A beginner’s guide to the world of weird and wonderful Japanese import cars

(Source: arstechnica.com)

Did you grow up playing Gran Turismo, marveling over the weird and wonderful Japanese market (JDM) cars that never made it to these shores? If you, too, always wanted to drive JDM exotica like a Nissan Skyline, Toyota Century, or Mazda Cosmo, prepare yourself for good news.

H.R.2628, the “Imported Vehicle Safety Compliance Act of 1988,” has long been a thorn for automotive enthusiasts in the USA. This is the official reason why, after you discovered those cars in Gran Turismo, you couldn’t actually buy one. Known as the ‘25 Year Rule,’ H.R.2628 essentially requires auto enthusiasts to wait 25 years to the month from when a vehicle was first manufactured before it can be legally imported if the vehicle wasn’t originally meant for sale in the US market.

Further Reading

Gran Turismo Sport review: A brilliant, but very new, direction for the series

Take something like the Nissan Skyline mentioned above. The company never offered it for sale in the US, which means Paul Walker’s famous R34 Skyline GT-R in 2 Fast 2 Furious isn’t legal for import. The R34 was first manufactured in 1999, placing the earliest year for importing under H.R. 2628 at 2024. Sure, there are various places in the US that will smuggle vehicles newer than 25 years into the country and play the “state legal” game (where they act like state legality somehow overrides federal law), but this isn’t true. At any time, a Nissan Skyline-importer can be caught and have their car taken away with zero recourse.

To date, some people have run that risk and gotten away with it for a while; others have seen a beloved vehicle crushed. There has simply been no way around this rule outside of the very, very few legal Motorex Skylines and handful of loopholes involving museums and specific dealership-owner rules. In fact, even if your vehicle turns 25 years old while in the US, it is still illegal to have imported it initially in the eyes of the law.

Unfortunately, I can’t report on any federal discussion to revise or revisit H.R. 2628 at this time. But while these rare vehicles were never eligible for import when new, many are finally reaching an age that makes it possible to now bring them here to the US. What’s more, it turns out the process isn’t nearly as daunting as you might think—trust me, I’ve done it myself.

Why does Japan have so many used cars, again?

When you buy a new car in Japan, your initial inspection is on first registration and is good for three years. After this, you must have another inspection done every two years regardless of age. This is why people in Japan tend to give up on their cars earlier than most people in the world, which probably gave rise to various incorrect rumors about older cars in Japan.

The country has strict inspections with no leniency for older cars, naturally culling these from Japanese roads. This causes a massive amount of used cars to exist without the population to buy them. As a result, Japan has a huge and sophisticated export industry with lots of businesses and entities that operate within it. Until now, most buyers have been from those nations with more relaxed import restrictions, like the UK, Australia, New Zealand, various other European nations, Africa, and India. Those of us in the US have instead enjoyed some of the most strict import rules in the world—again, 25 years of waiting thanks to H.R. 2628.

The process—actually not that hard

There are many different ways to buy a car in Japan and have it imported to the US. But the most common route is finding a local company that gives a buyer access to the Japanese auction houses. Working with them, it’s easier to locate a vehicle of interest that’s up for auction.

One more thing to consider

Another quirk you have to keep in mind is that you are liable for a 25-percent tax on your imported vehicle for the “transport of goods.” This depends almost entirely on the port, your broker (if you choose to use one), and the vehicle in question. A single cab pickup truck can be hit with a 25 percent tax while a quad/crew cab with four doors and a back seat can slide right on by even if they are identical otherwise.

The four-door pickup with the back seats can be assumed to be for the transport of persons as its primary use, while the single cab’s primary purpose might be considered to be transporting goods. On something super inexpensive like a kei truck, this doesn’t matter much. But on something like a Toyota Hilux, these various business/regulatory fees can get very expensive.

The purchasing process becomes relatively straightforward from here. You settle on a bid amount, and the company puts in the bid for you. If it wins, an export company pays the amount and takes ownership of the car. It then invoices you the bid amount—plus whatever fees the company charges on top of ocean freight and insurance costs. You pay the company—usually done through a wire transfer—and it then exports and ships the vehicle to you.

This generally takes anywhere from a month or two. As your delivery date approaches, the company you worked with will send relevant information to your US-based broker. A lot of Japanese vehicle export businesses have US brokers they work with and may suggest specific individuals/companies to you. Next, you’ll generally get a physical package in the mail with any extras, like the owner’s manuals, extra keys, and so on, along with hard copies of the purchasing paperwork. After that, work transitions to a US-based broker in order to settle everything needed for importation.

