Against All Oddities: Winner winner, Carina GT dinner!
Gambling with dice and cards isn’t my thing. Gambling on cars? Well, in that arena I might actually have a chance at winning. Nevertheless, my latest crapcan escapade kicked off in Sin City: Las Vegas. Before the trip was out I’d be the owner of my very own … 1997 Toyota Carina GT!
Weeks before all of this transpired, a long-time friend of mine told me that he was thinking of importing cars from Japan. “Would you be in need of anything?” he asked. To a man like me, that’s a dangerous offer. The cautious response that a normal brain performs in this scenario was replaced instead with a grainy, low-res VHS tape, playing on an unlimited loop, of a 1990s Japanese-market Carina GT zipping through the countryside.
A few days later, equally grainy photos from a Tokyo auction house arrived to my phone via text message while I was at home in North Carolina. Working within my normal penny slot betting limits, I rolled the dice and gave my friend an unserious lowball figure I’d be cool with him bidding. Low enough that I kind of … forgot about the whole thing.
Two weeks later, I was in Vegas for a work thing. It was the evening, so I was busy slicing golf balls into a big net off the roof of a building. My phone rang. My friend. Oh man, I’d won that Carina!
Oh man, I’d won that Carina.
So what is a Carina GT, anyway? And why would I want one?
For starters, I have an undying love for Toyotas. Secondly, the Carina hadn’t been available in the United States since 1974, when it was positioned as the sedan variant of the Celica on which it was based. I had only seen one in my whole life, at T.E. Nine’s Auto Salvage in Raleigh, North Carolina. That fundamental weirdness immediately attracted me to the notion of this JDM (Japanese Domestic Market) Toyota.
The italicized “GT” badging on this particular fender signified that it came equipped with the final iteration of the legendary 1.6 liter 4A-GE motor, the “blacktop” 20-valve. Essentially a race motor for the street, the blacktop came with 11.0:1 compression, a Yamaha-designed 5-valve-per-cylinder head, four manually actuated 45-mm throttle bodies, a factory tubular header, and a fuel cutoff at a busy 8300 rpm. All that sounds like a lot of trouble for just 167 hp, but what a 167 hp it is!
Between my unlikely victory and the time it landed at port in Savannah, Georgia, not a lot happened. (Yes, a greywater pipe exploded under my 100-year-old homestead, sending food scraps flowing into the crawlspace, in turn spawning a complete and hellacious kitchen renovation … but that had nothing to do with the project car side of my life.) I used the downtime to get a TWIC port access card from a depot inside of a Staples in South Charlotte. Though South Carolina ports are pretty laid back, I was told that the folks at the Georgia Port Authority aren’t the type of pit bosses you take lightly.
The day finally came to go retrieve the car from its short-term parking at the Port of Savannah. Not having a single piece of paper that associated me with the car, towing it from the port seemed prudent this time. Unfortunately, none of my motley crew of cars has a tow ball anymore since I gave my dad his F-250 back. I managed to secure a truck and a U-Haul contract, praying it wouldn’t play out like the last time I rented a trailer.
The adventure kicked off with me following a drunk driver on the way home from work, flagging down the cops, and seeing him arrested about five minutes before U-Haul closed. Unfortunately, that would be the end of my near misses that day. The folks at Headlight Wiz (who occasionally dabble in trailer rental) took an early evening off. Rather than spending a 24-hour rental period bouncing someone else’s empty car dolly down I-95, I scored a two-day, one-way rental out of Savannah at four times the cost.
The day before my agreed pickup date, I was given a warning that maybe the customs documentation possibly got submitted late. Betting against failure, I somewhat recklessly made the call to load up my jump battery and take the morning to drive to coastal Georgia. I was not alone, of course. My wife accompanied me up until the gate shack at the Georgia Port Authority, where she was instructed by the gate agent to exit the vehicle and go cheer up another ousted spouse under the bus stop awning. At this point, it had just started to rain as I donned my hi-vis vest and ran to the inbound terminal office. There I was politely informed that Customs, indeed, was holding the Carina GT. It couldn’t leave, but I had to. Odds against me, I headed back out into the deluge.
I started off by trying to resolve the matter directly with U.S. Customs, housed in a wonderful 1852 Greek Revival structure. Keeping my all-important paperwork dry-ish under my fluoro vest, I ran the six blocks from the hotel valet lot where I sneakily stashed my Tundra tow rig. (Hazards on, of course!) I rang the buzzer and was greeted by a friendly officer who directed me to a significantly less grand suburban customs house styled in 1980s Federal Revival cum Office Ranch architecture. Here, also in a nice way, officials told me that they couldn’t help. In fact, no one other than a living, breathing customs broker could do anything. Given I had someone else—my rookie import broker friend—buy the car at auction, my name wasn’t on a single document.
Dejected, my wife and I went to eat Mexican food with a good friend, poked and prodded his collection of classics, and waited for advice on next steps from my broker friend. At 3:45 p.m., a quarter of an hour before the Customs office was set to close, we got word that the car had been cleared.
I downed my sweet tea and jammed a few bonus chips and salsa into my mouth before bolting to the port. I once again left my wife at the gate shack and bounced the U-Haul over the railroad tracks, aiming at the Ocean Terminal building. Beyond excited that I might actually leave with a Carina GT on my trailer, I slid into the window at 3:57 p.m.
“Nope, sorry, those guys aren’t going to fetch that car three minutes before quitting time. Not gonna happen,” I was told. I made my face and hands look as much like the praying emoji as possible and, shamelessly, begged. The attendant took my papers and started tapping information into the computer. “Nope. Now there’s a hold on it from the shipping company. It’s 3:59. You won’t resolve this by 4 o’clock,” he flatly stated. That was that. The attendant forced a rain check in my hand, agreeing to complete the transaction and hand over the car early next week.
I immediately drove to U-Haul and received unexpected sympathy: a canceled and fully refunded contract. Five stars on Google for you all!
A week went by and I received full, 100 percent, doubtless confirmation via email that my car had cleared customs and had no holds on it whatsoever. By now I knew the drill, so it was a rinse and repeat of the last plan. I wasn’t taking any chances. I stayed the night at my friend’s place in Savannah that night, and we consulted a psychic after a few beers. (OK, fine, I just sort of prayed near the sign.)
I managed to arrive at port before all the trucks. A pair of roughhousing port workers showed me to my treasure. Navigating through the other imported Kei trucks and Skylines, there stood my Carina GT looking even more handsome than in the pictures. I opened the door, was nearly bowled over by a typhoon of cigarette stench, and crawled inside. With a twist of the key, the rev-happy 4A-GE engine shrugged off my offer of jumper cables and sprang to life. Up it went onto the trailer, just like that.
So, did I come out ahead or lose my shirt? At that moment, I felt like a million bucks.
Love the pic of the car on the trailer in front of the fireworks stand.
I remember in 1982 while moving from Seattle to central NY. I was driving my 27′ box truck, towing my 65 Barracuda behind. As I was making a big left hand turn to pull into a fireworks stand in Wyoming. I saw people running out.
When I got out of the truck I found out why. As I started to turn the ball on the trailer hitch separated. The tow bar came loose and went under the Barracuda. The only thing keeping it attached were the safety chains.
All worked out okay. But I’ll never forget the look on everyone’s faces.
Fantastic story, so well written, where’s part II?