As many of you know, I'm currently in the midst of importing a Nissan Skyline GT-R to the United States. Some of you have asked why I chose the Skyline GT-R, and so today I must reveal the answer to this question: because I still have thousands of leftover Gran Turismo 2 credits I can use to buy sweet mods.
Anyway: now that we've covered that topic, it's time to address another major question I've been getting from readers. This question came about roughly two weeks ago, when I posted a column that outlined the four legal ways to import a car to the United States. Well, after that piece went up, I started to get dozens of e-mails from readers, asking things like: "But my friend/relative/neighbor/probation officer has a 1996 Nissan Skyline/1998 Nissan Silvia/2003 Alfa Romeo/2006 Bengal Tiger and he has plates for it, so how did he import it?"
The answer is: illegally. He imported it illegally.
And this leads to the inevitable follow-up questions, namely: How the hell do you import something illegally? Aren't there customs agents standing at the border with a giant car crusher waiting to destroy right-hand drive Supras? Is my friend going to get in trouble? How did he get plates? Will his car be confiscated? Can you – an Internet automotive writer with a bachelor's degree in economics – provide me with free legal advice?
And in this case, the answer to all of these questions is: welcome to today's column.
That's because today I'm going to cover the ways people illegally import cars to the United States – and all the ways they go about titling them, registering them, and inevitably getting them crushed by federal agencies that crack down on this sort of thing. This information comes to me courtesy of my friends at Japanese Classics, who are importing my Skyline, along with several intrepid readers who have far more experience with this stuff than I do.
And so, without further ado…
How Do You Illegally Import a Car?
As it turns out, it's far easier to illegally import a car than I ever expected. To explain why, here's the disconnect between what I thought happens and what actually happens:
WHAT I THOUGHT HAPPENS: The government inspects every single container, vessel, sailboat, dinghy, and inflatable life raft that arrives on U.S. shores. They check for three things: guns, drugs, and Nissan Skylines.
WHAT ACTUALLY HAPPENS: The government doesn't have anywhere near enough manpower to inspect the vast majority of inbound cargo shipments. So once you've become licensed and bonded and insured as an importer, and once you've properly filled out your shipment's paperwork, you can pretty much expect it will pass customs without an inspection.
In other words, the steps to illegally import a car are these:
1. Place your Nissan Silvia in a container bound for America.
2. Tell the government that container holds Toyota Corolla dashboards.
3. Fill out your paperwork saying that the container holds Toyota Corolla dashboards.
4. Arrive at the port ready to collect your Toyota Corolla dashboards.
5. Drive home in your Nissan Silvia.
Now, before I go any further, I want to suggest that I am not advocating that you actually follow these steps, because it is one of the single stupidest things a car enthusiast can do. Although a high-profile case just this week showed us exactly why this is so stupid, allow me to sum up the drawbacks in five more easy steps:
1. Your car will eventually be confiscated and crushed into a cube the size of your tongue.
2. You will lose every penny you spent buying the car and importing it, since a tongue-sized car cube has no value.
3. You will probably go to jail.
4. You will probably be fined.
5. You will never again be allowed to import anything larger than a fun-size candy bar from a duty free shop.
Although I vastly agree with the spirit of Raph's satirical post earlier this week detailing the idiocy of clamping down so hard on illegally imported cars, it's worth noting that there's a reason the government takes these things so seriously: by illegally importing a car, you are smuggling. Yes, that's right: you've lied to the government about what you're shipping, and therefore you've smuggled goods into America. Essentially, in the government's eyes, you're on the same level as a villain with a foreign accent on an old episode of Walker Texas Ranger.
Now, I don't like the 25-year rule, and maybe you don't like the 25-year rule, but it's worth noting that illegally importing vehicles isn't exactly the smartest way to change the 25-year rule. Instead, we should write detailed arguments to our congresspersons, who will reply with a form letter written by an intern.
How Do You Get Plates?
