The short answer is: YOU CAN'T... if you want to long answer, read on and stop getting scammed
Article By: Matthew Moody and Greg Childs, Nico Club Administrators
With the release of the 2009 GTR in the US, interest in Nissan's supercar has reached an all-time high. As with any seemingly unobtainable object of fanboy desire, the Skyline has generated countless debates and arguments with most misinformation and speculation centering on the importation process. Ads on forums, ebay and AutoTrader touting "legalized" and "registered" cars serve only to encourage false hope. For every rational discussion that ensues, there are ten more propogations of rumor, falsehoods, and wishful thinking. So, we have decided to delve into legal briefs, interview the experts and create a compilation of the best knowledge on the topic for your consideration. What better place to find a thorough, well-researched and accurate synopsis on the process for purchasing a Skyline in the US than on the largest and most comprehensive online resource for Nissan enthusasts on the web?
In the tuner world, everyone knows about the Nissan Skyline, specifically the GT-R variant. For those who have heard of the Skyline but are unaware of its history, the Skyline was first produced as a luxury sedan by Prince Motors in 1957 and became a Nissan product when Prince merged with Nissan in 1966. However, prior to the merger, Prince Motors had already begun racing the Skyline starting with a 1964 model that finished 2nd through 6th places in the Japanese Grand Prix. The first GT-R version of the Skyline was released as a sedan in 1969 (PGC-10) with a coupe version following in 1971 (KPGC-10). The next generation of GT-R was produced in 1972 but only lasted through the 1973 model year. While Skylines were produced for subsequent years, the GT-R trim level was not offered again until the R32 release in 1989.
In 1989, Nissan re-released the R32 GT-R model which was immediately nicknamed "Godzilla" via the Australian press, as it was a "Monster from Japan". The GT-R continued as a top- performance package through the R34 generation which ran until 2001. Prior to the announced release of the R35 GT-R, the Nissan Skyline has never been released for sale within the United States.
Owning a Skyline
As previously mentioned, the Skyline has a cult following in the United States. From a pricing perspective, they draw a premium and anyone looking to purchase a Skyline that is already in the US will be spending a good bit of change. The problem one faces with owning a Skyline in the US is the legality of doing so. Usually these cars are recognized as "gray market" as they are obtained by channels other than those which are authorized via the Federal Government, as detailed below.
Skyline and the US Federal Government
Vehicles imported into the United States that are less than 25 years old must comply with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS) regulations and they must be imported via a Registered Importer (RI). If vehicles are imported that do not meet FMVSS regulations, they must be brought up to compliance by the RI within 120 days of entry into the US. NHTSA also limits the models of vehicles that are eligible for importation into the United States.
NHTSA states, "to be imported free of restriction, a motor vehicle less than 25 years old must be originally manufactured to comply with all applicable FMVSS and bear a label certifying such compliance that is permanently affixed by the vehicle's original manufacturer.". Skylines, sadly, do NOT meet that criteria.
What does the above mean? First off, the NHTSA had originally determined that the 1990-1999 versions of the RHD Nissan GTS and GT-R Skyline were eligible for importation (R32, R33, R34 generations) as long as a HS-7 declaration is made. At the time it enters the US, the clock starts ticking and the car must be brought up to code via the RI within the 120 days allowed. Hey, this sounds simple!
Not so fast. The question that must be posed is: What is required to bring the vehicle up to FMVSS standards? That's a hard one to answer as only a few people really know. Many so-called "importers" CLAIM to know, but won't divulge their information under the guise of "protecting their business interests" which is a convenient way to skirt the question. In reality they have no clue as to the process needed for Federal legailzaton and simply dump the burden on their customers.
In comes the saga of Motorex. Motorex was a RI that was in business from 1998 to 2002 after which time they closed shop. Motorex took the initiative to work with the Federal Government in order to determine what is needed to bring an imported Skyline "up to code" to be legal within the US. As part of this process, they worked with JK Technologies to import numerous R33's, at their expense, for crash testing in order to determine the modifications needed. As a consequence, Motorex claimed a proprietary interest in the modifications which are now covered by a confidentiality grant. Not only did this give Motorex a corner on the market for legal Skylines, it also allowed them to command a premium price for each legalized car. In effect, other RI's do not have access to the information gained via the crash tests performed nor the modifications needed, thus they will not be able to get Skylines to meet FMVSS requirements.
While making loads of money, Motorex also made loads of enemies. In yet another interesting twist, it was alleged that Motorex didn't actually comply with all crash test requirements for the R32 and R34. The US Department of Transportation, in response, offically rescinded importation eligibility for both the R32 and R34 Skylines, therefore only 96-98 R33 Skylines were still eligible to be imported. However, since that date, Motorex encountered a flurry of additional legal challenges, ultimately closing its doors. As a result, there is currently no information available (confidential nor public) to legalize R32's nor R34's.
On March 1, 2006, the NHTSA issued the following decision, rescinding nearly all Skylines from importation eligibility:
"This document announces a final decision by NHTSA to partially rescind a prior decision by the agency that 1990-1999 Nissan GTS and GTR passenger cars not originally manufactured to comply with all applicable Federal motor vehicle safety standards (FMVSS) are eligible for importation into the United States. As a result of this decision, only Nissan R33 model GTS and GTR passenger cars manufactured between January 1996 and June 1998 are eligible for importation. All other model and model year vehicles admissible under the prior decision are no longer eligible for importation. As a consequence, the agency is rescinding vehicle eligibility number VCP-17, which covered vehicles admissible under the prior decision, and issuing vehicle eligibility number VCP-32 to cover only those model and model year Nissan GTS nd GTR passenger cars that remain eligible for importation. The rescission will only bar the future importation of the model and model year Nissan GTS and GTR passenger cars that are no longer eligible for importation, and will not affect the status of vehicles that have already been lawfully imported under vehicle eligibility number VCP-17."
JK Technologies, LLC, who performed the actual crash testing for Motorex, did petition the NHTSA to perform crash testing for R34's. Due to the Motorex fiasco and VCP-17 above, the petition was denied and will continue to be denied for R32's and R34's. As for R33's, only JK Technologies have any information or the capabilities to federally legalize these vehicles.
To recap the above: Skylines imported into the US for use on public roads must either be over 25 years old or they must conform to FMVSS standards. While R32 - R34 Skylines were initially allowed for import, the FHTSA rescinded the importation of the majority of Skylines by limiting it to R33's that were manufactured between January 1996 and June 1998. In order to import a Skyline, an official RI must be used and they must fill out a HS-7 declaration for the vehicle. If the vehicle is to be used on the streets then the RI has 120 days in order to modify the vehicle to pass FHVSS requirements. The only company that has information in regards to Federally legalize R33's is JK technologies. No other RI has access to this information nor are they capable of performing the upgrades needed for Federal legalization. It is possible for another RI to Federally legalize R33 Skylines but they will have to first go though the costly process that Morotex/JK Technologies has already performed and as of this time none have done so.
Improperly Imported Skylines
There are numerous people who try and get around the importation process. Typically, these cars never even make it through the ports. Seizure by U.S. Customs Officials are ever-increasing and typically the "buyer" has already dropped a hefty deposit on the vehicle they're attempting to import.
Additionally, most of the "export only" (HS-7 claim) seized vehicles being auctioned are due to the fact that they have been held by customs and have overstayed their welcome. Typically, an uneducated buyer places a deposit on a Skyline they found on the internet. They tie up their entire savings on the word of someone who thinks they can sneak one in. The container arrives at port, the ship yard calls them up to let them know it's arrived and the RI can pick it up from customs. The buyer then realizes that you can't just buy a Skyline and drive it off the dock. They can't afford to get the car legalized nor does the RI they utilized have the capability, so Customs waits until the time limit expires and auctions the car off. Most people think the cars get crushed, but the truth is, they try to auction them off first to recoup unpaid dock fees, etc. But, as many will find, the odds of it being bought and exported are slim and it's most likely headed to a crusher. A Nico Club member relays his experience in this area:
"Just a brief description on what I do. I work for an auto auction inspecting vehicles. The department I work for handles government siezed vehicles, repos, and illegally imported cars. Today we recieved three R34 GTR's and a S15 Silvia that were seized from a few containers down at the port. The owner must be furious, I think any one would be, especially if you're a car enthusist like myself. Anyway, I wanted to share on what usaully goes on a normal day of work."
A brief review of a government seized property auction site in February 2008 revealed no less than eight seized Skylines up for auction (to be exported upon transfer). Eight cars per month on ONE site? Sounds like someone is losing a lot of money.
OK, So What Skylines Are Legal in the US?