If you have a good broker, they will simply tell you what they need and when—leaving nothing to guesswork. A few more minor fees later (brokers don’t work for free; the port facility that takes your vehicle from the ship doesn’t either), your vehicle will be ready for pick up. As it is sitting at an international port, you can’t simply show up and demand your cargo; usually you have to make an appointment and be escorted. But each port does things differently.

Importation is done with the roll-on/roll-off system; think giant floating parking garages meant solely for transporting massive amounts of operating vehicles. That means the vehicle you buy will typically be running and can’t have any major leaks. It also means that your vehicle will arrive fully drivable with the battery connected and fuel in its tank.

The cars, those glorious cars

Kei cars: You, too, can own a JDM legend

What sorts of cars does Japan offer in order to make all these rules, all these costs, and the effort of transporting something across an ocean worth it? Let’s let the cars speak for themselves, starting with the stars of the Japan automotive scene: kei cars.

Those tiny cute cars you see in Japan that vaguely represent our smart cars or Fiats are known as “kei cars.” The kei vehicle class is a hyper-specialized Japanese-for-Japan-only class of vehicle. These were meant to jumpstart the country’s automotive industry after World War II by creating a class of vehicles that were more than a motorcycle but not as expensive as normal, full-size cars.

A kei car can only be so long (originally 9.2 feet/2.8m, now 11.2 feet/3.4m), so high (6.6 feet/2m), and so wide (originally 3.3 feet/1m, now 4.9 feet/1.48m). Additionally, there are strict limits on engine size (starting at 150cc, now 660cc) and, since 1990, horsepower.

The big benefit for a Japanese driver is that they don’t have to prove they have somewhere to park, which is a normal requirement for any passenger vehicle in rural areas of Japan. Plus, kei car owners pay much less in taxes and registration fees.

The newest kei vehicles we can get will be under the 1990 requirements, which dictated that the engine size was allowed to go to 660cc, but engine power was capped for the first time at 63hp. Any kei car eligible for US import will be, at max, 660cc in displacement, 10.8ft long, 4.6ft wide, and 6.6ft tall. Import a kei car made before 1990, and they could be even smaller! (The most recent regulation change allowing for bigger cars only took place in 1998, which means those vehicles won’t be eligible for another five years.)

While kei vehicles are tiny and easy to make cute noises at, they are 100 percent capable and serious vehicles. Modern staples such as air conditioning, power steering, anti-lock brakes, and even airbags are available. These are fully functional cars, just shrunk down in stature. Kei cars are size- and displacement-restricted, sure, but they are still relied on, beat into the ground, and responsible for untold amounts of commerce within Japan. What’s more, kei cars come in all variations that normal-sized cars do, from mid-engined sports cars to 4×4 diff-locking dump trucks.

How about a tiny little sports car?

This picture shows a three-cylinder, 657cc turbocharged, five-speed manual, mid-engined, rear-wheel-drive gull-winged sports car called the Autozam. Production started in 1992, so there are already a few here in the USA. Not many were made, but most were preserved. Prices range from $10k to $15k at auction for nice ones.

For another sporty option, the Beat carries the distinction of being the last design signed off by Soichiro Honda before his death in 1991. It has a three-cylinder, 656cc engine with a redline of 8100rpm mounted just behind those OEM white tiger (not zebra) striped seats. Honda decided against turbocharging, but the company still pushed right up against that 64hp limit. Expect prices from $3,500 to $7,000 depending on condition.

Powered by the same engine as the AZ-1 shown above (though this time mounted in the front), the Cappuccino has a three-stage roof option to perhaps make it the most aesthetically unique of this group. It can boast t-tops, targa, or fully convertible capabilities. Somewhere between $4,000-$7,500 is the expected price at auction depending on condition.

But maybe you aren’t really into tiny sports cars and want something a bit more practical. How about an all-wheel drive hot hatch?

This one is a third-generation Suzuki Alto Works. That hood scoop is functional and directs air to the tiny intercooler under the hood. The intercooler is attached to a three-cylinder fuel injected engine, and this car also includes rear seats so you can technically fit four people. Snag an RS-R model, and you even get all-wheel-drive (otherwise, you’re stuck with FWD). The Alto Works tends to fetch $2,500-$4,500 at auction.

More Info: arstechnica.com

Leave a Reply