When I was 10 years old, I visited my grandmother in Florida. We were in the living room with my oldest cousin playing a game on his PlayStation™ while the adults chatted. I remember seeing the graphics of the game and being wowed by how realistic everything looked. I had just gotten into cars, and this was the latest racing game on the PlayStation. Of course I had to play it.
He handed me the controller and told me to pick a car. I go through the carousel looking at cars I’ve never seen before. After a while I come across something familiar: The Dodge Viper GTS. Quickly, I picked my car in red and my cousin picked his: An Acura NSX, in purple. I hadn’t heard of the NSX at that point, so I was sure I would beat my cousin. The Viper had more horsepower, after all. Little did I know.
When the race was over, I was hooked. How could a car with “only” 276 horsepower beat the mighty Viper? Clearly my cousin was much more skilled than I. I swore I would get the game and practice, promising to beat him the next time we met.
That was over 20 years ago. That game was called Gran Turismo.
Hobbies turn into Passions
I can’t discount how much racing games influenced my love for cars. Gran Turismo sparked my passion for learning about cars, influencing by hobbies and tastes later on. Everyday after school, I would eat a snack, finish my homework, and then play Gran Turismo until dinner time. It was ironic that I didn’t have a memory card when I first started playing. Every time I started that game, it was literally a “new game”. I would see how far I could get until dinnertime, and then hopefully, I’d be able to continue until bedtime!
Until I got my memory card, I was forced to learn which cars were the best to use by comparing stats and prices. Eventually I settled on my weapon-of-choice: A “Red Mica” Supra 3.0GT Limited ’93. It was the feeling of discovering that car and others like it that stayed with me from then on. Gran Turismo sparked a passion in me that still continues to this day; to the point where I can’t help by smile whenever I see a 3rd-generation Toyota Supra pass by.
I can’t stress enough how important video games can be when it comes to creating new car enthusiasts. Thanks to games like Gran Turismo, I learned a massive amount about cars early on, which only fed my passion. I’ve met people that had similar stories too. Some people got into cars playing games like Need for Speed II. Others started with the Ridge Racer series, or Al Unser Jr.’s Arcade Racing. Whether you’re old enough to remember when The Need for Speed was sponsored by Road & Track, or you just started playing the latest Gran Turismo; today’s car enthusiasts are likely born from video games.
I eventually did beat the Sunday Cup in Gran Turismo soon after I got my first memory card. The prize car wasn’t nearly as fast as my Supra, so I sold it to finance more parts. Eventually I beat the game with the Supra fully-tuned and still in my garage, alongside a racing version of the Viper GTS, and a race-tuned NSX.
I’m still waiting for that rematch with my cousin though.
Japan was becoming a hotbed for industry in many sectors, including steel manufacturing, electronics, and of course, automotive manufacturing. Several manufacturers including Nissan, Toyota, Honda, and Mazda were engaged in an arms race to build fun and affordable sports cars for export markets. Starting in the late ’60s, drivers here in the USA saw the introduction of the Nissan 240Z, an affordable and reliable offering with the classic European styling cues that relay the hallmarks of a proper sports car.
Motorsport of course was no exception. Cars like the legendary Toyota 2000GT and Datsun 240Z were picked up by notable teams like Shelby Racing and Brock Racing Enterprises and raced with varying degrees of success. In Japan, several home-grown outfits also began racing their own cars. Dome is one of these outfits.
The Birth of a Dream
In 1975, Kabushiki Gaisha Dōmu, or “Dome” was founded by Minoru Hayashi with the purpose of building race cars. With its name meaning “A Child’s Dream,” it was the dream Hayashi to compete on the world’s stage of motorsports. However, these ambitions changed a short while after the company was founded. Disillusioned with the progress of their race car construction program, Dome pivoted towards producing their own sports cars. It was here that the Dome Zero was conceived.
For many people (including myself), the Dome Zero was an enigmatic sports car you could drive in Gran Turismo 4; a game I clearly spent too many hours playing and going as fast as possible down the Corkscrew at Laguna Seca. It featured styling that made the DeLorean in Back to the Future look like a cheap kit car with its razor-sharp lines and wrap-around canopy. Powering this dream car was the venerable Nissan L28 Inline-6 making 145hp and mated to a 5-Speed manual transaxle. What the engine lacked in power, the car more than made up for it with responsive handling and a futuristic, lightweight fiberglass body that would make Colin Chapman smile.