Skyline models that are over 25 years old may be imported without having to be compliant with the NHTSA. Alternatively, Motorex imported a variety of R33 Skylines which are Federally legal and registered appropriately. Motorex-prepped R33 Skylines can fetch upwards of $50,000. Even though the R32 and R34's that were already imported are not technically legal due to their lack of crash tests, they do have a Federal bond release issued and were imported prior to the Motorex violations coming to light. These appear to have been "grandfathered" in. Good luck finding one for sale.
While the idea of importing a pristine Hakosuka or KenMari Skyline from the 70's sounds awesome, the reality is that these cars are harder to find in good condition. Even if you COULD locate one, they're likely to command a premium price (due to their own regulations old cars in Japan are costly to retain and register), and parts for your rare Skyline will be next to impossible to source in the US and are even difficult in Japen. Windshields for 1969-1972 Skylines aren't exactly common.
Show / Off-Road Use Only
Additionally, it should be noted that there are a number of Skylines in the US listed as off- road (read: racing) purposes only. A vehicle imported for "Show or Display" may receive NHTSA approval to be driven on the highway, but the odometer must not register more than 2,500 miles in a 12-month period. NHTSA approval of limited on-road use is to allow the vehicle to be driven to and from nearby displays of similar automobiles. Another reason permission is granted is to maintain the vehicle’s engine, braking, lighting, and other dynamic systems in good working order. The Catch: The vehicle is still required to meet EPA requirements. If the original engine in the vehicle will be replaced with a non-original engine to meet EPA requirements, it must be identified in your application since it may impact on the technological or historical significance of the vehicle, thereby resulting in a denial of the application. Such permits are rarely granted and are monitored closely.
Emissions and The Potentially Illegal Skyline
This creates a whole new challenge - Getting a car with no emissions equipment to pass stringent US emissions standards. When NHTSA decided to pull the R32 and early R33's off the eligible vehicle import list, they released the cars that were brought in before March of that year. The 1996-1998 R33 models were still on the list, and could be made DOT compliant, but the fact that none of the cars have OBD2 makes them not EPA compliant. After numerous legal challenges, NHTSA didn't want to deal with the whole Skyline mess anymore and made it an EPA matter. So the only way to make the cars legal is for someone to make an OBD2 conversion for the RB26DETT. As of this writing, JK Technologies asserts that they do the OBDII conversion and that they they do everything needed to make it DOT and EPA compliant.
More on "The Gray Zone"
Other than the Motorex Skylines, the remainder of Skylines in the US are the result of "gray market" tactics in which the vehicles were imported by means other than those authorized. These tactics include VIN swapping, shipping the cars through in parts to be rebuilt once on shore and registering the vehicle as a kit car. Obviously a large number are shipped in whole and snuck through the system by other means. When looking for a US-based Skyline realize that there is a difference between having a state registration and being Federally legalized as some states are more lenient than others when it comes to issueing state vehicle registrations to owners. These vehicles are still considered illegal in the eyes of the NHTSA and CAN be siezed / impounded without warning or compensation.
If you still decide to go the route of a gray market Skyline, you would have the option to either purchase one of these vehicles that are currently in the US or to utilize a RI to have one imported. On-road legality issues aside, utilizing a RI to import a Skyline is a "leap of faith" which may cost you in the end. You are required at a minimum to pre-pay a percentage of the vehicle cost plus shipping with no guarantee the vehicle will get through customs. There are numerous horror stories of people losing all of their investment with nothing to show due to US customs confiscating the car (as previously mentioned) and either shipping it back at your cost, seizing the car, or crushing the car itself. For those purchasing one already in the US I would pay particular attention to licensing requirements for your state before purchase and realize that you are purchasing a vehicle that is not Federally legalized. If registering for the first time, you will need the De-Reg documents from Japan with translation, a copy of the 7501, proof of insurance and a VIN verification. While I have not heard of registered vehicles being taken away and crushed due to Federal legalization, that does not mean it won't happen or has not happened in the past.
What About Registering it as a Kit Car?
A kit car is a car that was never mass-produced. Titling a "Skyline" as a kit car is in violation of Federal law. Now, that's not to say some shady individuals don't do it, but they're one phone call away from impound. In fact, a company named Evolution Imports was reportedly selling R33's. The cars were imported to Florida and exported to the Caribbean, where the drivetrain would be taken out and the car shipped back in pieces. It would then be reassembled and registered as a car constructed from parts.
