Importing Your JDM Dream Car Part 1: The Dream

Did you grow up on an unhealthy diet of Gran Turismo and Tokyo Xtreme Racer? Maybe you spent a little too much time watching the Best Motoring videos on YouTube? Can you take a virtual tour around Tsukuba with your eyes closed? Every time you buy a block of tofu, do you wonder how it got to the store?

If so, you may be suffering from an unhealthy obsession with the JDM automobile, a certain affinity for specialized car models available only in the Japanese domestic market. Don’t worry, you’re in good company, and I’m here to tell you that there is a cure. It’s a little messy and sometimes terrifying, and it’s likely to be quite expensive, but with many of these JDM queens now turning 25, it’s easier than ever to get a piece of forbidden fruit straight into your garage.

Join me in sharing some key tips on importing. And along the way, you can see me going through the process myself, importing my own dream machine from halfway around the globe.

My story

I myself was bitten by the virus in university, spent too many hours browsing the markets of Gran Turismo 1 and 2, marveling at special editions of great cars that I had no idea existed in the real world. Between that and a similar amount of time spent in both Colin McRae and Sega RallyI quickly developed a fondness for Subarus.

I’m dating myself here, but the Subaru Impreza 2.5RS was newly available and my local Subaru garage had a beautiful World Rally Blue coupe sitting on gold wheels right there in the showroom. I didn’t miss any nose prints on the windshield but, no matter how I did the math, I couldn’t afford it. I had a chance to test one, though, and the performance of this 165-horsepower flat-four really blew me away.

For a debt-eyed country kid in college, sliding into Gran Turismo would surely be as close as it gets to driving a Subaru WRX STI Type R.

Imagine my surprise when I saw what the same car looked like in Gran Turismo 2, only here he had 276 horsepower – and a much longer name. It was the Subaru WRX STI Type R Version 4 V-Limited. It looked more or less like the US-market 2.5 RS, but had a much more advanced drivetrain setup, better seats, and plenty of extra badging to match. I was in love, but for a debt-eyed country kid in college, surely slipping into Gran Turismo would be as close as possible to driving one.

Fast forward about 20 years and I needed a new car for ice racing. I had the good fortune to ride several rusty Imprezas on the frozen lakes of New York during those two decades. My then current vehicle, a black 2004 STI, was so rotten that I was convinced the thing would snap in half the next time I hit a snow bank.

Thinking about replacements, I started having bad thoughts about what might be legal to import. The Subaru Impreza WRX STI Type RA was newly imported, and with its light weight and fancy differentials it would make a perfect ice racer. The only problem? It sure is petty, but visually they just didn’t do much for me. Most were painted white, since they were meant to be glued on anyway, and all were sedans. My heart was set on the blue and the few blues auctioned continued to sell for higher and higher prices. I bid on a few and missed everyone.

Soon my eyes started wandering into what was coming, cars that weren’t legal for import yet but soon would be. The Impreza WRX STI was first turned into a 1998 coupe, I knew that. One evening, I searched for what was available, and soon my heart set for something a little different.

JDM auction announcements

The process

US import rules and classifications are extremely complicated and this is not intended to be a complete overview. As a general rule, however, foreign cars that have never been officially certified for American streets are only legal for import into the United States under very strict exemptions.

Kit cars and major components of imported cars (up to about half of the car) can be imported into the United States at any time. However, fully functional cars can generally only be imported after 25 years from their date of manufacture. There are exceptions to this, such as the famous exhibition and display certification, but these are generally difficult to obtain (read: expensive) and often of dubious legality.

US import rules and classifications are extremely complicated and this is not intended to be a complete overview.

Due to the difficulty of importing them into the United States, cars less than 25 years old tend to be more affordable. But, once this magical date has passed, their price generally increases. If you can find yourself something fancy and keep it safe overseas for a few years, you might just save some money.

How do you find something? This is where it gets fun. Japan is holding a series of auctions for its cars, which you can browse online if you’re feeling unsafe. It’s a bit like browsing the used car market in Gran Turismo. The difference here is that the money is real and the cars aren’t pristine, shiny examples. These are used cars, many of which have already been in warehouses for decades.

