Do your dreams run to that red-over-black '83 Skyline RS Turbo you saw in Tokyo Drift? You're in luck. Likewise if you've ever spent a quiet evening fawning over pictures of a Mk1 Lotus Cortina. Any car that's been on the road for 25 years is a collectors' toy in the eyes of the government, and the Feds will let it slip into the country without so much as a batted eye. It doesn't matter if it's right-hand drive or left-hand drive, has the crash survivability of a riding lawnmower, and smokes like a mosquito fogger; if the car has passed that magic quarter-century mark, it's welcomed with open arms. Arbitrary and exclusive, the twenty-five-year cutoff makes getting old cars into the country so easy that it masks a deeper truth: Bringing in anything newer than that is a cast-iron bitch.
There are two golden tickets required to get your car into the country without any fuss: The EPA certification decal and the DOT compliance sticker. The former is usually found under the hood, the latter on the drivers door jamb, and it's those two stickers — where the manufacturers themselves certify that the car meets federal emissions and safety standards, respectively — that will allow the car onto American roads without a hitch. If either of those stickers is not present, then the car is said to be nonconforming and can't be lawfully imported into the U.S. until it's brought up to code.
If fate smiles on you, the manufacturer will supply you with a letter stating that your car only needs new headlights or taillights to meet U.S. safety standards. Those types of conversions can be handled by a dealership, and the receipts for the new parts supplied to U.S. Customs as proof of compliance. This, according to several importers interviewed for this article, never happens.
The more likely scenario is that your car will need to undergo a lengthy conversion process to make it legal. In that case, you'll need to contract with a Registered Importer and pony up 150 percent of the car's declared value as a bond so that Customs can release your future ride to the RI. And that's no guarantee that your car will even be allowed in the country — the DOT wants to make sure that your imported and converted car will behave the same as an American model in a crash. Fortunately, many others have gone before you, each specific model that's come through the process successfully has been assigned a "vehicle eligibility number" — a code that certifies the car's ability to be federalized after it's been converted.
Cars that haven't yet been brought into the country require the importer to prove that a "substantially similar" model is sold in the United States, and that the converted car shares its crash structures with the American version. An old Chrysler Saratoga, should some nutjob choose to import one, can be proven to share its basic body shell with the U.S.-spec Plymouth Acclaim.
The situation gets crunchy with a car that has no equivalent in the States. Try to import a Citroën C3, for instance, and the importer will need to contract with an independent testing lab to destroy at least ten of the cars, recording data that show the frogboxes meet federal standards for front, rear, and side collisions; seat and seat belt integrity; interior trim hazards; headrest performance; and steering wheel deformation, as well as rollover resistance and roof crush integrity.
Once it's been established that the car won't bend in half or explode in a cascade of raining aluminum, the rest of its parts need to be brought up to spec. Bumpers need to be certified to pass American standards, headlamps and taillamps must be either re-engineered or swapped for DOT-certified units, side marker lights must be installed, both brake hoses and brake fluid have to be swapped out for DOT-legal versions, and tires and wheels need to bear DOT certification marks. If existing DOT-approved parts don't exist, the importer has to contract development of them out to a job shop, then send the car off to an independent lab, again, to make sure that everything from light output to hose-burst strength meets the federal standards. All of that costs money, but the expense of certifying lights is nothing compared to the last two items under the Department of Transportation's jurisdiction: airbags and window glass.
European airbags are designed to work with restrained passengers, whereas American airbags are designed to prevent an unbelted occupant from launching through the windshield. So not only do European airbags trend smaller in size than American units, they deploy with less force as well. Unless the manufacturer can certify that the airbags installed in its car meet DOT standards, more powerful pieces will need to be upfitted. And once those are installed, it's off to the testing lab again to run another car into the wall.
