Way down south in Africa there is a little farming town called Bothaville with nothing but maize all around, and you can see the curvature of the earth over there, lined in kernels. Bothaville has a church and this being South Africa, a steak restaurant on main street, and every spring you can come have a look at Harvest Day.
And that’s about it. Not much else around here, no respite from the sun pounding the flat land from dawn to dusk, scarce shade, and fewer trees. But Freek de Kock is in the tree business. Freek goes against the grain in many ways. In a land of no trees he is Timber King, and in a country running on Toyota Hiluxes he motors around Bothaville in a Nissan pick-up. Today it’s a Patrol bakkie, in local lingo, but any will do, so long as it’s one of the hundreds of Nissans/Datsuns he owns as part of probably the largest and most impressive private collection of Nissans anywhere in the world.
Entire warehouses on the edge of town are filled with the things, and new warehouses are being built to house more Nissans. Freek estimates the number of driving cars at “Maybe 100, maybe 125…” and he’s not done yet. “I still really want to find a clean Exa…”
This man longs for a Nissan Exa. See, against the grain.
I first heard about Freek from a local journalist who tipped me off about this wonderful and unusual collection of, just, a load of regular old cars… Rows and rows of bakkies, sensible family saloons and cheap little Japanese sportscars of all shapes and sizes. People’s cars. But in among all the Sunnys, Sentras, Maximas and Patrols, there were gems, I mean million-dirham cars, just boxed in there, in among all the four-wheeled riffraff, amazing little pieces of Japanese automotive history that even noted Datsun collectors like US comedian and racer Adam Carolla can’t lay claim to. What intrigued me most though was a tip about an original GT-R, which would make Freek the owner of one of just a few hundred coveted first-generation cars ever made and likely the only one on the African continent.
So I bagged a 2017 GT-R from Nissan in the sprawling African metropolis of Johannesburg (home to eight million people) with a neat PR line about a 10th anniversary R35 road trip, and turned right off the highway towards the plains. The current model was launched in 2007 and will still be with us until 2020 when Carlos Ghosn’s promised hybrid successor comes around, but a decade on (and about that long since I first drove a GT-R) it’s nice to get reacquainted with the 2017 model and put foot through the flatlands in search of that old Hakosuka. GT-R goes home kind of thing…
Any bad preconceptions I may have harboured against the GT-R before (it’s not a drivers’ car, yadda yadda…) are beaten off with a turbocharged kick in the guts by the 2017 car. This is the Far Right. A proper, blown-to-bits turbo monster that accelerates in hysterics and detonates like a grenade at around 3,500rpm. I tried to catch the needle spinning around the tacho to note where exactly it explodes, but you can’t. At a flat-out launch the GT-R pulls itself out of your grasp. All you’re doing in there is barely holding on to a misshapen reality — it just shouldn’t be this ridiculously fast. I don’t know where to look, the speedo or the road, they’re both just as manic, and the only cue to brake comes when the GT-R starts feeling like it damn near wants to take off, accompanied by all the appropriate sounds of wind buffeting and turbines sucking on an industrial scale.
In the turns it should be a big, lumpish and overpowered hunk of steel, rubber and carbon fibre, and it takes up all of the road, nom, nom. The amazing thing is how something so huge and heavy can turn so instantaneously and give you the front-end response of a lithe roadster. The traction from one of the cleverest electronic all-wheel drivetrains in the business is just stupid, and even in the middle of the corner right as that detonation point in the rev band hits you, you can’t unstick it and the 2017 GT-R just grips. Exiting corners flat out, it’s just a matter of you trying to unwind lock fast enough.
Over the past 10 years the GT-R went from about 485 horsepower to the 565bhp model today, honed continuously to become the far evolved car it is now. Even compared to last year’s model there’s been a 20bhp power hike here. The interiors, for example, you can’t compare them with the zenki (early cars, in JDM buff speak) cars. The 2017 has 11 switches in the dash instead of the previous command control unit with 27 buttons. It took them a decade but the cabin finally feels like $70,000 worth of car. Except the price feels like 2017 and it’s now starting from over $110,000.
Worth it… now that even a 911 Turbo feels like merely a fast-forwarded Golf GTI, the GT-R sits alone as the last of the old turbocharged guard, blood, sweat, turbo lag and all. It’s still the people’s supercar, and even in tiny one-horse dorps along the way I have bakkies swinging U-turns to check it out. Local knowledge from these guys pays off for routes that avoid potholes, no, sinkholes — that new lip spoiler up front looks expensive. It’s a much longer way to Bothaville from Jo’burg and I just come in under my 800km mileage limit in the end, but the roads are smooth, empty, and straight, and this grenadiering never gets old.
As soon as Bothaville pops up out of the corn fields Freek greets us in front of his series of buildings that house, apart from all the cars, a fully equipped restoration workshop manned by a veteran called Kobus, a five-foot wizard who’s busy hand-forming a sheet of steel using an English wheel and a dolly hammer into a 240Z front-right fender. The car has no bondo on it anywhere.
At the back of the shop a Datsun SPL212 waits its turn. It’s the first Datsun sportscar imported to the US (the L means left-hand drive) and even the Japanese couldn’t buy them. It’s one of the jewels in Freek’s collection and just 288 were produced. Merely handfuls survive. “A million dollars…” says Freek. He doesn’t say much, except what resonates.
