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Are Gray Market Cars in the US still a thing?
March 28, 2014 3:18 PM   Subscribe

Back in the 1980s, I remember a lot of older (richer) friends in Southern California were obsessed with gray market cars, importing special German versions of BMW and Porsche cars to the US and driving them. I haven't heard the term used in ages and there are TONS of Euro-spec cars I wish I could get in the US. Does this still happen? Or is it prohibitively expensive on both ends these days? Or is there some other reason?

Mostly, this is me wishing I could get more diesel versions of cars than the ~dozen or so available here (in Europe, everything comes in a diesel option). Some of the really exciting options are stuff like Volvo's plugin hybrid diesel you can't buy here.

Is it a problem of regulations for air emissions? (I'm in rural-ish Oregon where we don't have smog checks at all)

Is it a problem of cost? (too expensive over there plus shipping costs on top?)

Is it a DMV issue? (will I be able to get license plates for it or will they block it as a non-US car?)

Is it that cars are way too complex now? (servicing would be impossible since dealers aren't trained for non-US models and parts would be too expensive to replace?)
posted by mathowie to Travel & Transportation (15 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
 
Safety and environmental certification is an expensive process, and road use of vehicles newer than 25 years which have not passed federal standards is prohibited.

Wikipedia has a writeup of the issue on the "grey import vehicle" article.
posted by richyoung at 3:38 PM on March 28


Essentially, it is usually way too much work and expense to make it worthwhile unless you are A) rich or B) only looking for a track vehicle.

Here's a run-down of what you need to do in CT. I'm sure Oregon is similar.

Basically, you need to prove that your car meets Federal crash standards and Federal emissions standards.
To do the crash tests, you need to have (IIRC) at least two of the exact model and year, modified to meet DOT standards (US seatbelts, airbags, etc).
All the testing is done at your expense.

Similarly, with EPA standards, it may require extensive engine modification (especially with an engine not originally sold in the US). Engine swaps are not allowed.
Again, this is all done at your expense.

Having done all that, you may then find that an insurance company won't insure it, requiring you to get "rare" or "vehicle of interest" insurance, which costs.

(Random trivia, The crash testing is the reason why Bill Gates and Paul Allen's Porsche 959s sat on a dock in Seattle for a decade)
posted by madajb at 3:46 PM on March 28 [1 favorite]


I should add that it is possible (if you know a guy who knows a guy at the DMV) to get a car registered without going through all of the above.
That's how quite a few imports cars in Southern California get registered.

But it's very illegal, and if you're caught, your car will be sent to the crusher.
(Also at your expense).
posted by madajb at 3:50 PM on March 28


Ya... about that crash test thing... Or you could just contact the car mfg or importer for the letter stating it meets epa and highway safety standards.... Since a great deal of cars are worldwide platforms and made to meet a variety of specs.

This is per a variety of importers and the CBP website for vehicles under 25 years.... The crash test thing is "a thing" but may NOT be an issue.
posted by chasles at 3:55 PM on March 28


If the car is >25yrs old, is it much easier?
posted by mathowie at 3:56 PM on March 28 [2 favorites]


Once the car passes the 25 year old mark it is way, way easier, largely just a matter of administrative paperwork.

There are some interesting ways around it, all illegal but it has happened. And the way the dmv works in Oregon (outside of Portland emission testing) its possible. You get a model that is imported in the US (say a bmw 3 series) but not optioned as it is in the US (say a diesel engine or manual transmission not offered in the US) but it is in Canada. You then modify the VIN number so it will pass a cursory US inspection that pretty much looks at the VIN number and model type only (this requires serious insider information and is a FEDERAL FELONY and the customs office does not like this at all when you get caught).

I say this because there are couple of rare Nissans running around Eugene that this is the only way they got in (they are seriously weird retro japanese model cars, I bet bribery was also involved at some point).
posted by bartonlong at 4:22 PM on March 28


Vehicles older than 25 years are exempted from Federal Safety Standards (and i think) EPA standards.
You can also check to see if the car you want has already been ruled eligible for importation.

The thing to do, if you are really serious, is to contact a Registered Importer and see what they say about the car you want.
Looks like there is one in Beaverton.
posted by madajb at 4:24 PM on March 28 [1 favorite]


A far easier way, still illegal but not so much likely to get noticed, is to get the car you want, say that same bmw 3 series with a gas engine, buy an imported diesel crate engine (BTW so far as I know BMW doesn't sell crate engines) and retrofit it in. Still really, really expensive and difficult but not so much as smuggling in a black market car and getting it registered successfully.
posted by bartonlong at 4:25 PM on March 28


BMW does this as a Thing, so I'd assume they pre-vet the cars' importability. I knew someone who did this: it was essentially a 2-week European vacation with their own car, which was then dropped off and shipped by sea back to America, for less than you pay in the US. As it was explained to me, it saves BMW money because they're then shipping your used goods rather than new goods or something something. I also don't know if you can get Euro models, or if you're limited to what's already offered in America.
posted by The Michael The at 4:25 PM on March 28 [2 favorites]


Yeah, that's actually what prompted this question The Michael The.

I saw a new Volvo had that European Delivery option, where you fly over, drive for a week, then ship it home. The whole thing comes out as a wash because you're an American buying a European car but not for use in Europe so you skip the super high VAT taxes, saving you about $5k off the US price even, and the trip costs about $5k so they call it a "free" trip.

