Paul Walker was born on September 12, 1973, in Glendale, California. If he was still alive, he'd be 43 today. And, if he was still alive, you'd think he'd be up for taking a late night spin in a 2000 Nissan Skyline GT-R Spec V. By way of birthday tribute, we head out into the darkness in a hero car fit for the fallen crown prince of car culture.
Much has been written already about how Walker died. Between the insatiably ghoulish appetite of the tabloids and a mainstream press trying to smelt irony from tragedy, too much ink has already been spilled. Better instead, nearly three years on from that terrible day, to focus on how he lived.
He was the fourth Paul Walker, and born with the car gene on his Y-chromosome. In interviews, he'd always mention that his grandfather, Paul “Irish” William Walker, was a factory racer for Ford. Paul's father raced all through his childhood, and he mentions the pair wrenching together in the family garage, passing down the tradition. His first car was a 1986 Ford Ranger, a beater – something not even Dom and the mad scientist could make fast. Later, he'd branch out into V8s and domestic muscle.
By contrast, this Skyline is just the kind of tuned monster that could slot right into the next Fast & Furious movie. You could park it in the background of a static shot, and fans would recognize the message: Paul's gone, but he's still here in spirit.
He owned at least a half-dozen Skylines over the years, buying one early on after his first taste of the import lifestyle. They were all five or six hundred horsepower cars, not dissimilar to this tuned machine. It's been tweaked by Matchless Crowd Racing, a small Japanese tuning shop known for building street and track cars made for responsiveness. This isn't a dyno queen, it's the kind of track-focused R34 a driver would seek out. Thanks to Canada's more relaxed fifteen year grey market rules, it's also street legal and plated. As of this morning.
Walker brought two things to the F&F franchise: heart and authenticity. The films were ridiculous, of course, cotton candy entertainment spun from faux carbon-fibre and fibreglass bumpers. However, they still inspired a new generation to take a deeper interest in cars, looking for the truth behind the stunts. As the movies became ever more unrealistic, Walker worried out loud. “Being a car guy, I always want things to be more authentic,” he told Automobile magazine in 2013. “When it comes to the driving, at this point we stretch what’s plausible, and I struggle with it.”
The Skyline's straight-six honks along an empty side-street, the suspension jouncing over the broken pavement. With the silencer out, the race-spec HKS turboback is savage in tone, a radial bonesaw built to cut up giants. The early R32 GT-R built its Godzilla legend on a pile of defeated enemies in touring car racing, but the R34 is a car that made its name on the streets. It's far less raw than the earlier Skylines; this highly-tuned version is edgy enough, but its capability is smooth and effortless.
With easy affability and good looks from his model mother's genes, Walker never looked like someone who had to work hard. There was that same effortlessness to his manner, pure laid-back California surfer who caught a big break and just dropped into the swell. But you couldn't help liking him – he was the cool kid we always wanted to hang with. And, if you knew a thing or two about cars, he probably would have been happy enough to crack a beer with you and discuss the hidden merits of the E36 M3 lightweight (he owned seven of them), or the tuned Nissans he grew to love, or Saleen Mustangs, 911 GT3s – anything with wheels, really.
We hurtle through the night, heading out into empty industrial areas and letting the turbos spool in fits and starts. The GT-R is laggy and runs a little rich, but the RB26 rips up towards redline with a sound like tearing steel. There's a lot of technology here to translate fuel to forward momentum, but there are just enough flaws to find some humanity. Shift into second with your left hand, walk into the boost, and then let off to a chorus of chittering turbines and a staccato backfire. It's trouble, waiting to happen.
Walker had a solid journeyman career before the Fast & The Furious came knocking. He'd co-starred in Varsity Blues and The Skulls, both big enough pictures, but they were still just jobs to Walker. When Skulls producer Neal Moritz and director Rob Cohen came to him with the story of an undercover cop caught up in L.A.'s underground racing scene, it struck a chord.
The rest you know. On screen, Brian O'Conner wades through a series of groaners, blowing his intake manifold and shifting about four hundred times in a single drag race. But Walker's earnestness splinters through the wooden dialogue – there's a chemistry here, the parts adding up to more than the whole.
The GT-R's owner reaches over and flicks the car into high boost mode as we approach a highway tunnel. Pin the throttle, and let the engine roar one last salute.
Judging by stories from the set of Fast Eight, some of the magic is gone now. Walker's presence in The Fast and Furious movies seems to have acted like octane booster, smoothing over the process and preventing the kind of spontaneous combustion that leads to misfires. The very public feud between Dwayne Johnson and Vin Diesel isn't really all that surprising: this juggernaut of a movie franchise is wounded, perhaps mortally. It staggers on, too big to fail, but that doesn't mean something isn't permanently broken.
In an empty parking lot, I hand back the keys, and watch the R34 exit the lot and snarl off down an onramp, the rasp of its six carrying out into the black. It's as pale as Death's steed, as pure-white as the MkIV Supra that split off into the sunset in the final shots of Furious Seven.
It was something pretty special. The drive is over, but not forgotten.