Wandering around the place there is a rare 510 Coupé up on a lift, and a 300ZX twin-turbo waiting on engine work. They’re surrounded by parts hanging off everywhere and lining rows of shelves: windshields, grilles, steering wheels, lights, mirrors, engines, doors, rims, seats… Another super-rare 1961 Datsun 1,200cc engine sits on the ground. Impossible-to-get trim pieces, knobs, grilles, badges and emblems fill up cardboard boxes.
In South Africa the saying, translated from Afrikaans, goes, “a Boer [farmer] makes a plan”. Freek is a thoroughbred: “If you want something, you make it yourself.”
From alloy bullions he casts his own badges and emblems, neat cursive script reading Fairlady, Deluxe and Bluebird. The shop has a DIY press made from an old railway beam that forms entire steel bumpers and grille slats. Around the corner they put up a paint booth with extraction vents and the lot.
Mechanical parts are the least of his worries when it comes to maintaining a collection like this. “These cars,” Freek says, “when they’re running, like the factory intended, you can get in any one of them and drive anywhere you want. They don’t break.”
In the main hall there is a Datsun Violet, the company’s first ‘coke bottle styling’ design, and next to it an SSS version. Alongside there are old Pininfarina-designed Bluebird saloons, and every iteration of the Fairlady Roadster lined up — the models that preceded the Z cars — including a rare 1500 with a single transverse rear seat. There is a V12-engined Nissan President that was actually owned by a president, Mozambican Samora Machel, who was killed in an ’86 air crash. There are too many Zs to go through from the earliest model-year 240Z to the 370Z, including long-wheelbase 2+2s, drop-tops and targa tops, twin-turbos and NAs. One of them is a rare 300ZX soft-top. There are more 510 Coupés around, and plenty of coveted SSS badges everywhere. My fascination doesn’t go unnoticed. “The ‘Cripple S’ as we called them,” Freek adds.
Talk of these cars revives memories. “I must have been about 10 years old,” Freek says. “I was just standing there, a schoolboy, and a Cripple S drove past. Well that was it for me. I thought, ‘Man, that’s a proper car…’” Hooked, now four decades on Freek dailies his trusted Patrol bakkie in between spurts in his own 2012 GT-R. The rest of the collection doesn’t just sit idle and most of the stuff starts right up. The only things missing are perhaps Datsun’s first-ever sports model, the S211, but they only made 20 of them in fibreglass as a bit of an experiment, and of course that plain old Exa…
And the GT-Rs, Freek has that covered — right up against a corner boxed in by a bunch of other cars sits a row of Skylines. Only a second-generation Kenmeri isn’t present in the line-up but it’s in another room stripped and ready to join soon, restored. There is a clean R32 as you picture it, in silver, and a tuned R33, and one of 750 produced V spec II Nür R34s.
But it’s way back into Nissan’s sportscar history we’re going today, right to genesis, and the furthest from the entrance up against the far wall is our Hakosuka, the one that started it all. We shuffle a dozen cars and get it out into the sun. After a carb spurt the two-litre straight six fires on half a turn.
“Eighty-five thousand dollars…” Freek nods towards the S20 engine.
To get to the Hakosuka (hako just means box, and suka is short for the Japanese pronunciation of Skyline, which is Suka-ee-rine) we must start with Prince Motor Company. After Nissan merged with the little marque in 1966 the resourceful and clever Prince engineers jumped aboard and souped up a hot straight six for use in racing and on the road. The engine was initially sourced from a Prince R380 prototype racer. By the end of production in 1972 the S20-powered GT-Rs put Japan on the global motorsport map by dicing with and winning against competition such as Porsche.
The S20 and Prince connection remained for many generations of the Skyline GT-R, right up until the R34 model, with all of them sharing a straight-six engine. Then 10 years ago the R35 arrived with a V6 and dropped the Skyline bit from its name, going by just GT-R. It’s appropriate, because one chapter steeped in Prince history closed with the last Skyline, and the R35 GT-R stepped things up a huge notch. The only thing in common the Hakosuka now has with the 2017 GT-R is their giant-killing tendencies. Out on the road for our token spin around town, the triple-Weber-carb Hako burbles and gurgles off-throttle dodging potholes, and then banshee-screams whenever you near the 7,000rpm redline. The piercing wail up high is a sure sign of the car’s racing roots. It made 160 horsepower in its prime, which was more than a 2.3-litre 911 made back then.
Alongside the hulking GT-R it’s a tiny, precious thing on these little tyres and with a delicate gear lever poking out with a knob to fit a child’s hand. The steering wheel is so thin and light you think a sharp turn would snap it off its column. Such a prized car like an original GT-R needs care and respect and with temperatures over the 30s we let the Hako tick over in the shade a bit.
Freek chats about his expansion plans (“By South African law I’m only allowed to import one car a year. But if you want something badly enough, you’ll get it…”) while I try to process all the awesome I’ve just seen.
As for the 2017, my Blaze Metallic Orange GT-R couldn’t care less about heat or fatigue. As long as there’s nitrogen in the Dunlops, and Super 98 in the tank, the great Nissan will keep killing giants. Or at the least — the roads going back to Jo’burg are just as open and straight — maybe just small mammals and low-flying birds.
Ten years on I believe one of the most technically advanced cars on the road remains alone as the last of the originals.