I was thinking there must be some stiff regulations on US-spec cars only for the VAT reasons, and there's probably no way to get a Euro-only car through that program, hence this question. Modifying a VIN sounds pretty sketchy, I guess if I ever considered this, I'd look at older cars (like that super tiny nissan convertible from the early 90s).
posted by mathowie at 4:33 PM on March 28


Is it a problem of regulations for air emissions? (I'm in rural-ish Oregon where we don't have smog checks at all)

It would if you lived where the DEQ cares; but the real issue is that gray market imports have no clearance for EPA standards, even if they exceed them.

Is it a problem of cost? (too expensive over there plus shipping costs on top?)

Yeah, it gets expensive to do a car to the west coast…import fees withstanding just dry weight it costs like $4-5k +/- to get a car sized object over here…not a huge cost, but it's there. The real cost is going to be the fact that you most likely won't be able to get a legitimate loan on the car, because it doesn't exist in the US. Your insurance rates will also be a bit more expensive and most certainly more byzantine than regular insurance.

Is it that cars are way too complex now? (servicing would be impossible since dealers aren't trained for non-US models and parts would be too expensive to replace?)

This wouldn't necessarily be an unsolvable problem, just a hurdle. Mechanics can get paperwork and documentation on anything these days. Especially if you're talking VW's or Volvos in Oregon. The guys over at Heckmann & Thieman and IPD, respectively, would gladly freak out and work on your car for you.

If the car is >25yrs old, is it much easier?

Much, MUCH easier. Here's a link to the Fed's Customs requirements for vehicles. I've brought over motorcycles from Europe, and its not really fun, its alot of forms and customs stuff, but nothing really hard. It does take quite a bit of time.

I'm in Oregon too, and I've dealt with this with motorcycles…which are a bit easier because the DEQ here doesn't do smog checks on bikes, and DMV clerks rarely want to deal with motorcycle issues for some reason. But, Gray market imports are a thing, but they're a bit hard to do. It's REALLY easy to do if the vehicle is over 25 years old; they consider it a vintage vehicle, and don't require much in the way of safety and smog documentation for it to work.

I'm not saying you should do this, but one thing you can do, and that I've seen done before is pulling the engine from the body of the vehicle and having them imported separately as parts.

This has a tendency to work better with vintage, odd vehicles, because once they're back together, the DMV here in Oregon doesn't really want to deal with your weird-ass shit, and they sort of wave you through (depending on the day, YMMV).

A far easier way, still illegal but not so much likely to get noticed, is to get the car you want, say that same bmw 3 series with a gas engine, buy an imported diesel crate engine (BTW so far as I know BMW doesn't sell crate engines) and retrofit it in. Still really, really expensive and difficult but not so much as smuggling in a black market car and getting it registered successfully.

If you have your vehicle rebranded in Oregon as 'reconstructed' or legally 'custom' vehicle, this is perfectly legal. This isn't even a loophole; if your 1975 Vespa shits it's pants and you buy a new engine from europe that has an actual manufacture date of 2012, you just get to register it as reconstructed. Your insurance issues are forever a shitshow however, and regardless of the vehicle, you'll need special insurance. People do this with vintage Landcruisers quite often; you get yourself a diesel engine from Australia and do a swap.

But you are right, this is rarely going to be noticed in Oregon, as we don't do inspections, and even if you went through DEQ, you'd only be giving them your license plate and the vin off your registration, not off your engine.
posted by furnace.heart at 4:35 PM on March 28 [1 favorite]


The Michael The The way you're saving money on European delivery is that (I believe) Germany gives manufacturers an incentive for it to make the sale in Germany.

In other words you purchase the car and take delivery in Germany in exchange for a 7% discount on the purchase price. If the car is expensive enough that 7% ** discount amount will pay for the trip to acquire the car.


** (this is the amount of the discount I know for Mercedes offers)
posted by eatcake at 4:37 PM on March 28


The biggest issue with imports is federal certification: if a model doesn't have any kind of US market presence, and thus no federal paperwork on file, then it's going to be really hard to bring in. As madajb noted upthread, there's a list of nonconforming vehicles eligible for import maintained by the NTSA: they're mainly 90s-era models that are pretty similar to ones sold in the US.

American military personnel have access to sales agents, which is unsurprisingly popular for those stationed in Germany, and all the models sold through those schemes are pre-approved for US import and California standards. Looking at the BMW site covering military sales, I see that 1 Series models are still listed, even though they're no longer on sale in the US; if the next generation isn't sold in the US at all, they probably won't be available for import.
posted by holgate at 6:17 PM on March 28


Or you could just contact the car mfg or importer for the letter stating it meets epa and highway safety standards

This is almost impossible to do now. They don't want to do it for liability reasons even if they really are essentially identical. I've heard of, and even seen posts on here from people who tried to do this simply with cars from canada.
posted by emptythought at 6:30 PM on March 28


Grey market imports were more of a thing in the '80s when European crash and emissions standards were lesser than in the US and small market manufacturers didn't go to the expense of fitting certain cars with catalytic converters, etc. Now that Euro standards are as, or more, strict, it's much less of an issue now.

Diesel emission standards are still a big sticking point between the markets, but there isn't as much cachet in importing relatively sedate sedans than in the go-go 80's Ferraris and BMWs, so importers don't have as much of a market. There are a few shops that Federalize grey market cars, still, but we're talking McLaren F1s and Porsche 959s with fees into the millions of dollars.
posted by hwyengr at 11:14 PM on March 28


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