No Import For You: The Two States Where You Can't Have A Skyline

In my guide on importing a JDM car I explained the difference between a car being federally legal for import versus being state legal for registration. As you could gather from the guide, there are a lot of legal hoops you have to jump through before you can own a Skyline in the USA and unfortunately the mess you have to navigate changes from state to state.

Two states in particular need to be singled out but I didn't have time to elaborate in my original guide. Those two are California and Hawaii – funny how two states with some of the closest ties to Japanese culture have put up the biggest roadblocks to cars imported from that country.

Godzilla Versus The Smog Monster
California needs to get its priorities straight. Image credit:

Let's start with California, since the import car scene is so strongly associated with it and a lot of prospective Skyline owners live there. As you probably well know, California has had major issues with air pollution and in the process of cleaning things up they established CARB – the California Air Resources Board. CARB is literally and figuratively a four-letter word for many car enthusiasts because they dictate emissions laws in the state and so they've made a lot of performance modifications difficult or impossible in California. The rules have their place – after all the golden state had huge issues with smog before – but they do put a damper on what gearheads can do.

For most of the other 49 states, EPA guidelines usually set the standard for emissions regulations but CARB adds an extra layer of restrictions. Basically, if you want to register a car newer than 1975 in California it has to be certified by the manufacturer to meet the state emissions requirements or you have to pay a lab to test it and give a certification if it's a "direct import" - a foreign car not sold in the US (your Skyline for example).

Unfortunately we're not talking here about a simple smog check at your corner emissions testing place, it's done by a specialist lab and costs about $1500 a pop, pass or fail. The RB26 was designed before current stricter emissions standards so without modification, it will fail (emissions are one big reason Nissan changed to the VR38 motor for the R35). If you do fail and you modify the car to try and pass, it's another 1500 smackers to retest. The modifications themselves add a large amount to the bill since it means adding additional catalytic converters to the exhaust system – that all has to be custom fabricated since there's no existing bolt-on solution.

If you can modify your car to pass the initial emissions test then you still have to do a regular smog check every 2 years or else you can't maintain a valid registration (unless you live in a smog exempt locality).

So, for Califonia, registering a newer-model JDM Skyline is potentially doable but at a large expense – in Hawaii, the state regulations put up a roadblock that prevents it entirely.

Hawaii Two-Three

In the land of leis, beaches, and active volcanoes, the Nissan Skyline is one foreign visitor that the local government doesn't say “Aloha!” to. That's because the state regulations only allow for a car to be registered there if it has a FMVSS label. That's the little sticker I've mentioned before in other posts that's commonly referred to as the “Fed label”.

This label basically gives the cars VIN number and specifications and tells an inspector, buyer, or innocent bystanders that the car meets current US government automobile standards. As you already know since the Skyline is a JDM model that was never officially imported to the US it doesn't have a little sticker that says “My name is Barrack Obama, and I approve this mad-tyte vehicle”. Unfortunately, section 567.4 of Hawaii's motor vehicle statutes say that any car to be registered in the state has to have a label from the manufacturer saying it meets all applicable FMVSS requirements - so without a Fed label you're not getting your Skyline registered in the 50th state.

If you want to read the actual statutes, Sean Morris posted them on one of his blogs here:

Well, Maybe You CAN Have One...

Where does that leave the fan of fine Japanese automotive workmanship then? If you live in California or Hawaii does that mean you have to give up on your dream of JDM car ownership and suffer in your sad, pathetic states that only have gorgeous scenery, good-looking residents, and wonderful weather but no amazing Japanese machinery to boast of?

Well, no. You do have potential solutions.

You could always move out. Okay, that's probably not the popular option. I kid, I kid.

For California, you can of course wade through the convoluted certification process and eventually own a properly emissions-legal Skyline after considerable time and expense. The only other alternative is what a lot of people do, register their cars in a different state. Of course, that's not really on the up-and-up so don't blame anyone else if the local constabulary happens to stop you and in the process you earn a large hit to the wallet and the undying affection of your neighborhood police officers.

In Hawaii, the situation seems more bleak (you'd really stick out like a sore thumb with an out-of-state plate on islands hundreds of miles from the rest of the US) but there is one tiny spark of hope. Since a car imported and certified by a registered importer has to have a label affixed in the process, this meets the letter of the law in Hawaii. What this means is that if you can find one, a Motorex imported Skyline is technically legal to register in Hawaii. A 25-year old federally exempt car won't be an option but the handful of Motorex cars could be. Of course, that's an expensive option given their rarity but at least it's an option.

Lastly, there's always the chance that legislation can change. If you live in either state, you could petition your local politicians to amend the laws. There was one such petition for Hawaii before that failed to gain traction. Now that more and more people are interested in being JDM car owners the present time may be the right opportunity to try again.

With that said, if you're a JDM car fan living in either of these two states, I wish you the best of luck and hope someday you'll be able to own a foreign import of your own. Or if you've found some LEGAL way to get your JDM car registered in either state feel free to post it in the comments for the benefit of other like-minded enthusiasts.

UPDATE (November 24, 2015) - International Vehicle Importers is now offering California-legal conversions for R32s and other JDM cars. More details in my post here



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