How About Bringing it in Through Canada?
There are a number of Skylines in Canada, and many pop up for sale from time to time. However, Skylines don't count under the Canadian Market category as they were never originally manufactured for exportation to the Canadian market. Thus these vehicles will be processed the same as a vehicle imported from Japan. Of course, with them simply being a "border away" it would be far easier for a Canadian Skyline to enter the gray market. Still, US Customs will have the final say at the border, and the buyer risks seizure of their vehicle.
Federal vs. State Registration
According to Sean Morris, one of the foremost experts on JDM vehicle importation, most people can not grasp the difference between vehicle legalization and vehicle registration.
# Legalization – a vehicle in full compliance with Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards, and Environmental Protection Agency standards.
# Registration - registration is the responsibility of the individual states and localities. Most states do not check to see wether a vehicle is federally legal. If they see the vehicle, and are paid the registration fees, they will give registration for the vehicle.
Many people seem to get confused that if a vehicle is registered, that it is legal or "legalized". A registered vehicle is just a registered vehicle. Registration could still be revoked by the DOT, EPA, or customs service, if the vehicle was found to have entered into the country fraudulently.
NHTSA is not responsible for regulating the operation of motor vehicles on public roads in the U.S. nor for titling or registering motor vehicles for such operation. That is instead the responsibility of the individual States. Some States may require a manufacturer's certificate of origin (MCO) or manufacturer's statement of origin (MSO) to register a new motor vehicle. These are not federally required documents. NHTSA, therefore, is not in a position to offer guidance to prospective vehicle manufacturers or vehicle purchasers on obtaining a needed MCO or MSO. Consumers with questions regarding these documents should direct those questions to their State’s Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV). Prospective manufacturers seeking guidance on obtaining MCO or MSO documents should contact the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators (AAMVA) at 703-522-4201 or visit that organization's website at http://www.aamva.org.
99% of the time "State Titled" and "State Registered" translates to "Illegally imported and titled as kit car". Cars that appear "legal" (to a state) can be impounded by the Feds. Likely, no. Possible, yes. It has happened before (in AZ, in particular) and may be stepped up if the Feds decide they're "fed up" (no pun intended) with the flouting of the law. Many illegally-imported Skylines roam the streets unmolested on a regular basis. However, there's always the chance that something goes wrong (usually due to an accident, a vandalism / theft, or simply an "anonymous call") that brings the car to "official" attention.
One prospective Skyline owner we interviewed relayed the following story: Of the two certifications needed for importation of a motor vehicle (Federal Import/Export certificates), he received the Export Certificate only along with a Bill of Lading from the shipper. He tried his luck with his home state's lax DMV rules. The clerk stated that the Import Certificate was the most important document. At that point it ceased to be a legitimately imported vehicle in his state and the DMV was "on the lookout" for it. Soon thereafter, the rescinded ruling became common knowledge to the DMV personnel. The importer can't / won't help him out, and the DMV is hip to his game.
Insuring a Gray-Market Car
In compiling this article, we contacted numerous car insurance providers, including industry powerhouses such as GEICO, AAA, State Farm, Liberty Mutual and Progressive. We also contacted specialty insurers such as Hagerty, who specialize in special- interest vehicles. Progressive (at the time of this article) was the only company we could find who do not ask for DOT papers. However, if something happens to the car and a claim is filed, they run a check with DOT, reserving their right to NOT pay the claim. There's a little stipulation in the policy, which most folks never read, that exempts Progressive from any responsibility if any part of your application is false or misleading. You can bet their lawyers would deny a claim all day long based on that alone. Other insurance companies require DOT and EPA paperwork prior to issuing a policy. If, by some stroke of luck, you find a company willing to offer a "stated- value" policy on your freshly-imported Skyline, they still reserve the right to deny your claim, based on your knowingly falsifying the application (which you'd have to do to get the car insured).
Here's why: Nearly every application for insurance we reviewed contained the following verbage: "Has the vehicle been modified to NHTSA standards and been officially approved by the DOT?" Thus, by saying "yes", if you ever have an accident and they find out that you willfully gave a false statement about that DOT approval, you could be cited for insurance fraud.
