Policy and Introduction to the 25 Year Exemption

This commentary is the first in a series of articles which will discuss legal issues with the titling and importation of foreign cars into the United States of America as part of our growing focus on the legal issues affecting the automotive enthusiast community. In this article I flesh out some of the policy issues behind the importation rules. This commentary won’t have much relevance to most of our readers, not because of missing legal content or inapplicability to Montgomery County, Texas. No, its lack of relevance comes from the small number of people who actually care about this article. Like any aspiring, slightly masochistic expert of arcane knowledge, I’ll soldier on nonetheless.

There is a little provision of federal law that allows for one to import a foreign (and non-Canadian) vehicle into the United States and register it as a road-going car without having to complete any emissions or safety testing as long as it is at least 25 years old, with exceptions (more on those another time, wouldn’t want to lose my reader just yet).

Recently, someone with a bizarre enthusiasm for this topic similar to my own, but far less lazy (or just out of unread comic books), started an internet petition to change this rule from 25 years to 15 years. It begged the simple question: “Why Not?” For the average automotive enthusiast this would be a wonderful bit of lawmaking, allowing a slew of interesting cars from the nineties to be immediately imported from countries like Japan and Germany (and not just those we’ve bombed). The enthusiast, or one acquainted with the often greasy affliction that is automotive passion, would see a benefit. The automotive aftermarket, a surprisingly large corner of consumer spending, would see a boon. Further, the automotive hobbyist would have access to more materials on which to apply their productive craft (and more small cars on which to put gigantic but completely sensible spoilers). Really, why even bother setting the original date at 25 years? It’s not like the average Malibu shopper is going to purchase a 1995 Nissan Skyline directly from a Japanese dealer.

That said, it turns out there is good reason for the waiting period. The federal laws on emissions and safety are different than the laws of other countries. U.S. laws are variously more, less or just as stringent as those of other countries such as Japan or Germany. However, by waiting 25 years, these Federal rules are no longer relevant (which is how I like my Federal rules). The safety and emissions standards have changed significantly in that time period. Anyone interested in purchasing and driving a 25-year-old car is in a deep minority and is likely not looking for a daily driver. While that tiny group of car enthusiasts may complain, the government will always be able to counter with a strong argument.

Keeping the minimum age for a hands-off import at 25 years is a simple solution to an ever-evolving market. No one in the government has to think about this issue again, so when it comes time for certain Chinese-made cars that gloriously failed Western-standard crash tests to be imported, only the car-insane would be interested. As far as the government is concerned, that’s OK. The rule affects so few voters, and the government has such control over the auto companies, that there is simply no momentum or impetus for change.

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