Sometimes owning an imported car works out great, and sometimes it ends with the FBI knocking on your door.
It’s perfectly legal to import any foreign-market car into the United States as long as it’s modified to meet all of our safety and emissions regulations.
Before Mercedes got the government to institute the 25 Year Import Rule, federalizing a foreign-market car after you imported it to the U.S. was reasonably common. All you had to do was get a guy to modify the car so it passed all of our exhaust and crash standards. The same is true today, technically, but now certified importers legally have to do the job. Back before the late ‘80s and the 25 Year Rule, just about anybody could do your modifications for you.
This did not always go well, as Jalopnik readers were happy to explain.
[Welcome back to Countersteer, where we ask you to tell us your greatest stories of success and failure, then we pull the very best of them to share with the rest of the world.]
This thing cheated harder at emissions laws than Volkswagen ever dreamed of.
I bought a 1980 Porsche 930. Porsche took a few years off bringing the turbo to America, so people started bringing them over grey market. Mine was “federalized” by someone welding a piece of rebar diagonally across the inside of the two front door panels and, well, that’s about all I could find. The “emissions system” consisted of a direct to atmosphere 4" flamethrower pipe attached to the wastegate and an exhaust that my father-in-law famously and accurately described as something “you could blow a cat through” — though, ironically, without an actual cat. It was awesome.
What an expensive pain in the ass federalization was back in the day.
Two years ago, I bought an ‘84 BMW 635CSi. It was privately imported into Miami in 1985 and federalized, and then de-federalized and had the Hartge catalog thrown at it.
The guy I bought the 6er off of decided he missed it, and went and got himself another one. Another ‘84 635 Euro. However, very much unlike mine, his new car was still wearing all of it’s federalization hardware, and it came with all of the documentation itemizing the importation and federalization costs back in ‘85. Makes for fascinating reading.
The changes include weak-ass sealed beam headlights, gigantic front turn signals, an imperial gauge cluster, a cat, an O2 sensor, a mild, leaned out ECU to talk to the O2 sensor, and these big iron bars behind the delicate chrome bumpers. There’s more, but I can’t remember it off the top of my head, and those are the big ones.
The cost of this process was something in the range of twenty grand, and that’s in old timey money. The boat ride (on a nice boat, too. Queen something) was at least that much again. All said and done, someone paid over two hundred grand for this car.
Ah, the Porsche 928. One of the Grey Import Kings.
Had this since 2000. ‘84 928 S. Technically an unmarked “S2.” It came with the 310hp high compression Rest of World engine. All the warning lights are in German, and so was the combo switch (turn signals, cruise) until it went bad and I had to replace it so I wouldn’t flash people with my high beams every time I changed lanes.
I guess it was imported when new, according to the importer’s plate in the door. So they added some bracing in the door, changed the 8-inch halogen lights to 7" sealed beams, disabled the headlight leveling, and added the atrocious signal lights front and rear. Oh, and they also took out the center dual-exhaust resonator muffler and replaced it with a catalytic converter from a US model—a single-exhaust catalytic converter. So for the first few years of ownership it’s ability to breathe was severely restricted. But in compensation, a previous owner installed even hotter cams. So, when the importers weld job on the exhaust rusted through I replaced it with the true dual cats from an S4, and the stainless tubular exhaust manifolds (replacing the stock cast iron) and got a pretty nice power bump. When it runs. Because to add in those extra lights they screwed around the fuse panel so much even my indie mechanic (who was factory trained on them) can’t tell where shit goes.
Now it’s sitting in my driveway with the keys locked in it.
Sand is the cost of doing business sometimes.
450SEL 6.9 from Abu Dhabi. Every nook and cranny was packed full of sand, which added an interesting element when working under it.
“Fun until it wasn’t.” You can describe a lot of BMWs that way.
Had an ‘84 735 BMW for a few years. It had a luxe package with Water Buffalo leather.
Midnight blue. Was a very fun machine until it wasn’t.
I went to check the O2 sensors once. Turned out the wires won’t connected to anything! In that day ‘federalization’ was somewhat slap dash.
Was it a Ferrari?
When I was six (circa 1998-99) my dad owned an imported Mercedes 280E.
It caught on fire.
The problem with an old grey import car, however, doesn’t have anything to do with the modifications done to federalize it. These things are rare, old, complicated cars. That can be enough drama as it is.
My story is simple and heartbreaking for me.
Over a year ago I found a 1984 Mercedes 500SE. At the time I had been looking for a V8 powered sedan, when I came across this immaculate beauty in liquid silver over grey MB-Tex with 100k miles, and the wonderful 5.0L V8. I essentially fell in love with a car that would cause me to lose sleep at night.
Picking up the car with my girlfriend was one of the greatest moments I have had. Here was a 16 foot, V8 powered sedan with almost no computers and with period correct AMG wheels. It was exactly what I had been looking for for years. It came with service records, an interesting history, ran perfectly, and had a clean body.
