Buying Your Own JDM Car Part 1: One Shade of Grey (What's Legal And What's Not)

Okay, so you’ve got a burning desire to get your hands on an authentic piece of Japanese awesomeness like yesterday but don’t know where to begin. Well, let’s do some ‘splainin then.

There's a lot to know about the process of acquiring an imported car so we'll divide this topic into several posts in order to be as informative as possible while trying to keep you interested enough and avoid TL:DR syndrome. The info I'm going to give you is compiled from my own experience with my imported Skyline, interviewing people who import them, and various articles online and in print.

First off, let's clear up some terms. When I mention a “JDM” car I mean Japanese Domestic Market which you probably already know but when I say it here on this blog I'm referring to a car made for sale locally in Japan, not a Japanese car made for sale elsewhere. Also, let's clear up “grey market” versus “black market” vehicles. Grey market cars are imported cars that weren't normally sold here but brought in through LEGAL channels. Black market cars are ILLEGALLY sold period. “White market”, if you're curious, is the standard manufacturer sales network which is usually your neighborhood car dealer. This is important because people will hear grey market and think it's something illegal. No it's not and you might have your new JDM car referred to as such so don't be offended or alarmed by it.

Let’s talk about what cars are LEGAL ‘cause I assume you want one that is. If you don’t, I probably can’t help you with that. My friend Guido might. He’ll probably ask you to bring cash in small, unmarked bills though…and I hope you don’t mind getting strip searched.

Anyway, currently there are only three ways to own a legal JDM car here in the States

  1. It’s 25 years old or older
  2. It’s rare and historic and can qualify under “show or display” rules
  3. Have it be made compliant to Federal law by a registered importer.
The reason why number 1 exists is because any car sold in the US has to comply with regulations set forth by both the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA, a branch of the Department of Transportation or DOT) which govern standard features it must have, and by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that dictate emissions regulations it has to meet.
 NOT a legal Skyline despite what the sign says

Thanks to Mercedes who back in the 1980s lobbied the US government for regulations that prohibited sales of grey market cars in the US to protect sales at their own local dealerships we have the “25-year rule”.

Basically, for a car to be eligible to be exempted from NHTSA’s regulations for road-legal cars it has to be older than 25 years since it was built. The EPA has a similar exemption which is 21 years or older. Any car that can be eligible for NHTSA exemption is already old enough to meet the EPA standard too – unless you’ve got some really weird time-travel crap going on like if maybe if Doc Brown built you a time machine out of an Autozam AZ-1 instead of a DeLorean. In which case, that’s awesome man. Bring me next month’s lotto numbers when you have a chance okay?

It's important to know however that the 21-year EPA exemption is only for cars “in original configuration”. This requirement can be kind of vague but simply put the car has to have its original engine type with no blatantly obvious tampering with the emissions equipment – so forget about that RB-swapped S13 with the straight pipe my friend. A normal S13 is fine though. Just swap in the RB later :)

So, in short, if you want a JDM car it has to be older than 25 years of age or else no go. By the way, the NHTSA exemption means just that, you're exempted from the NHTSA rules that govern the standard features a car should have had at that period so let's clear up a misconception here - you don't HAVE TO MODIFY AN EXEMPTED CAR. It's commonly believed that you have to change the headlights or the glass or whatever to legalize a JDM car but that applies to those under option 3 which I'll explain later, not 25-year old cars.

On to option #2. Under the “show or display” criteria, the NHTSA allows cars newer than 25 years to come in if they are “historically or technologically significant” enough. By that they mean it has to have enough significance to the GENERAL PUBLIC like winning a bunch of races or pioneering a radical new technology. If you went to Japan five years ago and snogged a girl in the back of a Toyota Hiace that may be historically significant to you but I’m afraid not to the NHTSA.

Limited production is a criteria too, with less than 500 examples being the upper limit generally.

Unfortunately, few JDM cars are considered to meet this criteria and the ones that do will be hard to find and more expensive. My Nismo R32 was one because of that version’s motorsport history and limited numbers built. In fact my car was brought in under that exemption but only sold as a 25 year car because show or display limits you to driving just 2500 miles per year. Which is kind of a hassle.

Even if you have a car that is historically significant it has to be on an approved list the NHTSA makes or else you’ll have to petition for it to be added, which takes a lot of work and time. If a car is on the list then each example brought in has to be approved by the NHTSA on a case by case basis meaning that even if my Nismo R32 #167 got approval, if someone else brought in #168 before it was 25 years old then it would have needed its own separate approval. With 25 year old cars, the NHTSA doesn’t need to approve individual cars.

If you want more info on show or display let me direct you to this website by my friend Sean Morris who is the guru of Skyline importation and an expert on show or display:

Number three is only an option if you’re made of money, have a lot of time, and know how to wade through a lot of bureaucratic red tape. Basically, it’s like what a regular car manufacturer has to do to certify a new car for sale. You have to do crash testing, emissions, etc etc to prove your car can meet current NHTSA standards. That’s how Motorex brought in Skylines years ago but they used a loophole at the time that's since been closed. You could theoretically try and duplicate what they did but you’ll spend a ton of money to do so since you have to start from scratch and you'll have no guarantee it’ll be approved. Also in theory R33 GT-Rs can still be made to comply because of the work Motorex did but since the required modifications are basically protected trade secrets no one currently has the capability to do so.

So, if a car is 25 years old it’s legal right? So my friend that’s selling me that Skyline he has in his back yard that came in from Canada is all good right? He’s got a Florida title man! I mean, it smells a little funny and has these weird bags of powder in the trunk but it’s a Skyline! It’s even got a sticker of Calvin peeing on the back window, how American is that?

Woah. Hold your horses, cowboy. Yes, that car may be old enough to meet the exemption criteria but it’s only legal if it went through the right process. Just because it’s old enough doesn’t mean Uncle Sam automatically approves it - just like how living in the US for long enough doesn’t make you automatically a citizen if you were born in Northern Bungholeistan.

For a JDM car to be legal (actually any car here in the US really) it has to be legal both federally and at a state level, not just one or the other. A state title doesn’t automatically mean it’s federally legal since many black market cars are titled in states with loose registration laws like Florida. State titles DON’T take precedence over federal legalization requirements so you can’t use it as a defense against the Feds taking your car. For a car to be federally legal it has to have been imported correctly and have the right paperwork. If the car you’re looking at is legal then the seller should be able to show you papers to satisfy you that it’s legit. We’ll go over what papers those are later on but if the seller starts twiddling his thumbs and saying “Umm” a lot when you ask then it’s better to walk away. You could buy a car like that and drive it for a while but you’ll never know when Uncle Sam will decide to seize your vehicle and give you a free dose of humiliation in the process. Whatever money you paid will be gone unless you can find the seller and sue him – which is probably as likely as me winning the Miss Universe pageant. Many cars have been seized by the Feds for woozey documentation so buyer beware.

And that concludes this long-ass post on what cars are considered legal. If I haven't rendered you comatose yet then come back for the next post about the buying process.

UPDATE (9/16/15): I've added a later post explaining the unique situation for JDM cars in California and Hawaii. Please go to this link if you live in those states: