We bet that many of you petrolheads out there have at least once thought about that classic JDM tire shredder from Japan, that was never sold in the US or perhaps fantasized about a vintage Porsche or Land Cruiser that never sold in the States. The federal law that makes the difference between what can actually be imported to the US is known as “the 25-year rule”.
Generally, classic or antique vehicles are exempt from Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Department of Transportation (DOT) pollution and safety requirements. If the vehicle is at least 21 years old, there are no EPA compliance requirements upon importation. A motor vehicle that is at least 25 years old can be lawfully imported into the U.S. without regard to whether it complies with all applicable DOT Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS). Such a vehicle would be entered under Box 1 on the HS-7 Declaration form to be given to Customs at the time of importation. You may download a copy from our website at www.nhtsa.dot.gov/cars/rules/import. Be aware that the 25 year period runs from the date of the vehicle’s manufacture.
The origins of this unwelcome piece of legislation, naturally comes from abuse of vehicle import rights many years prior. Between 1973-1974 to be precise. You see, prior to 1966, there were no federal safety standards for cars and highways in the USA. States passed their own local laws, and in many cases, these were broadly similar from state to state, but there was no overarching national legislation. In 1966 this changed with the passing of the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act, which set national standards for everything from the fitting of seatbelts, to the vehicle lighting, markings, and barriers on roads.
This legislation was introduced as a way to reduce the spiralling number of fatalities on US roads. And it proved very successful, as by 1970 road deaths, which had been steadily increasing since the 1920s, were becoming far less frequent – although other legislation, such as outlawing drink-driving, also played a part in this. However, by this time it had become very common for US citizens to import overseas vehicles. Examples of this can be found dating back to the very earliest days of the motor car, when the likes of Mercedes-Benz and Rolls Royce established themselves as the cars to drive, but it was in the years after World War II that the practice became widespread, as US armed forces personnel started returning home with Italian sports cars, British motorcycles, and famed German saloons.
This common practice was further exacerbated by the oil crisis, which triggered an interest rate hike in the US, and as a result pushed the value of the US dollar over 50% over other currencies. That meant that your average BMW salon, with a price sticker of say $25,000 in the USA at the dealer, cost the equivalent of $15,000 (DM 48,000) in Germany for the exact same model and specification, because of the strong dollar conversion rate. Many consumers realised the speculative potential and were importing European cars for profit, often making over $10,000 per vehicle alone, thus undermining the car dealers in the US. Initially the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act made this European cars import practice more challenging, yet the process of having a non-compliant vehicle approved for import was fairly straightforward: often it was just a case of making a few simple body modifications and changing the lighting, in order to get the paperwork rubber-stamped by the Department of Transportation.
As a result, a thriving ‘grey market’ sprang up, not least because many buyers found it was actually cheaper to buy a car overseas and import it than to buy one from the manufacturer’s US operation. There were also instances where the European or Japanese model was simply more powerful – or subjectively more attractive – than its US equivalent. Both of these things hurt US sales, and by the 1980s tens of thousands of foreign-built vehicles were being privately imported each year.
Mercedes-Benz in particular realized that this ‘grey market’ importation was shedding over $300,000,000 in total US revenues between 1973-1974 alone, but also became concerned with the lacklustre modifications done to make the European spec Mercs approved for registration in the US. Hence Mercedes-Benz dealers in the US led a campaign for tighter import regulations, which came into law in 1988 as the Imported Vehicle Safety Compliance Act. This established a far more rigorous system for the inspection and registration of foreign-built vehicles, as well as establishing the principle that any necessary modifications must be carried out by a state-certified Registered Importer, not by a private individual. This had the effect of dramatically reducing the number of ‘grey market’ vehicles entering the country, as was intended: in 1995 just 300 such cars entered the US, compared to 69,000 in 1985. However, it also prevented car collectors and enthusiasts in the US from getting their hands on many coveted classic vehicles.
We have to thank the renowned thinking man’s supercar of the time, the Porsche 959, and Bill Gates who surprisingly happened to be a car collector and enthusiast who set to challenge the stiff legislation. Since the Porsche 959 was not for sale in the US it was not US compliant, with only 300 models of the coveted model being built. He bought one in Germany in 1988, to only find it locked in the dock warehouse by the US customs, because by the time it reached the port of San Francisco, the IVSCA passed and the car was no longer legal. At the same time another legendary Porsche collector and racer, Bruce Canepa was in the same predicament. So the duo set up the Special Vehicles Coalition in 1990, and long story short, spent the next 8 years challenging the law, so that in 1998 the law was amended once more, to permit the import of non-compliant vehicles that were over 25 years old.
The 1998 amendments to the 1988 Act opened up the US market to foreign cars that were over 25 years old. But in 1999 a further amendment to the law was made, allowing the import of cars that are of “historical or technological significance”. This is what’s known as the ‘Show & Display rule’. For cars to qualify under this exemption, there must be no more than 500 of them produced. Additionally, if the car is to be registered for use on public highways, the owner must be able to prove (by way of annual and/or spot-check mileage inspections) that the car is driven no more than 2,500 miles in any given year.
What this law means in practice is that, at last count, there are around 65 specific vehicles – mostly very high-end supercars and luxury grand tourers – that can be imported to be shown off at car shows, or to sit in the garage of private collectors, but not to be used as daily drivers. We can’t list all 65 of them here, but if you have deep pockets and have your heart set on a 1998-model Porsche GT1, a 2002 Nissan R34 Skyline GT-R M-Spec Nür, a Mercedes-AMG G63 6×6, or a 2003 Aston Martin One-77, this is your blessing.
Otherwise you will have to wait for the 25 years to expire before that dear car of your dreams can make it to the US. If the date of manufacture is not identified on a label permanently affixed to the vehicle by its original manufacturer, to establish the age of the vehicle, you should have documentation available such as an invoice showing the date the vehicle was first sold or a registration document showing that the vehicle was registered at least 25 years ago. Absent such information, a statement from a recognized vehicle historical society identifying the age of the vehicle could be used.
You will have to file with CBP, upon entry to United States, an EPA form 3520-1 (with a copy of title, etc. attached) and declare code “E” on that form. CBP may waive this requirement for non-residents traveling temporarily in the U.S. in Mexican or Canadian registered vehicles with no intent to sell the vehicle. You can also obtain the form by calling EPA at 734-214-4100. The importer is also required to file a DOT form HS-7, which may be available at the port of entry and can be downloaded from the DOT website or by calling the Auto Safety Hotline at 1-800-424-9393.
If the car is old enough to be exempt from DOT requirements (the same documents that would confirm this for EPA purposes should also address this issue) the importer may check the block on the HS-7 stating the vehicle does not have to confirm to DOT requirements. If the vehicle is not old enough to be exempt from DOT requirements, the importer will have to provide proof that the car conforms to DOT safety regulations. Options include a letter from the original manufacturer or a sticker on the inside of the driver’s door indicating that the car was manufactured to U.S. standards.
If the importer is unable to prove that a car conforms to DOT requirements, it will have to be imported through a Registered Importer (RI). Classic or antique vehicles are subject to a 2.5% duty rate, which is based on its worth at the time of import. Canadian-made vehicles are generally duty free, provided the importer has valid proof of its origin.
Additionally you might want to check your local state legislation with respect to classic or antique vehicles, in order to ensure all legal requirements and taxes are complied with. Good luck in bringing that coveted toy home!