Built by Legends: Meet the Shop That’s Like Singer for the R32 Nissan Skyline

It’s really about time Japan took on the restomod craze. Combining Japanese craftsmanship, modern technology, and a mouthwatering back catalog of desirable base cars to choose from, it should’ve been a no-brainer years ago for some bold shop in the country to join the likes of Singer, Alfaholics, and Icon 4×4 in taking advantage of the current thirst for nostalgia. 

The idea of a beautifully restored and modified JDM car dovetails neatly with the tuning culture that made Japanese cars legends in the first place. Sure, automakers have gotten into it already by offering factory restoration programs such as Honda’s NSX Refresh and NISMO for the R32/33/34, but it’s the custom versions of these cars that made them stick in our hearts and minds.

Ken Saito

People have been modifying JDM cars since time immemorial, of course, with the Skyline GT-R being a favorite. What is new is giving the R32 the boutique treatment. Think Porsche 964 and Singer, or Jonathan Ward and his Land Cruisers. Just as we saw with air-cooled Porsches and clunky old Cruisers go from relatively affordable and accessible classics to sought-after icons, the same is now happening with the R32 GT-R too. More than 30 years since it was first introduced, people now have better access to technologies and techniques to make the car as good or even better than it was intended to be.

At the forefront of this effort are Masaharu Kuji and Katsu Takahashi of Built by Legends, a new shop specializing in exactly that: true Godzilla restomods. After years of work, the exacting pair recently put the finishing touches on their first project, an enhanced R32 done in collaboration with the engine masters at Mine’s. And I can honestly say with my hand on my heart that the result is the best GT-R I have ever driven, old or new. It’s that good, and if there’s any justice in this world, it’ll be the first of many more obsessive Skyline restorations to come. 

From Best Motoring to Building a Bedroom Poster Car

You might not know the names Masaharu Kuji and Katsu Takahashi, but there’s a better chance you’re familiar with their previous work if you’ve ever watched an old Best Motoring or Hot Version video that’s been translated into English. The pair started off with a portal website decades ago hosting different aspects of Japanese pop culture but when decided to concentrate on automotive content when they noticed it generating the vast majority of their traffic, which worked out fine because they’d always been into cars.

In 2001, Kuji and Takahashi ended up buying the exclusive overseas distribution rights for Best Motoring and Hot Version videos from production company 2&4 Motoring, and decided to handle the translations themselves. Kuji recalls having to go to a “proper” video editing suite to cut and edit the videos as the English-translated videos were a mix of content from Best Motoring and Hot Version. The videos were distributed originally as VHS but their pair adopted DVDs early on, even before the original Japanese publications.

Through working on these Best Motoring and Hot Version videos, Kuji and Takahashi made connections with legends in the Japanese automotive scene. It was here the seeds were planted for them to go out and make their ‘perfect’ street car. Armed with a contact list that’d make any Fast and Furious fan’s mouth water, it was only inevitable that they’d reach out to some of these icons in the JDM scene to help build their perfect car.

Perfection doesn’t happen overnight. Sometimes, it starts from nothing more than classic car talk. We’ve all been there, sitting around with mates talking about what sort of cars we’d have if money was no object. Some would have pin-up supercars from their childhoods while some would prefer to build their dream cars to the precise spec they want. Of course, dreams are free and we’d be happily content with that. However, the guys took these conversations to heart, got off their asses, formed a shop, and went out and made their dream car a reality—both for themselves and anyone with $400,000 to spare.

What BBL wanted was to make the best street-focused GT-R. Citing the many bad examples sent overseas to hungry importers, they wanted this car to be a showcase of the true potential of the R32. To show Japan and the world how this car could feel when it’s been retrospectively approached with modern technology and techniques, by people with a deep and abiding connection to the vehicle. As you’d expect given the price tag (which isn’t final), this isn’t going to be a mass-market car, though they plan to make as many as people want. Hey, perfection also doesn’t come cheap.

Godzilla Is Reborn

With their first car being a Nissan Skyline GT-R R32, partnering up with Mine’s was a no-brainer. (It feels repetitive to keep calling things legends here, but let’s face it—Mine’s is a legendary tuning firm.) The initial plan was just to remove the engine, having tweaked and fettled on by the wizards at Mine’s, and perhaps paint the bay to make it look nice and shiny. However, as these things tend to go, one thing led to another and they got a bit carried away. Over two years of R&D later, the entire car—the powertrain, chassis, interior and bodywork—were pretty much given a once over. The end result is the Built by Legends Mine’s R32, a properly restored and modified car.

Mine’s did its magic to the original RB26 engine, boring it out to a 2,800 cc displacement, hand-built by Toshikazu Nakayama. BBL reckon the engine produces 500 horsepower and 369 pound-feet of torque with an 8,000 rpm rev limit. Kerb weight is rated at 2,991 pounds, 268 lbs lighter than stock. To keep it on the road, the suspension’s been upgraded with Mine’s Ohlins DFV dampers with HYPERCO springs, 355 mm discs up front with four-pot Brembos and 343 mm at the rear. It wears RAYS TE037 wheels wrapped in Bridgestone Potenza RE-71RS rubber.