One major source of misinformation about illegally imported cars relates to license plates and titles. Namely, people think that if you have a state-issued license plate and title for your car, the car is therefore legal – even if the channels that brought it here weren't legal. To prove my point, here's an actual note I received on Facebook from someone who must've read the 'Four Legal Ways to Import a Car' piece a few weeks ago:
My friend has a Nissan Silvia S-15 and he has a plate for it so it must be legal and u r wrong
First off, I am not wrong. U R wrong.
Second: There is no legal Nissan Silvia S-15 in the United States. None. Zero. If you are currently driving a Nissan Silvia S-15 in the United States, you are an outlaw; a rebel; you're the Jesse James of four-cylinder Japanese automobiles.
And third: a license plate doesn't make a car legal.
Allow me to explain what I mean. Let's say you follow the above steps, and you manage to illegally import an automobile to the United States. It's here, you're loving it, you're cruising along, wind in your hair, tunes on the stereo, and every time you park, you always make sure to leave it in a place that a tow truck can't easily reach.
So the next thing you do is, you take your foreign title, and you show up at a DMV office to register the car. Now, some states will stop you right there and ask for a bunch of forms showing that you've legally imported it and you've legally inspected it and it passes emissions you have a VIN tracing and BLAH BLAH BLAH BLAH BLAH. But other states – and it won't surprise anyone to learn that I am primarily referring to Florida – don't do all of that.
You see, in Florida, many of the license plate offices are privately owned, which means you don't have to go to the state DMV for plates. Instead, you can go to Big Jim's Daytona Beach Tags and Guns "off Route One next to the ol' folks home," where Big Jim's version of customer service is occasionally talking to you while he posts anti-Obama rants on CNN articles.
You can guess what happens next: Big Jim looks at your paperwork, and he looks at you, and he thinks: I need to make money today. And so he gives you a title, and registration, and one of those cool "Save the Panther" plates, and you never have to worry about anything again.
This strategy works well because it's so damn easy to register a car in Florida. In fact, as I was researching this column, I got the sense – I am not kidding here – that you can register any vehicle in Florida, up to and including an airplane drink cart.
But here's the problem: just because your car is legal in one state doesn't make it legal in the eyes of the U.S. government. Yes, your car has a plate, and a title, and maybe even a plate frame that says "JDM MOTHERF***ER," but that doesn't mean it passes NHTSA and EPA regulations. Therefore your car may still – at any time – be crushed at any time into a cube only slightly larger than the brain of the guy who messaged me on Facebook.
What About MotoRex?
Since we're on the subject of shady import practices, it's time to discuss the famed Japanese car importer MotoRex, who was able to legally import the R33 Skyline GT-R for a few years in the early 2000s. Since the MotoRex saga is covered in detail many other places on the Web, I'm going to provide only a brief overview here.
Here's what happened: in the early 2000s, a company called MotoRex actually went through the process of federalizing the R33 Nissan Skyline GT-R, which was made from 1995 to 1998. They crash-tested it, installed additional safety protections, slapped on the correct reflectors and gauges and went through the whole song and dance, doing whatever they had to do, until they got the government to agree their converted R33 GT-R was importable.
Where MotoRex ran into trouble was, they started importing R32s and R34s and telling the government these were R33s. Worse, they stopped performing all the R33 conversions they told the government they would perform, meaning even many of the R33s they brought in didn't meet government standards. Eventually, the customs people got wind of this, they showed up at MotoRex, and they shut the whole thing down.
But there was a problem: MotoRex had already imported dozens of cars and sold them to customers. Would the government seize these vehicles? Buy them back? Crush them? In the end, they decided on a surprisingly fair solution: the U.S. government wrote a letter to every single MotoRex car owner, whether he was driving fully certified R33 or a completely un-certified R34, and confirmed that their cars were legal, since they had been "duped" by an importer who claimed to be performing services it wasn't.
To this day, these Skylines are completely legal in the eyes of the federal government. The result is that owning a GT-R with a "MotoRex letter" is currently the only way to legally have an R33 or R34 Skyline GT-R in the United States – unless it was one of the few limited-edition models exempted under the Show and Display exception.
