Nobody will question you wanting, say, an R32 GT-R. It's rare. You're not supposed to have one. And, more than 25 years later, it's still an impressive lump of all-wheel-driven and twin-turbocharged metal. It turns out, though, that having something like an R32 GT-R unloaded in your driveway is a whole lot more trouble than the last time you won some silly Japanese-only Civic armrest on Yahoo! Auctions that showed up on your porch two weeks later.
The good news is that you can have just about any car shipped from Japan right to your house. The bad news is that, most of the time, you going out and buying a couple of brand-new NSXes is usually a whole lot more realistic. There's more than one way to import the car of your dream, but—as you'll see—only one of those methods is really all that doable.
MORE THAN ONE WAY TO DO IT
- Make it compliant: You think the most obvious way to import whatever sort of car you're considering is to make it jive with every single U.S. rule and regulation, and you're mostly right. It's also the most expensive. For example: Looking to have, say, Honda's last Euro Civic Type R hauled over here? You'll need a handful of them for crash-testing, all of which will be destroyed except for the one that'll be spared and that'll require all sorts of updates that don't exist, like a speedometer that reads miles, not kilometers; headlights that the DOT approves of; and orange reflectors that it never even came with. And that's all assuming that it passed those crash tests and that the EPA says its emissions bits are up to snuff, which, in all likelihood, won't be.
- Make sure it's similar: Find the car you want that's similar enough to something that's already sold here in the States and the odds of you getting it legalized are in your favor. Only problem is this rule excludes Japanese cars with the engines you want and begs the question: Why in the world would you want to go to the trouble of importing something so similar that you could've just bought here in the first place?
- Make it a show car: So there's this rule called Show or Display that allows you to bring things over like McLaren F1s and Bugattis that you'll never own, but forget about the Type R or pretty much any GT-R. Among the many requirements of Show or Display is that no more than 500 units of any given car can ever have been produced and, even worse, cars like the Supra have already been banned from the list.
- Make sure it's old: Turns out you waiting 25 years is your best chance at getting behind the wheel of whatever Japanese car it is that turns you on. Find something at least this old and, all of a sudden, those crash tests no longer matter, the EPA's given up on its emissions, and those headlights and missing reflectors are no biggie, either. There are a few caveats to this rule, however. First, that GT-R had better have its original engine or an EPA-approved equivalent. And second, depending on the state you'll be registering it in, that GT-R still might not be emissions-compliant even though the feds say it is.
CHOOSING AN IMPORTER
You probably aren't interested in importing that R32 GT-R all on your own. Although nobody's stopping you, the chances of you bungling up that paperwork or forgetting something important altogether aren't in your favor and will never make the five grand or so that you'll save worth it when your newly obtained supercar gets impounded. If you're not prepared to deal with the Japanese seller or auction house you've got no way of communicating with; the EPA and the NHTSA, which would rather you not have the car to begin with; the shipping company that's having trouble loading it up because it won't start; and U.S. Customs—and that's just for starters—then you're best off contacting someone like the people at JDM Legends.
GETTING IT DONE
Ready to order your dream car? We talked to Utah-based importer JDM Legends' Eric Bizek, who walked us through the buying process from start to finish.
- Step 1: Know what you want. "Take a look at my past inventory on my website and see what we specialize in," Bizek says. "I like to sell what I've got here or sell a car that's in my area of expertise." Bizek goes on to explain that going through a dealer like JDM Legends can yield all sorts of information about the car you'd otherwise have no way of obtaining, which means the chances of you ending up with something like a Nissan with a hole in its block are slim.
- Step 2: Pick up the phone. If the car's a regular among Bizek's inventory and it isn't in stock, you'll be added to a waiting list. If you want something unique sourced, plan on laying down a hefty deposit.
- Step 3: Once the car's arrived—which can take up to three months—the whole process isn't all that different than buying a used pickup from a Ford dealership. Buy from JDM Legends and you'll get something that's met all the right federal requirements and comes with a Utah-issued title. "This makes things incredibly simple for the buyer," Bizek says, who goes on to explain that this is one of the most surefire ways to legally transfer a car into more difficult states like California or Hawaii.
- Step 4: "Nothing is ever ready to go." That's what Bizek says of just about every car he's ever had delivered. "Anything you get is going to need some work, especially with the auctions since there will be a lot you don't know about that car." JDM Legends specializes in making its inventory completely roadworthy, though, whether that includes getting that Hakosuka engine to run on all of its cylinders or resurrecting its body by way of fabrication and paint. "That's the difference between a general broker," he says, "and someone like us who's more of a specialist."
