Importing a car always keeps life interesting

The Landy waits with other cars to board a ship in Southampton, England. Aaron Robinson

This article first appeared in Hagerty Drivers Club magazine. Click here to subscribe and join the club.

Back in February, I mentioned my 1973 Land Rover that got snared in a two-week Customs hold at the dock. The Landy is the seventh car I’ve imported from foreign lands, and each experience has been completely different, with wholly different costs, challenges, and exasperations.

Which means that you can’t rely precisely on anyone’s advice unless they’ve done it many times. And those people know to just shrug and start every sentence with, “Well, in my experience …”

The 40,000-foot view is that in our grand system of government, federal agencies including the Department of Transportation and the Environmental Protection Agency decide what vehicles are legal to import and be sold within our borders—anything 25 years old or older gets a pass.

The 50 states, however, decide what gets a title and a license plate. Some states are easy; they’ll issue a title for a toilet seat. Others, like California, seem to despise older cars and throw down numerous bureaucratic spike strips to stop them from entering. Read all the squint print about your state before buying overseas.

If you’re loaded, you can fly a car over. For the rest of us, there are two types of surface shipping: container and roll-on/roll-off, or RO-RO. With container shipping, the car is secured—hopefully—into a rented 20- or 40-foot box that is stacked with thousands of other boxes on a container vessel. This is the more expensive way, and a route many people choose believing that being inside a container means less probability of damage.

It might be true, but containers do get dropped, they get slammed sideways into other containers, they even sometimes fall off ships at sea. I once brought in a ’72 Chrysler VH Valiant Charger from Australia that was packed above two other cars on an improvised latticework of pine two-by-fours that looked like the back of the bleachers at Indy (quality control among shippers varies greatly). The two cars below broke loose and spent 7000 miles pounding each other to a metal pulp while my car somehow, blessedly, came through without a scratch.

Once they reach port, containers must be hauled off the dock by a drayage company and taken to an off-site warehouse to be unpacked, which adds significantly to the cost. When I container-shipped my 1942 Dodge WC-54 army ambulance home from Europe in 2015, the first 8000 miles cost roughly $2000 and the last 10 miles cost $1000.

Considerably cheaper and easier is RO-RO, though you can’t have any loose items in the car. Just as with any new Porsche or Volvo, the car is driven by a stevedore, or dockworker, onto what is essentially a sea-going parking structure that trundles across the ocean at about 13 knots.

The Land Rover sailed from Southampton, England, with a bunch of new Rovers and Mini Coopers on the Maltese-flagged MV Titus, launched in 2018 as one of shipper Wallenius Wilhelmsen’s newer Panamax series of upsized vehicle carriers. Designed to take advantage of the 2016 widening of the Panama Canal, the 656-foot-long, 73,000-ton Titus can hold up to 8000 vehicles.

Whatever way you ship, prepare for the army of gerbils that will all take a nibble on your wallet, including a 2.5 percent federal import duty. You can save money by filing all the forms yourself, including the all-important Importer Security Filing, or ISF, which alerts Customs to your impending shipment. I have done it twice, and I have also paid customs brokers to do it. A rule of thumb: If you do your own taxes, you can file your own forms.

The Rover was the third car I’ve shipped RO-RO and, as with the others, it arrived without a scratch. Then U.S. Customs got ahold of it. For some reason, they used a power grinder with extreme prejudice to cut out all the fasteners holding down the passenger floor, thus revealing … the ground. No explanation, no apology, just a handful of mangled fasteners on the dash. If you don’t like the way Customs treats your vehicle, you can write to the complaint department, c/o The Circular File, Washington, D.C.

Even so, importing vehicles has filled my driveway with some very interesting cars while being a mostly painless (if hardly profitable) exercise. Well, at least, in my experience …


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