Owning your favorite Japanese Domestic Market vehicle from the '90s, a decade many enthusiasts consider the golden era of Japanese sport compact cars, was little more than a pipe dream not too many years ago. But these days, particularly if you live in Canada, owning previously unobtainable JDM right-hand-drive dream machines like a R32 or R33 Skyline GT-R or Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution III or IV is now entirely possible (and increasingly painless), thanks to reputable importing specialists like RightDrive.ca, Rocky Mountain Imports, Amazing Auto Imports, and Japanese exporters like Brave Auto International and Feast Auto Export.
In the United States it's still very difficult to import '90s-era classics like these from Japan, since federal law stipulates that foreign market vehicles must be at least 25 years old before they can be imported. But north of the 49th parallel, where hockey fights, 5 percent alcohol beer (which may explain the popularity of hockey fights) and sentences ending in "eh?" reign supreme, the age requirement when importing a JDM vehicle is only 15 years old (to the month/year of manufacture), a reality that's given birth to a new Canadian industry dedicated to the importation, resale and maintenance of the best cars Japan had to offer up until 1996.
So you've just landed your dream job as the assistant to the travelling secretary for the Toronto Blue Jays (hope all you "Seinfeld" fans out there enjoy that reference) and you've decided to go shopping for that JDM RHD R33 GT-R, Toyota Soarer GT or Mazda Eunos Cosmo you thought you'd never be able to own. The question is, do you risk buying a car sight unseen from a Japanese exporter and attempt to import it yourself, hire a Canadian broker who can help you navigate the importation process, look for a local private seller who's already imported and registered a JDM RHD vehicle they now want to get rid of, or go to a full service dealership like RightDrive.ca, which has plenty of cars in stock at its Toronto location and also offers parts, service and warranty on just about any JDM RHD vehicle that meets the age requirement?
The first option - to search for a car in Japan using online sources like Yahoo! auctions, eBay or a Japanese exporter's website and then attempting to import it yourself - is clearly the riskiest and most time-consuming. It's also potentially the least expensive, since you're cutting out the middle man, but as Mike Kent and Matt Lacroix from RightDrive.ca pointed out during our visit to their dealership, unless you're able to share the cost of a shipping container (which are big enough to hold multiple vehicles and cost about $3,000 to rent for shipping between Japan and North America), a serious chunk of the savings from a DIY approach will be lost. Add to that the $200 per day storage fee if your car gets held up at either the port of exit or port of entry due to improper or missing paperwork, and what started out as a low-cost approach to importing your JDM dream machine can quickly turn into a financial nightmare. For all the rules and regulations to import a JDM vehicle into Canada, go to www.tc.gc.ca.
To avoid the potential pitfalls and headaches of importing a vehicle yourself, a safer but still relatively low-cost option is to hire a licensed broker who specializes in importing cars from Japan. For a fee of about $1,500, these brokers make sure all the necessary paperwork (including commercial invoice, bilingual export certificate, vehicle de-regulation certificate, bill of lading and shipping-related documentation) is in place so that you avoid any costly holdups at either end of the car's journey. These types of brokers also arrange shipping, shipping insurance and, in some cases, will also coordinate delivery of your vehicle from the port of entry right to your doorstep.
The downside to using a broker is that there's still no guarantee that the car you saw online is in the condition you hope it is. Above and beyond damage during shipping - a common occurrence from improperly loading and securing the vehicle in the shipping container - there's the unpleasant truth that a car bought sight unseen could very well need major mechanical repairs before it's capable of passing a smog test and safety check. We're talking about cars that are at least 15 years old, after all, and just like if you were buying the car locally, if the price is bargain-basement cheap, there's probably a very good reason for it.
An even less stressful and time-consuming option than a broker is to look for a locally available JDM RHD vehicle, either for sale privately or at a JDM importer. A quick search of websites like Craigslist will reveal all sorts of JDM machines up for grabs in major centers like Toronto and Vancouver - some surprisingly cheap and others surprisingly expensive. As we've found by taking a close look at some of the cars for sale privately and at less quality-oriented importers, most of these are from the shallow end of the JDM auction pool, with faded and chipped paint (or cheap and cheesy re-sprays), dents or creases in the roof panels from being improperly stacked in marine shipping containers, hacked or removed audio head units and other electrical messes, incorrect engines for the trim level of the car, heavily worn seats and carpets, questionable mileage on the odometers, and unknown ownership histories.
By far the cleanest JDM RHD cars we've found have been at reputable quality-oriented JDM importers like RightDrive.ca that specialize in importing legitimately low-mileage machines in as pristine condition as possible. When we visited the company's showroom, a R33 Skyline GTST Type M was on display with just 3,800 km on it. Looking at it was like travelling back in time to a new car dealership in Tokyo in 1995. Of course, these kinds of time-capsule finds are rare, but even the more typical mileage cars on the lot at RightDrive have been given a 120-point inspection and a full tune-up when they arrive, having also undergone three inspections in Japan by its staff of bilingual car hunters. These cars have also all passed provincial emissions and safety tests and are therefore ready to be plated and driven, just like you'd expect at any other dealership. We were also impressed to learn that RightDrive always has at least one Japanese mechanic on staff with the necessary expertise to properly repair and maintain JDM RHD vehicles.
RightDrive also offers customers the opportunity to hand-pick their JDM dream machine direct from Japan via their Portal Program. Unlike buying a car privately from Japan via Internet resources, RightDrive's program gives you access to its bilingual staff on the ground in Japan, who will go shopping for the exact make, model, color and mileage you have in mind. RightDrive's staff sends you daily updates on their progress, including detailed photographs and inspection reports on any cars they find that may meet your requirements. Once you've picked the one you want to buy, they make sure the car is shipped securely, fully insured, to RightDrive's location in Toronto, where the car then gets their inspection and tune-up before it's plated and the keys handed over to you.
As you'd expect, you do pay a premium for the level of service that companies like RightDrive.ca offer, but you're also guaranteed to be buying a JDM RHD vehicle that's ready for you to enjoy the moment you pick it up. With the less-expensive approaches - from finding and importing a vehicle yourself, to hiring a broker - there's going to be a lot more work involved before you can legally drive your Japanese dream machines on public roads, and there's also a much higher chance of unexpected expenses along the way. Regardless of the approach that fits you best, just remember that as the owner of a JDM RHD vehicle, you're an ambassador between the car-driving public, the police and the government, so make sure to play by the rules, drive safely and in the process ensure that Japanese car enthusiasts in this part of the world will continue to be allowed to import these truly special vehicles.