Four months later, I found myself with a dilemma: sink money into a car that was not worth what I was putting into it, or sell it. I threw money at the car and had numerous things replaced, repaired, and maintenanced to the point where I seemed to be getting ahead of the neglect the car had had for two years. The big thing had been the dropping over $1000 just to repair a European spec emission system and fuel pump/distributor. Then one day a year after driving the car as a DD, I noticed a grinding sound coming from the engine. Low and behold: a timing chain guide was failing.
After numerous phone calls to auto shops that specialized in import cars, I was only able to find one shop in 100 miles who even had the tools from the ‘80s, that Mercedes had issued to mechanics. The parts were available, but the tools were not. After an estimate of three days of labor and $2,000-4,000 in work (after sinking $1500 into the car) made me realize that either this car sits for awhile while I save money to repair everything, or I sell it.
Nonetheless, the car is gone and my heart is burdened knowing that some rich a-hole from Chicago has the car now.
This sounds like it was an amazing machine; shame it had so many headaches.
I bought one in the early 2000s back when I was a teenager who thought they were smart.
I was not.
I bought a 1984 BMW 745i from a fellow BMW enthusiast. Turbocharged 3.4L 252hp from the factory Bahn-stormer.... Mine was tuned to about 375hp. I had to have the “Executive package” interior too. It was a beautiful car, Delphin Grey with Anthricite hand stitched leather on almost every interior surface (even the B and C pillars!). Radio controls in the rear seat armrest too!
Problem was they only made about 16,000 745is world wide. About 5,000 were “Executive package” cars.... and they had many unique parts among the E23 line.
Any time there was an issue it took 2 months to get parts and fix it. Parts had a premium because they were so rare.
Insuring it was just short of impossible, despite the car having been here since the mid 80s. Allstate requested the VIN 5 times and said it didn’t exist, then insured it as a 1984 BMW 320i while figuring out the model 745i actually did exist (US only got 735i). After two years Allstate stopped insuring Grey Market cars all together.
It had a problematic ZF 4HP22-EH trans, it couldn’t be revved in park or neutral otherwise you’d burn out a clutch pack. Emissions testing it was interesting because I had to convince them to test it on the dyno rather than idle test it. I eventually converted it to a manual after the Auto failed (a different issue cause the failure)
The dash was in German and so was the manual (fun fact, the German manual has stick figures doing calisthenics in it for a section on resting and maintaining driving alertness). Most parts came from Europe, BMW wanted $25 for a special nut to hold the turbo to the manifold (may many gods have mercy on your soul if you cracked that manifold)
The DOT “conversion” was not very thorough... Basically they welded some angle iron inside the Euro bumpers, used scotch-locks to rewire the turn signals, and added US style headlights. There were some cats welded in under the seats but they worked well. I think they added in a charcoal filter too.
My main issues were parts and getting the “that model doesn’t exist” statement whenever dealing with an insurance company or government office.
I hated that car when it was broken (often) but damn it, if I could have one again I would. Going above that, if I could have mine, in restored condition, I would take it back in a heartbeat and sell a kidney too.
Now, not all foreign-market cars brought into the U.S. are legally imported on the grey market. Others just sneak past the border.
This can end with the car getting crushed (as was the case with a Nissan Skyline recently) or seized (as was the case with a bunch of now-returned Land Rovers). But it doesn’t always end in complete ruin.
Not really grey market, more like dark gray to black market. I had a 2001 Exige that I imported from Germany. Bought it new from Springbok Sportwagen for around $42K in 2002 when there was a glut in Exiges and the Euro to U.S. dollar was favorable. There was a brief period where these sat on lots on the continent, unsold for months. A guy in Florida imported it, provided me the title and reg, and I was good to go. I didn’t ask too many questions. Although I should have known better.
About a year and a half later, the FBI knocks on my door, says they busted the importer and are chasing down all his cars. They didn’t seize it, but I had to export it within 30 days and immediately move it to a bonded warehouse. I shipped it back to Springbok, who sold it almost immediately for $45k. The exchange rate had flipped, and the market had heated up a bit. i was still out about $4500 in shipping fees each way. It was worth it. I never would have sold that car. The pic is from Motorsports Ranch. I tracked that car about every weekend I could and it it never flinched.
This isn’t to say that nobody legally imports foreign-market cars into the U.S. anymore. It’s still legal to bring in a new car that’s younger than 25 years old, provided a registered importer proves it can meet U.S. regulations.
My experience with a grey market BMW was a bit less troublesome than JamesRL’s 745i. In 2002 I took to importing a 1995 E34 M5 Touring with about 80k km and the 3.8l motor that BMW N never tried to bring over. I used a registered importer, JK Technologies, who handled the conversion and certification. The only things needed to pass emissions were a new cat from the 3.6L M5 and a special control module that adjusted cold-start behavior/mixture. The rest involved changes to markers, lenses, and headlamps (by HID lamps) and a speedo in MPH (though odo was still km). Until my divorce a few years later it was a really enjoyable experience.
So the 25 Year Rule doesn’t exclude new cars from being imported into the United States, but it does mean that old ones skip the hard work of getting federalized. Canada has a similar system, but they give the same free pass to anything that’s 15 years old or older, rather than 25.