Once Mine’s finished, the car was then sent to GT-R specialists Garage Yoshida to be stripped down, have the chassis reinforced, and repainted to spec in a special 5-layer paint. Garage Yoshida does a lot of the Mine’s cars, so the painted stripe and faded carbon finish are done by them too. Kuji told me the faded carbon finish on the spoiler that reveals the underlying weave just so took a lot of trial and error on Garage Yoshida’s part. 

The result is quite something to behold. The spoiler, along with the front bumper and bonnet are the only parts that’ve been swapped out for dry carbon parts though they do say more parts will be available as options.

The vision was to make a uniquely Japanese product using the best Japan has to offer. On the inside, the two years of R&D involved a lot of experimentation with materials and build quality to match their desired standards. The seats, for example, are upholstered by Taenaka Pile Fabrics who also did the seats on the original Toyota Celsior (Lexus LS400) and the seats for the Shinkansen bullet trains. According to Kuji, it took a lot of convincing because they’re normally used to working with orders for thousands of metres of material, but BBL only needed to trim the inner portion of the seats. Also, note the subtle Mount Fuji motifs on the seat pattern below. That’s a nod to the Japanese cultural legend of Mount Fuji, a de facto logo for BBL.

BBL kept the original seats, now trimmed in that excellent fabric, but pretty much-improved everything else. There’s a matte black finish on the trim, the gauges are now from Mine’s and read up to 320 km/h (200 mph), and bespoke parts include the gear knob and handbrake. Perhaps my favorite Built by Legends addition is that new cutout key design which looks and feels special. A special car like this should have a special key and that was the BBL’s aim for this. 

The new Mine’s leather and Alcantara wheel made its debut on this car too, which was 15 mm smaller than the original R32’s wheel while having a thicker grip. Interestingly, the aluminum pedals and rearview mirror are from a more modern R34 Skyline GT-R. There was talk of putting the more modern R34’s 6-speed manual gearbox to this car but ultimately BBL decided to keep the period-correct 5-speed manual to stay true to the original.

Driving the Best R32 Skyline in the World

Sliding behind the wheel, everything about the BBL R32 just feels right. Okay, that’s not entirely true. The racing clutch takes some time to get used to, the bite point is higher than expected but once I’m acclimated, it’s just so satisfying to use.

With that sorted it’s time for a quick drive up north from the Built By Legends HQ located in Saitama, Japan. First thing I notice on the bumpy country roads is the suspension is on the firm side. BBL said they’re planning on readjusting it a notch or two for overseas use, but I think that would be good for its home country, too. On the smooth motorway it’s just about on the limit of what would be tolerable.

The bigger 2.8-liter engine itself is an incredible unit, made from a new block from Mine’s. It’s usable in the real world even though there’s a hint of turbo lag—in terms of character, it generally feels more like a naturally aspirated engine. This car genuinely feels like it just has so much more to give than Japanese speed limits would allow. The high-speed stability is the best I’ve felt in a ’90s-era Japanese car. The whole car is so planted, so positively stuck to the ground.

That’s the standout feeling of this car. It just feels tight and right. Being a restomod with everything pretty much redone from the ground up you’d expect that to be the case. But from the modern Mine’s steering wheel to the custom gear knob, key touchpoints also hit you as modern, which made it feel even more like a fresh out-of-the-box car.

The Best Is Yet to Come in JDM Restomods

The BBL Mine’s R32 is first and foremost a street car, this was Kuji and Takahashi’s goal from the outset. 

“We haven’t measured it, but it’s around 500 horsepower,” Kuji said. A modified car where the people who made it didn’t measure the power? I respect that. I respect that immensely. They didn’t want to go crazy or overboard with any single aspect. Instead, BBL wanted the car to be usable and practical on the street as a daily driver. It doesn’t shout about itself like many modified GT-Rs do. There’s an OEM look to it. 

The exhaust is a perfect example of this. It’s a Mine’s product but specially designed to hide the fat muffler that’s normally found on aftermarket exhausts for the R32. BBL wanted to make it flush with the rear bumper from the side, hiding any hints of a non-factory look.

While purists may want to keep their R32s as OEM as possible, for many fans of the R32 it’s this car’s influence and impact on the tuner culture that made it such a significant piece of JDM history. In doing a tuner restomod, Built By Legends is preserving the R32’s history, but also working to elevate its status alongside the likes of air-cooled Porsches and rally specials Lancias. Just it originally paved the way for high-tech, high-performance Japanese sports cars when it was new, the R32 GT-R also now leading the way for what could potentially be more tuner restomod JDM cars. If you’re going to start restomodding icons from Japan, the guys at BBL couldn’t have picked a better base car to start off with.

Built by Legends has some great stuff in the works. The next car they’ll be debuting is an EG6 Civic in collaboration with none other than legendary Honda tuning shop Spoon. As for other potential cars, the R33 and R34 are definitely on their wishlist as is the NSX. Interestingly, the Toyota Chaser was also mentioned. The Chaser is a car that often gets overlooked when talking about JDM icons but Kuji said that it has a real potential to be a “M5 killer” if done right. It’s simply a matter of finding the right ‘legends’ to collaborate with—TOM’S, perhaps? One thing is obvious. We need more of these restomod JDM icons. 

Ken Saito is a writer and photographer based in Japan.

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