Window glass is one of those items that looks straightforward enough, but is tightly controlled by the DOT. Known to regulatory types as "glazing," the department regulates not only the color and shatter resistance of auto glass, but also the certification markings — the "DOT" stamps on the side windows and A↓S on the windshield to denote lamination — that must be on every window in the car. Every piece of glass on the car needs to bear those certifications; rather than buy new, most importers will scour American junkyards to get the approved windows they need. Some pieces simply don't exist and need to be custom-made, at a cost approximating that of an aircraft carrier.
Did we mention that your Registered Importer of choice has only 120 days to complete all this work before the car needs to be certified, destroyed, or exported?
You're not through yet. With the DOT certification out of the way, the EPA has its say in what can and can't come into the country. If your car is fewer than 21 years old, you'll need to deal with an EPA-certified Independent Commercial Importer. It's the ICI's job to make sure your fully crashworthy but nonconforming car is brought into harmony with EPA emissions standards. And the EPA doesn't want the car driven on the street until all of its conversion work is done, so, for cars that need emissions work, U.S. Customs can only release a nonconforming car to an ICI. Given that the 120-day time frame necessary to complete all the DOT compliance work begins ticking down from the moment the car is picked up at the port, most reputable EPA-certified Independent Commercial Importers are also DOT Registered Importers.
The litany of nonconforming parts seems carved in stone and navigating the labyrinthine bureaucracy appears to be, as far as pleasant experiences go, the equivalent of chewing a mouthful of bubblegum studded with sand. But there's no reason to jump in a tub with a toaster just yet. There are three exemptions that the government has granted which allow nonconforming cars to be brought in with a minimum of fuss, provided you're not just looking for a new daily driver.
The federal government threw a bone to us enthusiasts on August 13, 1999, when the "show and display" exemption went into effect. If the car you're looking at importing isn't in production, doesn't have a vehicle exemption number already, isn't a kit car, and had a production run of fewer than 500 examples, you can petition the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to allow a one-time exemption for your car of "historical or technological significance." You'll still need to fork over the cash to bring the car into EPA compliance, and you'll be limited to 2500 miles annually, but the "show and display" law has opened the doors to hordes of Porsche 959s, Jaguar XJ220s, and others of their ilk that weren't previously allowed stateside.
You can also get the government's blessing to bring in a race-only car, provided that it was designed as a race car and isn't just a street car with a harness. Cars that were designed exclusively as track rats are granted a permanent visa, while cars that have been converted into racing machines get a five-year pass if you petition NHTSA and send them pictures of racing features that render the car unusable on the street. A simple fruit basket also goes a long way. At the end of its stay, you're given the option of exporting it back or sending it to the crusher. Which, given the life that most racing cars endure, is probably going to be a non-issue after five seasons.
Off-road vehicles, or vehicles that are primarily designed for off-road use, are outside the jurisdiction of NHTSA and can be brought in without any problems. The only hitch is that the definition of an "off-road vehicle" is large enough to park a Pinzgauer on. A fiberglass-body dune buggy might be considered an off-road vehicle under the definition of the law, but unless you happen to have stumbled upon a very lenient Customs agent, chances are you'll be limited to just quads and dirt bikes.
Your last option, of course, is to import a container full of parts and convert your existing car to look like its European or Japanese counterparts. While of dubious legality, all those non-DOT parts that need to be pitched during the DOT conversion process can be imported free and clear, as long as they're not attached to a car. And even the car they came from can be brought over without a fuss, as long as the parts that fall under the DOT's and EPA's jurisdictions have been removed. According to the relevant laws, once those bits have been removed the shell ceases to be a "vehicle" and transforms into "an assemblage of vehicle-related parts" that just happen to be welded together.
Granted, that would mean a car with no windows, seat belts, seats, lights, tires, wheels, engine, transmission, brakes, or brake hoses (all of which, by the way, can be imported separately, just not in the same cargo container as the body). But then, why bring rationality into the process this late in the game? Importing a non-American car is a labor of love, and in this instance we enthusiasts will gladly play the fools.