In addition to the possibility of having any claim denied, there's another interesting risk being taken by grey-market Skyline owners: IF you are unfortunate enough to hit someone else, and they sued you, or you sued for medical, you're driving a car that is not in compliance with NHTSA crash-safety standards. Again, the attorneys would jump on that like a hobo on a ham sandwich. Don't have proper door beams? Don't have proper glass? Gee, what else isn't "up-to-snuff' on your car and could it have possibly contributed to the accident or the injury? You can bet an insurance company's attorney will look for any way to get out of honoring your claim, and you'll be left holding the bag and liable for more than just your damages.
Known "Wannabe" Importers
Anytime there's a demand, there's going to be someone who thinks they can fill that demand and make a boatload of cash doing it. Some fly beneath the radar and enjoy brief and limited success before being "found out". Others are so excited to be involved in the importation "game" that they begin to convince themselves that they're legitimate.
One such company, Supaca Imports, came on the scene like gangbusters, bragging and self-promoting. Unfortunately, it was quickly revealed that nearly all of their website information was "stolen" from Sean Morris' site and Wikipedia. In addition, they were using "shills" to post in forums posing as "satisfied customers". A quick review of the IP addresses by Nico Club staff revealed them to all be coming from the same computer. Their alleged business address was phony. Myth busted.
Another wannabe importer is Fast4Wheels, LLC. According to their website, "We sell Nissan Skylines and other JDM vehicles you're looking for! These cars are already here in the US, and come registered with a title." However, a quick review of their legal disclaimer reveals that they're selling engineless cars that have been thoroughly disassembled by a kit car manufacturer overseas. Customers must source their own engine. However, this places the customer in clear violation of DOT rules prohibiting importation of parts and components for the express purpose of reassembly. Of course, all deposits are non-refundable, and F4W accepts no responsibility for anything that happens during the importation process.
Evolution Imports thought they had it all figured out, utilizing an apparent "loophole" by acting as a "broker" and coordinating purchase of parts to be reassembled as a complete running vehicle. However, their six different addresses, unsatisfactory BBB rating and a revoked Florida FOREIGN business license speaks volumes as to their credibility. They're registered as an LLC in "Nevis", a small island in the Caribbean. A former Nico Club member, who asked to not be identified, worked in a contract capacity for EI for a period of time doing reassembly of their cars. He indicated that for every satisfied customer, there were ten others who'd been misled and swindled. A representative for EI was interviewed for this article, but his inability to address simple questions about their violation of EPA prohibitions against disassembly of a motor vehicle for the purposes of evading the Clean Air Act or the Import regulations led us to discount most of his contributions as irrelevant. It should be noted that he now claims to no longer be involved with EI.
Turbovisions was another so-called importer, utilizing many of the same tactics. They'd import full JDM cars to Ft. Lauderdale and potential customers, after placing a deposit, could come look at the cars at the port (and start them and drive them around in the parking lot). Then if you sign a contract to purchase the car, they ship it to the Bahamas at which point they take the car apart and then ship it back as "parts". It is then re-assembled in Florida or Georgia and given a clean title... or brought to WI to be titled as "kit" car. None get proper VINs nor importation documents, and are, as such, "gray market" cars, imported illegally. Numerous postings on the Nico Club forums report money lost and fraudulent behavior by the representatives of Turbovisions.
Skylineking.com purports to be able to deliver JDM cars with "DOT Approval" and Florida titles. However, as we've shown, there's no way around the process. No explanation of their procedures for obtaining "DOT Approval" and no response to our questions.
So, what does all this mean, and why is it important? We believe it's critical to cut through the fanboy hype and provide accurate and reliable information to vehicle enthusiasts so they can make informed decisions regarding vehicle purchases, regardless of criticism or disappointment. Nico Club is active in SEMA and the SEMA Action Network, both of which monitor pending legislation and changes in the laws concerning all aspects of the automotive enthusiast hobby. As such, all of this information is subject to change in the coming months. As a service to our members and people who rely on Nico Club for accurate information, we'll continue to keep you abreast of any changes or corrections to the laws governing importation. Until such time that importation laws are revised and relaxed, we support responsible and legal modifications. We're here for the people who subscribe to the "Build it, don't buy it" approach to the automotive lifestyle, and we encourage everyone to get involved and share their enthusiasm with others to help our hobby grow and gain widespread acceptance.
Article By: Matthew Moody and Greg Childs, Nico Club Administrators
How to Legally Import & Register Nissan Skyline
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March 10, 2008
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