America's ban on the sale of imported cars newer than 25 years old has rankled buyers for a long, long time. But today's news of U.S. Customs' public destruction of a 2000 Mini Cooper has to be the most egregious case yet.
Publicly, the law exists for safety and emissions — to keep foreign cars that may not meet American crash test or clean air standards off our roads. On the surface it sounds like a noble enough goal, but that's not what it's really about. That's not what it has ever been about.
The Mini was an interesting choice because it inadvertently proves why the law is so off base. Built between 1959 and 2000, the Mini received various updates throughout its long life, but the basic car remained much the same. The original Volkswagen Beetle had a similar story. You rarely see cars live that long anymore, thanks again to emissions and safety laws.
I could import a 1970 Mini without much trouble. That's perfectly legal. But if I tried to import a 2000 Mini — essentially the same car, except newer and with airbags, in this case — the law would forbid it.
Because of safety, you see.
Of course, one could say the issue here was VIN swapping. The crushed car had a fraudulent 1988 VIN. But if it weren't for the import ban, such measures wouldn't be needed.
The fact is that this has never been about safety or emissions. The law is about protecting car companies and their dealers. At one point, so-called "grey imports" were eating heavily into automakers' domestic profits, luxury brands in particular. Why buy what's on the BMW showroom floor in America when you can import a German-spec car not offered here with a bigger engine and more power? Grey imports accounted for thousands of cars on the road at one point.
Led by Mercedes-Benz in 1988, these automakers spent millions of dollars lobbying Congress to pass the Imported Vehicle Safety Compliance Act. This led us down the path of the restrictive anti-import laws we have today, including the ban on cars made in the last 25 years.
There are ways around this, including the show-and-display rule, but even that is restricted to a government-approved list of cars deemed historically significant. Sometimes importers try to get newer cars certified under to federal motor vehicle safety standards, but this is a clunky and expensive process with no guarantee of success. (Ask the Nissan Skyline people about that one.)
To serve the interests of automakers, one can import a much older car but not one potentially newer and safer, like that Mini. It's like Car and Driver said a few years back covering the same issue — "While you can't import a clean, safe, Euro fuel sipper such as the new Peugeot RCZ, you can import any old smog-belching deathtrap of your choice."
So now, finally, we get to the question in my headline: How do we get this law to change?
Every few years, a new Internet petition surfaces that aims to change the law. One of them even happened this fall. To date, it has amounted to exactly nothing. The last one, launched by gearhead site Petrolicious, failed to garner adequate signatures to elicit an Executive Branch response despite considerable publicity on many websites, including this one.
Guess what: Petitions aren't going to fix this anymore. But I don't know what will.
I bring this up because of a conversation I had on Twitter today with Brad Parker and Juan Barnett, aka the D.C. Auto Geek. Juan says one answer is to get automakers involved, to meet with members of Congress and their staff. "Organize, energize and petition (for change)."
He's right. That is how the system is supposed to work. I just don't see why automakers would want to get involved at all. They asked for this law. It benefits them directly. They'd be more than happy to spend millions more dollars lobbying to keep it in place or make it stronger. Frankly, Juan has more faith in our system than I do.
The truth is this is just another one of the many, many ways our government is beholden to monied interests. And I don't know how to fix it.
Many people think revising the law to allow 15-year-old cars is a reasonable change, which is how the law works in Canada. I think it is too, I just don't have a clue how gearheads — the tiny minority that we are — would go about lobbying for it.
If you watch as many automotive-related Congressional hearings as I do (and there have been a lot this year, thanks General Motors and Takata!) then you realize that our lawmakers tend to be extremely ignorant about the automotive world and even how cars work.
Besides their obvious financial incentive to keep the laws in place, if someone got up there and argued that changing the law would make roads less safe and pollute the air — do you really see any member of Congress standing against that? How would that play with voters? And I don't know of anyone in the House or Senate who wants an Audi RS6 Avant bad enough to take up the issue.
I don't want to sound defeatist or cynical. I want to find a solution. So I'll pose the question to you all, then. How do we get this law changed? Because it's a law that is arbitrary, unfair and protectionist, but it's so deeply entrenched that one more petition isn't going to do anything.