Didn't Some Skylines Get Crushed?
Ah, yes, and that brings us to two other ways to illegally import cars to the United States.
A few years back, there was a huge uproar in the automotive world when it came to light that the federal government was going around and crushing illegally imported Skylines. Although there was some confusion at the time that these were MotoRex cars, they weren't. Instead, these were cars brought over by one of several companies – the largest was in Southern California – who tried a unique tactic to skirt the import rules.
Here's what happened: the company would buy a Skyline in Japan and separate the engine from the chassis. Then they'd ship both items – an engine and a non-running chassis – to the United States as "car parts." Then they would reinstall the engine into the vehicle in the United States, where they had become certified as a vehicle manufacturer. The car would be given a new VIN – since it was "manufactured" using "imported car parts" – and people would be free to enjoy their Skylines as they wished.
Of course, it didn't take long for the government to crack down on these shenanigans. Unlike in the MotoRex situation – where the importer had attempted to go through legal means, but eventually diverted – these people were intentionally skirting the laws in a very obvious manner. Not surprisingly, the biggest importer was prosecuted, and many of his customers had their cars crushed.
But this isn't the only way you can illegally import a car without using official channels. There's also the other obvious option: just drive it over the border from Canada. Since Canada has less restrictive import laws than the States, this one seems easy: ship your car of choice to Canada, physically drive it across the border, show up at the Florida DMV with an Ontario title, and BOOM! You're good to go.
Unfortunately for those keen on this idea, the government is wise to this form of automotive smuggling, too. My contact at Japanese Classics told me he knows someone who purchased a car this way – and once the "ringleader" was discovered by authorities, he provided a list of customers in exchange for a lesser sentence. The result was exactly as you'd expect: a tongue-sized car cube, and tens of thousands of dollars gone forever.
Let's Talk About Land Rovers
There's one more common way to illegally import a car to the United States: VIN swapping. Obviously, this isn't an issue with Skyline GT-Rs, since you can't exactly swap a '70s VIN onto an R34 and pass it off as a '70s car. But it is a problem – a "rampant" problem, according to those I spoke to – with Land Rovers and original MINIs.
Here's what happens. Say you want a 2010 Land Rover Defender, because you live on Nantucket and you believe you could not possibly be seen driving on the beach in anything less than a vehicle designed during the reign of King George VI. So you buy a 2010 Land Rover Defender in the UK – but you can't legally import it, since it's too new to meet U.S. guidelines.
Here's where the VIN swap comes in. Take the VIN off a 1983 Land Rover Defender, which is legal, and graft it on to your 2010 model. Since these things look so damn similar, the customs folks are none the wiser, and BOOM! You've got yourself a legally imported Defender. Of course, this is the same strategy some use with MINIs, since they were also manufactured for a tremendously long period of time.
Unfortunately for VIN swappers, the government has also gotten wise to this form of smuggling, and they've started seriously cracking down. In fact, they even went to the trouble of crushing a VIN-swapped Defender back in 2013 and then posting the video on YouTube, as if to say: unless you comply with our rules, we will follow the trail of oil stains right to your driveway and we will crush your Defender, too.
Don't Illegally Import
If there's one message you should take away from this column, let it be this: illegally importing cars is dangerous. Although I don't agree with the 25-year restriction, and maybe you don't agree with the 25-year restriction, I believe we as Americans have learned one thing in this great nation's long, beautiful history: the law is the law, and it cannot be changed, and if you attempt to change it, your taxes will be audited.
Hah! I'm just kidding. But really: don't illegally import cars. Because if you're caught illegally importing cars, you could face steep penalties, and major fines, and hefty jail time – and jail is no place for a car enthusiast. I say this because when you go to jail, they don't have cars, or trucks, or vans, or SUVs. The only vehicles they have are the meal carts. Which, incidentally, can be legally registered in Florida.
@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.