When you’re an 18-year-old motorcycle technician looking for a suitable vehicle, as Rowan Price was back in 2000, you probably want something that peels the skin off your skull when you press the throttle down. A natural feeling for a fast bike enthusiast, but, 16 years ago, cars with that sort of power and traction weren’t cheap. However, when a 1990 Nissan Pulsar GTI-R came up for sale, Rowan knew he had to have it.
The GTI-R, complete with the factory SR20DET engine, served its purpose well for three years as a road-driven vehicle. But the bug bit and Rowan became a regular attendee at Meremere Dragway and Masterton Motorplex, cutting lap after lap down 400-metre drag strips. However, as a resident of the Taranaki region, he soon found drag racing tedious — or, more accurately, the drive to and from venues had begun to lose its appeal.
It was then that Rowan put his hand up to join the local Taranaki Car Club. He was amped, young, and enthusiastic … but it was all over just as quickly as it had begun. The GTI-R proved extremely quick, but it may have been a little too fast, as Rowan left the road, totalling the front end of what was, at the time, his road-going Pulsar. That was a huge lesson: the drag strip required a certain skill set that Rowan had mastered, but hill-climbing and street sprints were a completely different beast and one that had already chewed him up and spat him out.
With the damaged GTI-R home in the shed, it was clear that the front end, firewall forward, needed completely replacing. After taking his car off the road, Rowan decided to have a roll cage fabricated to keep him safe, but, more importantly, he also opted to push the GTI-R to the side and purchase a front-wheel-drive club car in which to learn the ropes.
A few seasons of contesting local street circuits and hill climbs in a front-wheel-drive Pulsar saw his skills as a driver increase, and it was finally time to pull the GTI-R out of the shed and start getting to grips with the extra power and traction.
These two traits are all well and good, but in a platform like the GTI-R, with its temperamental head and glasshouse gearboxes, he again faced a serious learning curve — one that Rowan stuck with through thick and thin. “The factory head was giving me huge issues. If I over-revved the engine or missed a gear, it would throw a rocker or bend a valve. I got fairly sick of this by around 2008 and made the switch to a VE head from a P11 Primera,” Rowan told us. That’s a common conversion nowadays, but, back in ’08, he was something of a pioneer for doing this swap, which significantly improved both reliability and power.
Rowan ran several engine combinations over the years, before finally settling on the set-up he has now. With Darton sleeves, forged pistons, a lightweight crank, and a VE head, it’s a serious piece of kit. However, the biggest change was the move to ethanol fuel. Not only has it given the SR20 more torque and power, but it has also considerably dropped engine temps. During a four-kilometre sprint on petrol, the SR20’s temperature would continue to rise, and, by the finish line, the water temperature would be around 110 degrees. With E85, water temps now do the opposite, actually dropping to around 80–85 degrees by the end of the sprint.
Simply purchasing off-the-shelf componentry for the N14 GTI-R platform isn’t an option for Rowan, so virtually everything had to be custom-made by himself or other talented Kiwi folk.
With the SR20VET producing over 300kW — 380kW at its highest boost setting — another area of major concern was the gearbox. Third gear was rendered useless on many occasions, even after a custom gear set had been made. Plan B saw a custom CNC billet aluminium transfer-box brace installed to prevent the self-destruction this one’s known for, as Rowan explained: “The gearbox brace saved me numerous times. One day, while under the Pulsar, I noticed a gearbox leak coming from a crack in the case. Although the gearbox did crack, the brace prevented it from completely exploding, like they tend to do.”
So, how fast is the lightweight hatchback with 380kW at the wheels? It has been more than quick enough to win several all-wheel-drive championships and set local hill-climb records and, in the process, run an 11-second quarter-mile pass at 132mph (212kph) — in the wet on an unprepped road surface. The Pulsar has become an item that Rowan will never sell — and why would you when it beats almost anything out there, can run in a wide range of racing disciplines New Zealand–wide, and is reliable to boot?
Next on the cards for the Pulsar is a GTX3576R turbo and custom reground cams, which Rowan hopes will net the SR20 better response and a smidgen over 400kW at the wheels. For the most part, he has built his ideal 10-second-quarter-mile crunching, hill-climb punching, indestructible GTI-R, and he’s mostly done it with his own bare hands. We’re looking forward to seeing this machine in action with the new set-up, as it’ll no doubt be capable of taking on local all-wheel-drive records for that little bit longer.
1990 Nissan Pulsar GTI-R (N14)
- Model: SR20DET, 2000cc, four-cylinder
- Block: Darton sleeves, 87mm CP forged pistons, Eagle rods, 4CW lightweight crankshaft, ACL race bearings, ARP head studs and main bearing studs
- Head: SR20VE, adjustable cam gears, ported, upgraded double valve springs, Cosworth MLS head gasket, head modified for larger head studs
- Intake: K&N four-inch air filter, three-inch intake piping, Xcessive intake manifold, Q45 throttle body, 600x300x100mm front-mount intercooler
- Turbo: Garrett GT3576R
- Wastegate: Turbosmart 50mm Progate
- BOV: TiAL 50mm
- Fuel: 20-litre JA2 fuel cell, twin 100-micron pre-filters, twin Bosch 044 fuel pumps, -10 fuel lines, four Injector Dynamics ID2000s, custom fuel rail, SX fuel pressure regulator
- Ignition: Four AEM high-output smart coils, custom leads, NGK race plugs
- Exhaust: Three-inch side-exit exhaust system, V-band clamps throughout, one straight-through muffler
- Cooling: Custom 50mm alloy radiator, silicone radiator hoses, twin 12-inch electric fans, custom alloy overflow tank
- ECU: Link G4 Storm
- Other: Custom heat- and abrasion-proof loom, dry sump system, oversized Weaver Brothers three-stage dry sump pump, modified GFB crank pulley, alloy water-pump pulley, Peterson external oil-pressure adjuster
- Gearbox: Straight-cut five-speed dog box, custom billet gearbox brace
- Clutch: OS Giken twin-plate
- Flywheel: Lightweight Chromoly
- Diff: (F&R) LSD
- Other: Oversized front CVs
- Struts: BC BR series coilovers
- Springs: Custom spring rates
- Brakes: Booster removed, Wilwood bias valve (F) 330mm rotors, Skyline GT-R four-pot calipers (R) 300mm rotors, Skyline GT-R four-pot calipers, hydraulic handbrake
- Other: Whiteline sway bars, Whiteline bushes throughout, modified strut mounts for increased castor, front strut brace
- Wheels: 17x9.5-inch Advanti Tenjin
- Tyres: 235/40R17 Toyo RA888, 235/40R17 Kumho V70A
- Paints: Custom green
- Enhancements: Adjustable carbon fibre GT wing, fibreglass front bumper with splitter
- Other: Tinted windows, tinted tail lights
- Seats: Racetech 4000W, Silvester three-inch three-point harnesses
- Steering wheel: Sport Line flat bottom
- Instrumentation: Auto Meter shift light, Vapor digital dash, Innovate LM2 wideband
- Other: Eight-point roll cage
- Power: 380kW (510hp) at the wheels
- Driver/owner: Rowan Price
- Age: 34
- Location: Inglewood
- Build time: 16 years
- Length of ownership: 16 years
- Thanks: RPM Technical Ltd for the custom work and roll cage, Collier Motor Engineers for the block and crank machining, STM for the tune, Combined Motors, Just Tyres, Taranaki Car Club, South Taranaki Car Club, Copy Centre
This article originally appeared in NZ Performance Car Issue No. 232. You can pick up a print copy or a digital copy of the magazine below: