I wanted a Lancia Delta Integrale. I really did.
Actually, I wanted a BMW 325iX Touring. Then I decided I'd be happy with any BMW 3 Series Touring. Then I wanted a Lancia Delta Integrale. The fact that I ended up with a different car from a different manufacturer on an entirely different continent should give you some insight into exactly how hard it is to find a good car to import to the United States.
But for those of you who still aren't convinced, I'll state it plainly: the hardest part of importing a vehicle isn't finding an international shipper. It isn't filling out forms, or handling customs, or insuring your vehicle on the water. It isn't even getting a title and plates with the DMV. Undoubtedly, the hardest part of importing a car is simply finding a car to import. And today I'm going to explain exactly why this is.
For me, this entire "import a car" process started in earnest about four months ago, when I realized winter was coming. Winter is coming! I said to myself, expecting large amounts of snow; so much snow that I could build a life-size Paul Bunyan snowman and still have enough left over to melt down and consume, should the road to the grocery store be impassable. I should import some cool all-wheel drive car from Europe!
So I contacted Jalopnik member duurtlang, also known as "Rob," who is Jalopnik's European automotive importer extraordinaire. I say this because Rob was instrumental in helping another Jalopnik member, Brad, import a 1989 BMW 325i Touring – the same car that just happens to be for sale right now on Bring a Trailer. (You can contact Rob with your own automotive import desires at email@example.com.) And I told Rob that I would like to buy a 325iX – essentially an all-wheel drive, station wagon version of the popular E30 3 Series – and import it to the United States.
Here's where I made my first mistake: I honestly thought we would have a car in a week. We'd buy it, it would spend a few weeks on the water, and I'd have it in time for the first snowfall in December. We're looking for a popular used car that only costs a few grand! I figured. How hard can it be?
The answer: really, really hard.
See, in order to import a car to the U.S., it has to be a really good example, because there are dozens of fixed costs that go along with the purchase price. Oh, sure, you might find a high-mileage driver for two grand; the kind of car you'd get on Craigslist in the U.S. and drive around for a year or two before selling it to a teenager who made $1,400 telling Best Buy customers where to find the USB sticks.
But when you're importing a car from Europe, you can't do that. Factor in shipping, and insurance, and taxes, and a finder's fee for Rob, and exchange rates, and tariffs, and various other little costs that go along with the process, and suddenly a two grand driver becomes a fairly expensive car. So you want to look for a good example; an example you can later re-sell for what you've spent on it; an example that can justify its shipping costs. Basically, I would say the rule is this: if you spend more on transport than the vehicle itself, you're probably doing it wrong.
So Rob went searching for 325iX Touring models, and here's what we discovered: dozens were available. But I only wanted a stick, which eliminated a few. And I didn't want black, which eliminated a few more. I wanted air conditioning, which knocked out more still. And we only wanted a good example; no rust, no mismatched panels, no cars with 250,000 miles. That eliminated even more. Of the few that remained, there was another problem: most had build dates in 1991 or 1992, which meant they wouldn't be "importable" for another year or two. The result was that my "simple used car search" suddenly became not so simple: there were only one or two cars within a days' drive of Rob's house in the Netherlands.
Eventually, I relaxed on my color preference. And I removed the "air conditioning" parameter. And after a while, we found a few cars, which Rob made plans to check out. In one case, he sent a fellow Jalopnik reader, Klaus Schmoll, to look at a nice 325iX Touring near Munich. In pictures, it was gorgeous: a clean, white 325iX Touring with a good body and a great interior. In person, well, you can see for yourself.
In another case, Rob placed a classified-section want ad stating that he was looking for an E30 325iX Touring. He received a call from a local guy who owned such a car, and Rob went to have a look. The problem: though it was cheap, it was in a state of disrepair – and while the owner claimed he'd be finished "soon," Rob and I weren't holding our breaths.
After a while, I came to the conclusion that quickly finding a clean 25-year-old 325iX Touring was simply out of the question. This was a rare car back then, and 25 consecutive European winters hadn't exactly done these things any favors. Plus, I was tired of being at the mercy of European AutoTrader; just sitting around every day and waiting for a car to "pop up." So I decided to make a compromise: I'd consider a rear-wheel drive 325i, too.
