Graham 'Smithy' Smith reviews the used Nissan Skyline 1986-1990, its fine points, its flaws and what to watch for when you're buying it.
We talk about the big three, Holden, Ford and Mitsubishi, in the traditional segment for big family cars, but there was once another player trying to break in. That company was Nissan, when it was manufacturing cars locally, and the model was the Skyline.
The 1980s were interesting, and tough times for local car makers, all of whom were either struggling to stay afloat or scrambling to restructure their businesses to face a future of increased competition as the Labor government of the day moved to remove the tariffs that protected the local carmakers from imports.
In an environment in which the government recognised that there were too many carmakers in the relatively small Australian market, and encouraged companies to join forces and produce common models, Holden and Nissan climbed into bed.
Holden also found itself in a hole, with a six-cylinder engine that had long passed its use-by date, and insufficient funds to develop the new engines it desperately needed to be competitive.
The answer to Holden’s problem came in the form of Nissan’s 3.0-litre SOHC six-cylinder engine, which was shoe -horned into the VL Commodore. It was a well-proven engine in its homeland, but when installed in the Commodore it had a number of problems, all related to the Holden installation.
In the R31 Skyline it was a gem. The Skyline should really have won over more buyers than it did, it was a good car that was well engineered and built, but was let down by its very conservative styling.
Ultimately the company that fell by the wayside, at least in terms of local production, was Nissan, which quit local manufacture and turned importer.
The R31 Skyline was aimed at the buyer of the traditional Australian family car. It was of a similar size to the Commodore of the day, with accommodation for five adults, powered by a six-cylinder engine, and drive through the rear wheels. There was a choice of sedan or wagon.
It was squarish in shape, with sharp lines carving out a rather harsh outline when its main rivals were heading down a softer styling path.
If it wasn’t the best looking car on the market, it made up for it with a solid mechanical package and build quality the others could only dream about at the time.
For power it relied on the RB30E 3.0-litre single overhead cam six. It had two valves per cylinder, and with fuel injection it punched out 114 kW and 247 Nm, which gave it some decent get up and go when needed.
There was the choice of a Jatco four-speed auto trans, or a five-speed manual ’box, and drive was through the rear wheels. Later models had a Nissan four-speed auto.
The base model was the GX, which came standard with an adjustable steering wheel, cloth trim, power mirrors, power rack and pinion steering, and two-speaker radio cassette sound. In addition the GXE had power mirrors, a remote boot release and four-speaker sound.
The sporty Silhouette had a limited-slip diff, alloy wheels, air-con, sports seats, rear spoiler, and a trip computer.
It was the Ti that topped the range, and it boasted standard air-con, alloys, cruise, central locking, cloth trim, metallic paint, power mirrors and windows, four-speaker radio cassette sound, and a trip computer.
There were two minor updates, a Series II in 1987, and the Series III in 1988, which saw the introduction of the Executive auto.
ON THE LOT
Skylines aren’t often found in dealer yards now, it’s best to search classifieds for cars. Look for low mileage examples, less than 150,000 km, and pay no more than $5000.
IN THE SHOP
The Skyline is now getting on and many are racking up some quite high mileages so it’s important to shop around, and be very careful in checking cars under consideration. That said, the Skyline is a very reliable car and would suit anyone on a low budget who wants reliable and comfortable transport.
Body wise the Skyline has few problems, but it’s worth looking carefully around the windscreen, and open the front doors to inspect around the upper door hinges. Check the boot for signs of water leaks. The paint, particularly the metallic colours, is prone to fading on the upper surfaces.
Mechanically the engine is very reliable, but the valve lifters can become noisy at high mileage. They are usually noisiest on cold starts, but are more annoying than anything.
Same goes for the diff, which is renowned for developing a howl. Nissan replaced many early on, but there are some still out there that howl like a banshee. If you can put up with the noise, they won’t be a problem, if not find a second hand replacement that should cost no more than $250 from a wrecker.
The auto transmissions are generally smooth and stand up well, but can be expensive to fix. Look for harshness shifting from first to second, and flaring when shifting between second and third on cars with 200,000 and more kays on the clock.
Although the build quality was good the Skyline’s body hardware is beginning to suffers the ravages of time. Look for brittle plastic trim parts and worn door locks etc.
Denise Wythe enjoyed 13 years and 300,000 km of trouble free motoring in his 1987 Skyline. The only complaint was a leaking boot, the result of problem fitting the rear lamps, which would let water in. The steering rack and some noisy shockers were replaced along the way.
Tony Jarvis has owned his 1989 GXE for about three years, and says he loves it. Apart from a few minor complaints, he says the Skyline is very reliable and has never let him down. It’s powerful enough and the steering is not overly light, but has good road feel.
Maurie French owns a 1988 Skyline wagon with 187,000 km on the odometer and he just loves it. He says the diff and lifters are noisy, and he has blown a number of power steering hoses, but it is a joy to drive.
Sixty-year-old John Kidd drives an ’88 wagon and his wife runs an ’88 TI sedan. He says the engine is very reliable and doesn’t generally use oil even with high mileage, but the hydraulic lifters are prone to rattling on cold start, the diff can be noisy, the door locks can fail, and the plastic fittings get brittle with age.
Chris Webb has a 1989 Series 3 Executive sedan auto, which he bought second hand in 1997 with 198,000 km on it. It now has 339,000 km, and has been extremely reliable, which he attributes to religious servicing. He says it is very smooth and quite powerful.
Don McLean took delivery of his brand new Skyline TI in 1990. It has only done 122,000 km, and has been very reliable. He says its ride and road holding are excellent, but the brakes can be cause for concern. It doesn’t use oil.
Steven Weymouth owns a 1987 Series 2 Silhouette manual that has covered 275,000 km, which he says is a fantastic example of Nissan’s efforts to enter the six-cylinder family sized car market in the late ’80s. He says it is a great car to drive, and the only real problem he has experienced is noisy lifters on cold starts.
Michael Hente’s 1989 Skyline Series Executive auto has done 248,000 km, and is still going strong. He says the engine is very smooth and strong, and the handling and drivability are excellent. The headroom is good, it’s reliable, has a large boot, good visibility, excellent turning circle, comfortable seats, and the best rear lights on an Australian car.
• smooth, powerful engine six-cylinder engine
• annoying diff whine
• lifter rattle on cold starts
• avoid clunky auto transmission
• good solid body construction
• solid reliable car
• great for novice drivers with a modest budget
• Holden Commodore VN – 1988-91 – $3000-$5500
• Ford Falcon EA/EAII – 1988-91 – $2700-$4800
THE BOTTOM LINE
Smooth, comfortable and very reliable car, which would make a good first car for beginner drivers.