well built that it keeps a following today, largely forgotten but more important than you might have realized.