Godzilla Versus The Banhammer: The Sad Tale of Motorex and The Legal Status of R33s and 34s
When I wrote my guide to legally importing JDM cars I mentioned the famous Motorex saga only very briefly. I figured that many other people have already written about what happened and the current status of R33 and R34 Skylines that it wasn't worth making my guide more lengthy and potentially more confusing by repeating previous info. During my time on the various GT-R and Skyline forums I keep seeing people that are misinformed or have misconceptions about the whole deal though so I figured I'd go ahead and do my own post and hopefully help enlighten more people about it.
|Image credit: Amazon.com|
I'd been following the Motorex saga since the very beginning and I distinctly remember a much younger version of myself still living in the Philippines but dreaming of moving to America and buying a Skyline R34 after reading the issue of Sport Compact Car in the picture. Sadly Motorex went bust before I had the opportunity to get my then dream car. I knew the basics of what happened but after delving into the details further when I got my R32 I found the whole thing was far more fascinating than just a company founded on a dream but ultimately failing. The whole story is an epic of fast cars, easy money, and criminal activity that sounds straight out of a Hollywood screenplay.
The Epic Of Motorex
So, let's start from the beginning – what the heck is a Motorex and is it edible? Well, Motorex was a company that existed from 1998 to 2006 in Gardena, California (no relation to a Swiss motor oil company that has the same name) and was started by a guy named Hiroaki Nanahoshi – Hiro for short. Nanahoshi was a transplant to SoCal from Japan and worked for a company doing grey-market export of American cars and vans to the land of the rising sun until the economic bubble burst and the yen took a nosedive in the late 90s. At that time Hiro had made some connections including the owner of a large dealership in Japan called Mr. Sawami who at the time was looking to stash some money overseas. After convincing Sawami to loan him a million dollars as startup money and taking on two partners, Nanahoshi formed Motorex.
Motorex applied to become a registered importer (RI) with the US Department of Transportation (DOT) and began the long process of getting approval to import Nissan Skylines. The initial process was normal but as time went by Motorex became a tangled story of deception, greed, mismanagement, and broken promises.
At first Motorex imported R33 Skylines to do crash testing and other compliance work. To complete the needed certification package Motorex contracted an established RI named JK Technologies on the East Coast that had successfully imported European sports cars previously. JK did the crash testing and established the necessary modifications needed to make the cars comply with both DOT and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) standards.
In late 1999 Motorex got their first bond release – a letter from the DOT that basically says they found no issues with a car's federal compliance – and legalized their first R33. This should have been the watershed point in a new era of legal Godzillas in the land of the free but instead this is where things started to go south until it ended in a perfect shitstorm of illegal activity.
Motorex started bringing in a lot of Skylines to its Gardena warehouse. At this point R33s were the only ones that should have been legal since they were the only ones crash tested, however Motorex made a fib in its application and claimed that 1990-1999 GTS and GT-R Skylines had substantially similar safety features. Obviously not having played Gran Turismo before, the Feds accepted this claim at first and didn't realize this time period covered three very different generations of Skyline from the R32 all the way to the R34.
The dawn of legal Skylines in America brought Motorex a lot of notoriety and the company became famous in import circles. Hiro started spending more and more money to party hard and party often – usually hanging out at Japanese hostess bars and eventually doing drugs. In the meantime Motorex was having a hard time making ends meet and fulfilling orders. Legalizing the cars was a lengthy and costly process and in the end a lot of sales they made barely turned a profit. Key employees started to leave because of Nanahoshi's partying and after a while Motorex started to release cars even without performing the modifications it was required by law to make. Debt started to pile up around the company like it would with a teenager left alone with the internet and daddy's Visa Black Card.
The whole thing came to a head when the DOT caught wind of Motorex releasing cars without proper legalization and eventually rescinded Motorex's license as an RI in early 2006. At this time Nanahoshi was broke and became desperate, eventually ending up in a criminal case involving cars supposedly stolen from Motorex's warehouse and an adjoining tuner shop, as well as assault on an associate of his that led to a cross-state manhunt and Hiro's arrest on financial and assault charges. He was apparently released after the associate was found to be involved in the car thefts and disappeared after that and never heard from again. The final outcome has shades of Keyser Soze in The Usual Suspects.
