During Nissan’s high-profile return to Le Mans this year one car stood out, even among the company’s already-bizarre trio of front-engined, front-wheel-drive NISMO GT-R LMs. Finished in the traditional navy blue and red on white Nissan tricolors, the number 21 prototype proudly wore the retro livery of the R90CK, the pole position qualifier for the 1990 running of the 24 Heures du Mans.
Nissan made its Le Mans debut in 1986 with a pair of prototypes powered by heavily tweaked, twin-turbo versions of the V6 turbo more commonly found in its 300ZX sports car. Their inaugural run yielded middling results, with one retirement and a 16th place finish. For the remainder of the decade development continued steadily — concurrently on three continents, in fact — with similar cars running in the World Sportscar Championship in Europe, the All-Japan Sports Prototype Championship in Japan and IMSA GTP in the United States.
Though outcomes remained so-so (only two of Nissan’s ten Le Mans entrants between 1987-89 even finished), shared knowledge among the three programs culminated in 1990 with Nissan’s biggest assault on La Sarthe yet. For the 58th running of the enduro, Nissan fielded five factory cars (and two more privateer racers).
The R90CK scheduled to appear at the upcoming Festival of Speed is a bit of a hometown hero. Built in Great Britain at Ray Mallock Limited, it was powered by a 3.5L V8 twin-turbo said to produce 800bhp, but in race guise it was more like 1,100. At the hands of British driver Mark Blundell, it ran a blistering qualifying lap that hit 227 mph on the Mulsanne, an astounding six seconds faster than its next fastest competitor. Perhaps Blundell had the fearlessness of youth behind him — at just 24 years old, he also set a record as the youngest pole sitter in the race’s history.
Unfortunately, during a hard-fought battle against the famed Silk Cut Jaguar XJR-12s and the mighty Porsche 962C, Blundell was forced to retire. Ultimately it was the R90CK’s sister car, the R90CP, built in Japan at NISMO headquarters with altered aerodynamics, that finished highest for Nissan that year, taking fifth place.
Though a Le Mans victory remained elusive for Nissan, the global prototype project succeeded in capturing the checkered flag at the 24 Hours of Daytona two years later. The most amazing thing about the R90CK, however, is that 24-years later it was still the third fastest car of the entire weekend at the Le Mans Classic exhibition race. Katsu Kubota’s pole grabbing trap speed was bested only by two other cars, the then brand new #2 Audi R18 and #7 Toyota TS040.