The 25th anniversary of Nissan's R32 Skyline GT-R hasn't just gotten you all riled up about one of the finest sports cars to ever come from Japan, it's also lent itself to becoming the spokescar for importing just about anything else into the U.S. There are two reasons for this: The federal government allows overseas vehicles to be legally imported once 25 years old, but also because just about every other Japanese sports car you care about hasn't yet come of age. As it turns out, the NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) approves a whole new series of cars every year, which means any previously required federal safety standards that new cars have to comply with are now waived. In other words, the GT-R's two-and-a-half-decade-old headlights and bumper beams are all of a sudden OK. The whole rule sounds simple enough, but like any federal program worth its weight red tape, the process and its labyrinth of rules and clauses are more muddled than you think.
Just because the federal government says you can have a 1989 GT-R now doesn't mean it'll be easy to get one, and if you live in California, the process of registering one is even harder. Start by asking the NHTSA's DOT (Department of Transportation), and they'll tell you the R32 was unfit for American roads by 1989's standards. This has everything to do with the fact that Nissan simply had no intention of selling the car here, which means it wasn't built to meet the federal government's minutiae of safety and emissions standards, and nothing to do with the fact that it isn't capable of compliance. Follow the NHTSA Code of Federal Regulation's fine print and gobbledygook long enough and sooner or later you'll come across section 49CFR591.5(i), where it says that, 25 years later, shipping your very own 1989 R32 stateside is now okay. According to the NHTSA, the importation process begins with form HS-7, which you can download from its website, where the importer must declare that the vehicle is indeed at least 25 years old. It doesn't end there, though. Not by a long shot.
Besides the NHTSA, the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) also has something to say about your GT-R. Lucky for you, though, if you've waited out the quarter century that the NHTSA says you should, the EPA's 21-year standoff is pretty much moot. Like the NHTSA's HS-7 form, the seller also has to complete form 3520-1 from the EPA, which basically says that the car is at least 21 years old and unmodified. That's right, unmodified; according to the EPA, the vehicle must be in its original condition, free of turbo swaps or any other sort of upgrades you might've hoped it had.
If you wanted to import an R32 Skyline last year on its 24th birthday, you'd have been in for all sorts of complexities and figurative roadblocks, not unlike what anybody from California can expect today when attempting to register one, despite the 25-year federal caveat. That's mostly because of the difference between importation and registration. In short, they aren't the same, and just because the NHTSA and EPA say they're OK with you roaming around San Diego in a GT-R doesn't mean California's Air Resource Board (CARB) or its Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) agrees. As it turns out, they most certainly do not.
For starters, like any government bureaucracy, none of them communicate with one another, let alone agree on any guidelines relating to vehicle importation (a la the NHTSA's 25-year rule versus the EPA's 21). To legally register an imported vehicle in California, it's got to pass a stringent emissions test, and it's got to meet the state's Direct Import requirements. Forget everything the NHTSA or EPA has told you; here, anything built during or later than 1975 has to meet a whole new set of rules, which means all sorts of expensive testing has to be taken care. This can be especially difficult and costly, not just because California's smog test centers don't know anything about the R32 Skyline, but because Nissan's RB series of engines doesn't exist as far as the state is concerned. It starts with a bunch of guys in lab coats and the most complex emissions test you've ever seen, which can cost you as much as $1,500 per visit. You'll need to contact California's state referee to find out which specific test lab to go. Once there, and once you fail, perform the necessary modifications to bring the powertrain into California compliance, pull another $1,500 out of the ATM, and revisit the lab. It isn't uncommon for this to take multiple attempts.
Right about now, you might be thinking this is the extent of the red tape, but it isn't. As it turns out, you'll need to crack open your wallet for all sorts of other important things, like the THD (Terminal Handling Charge) that covers the loading and unloading of the container, a tariff tax that the federal government says you now owe them, bond fees, filing fees, processing fees, port fees, and more money to the federal government, this time to Customs and Border Protection for the vehicle's entry fee. As it turns out, Customs and Border Protection will require you to fill out another form-this time an ISF (International Security Filing). You'll need to have this submitted no later than a full day before the container leaves Japan. If all of this sounds confusing, that's because it is, which means hiring a customs broker that's familiar with importing vehicles will never be a bad idea. Bungling up any one of these things can mean the difference between the GT-R you paid for sitting in a locked container at the docks collecting dust and you actually driving it.
Once your GT-R has arrived, you can't just mosey on over to the Port of Long Beach, crack open your container, and drive it home. You've got to set up an appointment, do a whole lot of waiting, and be escorted onto the premises to take delivery. Be sure that your paperwork is in order before any of this; if it isn't, you won't be going anywhere with what you just paid for and will be responsible for daily storage fees that can accrue above the car's value. If you plan on driving it once registered, you'll also need to get it insured; check with your insurance provider before doing anything because, chances are, they may not be interested in covering a car they never knew existed.
It's important to mention that this isn't the only way to import a foreign vehicle into the U.S. For example, the federal Show or Display rule that some of you are probably familiar with has permitted importation of non-conforming vehicles for, you guessed it, show or display purposes since 1999. Of course, there are similar challenges that must be addressed here, and Show or Display vehicles may only be driven 2,500 miles each year. You've also got to prove that whatever it is you plan on importing is of some historical significance to the general public, which is easy to do in the case of the GT-R that dominated Japanese touring car racing throughout the early 1990s. In other words, somebody's got to actually care about this thing other than you.
The irony of how easy it now is to import something with a 25-year-old emissions system compared to the difficulty of bringing over something clean-burning from last year shouldn't escape you and makes about as much sense as the NHTSA and EPA not agreeing on something as simple as a single year. The good news, though, is that very soon all of this will apply not just to the R32 GT-R, but to other cars you care about, like Honda's NSX-R, for example. Let the waiting period commence.