On Thursday, U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials in New Jersey presided over of a 2000 Mini Cooper illegally imported into the country.
The vehicle, too new to be brought in under our nation's 25-or-older import laws, was found to be wearing a falsified 1988 VIN. It was seized from its owner and crushed in front of reporters to, , "highlight safety standards."
Bullshit. This vehicle–and more importantly, its owner–are just two more victims in the long and shameful history of America's crony, draconian laws banning importation of foreign-market cars. This needs to end.
The AP report explains that the crushed Cooper was seized as part of "Operation Atlantic," a partnership between U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials and their U.K. counterparts to track down and punish owners of illegally imported vehicles.
Over the summer, Homeland Security officials in a similar dragnet. These are just the latest chapters in a story well known to any U.S. car enthusiast who pines for a model that was never officially sold on these shores.
In broad strokes, every story is roughly the same. An import company brings in non-U.S.-market, desirable vehicles, swearing up and down that they've mastered the byzantine bylaws and reams of paperwork required to do so legally. Buyers believe them, and purchase these forbidden fruits, and then somewhere down the line the whole thing unravels. When it does, whoever owns the cars in question finds federal agents knocking at their doors. The cars meet their demise in a scrapyard, pulverized completely to ensure that not one offending component can be salvaged or re-sold. Like this (it's tough to watch):
The owners? Well, they're out however much they spent buying, maintaining, or restoring the car in question–whether they knew the car was illegal or not.
That's the most troubling part here: the vehicles aren't seized and sent back to wherever they came from. They're not dismantled. They're not impounded for auction or held for a fine. They're crushed, regardless of how rare, valuable, or culturally significant they might be.
There are many problems with this scenario. Shady shell companies crop up all the time, promising to get you that R32 Nissan Skyline GT-R you've always wanted before it hits the federally-required 25 years of age. Ebay and Craigslist are littered with gray-market imports, registered in states where you can get a plate and a title for just about anything. Some of these importers work hard to jump through the hoops of the incredibly narrow "Show And Display" exception. Many just flout the law, grab the cash, and disappear.
Our problem isn't with the authorities tasked with enforcing these laws. We're certain that every owner of a VIN-swapped imported offender swears they didn't know they were in violation, whether or not that's actually true.
Our problem is with the law that makes this enforcement necessary in the first place. It's touted as protecting American drivers from cars that don't meet our country's crash-safety requirements, but as anyone who's researched the gray market can tell you, that's not why it came about. It was written by automakers and lobbyists to prevent folks from, say, buying a Mercedes in Germany and shipping it here for less than what it would cost to buy from a U.S. dealer.
The only foreign-market cars you can bring to these shores are those a quarter-century old or more. And if you get bamboozled by a shady importer, or think you can outsmart Johnny (Federal) Law, you run the risk of your car being Customs and Border Protection's latest photo-op, like this Defender was:
How can you avoid this? How can you get the unique, foreign-market vehicle you so deeply desire without breaking federal laws? Frankly, you can't. And we think that needs to change.
What if, instead of the current 25-year waiting period, our government dropped it to 15? That's the law of the land in Canada, and it seems to strike a pretty reasonable balance. At 15 years old, an imported specialty car isn't likely to be bought by an unknowing non-enthusiast. The market for 15-year-old GT-Rs, Minis, Kei cars, Defenders, and the like is narrow, populated by the kinds of gearheads who know exactly what they're getting into. No clueless parent will accidentally drive off the lot in a Brazil-built VW Bus thinking it's as safe as a used Camry or Accord.
For the rest of us, a 15-year waiting period is still plenty long enough to keep us from undercutting the car manufacturers. Give us a reasonable, legal, straightforward way to bring the cars we love to the nation we call home, and stop the system that both created the gray market and destroys the vehicles brought in by that market.
This is immigration reform that every car enthusiast can get behind.