1998 Subaru WRX STI

As with all used cars, condition is key, but how do you know the condition of a car halfway around the world? Well, each Japanese auction has an associated bid sheet, a one-page report listing every ding, flaw, and defect along with an overall numerical rating. You also get maybe half a dozen photos (low quality, as shown in the gallery above) and… yeah, that’s about it. It is possible to hire people to inspect these cars for you, but these inspections will be cursory at best.

Sound risky to you? He is. Frankly, I was losing sleep when going through the bidding process myself, but it is important to know that the information on these sheets is very strict. This is not a Craigslist post written by an overly attached former owner. This is a careful listing of all visual and mechanical defects, culminating in a reliable final rating. Japan Car Direct has a great rundown on how to decipher the sheetbut the most important thing to remember is that these sheets are generally reliable.

It is possible to hire people to inspect these cars for you, but these inspections will be cursory at best.

Sound risky to you? He is.

Want to bid? Great, now you need an agent to handle the details. And export. And, if you want something that’s not yet 25 years old, you’ll also need someone to handle storage in Japan. More and more places are willing to handle all of this for a fee that will add something between 10-20% to the cost of the vehicle.

Again, it’s possible to do a lot of this yourself if you really want to, but unless you like the risk of your car being seized and potentially destroyed as soon as it arrives at the dock, I’ll tell you highly recommend hiring a professional.

That’s what I did. I was recommended to a service called Import guys, and their agents not only kept an eye out for car auctions relevant to my interests, but also arranged storage for me. Once my car is legal they will take care of all the shipping and legal stunts as well.

1998 Subaru WRX STI

Things to watch out for

As mentioned above, many of these cars sat in storage for years, even decades, before being auctioned off. Why? Because it’s excessively expensive to run old cars in Japan. The depreciation is much more extreme than in the United States. However, hang on to specialty cars long enough, until a middle-aged American arrives with some disposable income and a penchant for big fenders, and those cars can pay off well.

After all these years of inactivity, oil leaks are extremely common, but most importers will take care of it for you. The tires too will likely be old and rock hard, so be prepared for that. A new battery will also be essential. You should get a good idea of ​​the car’s visual condition from the auction sheet, but trim pieces may be discolored or cracked after exposure to the sun.

So what did I end up getting? This is a 1998 Subaru WRX STI Type R Version 4 Spec V.

Now I probably don’t need to say this but you might remember that car tuning was quite a popular business in Japan in the late 90s so browse the photos for signs of things like the intakes, exhausts, boost controllers or turbo timers. Chances are, whatever you get will have something aftermarket on it.

Finally, and most disturbingly, there’s one thing you can’t see: the smell. While smoking rates in Japan are falling, when these cars were new, a whopping third of Japanese adults smoked. One on three! This means that there is a good chance that your car was smoked out. This is a hard thing to avoid, so maybe start considering deodorizing treatments now.

1998 Subaru WRX STI

My car

So what did I end up getting? It’s a 1998 Subaru WRX STI Type R Version 4 Spec V. Yes, a 1998, made the same year as that 2.5 RS I once eyed at my local Subaru dealership. This one got a few visual updates, including a 22B-style rear spoiler and gold wheels that I’ll probably swap to the factory ones as soon as it gets home. (Fun fact: The stock STI wheels that year are the same ones that came on the 1998 2.5 RS in the US.)

This STI produced 276 horsepower when new, but mine has clearly had some sort of mild tuning action, so who knows what it produces now. Likewise, anyone can guess how well this engine held up. But, it’s a grade 4, which is about as good as it gets for a car of this vintage, and other than a few minor scuffs and scratches, it appears to be in good condition. Either way, I’m glad to bring it home. He will officially turn 25 in March 2023 and I have been assured that he will arrive in the United States shortly thereafter.

But me, well, I’m a little impatient, you see. So before the car gets here, I’m going to go. Japan’s borders have finally reopened and by the time you read this I’ll be in Tokyo, where I’m very excited to see my flesh-and-blood JDM dream car for the first time. Did I make a huge mistake? Is it going to be a total basket? See you next time to find out.

#Importing #JDM #Dream #Car #Part #Dream

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