Here’s a Canadian special we’re quite jealous of.
I live in Canada, so we have access to all sorts of fun stuff unavailable to the states as of yet. After living with my modified (Read Turbocharged) Suzuki Swift GT for a few years, I decided that the only way to move forward in the fast hatch world was to go AWD. While the Swift did not want for horsepower, it severely lacked traction, so I went looking for something that would fulfill my rally aspirations.
...Enter the Nissan Pulsar GTI-R...
I looked casually for a while, and considered brokering someone to bring one over for me, but in the end, I found a local import shop that had 2 of them in their inventory. One was in very rough shape. Rust everywhere, banged up interior... just rough. The other was actually relatively clean. It even had the door frame Nissan umbrella. I gave it a once over, found no real concerns, took it for a short test drive around the block (which was as far as the shop would let me go... This should have been a warning sign) and paid $9000 CAD for it. This was back in 2006.
On the way home from buying the car, I did a couple of hard pulls, (Which were crazy fast) and noticed severe detonation. I had noticed some differences in the way the vacuum line were hooked up to the wastegate compared to the other car the shop had, so I pulled over and moved some things around, and everything was good. The car had been over boosting, and with the waste gate now properly limiting boost, the pinging was no longer prevalent, but the acceleration wasn’t lighting my hair on fire like it had on the test drive. A bit disappointing. Even more so when I got it home and raced it against my friend in the Swift, only to lose...
...Then winter came. AWD hatchback + Snow tires = winter heaven. Sure, it understeered like a pig, but that could be cured with throttle. I’ve never prayed for snow like I did during the years that I owned that car. Bliss.
Until the starter began giving me problems. Intermittent problems. That car left me stranded in some pretty awkward situations... and it was a real pain to change that starter out...
...but not as big a pain as when I moved to another province. See, there are a number of things that need to be changed on these cars to comply with government regs here, like left hand drive headlights, DRL’s, high brake lights and DOT approved windshields. The shop that I bought it from assured me that these had all been done, but the out of province inspection when I moved, assured me that they had not, and I had 1 month to comply, before it could no longer be registered.
I ended up wiring in some LED strips in the hatch to be high brake lights, changed corner markers to dual filaments for DRLs, bought new headlights from Germany, and had to jump through many hoops to get the VIN number assigned, like proving the weight of the car?!? Weird stuff. It was a pain, but I powered through.
Then the clutch slave cylinder began leaking... The sunroof started leaking... Finding parts, and somebody to do the work was becoming increasingly difficult, and now I was living in a milder climate, so snow days were fewer, and the need for an AWD car was lessened. With a baby on the way, it was time to say goodbye to Baby Godzilla. I needed something more practical, 4 doors, more reliable, cheaper parts, preferably RWD...
...Enter the E39 M5...
Sometimes the headaches of weird old car ownership are worth it. This story helps me understand why people go to the lengths of getting an imported car, even after all the horror stories.
I live in the great white north of Toronto... our grey market laws are 15 years, but my grey market import is 24 years young. I picked up a 1992 right hand drive mini from Japan last summer. 1275cc, British racing green, 4 speed manual transmission, right hand drive, pop out side windows, A/C that will never work and all that other jazz that makes these cars so much fun for guys like us. I essentially bought it from a broker so I was the importer. I work in the car business so I was able to pull strings getting it licensed and insured. Bonus: in 2016 it qualifies for collector car insurance which costs like, 6 bowls of soup and 3 movie passes a year.
I bought the car as a half-assed joke and ended up falling head over heals in love with its quirkiness, ridiculous handling and cute-as-a-button looks. Chicks dig it, Jalops think it is cool, old people remember them and even young kids think it is cool... basically the only people who don’t like it are douches in affliction t-shirts....fuck ‘em.
I work at a high end dealership and regularly find myself behind the wheel of high dollar German/Italian/British exotics. I also have a couple of classic cars as well. The $8k CAD I spent on this car is a joke when you consider the fact that I have more fun throwing my mini in a corner at 25 mph than driving a 430 or Continental GT. I get more looks in this than a Lamborghini or Rolls Royce.
The kicker is that because it is a British car and right hand drive, everyone assumes I got it directly from Britain. I highly recommend importing one of these. They are not terribly hard to work on, just cramped quarters. Parts are cheap! I mean.... they only made the car for a billion years and in that time only manufactured a trillion of them. lots of parts support, not sot so much in North America. I just had a quicker ratio steering rack delivered for $110 CAD (the wait for the parts to arrive was 6 days).
Anyone who cruises this sight is the type of person who thinks waxing there car is foreplay (it is....right?). I will leave this with you: All those high dollar exotics are fast, refined and luxurious. They are also incredibly expensive to insure/maintain and deprecate like a stone, ask Doug! imagine someone keyed it?! This is cheap to insure, cheap to maintain, you never see them on the road and if you want thrills, try ripping corners in something with 10 inch wheels..... love my grey market import.
If you’ve ever owned a grey import car and you yourself have a story of owning it, please let us hear it below.
Contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.