- Step 5: Take delivery. Visit your state's DMV to have the title transferred and get yourself insured.
POST-PURCHASE REALITY CHECK
- Insuring it: Every insurance company will have a different story. For every agent who says he can help you, expect a couple dozen who won't know what in the world a Skyline is. "They might not know what they're looking at or how to value it," Bizek says about most insurance companies. "If you can't prove the vehicle's value, you'll have to have the car professionally appraised," he says, which can cost as much as $300.
- Breaking it: Depending on whatever it is you bring over, know that you finding the right alternator belt, for example, isn't just a part number and a Pep Boys away. A lot of parts might be transferable from U.S. models, though, like a 1JZ-equipped Soarer's head gasket or a CR-X SiR's CV boots.
- Smogging it: You'll be following the same emissions rulebook for whatever state you live in that you always have. Because whatever it is you're now driving is more than 25 years old, the EPA says you're just fine, but that doesn't mean your state government feels the same way.
THE CALIFORNIAN BUMMER
You'll have no harder time importing a car into any other state than California. Here, the state's got its own version of the EPA—CARB—and they've got a thing or two they want you and that imported hatchback of yours to know. If you weren't planning on buying from an importer that knows something about California emissions, now's the time to consider it. Ontario, California's International Vehicle Importers, for example, offers California-compliant R32 GT-Rs that've been updated to meet each of the state's stringent emissions requirements.
California's also has something to say about what year the car rolling out of that shipping container ought to be:
- 1975 or newer: Cars within this range have to conform to the state's Direct Import Requirements, and '76-and-newer models, in particular, require smog testing every other year just like every other schmo. This can be especially costly since none of these cars were built to meet California's emissions standards. To get there, expensive tests have to be conducted and updates have to be made.
- 1968-1974: California doesn't want you driving around in any sort of import that falls within this period, even if it was brought into the country legally. This fuzzy period means the bureaucrats want them to burn cleaner than they're able to.
- 1967 or older: Wanna exempt yourself entirely from California's emissions testing? Better get something that was manufactured before '76. Get yourself something sold in '67 or earlier, though, and you'll also be exempt from just about every importation requirement.
8 JDM RIDES YOU CAN HAVE NOW
Twenty-five years means more now than it ever has. Every trip around the sun means at least another Japanese-only classic is within your reach. Here's what the 25-year rule says you can legally get your mitts on right about now:
- Nissan R32 Skyline GT-R: It's just about the only legal GT-R you can own in the States that won't run you the $110K that the R35 commands.
- Nissan S13 K's Silvia: It's like your 240SX, only turbocharged and better.
- Nissan N14 Pulsar GTi-R: The SR20DET story starts here and in all-wheel-drive form.
- Toyota JZZ30 Soarer: It's the Supra-powered SC300 Lexus said you couldn't have.
- Toyota X90 Chaser: It's more refined than the Soarer, with two more doors, and yet just as powerful.
- Honda NA1 NSX-R: Not that any of these are available, but if they were, the federal government says you can have one.
- Honda EF8 CR-X SiR: An EF8 CR-X on American soil is nothing new. You owning one legally, however, is.
- Mitsubishi CD9A Evo I GSR: It's the 4G63-powered Evo that started it all before you were born.
THE HAND-ME-DOWN IMPORT
At first, you buying that already-imported, right-hand-drive Civic Type R off of your roommate's old college buddy sounds like a good idea. It's already here, after all, you won't have to deal with bureaucracies like the NHTSA or even Customs, and the only thing standing between you and JDM infamy is the four grand he wants for it. Don't bother asking questions like how in the world a 20-year-old Japanese-only Civic got here legally, which, incidentally, isn't 25 years old and doesn't meet Show or Display requirements, and, all of a sudden, a shady situation starts to sound OK. Except it isn't. Understand that a state-issued title obtained by way of things as malicious as a VIN swap or as harmless as a DMV worker who didn't follow protocol that day will never make that Civic legal, and you've just avoided the risk of that Type R getting seized up by the feds. Turns out U.S. Customs won't give a lick about that title the state of Florida mistakenly issued if the car wasn't imported legally to begin with. If whatever it is you're considering isn't at least 25 years old, walk away. If it is, Bizek says to have a look at the car's export documents, to make sure it's currently registered, and that its VIN number matches its paperwork. "Unless they can provide all of this paperwork," he says, "and you know what you're looking at, you may not be able to get it registered." One missing form, he says, can cost you a lot. "There's a big difference between getting a car that's titled and getting a car with an export document."