Dome followed an absolutely grueling schedule to bring the car to fruition in time for the 1978 Geneva Auto Show. However, when it debuted it became one of the show’s most popular cars, with showgoers immediately placing orders for the new Japanese wondercar that was shorter than the Ford GT40. In addition to this, the company’s coffers were kept flush with cash thanks to licensing agreements with toy companies to produce models of the razor-turned-sports car.
A year later, the Dome Zero P2 was created for the American auto show circuit, with revised bumpers and pop-up headlights. This road-going door-stop was tested by several notable American automotive magazines, including Road & Track, who’s contributor Dennis Simanaitis described the car’s handling “as-though-on-rails variety.” Road & Track, however, would slam the Zero P2’s styling as “derivative”.
Dome and their Zero seemed poised to reinvent the Japanese Sportscar and take the market by storm. So why is it that most of us have forgotten about this amazing car until 2004 when teenagers like me were whipping it around Trial Mountain in Gran Turismo 4?
The Two Strikes
Two things happened to the Dome Zero that put a kibosh on the production efforts. First, was the Japanese regulatory body for homologation rejecting the initial design of the Zero. The regulations at the time were very strict, and the original Zero prototype did not meet them due to various reasons. In order to try to get around these regulations, the Dome Zero P2 was designed for homologation in export markets in Europe and the United States. However, these new prototypes also failed to achieve homologation for those markets.
Following the failure of bringing the Dome Zero to production, Hayashi decided to pivot the company again and restructure development efforts from building a production sports car to a full-on race car. The reasoning behind this was simple: “Race on Sunday, Sell on Monday.” Hayashi had hoped that the publicity from a successful racing program would translate to renewed attention to homologate the Zero for production, and sell cars. Additionally, his team had ambitions to race at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the highest arena of motorsport. In order to achieve such a lofty goal, Dome created the Zero RL for racing in the Group 6 prototype class.
The Zero RL was designed for straight-line speed on the Mulsanne Straight, with an unusually narrow front track, and the longest body in its class at slightly over 16 feet. The design of the car was also very striking and recognizable, thanks to its unique angular bodyshell that interestingly did not resemble the production prototype. Powered by the legendary Cosworth DFV V8 engine, the Zero RL cut a sharp profile with the sound to match.
It was unfortunate then, that the Zero RL was not a successful endeavor for Hayashi and Dome. Despite it being the third fastest car on the field, in its first outing in the 6 Hours of Silverstone the Zero RL managed to finish 12th in a field of 13. Then, at the 1979 24 Hours of Le Mans, both entered cars failed to finish the race due to technical problems. In the subsequent years, Dome returned time and again to try and clinch a finish at Le Mans, only to be met with Did-Not-Finish across the board. This proved to be the second and final strike for Dome’s efforts in creating a winning race car and successful production car, as in 1982 all racing efforts were canceled and both the Zero and Zero RL projects were scrapped. The company would refocus and go on to become a race car constructor for various teams, and the Zero would largely be forgotten as a footnote in Japanese automotive history.
A Virtual Legacy
The Dome Zero remained forgotten to mainstream audiences up until 2004 when the car was featured in the hit PlayStation 2 game Gran Turismo 4. In fact, I can recall doing the necessary racing modifications and tuning the Nissan L28 engine to nearly 350 hp in-game, and then going racing against a field of Lotuses and a few Honda NSX’s! Of course, I won those races thanks to the car’s low simulated weight and a fully race-tuned Inline-6.
I know I’m not alone with my obsession with the Dome Zero. Thanks to a series of very popular video games, the Dome Zero is now a well-known and mythical sports-car-that-could’ve-been. It’s 70’s razor-edge wedge styling looks right at home on the walls of an 80’s kid’s bedroom, next to that poster of the Lamborghini Countach with a buxom blonde draped over it. Its design and the story behind the car just lends itself to the imagination, and begs the question “Why didn’t this get made?”. It’s unfortunate the Dome Zero is regulated to “what could have been”, but thankfully, people like Gran Turismo creator and Polyphony Digital CEO Kazunori Yamauchi and his deep passion for cars allow people like me to experience what it might have been like driving the Dome Zero on my favorite race tracks.