Rob restarted his search, once again faithfully sending me listings from all over Northern Europe – France, the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, and even Switzerland. But he would often send cautionary notes, mentioning that the cars had issues: some were automatics, or they had high miles; some needed work; some were simply too far away from Rob to feasibly justify checking out, considering they would probably end up being comprised of 50 percent OEM parts and 50 percent rust.
That's when I decided the compromise was too great: not only would I be getting a rear-drive car instead of all-wheel drive, likely with high miles and no air conditioning, and in a color I didn't want, but it was getting less and less likely that I'd have a really clean car at all. At this point, I decided that if I was going to be buying anything in this state, I should get something more exciting.
And so I told Rob to focus on the Lancia Delta Integrale.
So once again Rob restarted his search, this time sending me Delta Integrale links from the various European versions of AutoTrader. After a few days, we settled on a nice one in the Netherlands: an early eight-valve car, painted white, with a few tasteful modifications designed to make it look like a later 16-valver. Given that the eight-valve is supposedly the more reliable engine – but the 16-valve is the more attractive car – that's exactly what I wanted. Only one problem: it was too far from Rob to go and check out right away.
But once again, the reach of Jalopnik proved beneficial: another reader, Joep, was much closer to the car, and he agreed to go and look at it over a weekend. As you can imagine, I was on pins and needles all day Saturday and Sunday, waiting for a message from Rob about the car.
Unfortunately, when the message arrived, it wasn't good. Although Joep sent it in Dutch, Rob painstakingly translated the long, detailed e-mail – and several crucial phrases quickly jumped out at me. They included: "the current owner took two minutes to get it to run properly," and "each turbo should be replaced," and "you could feel a strong shudder in the driveline," and – recalling the ad, which presented the car as "beautiful" – "I have a different definition of 'beautiful' than the seller."
By now, my Ferrari was sold, and I was getting antsy for a new car. I told Rob I was thinking about buying this Delta anyway. Thankfully, he told me I was crazy.
It was about this time when I realized we'd have the same problem with the Delta that we had with the 325iX: finding a good one would take a long time. Oh, sure, they're out there. But they'd require lots of legwork on Rob's part, and lots of impatience on my part, and lots of waiting on the part of Jalopnik readers, who were already making suggestions for a new car. And then there's a different issue: can anyone near me even fix a Lancia Delta Integrale? This is, after all, a 25-year-old Italian automobile that was never even sold remotely close to the United States. Are parts even available? I e-mailed a local Italian car shop and got a prompt reply: "Of course we can work on the Delta Integrale!" I had visions of a guy named Luigi smashing parts into place with a hammer.
With these concerns in the back of my mind, I decided to send an e-mail to Japanese Classics, inquiring about an R32 GT-R – and the rest is history.
Actually, the rest isn't quite history, because I called up Japanese Classics yesterday for their take on the difficulties of finding a car to import – and they confirmed everything that Rob and I discovered.
"We look at about 20 cars a week, and sometimes we buy two," said Chris, part owner of Japanese Classics and my patient question-answering contact there. "Sometimes, we don't buy any."
Chris also cautioned heavily against buying a car sight unseen – especially at an auction. He told me he did that once: an AE86 Toyota that looked great in the small photos provided by the auction company. The only caveat was a sentence in the description noting that the car had "stickers." No problem, Chris thought. We'll just remove the stickers when the car shows up! But when the car was shipped to his Japanese contact, it turns out the "stickers" were actually body-colored pieces of tape, placed on the panels to hide massive amounts of rust. Chris pulled off the tape, took the car back to auction, and lost money.
"Now we physically examine every single car we're interested in," Chris said.
And so, ladies and gentlemen, let this be a cautionary tale about importing a car from overseas. Yes, it's true that more and more cool cars are now reaching that 25-year cutoff, making them eligible for unrestricted importation into the United States. But if you want to import such a car, you'll need a Rob or a Chris, ready to diligently check out each car – and pass on the majority of them. Or else you need deep pockets to fix all the issues you'll be stuck with when the car rolls off the boat at the port.
@DougDeMuro is the author of Plays With Cars. He owned an E63 AMG wagon and once tried to evade police at the Tail of the Dragon using a pontoon boat. (It didn't work.) He worked as a manager for Porsche Cars North America before quitting to become a writer, largely because it meant he no longer had to wear pants. Also, he wrote this entire bio himself in the third person.