I’m confused. Among all the choices, versions and variants out there in car land, there are no less than 3 vehicles available for sale today called GTR. There’s the obvious, the Nissan GT-R. The new contender, the Mercedes Benz AMG GT R. There’s the recent, sold out but totally still on our minds McLaren P1 GTR. The recently renamed Ultima GTR – which is now called the Evolution. Then there’s the pantheon of great GTRs, the CLK GTR, the McLaren F1 GTR, the BMW M3 GTR and Holden Torana GTR.
The question is – why so many GTRs?
The Meaning of GTR
The GT badge can be traced back as far as 1929 to the Alfa Romeo 6C 1750 GT. Later, in 1951 and the Lancia Aurelia B20 GT, with its more powerful engine and elegant 2 door Ghia-designed, Pininfarina built body was when ‘Gran Turismo’ would start to earn its definition. 1950s Grand Touring was about motoring with exceptional comfort, effortless speed and supreme style. This association with wealth, speed and style was like catnip to marketing people and the GT designation has since graced everything all the way down to humble hatchbacks with nothing more to note than a sporty pinstripe.
The Bentley Continental GT and the Aston Martin DB11 are possibly the closest modern examples of a true ‘GT’ car, however you can also buy a Kia c’eed that wears the same letters.
Adding suffixes to extend the meaning of GT further diluted the comfort and style side of the balance. GTO (Omologata) for homologation special, GTA (Alleggerita) for lightened version, GTV (Veloce) for a fast version, GTI (Injection), GTX (eXtreme) and many more. The R in GTR stands for Racing. They all have a theme – high performance.
The Inconsistent GT Suffix
With the exception of obscure sports car maker Ultima, the car companies who have used the GTR name seem to have a very love/hate relationship with it. The designation has always been used very sporadically.
McLaren has it reserved for the racing/track version of the pinnacle of their range, so after using it from 1995 to 1997, it wasn’t dusted off again for 18 years and the P1 GTR in 2015.
Mercedes dabbled with the GTR name on the 1997 CLK GTR GT1 race car. The GTR only ran for the 1997 season plus two races in the 1998 season before it was replaced by the upgraded CLK LM. The 25 road cars built in 1998 and 1999 would also carry the CLK GTR name. The badge would stay in hiatus for 18 years until 2017, when AMG would again use it on the hardcore version of the GT coupe the GT R.
Similarly, BMW was to use the GTR name on the racing versions of the E36 and E46 M3s. Built to maximise the GT series rules at the time, 10 E46 road cars were offered for sale after Porsche complained that the M3 had not met with series homologation rules. Only 6 were built, none of which were sold to the public funnily enough. The name has stayed on ice ever since.
It’s like this all through the history of GTR. The Ford Mustang GT-R was a one-off concept. The Holden Torana GTR was only around for the LC and LJ models between 1969 and 1974 and never revived. Porsche called the racing version of the 924 the GTR and we all know how long that lasted.
Even Nissan, the most consistent user of the badge in recent memory has been very on and off. After the ‘Kenmeri’ Skyline GT-R was killed off in the midst of the oil crisis in 1973 it would be 16 years before the R32 Skyline GT-R would revive the nameplate in 1989. The GT-R was killed off again when the last R34s rolled down the line in 2002. The R35 only came along 5 years later in 2007.
The Original GTR
I’ve done a lot of research to write this article and one of the points of note was, of course – who did it first? My research took me back as far as 1969 when 3 GTRs appeared for the first time. The Holden Torana ‘LC’ GTR was presented to dealers for the first time in October 1969. The legendary GTR XU-1 would follow a few months later. Predating the Holden by just one month in Japan was the Isuzu Bellett 1600 GT-R.
The earliest appearance of the R suffix, however was the PGC10 Nissan Skyline 2000 GT-R. It first appeared as a concept at the Tokyo Motorshow in October 1968 before going on sale in February of 1969. Its predecessor, the Prince Skyline 2000 GT-B was already a legendary racing car in Japan, after taking the fight up to, yet ultimately coming second to the world-conquering Porsche 904. An ‘R’ racing version was the logical next step and was marketed alongside the R380 race car to legitimise its racing bona fides.
GTRs are built to race and most have become legendary.
The Skyline GT-R PGC10 won 33 victories in one and a half years of racing. The Coupé KPGC10 would take further wins, making it legendary in its home market. Later, the Group A R32 GT-R would decimate all before it, earning the nickname ‘Godzilla’. Notable wins include the Bathurst 1000 twice, Spa 24 Hours and all 29 races it was entered in between 1990 and 1993 in Japan. It’s well documented that the rules were changed in Australia to outlaw it, such was its dominance. If there was ever a case for the ultimate pedigreed GTR, this would go a long way to earning the rights.
Not as long lived but just as legendary, the McLaren F1 GTR. The F1 was never intended to race, however the program was borne at the behest of McLaren’s customers. It wasn’t a slap-dash job, but Gordon Murray was only afforded one day in the McLaren wind tunnel to develop the aero kit, lest he take too much time away from the Formula 1 team. They still went out and dominated the BPR class it was built for. Then in 1995 it won that little race, the 24 Hours of LeMans. It remains the only time a car entered in the road car based GT class would ever top the Prototype classes.
The CLK GTR never won the LeMans 24 Hours, however it did take out the 1997 Drivers and Teams GT championships. It also contributed to championship wins in 1998.
The State of Today
I find Mercedes AMG’s choice to name the track version of the GT coupe the GT R very curious. It clearly fits with the naming convention within the range, GT, GT S, GT C. Yet it’s inviting comparisons with a Nissan, a brand I would generally consider well beneath Benz. Yet they’re pitching it into the same class with the same name.
The Nissan GT-R has always been a special, one-out car that transcends the rest of the dowdy Nissan range. If anything Benz is giving Nissan a free kick. The R35 is a 10 year old design. The similar naming has invited the motoring press to compare the two. The new car is winning but not by anywhere near the margin you’d expect it to. Especially for a new Benz. Better choices might have been GT T (Track), GT P (Performance) or if they wanted to tap their own history, GT H (Hammer). GT H works on so many levels, it also has amusing marketing synergies with Lewis Hamilton (Hammer time) but I digress.
The CLK GTR is a mostly forgotten blip in Mercedes history and they quickly renamed it to the LM when they got serious about chasing the LeMans win.
The big problem is that the AMG GT R is not really the Racing version, that’s the GT3. It’s a track day special. It hasn’t earned the R designation in the hellfire of motorsport like the Nissan, the McLaren or even the BMW and Holden have. It doesn’t matter how good the car is, the marketing berks at Benz have wiped their feet on 48 years of tradition. They can go and get stuffed.