In the aftermath, DOT reviewed the details of the compliance packet that Motorex submitted and rescinded the legality of the R32 and R34 over the similarity subterfuge. A revised ruling said R33s were still considered eligible for import but with a hitch – more on that in a bit. The few R32 and R34 Skylines that Motorex had been able to bring in before the apocalypse hit were grandfathered in and allowed to stay because they were imported prior to the revised decision.
After all was said and done the DOT released VCP-32 in 2006 which was the ruling that amended their previous decision on the legality of the Nissan Skyline – that ruling was VCP-17. In VCP-32 the DOT essentially said that R33 GTS and GT-R models made between January 1996 and June 1998 were still eligible for import as long as they could be made to conform with federal standards by an RI but R33s built outside that timeframe and the R32 and R34 were no longer eligible.
Why just that timeframe? Because that's the period where R33s came with standard driver side airbags that were required to conform to the crash-test regulations for which Motorex got them certified. Prior to that time R33s and R32s didn't have airbags as standard equipment – the regulations don't allow for optional airbags.
The ruling also maintained that the information on the modifications Motorex and JK Technologies did to make the cars conform were protected trade secrets. Eventually however the confidentiality period lapsed and in 2008 DOT released the information on the needed modifications to make a Skyline R33 conform to Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS).
So that means I can bring in an R33 legally if I just print out that info packet and take it to my friendly neighborhood RI and wag a roll of Benjies in his face right? Hold your horses, kimosabe. Here we get to the hitch I mentioned – the DOT released the details on the required FMVSS modifications but these are only to get the car to conform to safety standards, not emissions standards. Because the cars in question were built after 1996 and are less than 21 years old (if you read my guide you'll know 21 years is the EPA exemption, not 25) they're still subject to the Environmental Protection Agency's requirement that all such cars have OBD-II diagnostic systems and the only company that has the information needed to install such a system is JK Technologies who continued in business even after Motorex went belly up. Being a legit business with no drugs, hostesses, and possible yakuza ties likely helped with that.
So if JK Technologies is the Official Skyline SecretkeeperTM I'll just wave my Benjies at THEM. Simples! Again, not so fast, young grasshopper. As you might expect from this whole saga of sex, lies, and Federal red tape, the answers are far from straightforward.
Skyline Is A Four-Letter Word
Each individual car less than 25 years old that someone attempts to legalize through an RI has to have a data package sent in documenting the modifications done and the results of emissions testing. Only after that's reviewed does the car get its bond release. The RI has only 120 days to do the needed modifications and all expenses up until then are shouldered by the person importing. If the bond release is denied then the prospective owner has to ship the car out of the country or else it can be subject to seizure and then either sold at auction to be exported, or crushed.
Right away you should see a problem with this. You could spend tens of thousands of dollars bringing in an R33 of your choice then modifying it to conform to the regulations only for the DOT to deny your approval and have all that money go up in smoke.
As anyone who's had to deal with the government before for special approval on something will know, the fate of your application can sometimes hinge on how many levels of hell your appointed government worker feels like putting you through - and in the case of Skylines it doesn't help that the whole Motorex fiasco has left a bad taste in the DOT and EPA's mouths.
After the drama ended, JK Technologies actually tried to petition for crash testing and type approval for the R34 but the DOT denied their request. Given that denial and the considerable effort and expense needed to legalize an R33 with no guarantee of success JK Technologies hasn't been interested in doing more Skyline importation.
In the end, the whole affair caused such disdain for Skylines in government circles that the DOT has repeatedly cracked down and seized black market cars including the highly-publicized Kaizo fiasco – which is a whole other story in itself.
Which leaves us with the current situation: if you want an R32, you're a lucky bastard – go buy one now. For an R34, you're SOL unless you have baller money and can find a Motorex owner who's foolish enough to part with one. If you do, prepare to choke up $110 thousand or more. For the R33, you're still SOL outside of the odd Motorex car (for $50 grand and up) but light is at least at the end of the tunnel, in 2018 the first ones will be eligible for import under the 25 year rule. That's 3 years away still but hey, time flies and I'm sure you can occupy yourself in the meantime with another car – and maybe the odd hooker or two like our friend Hiro so many moons ago.
UPDATE: As of October 2015 Rivsu Imports in Florida managed to successfully get JK Technologies to import an R33 GT-R for them. I've added a post on that here: