The British Pound is at historic lows relative to the US dollar and the Euro isn’t that much better, which means if you’ve ever wanted to import a car from Europe it may never be cheaper again in your lifetime. Here are some things to consider when importing a car and an approximate look at what it will cost.
Why Is This Happening?
A quick history lesson: It used to be legal to import essentially any car you wanted to the United States assuming you could get it registered and inspected. This made car dealers upset and they lobbied Congress who passed a law that is generally referred to as the “25-year import rule” or “25-year import ban” for the carveout that allows people to import cars that are at least 25 years old. Canada has a similar law but, like most things Canadian, it’s milder and fairer and is only a 15-year ban.
When the law passed in 1988 it was mostly designed to stop people from taking advantage of a strong dollar and importing cheaper or more powerful Mercedes sedans/coupes and Land Rover Defenders. Most Americans didn’t even know what cool Japanese and German cars they were missing so the market went cold.
Then Gran Turismo and the Internet happened and suddenly everyone wanted to import a Nissan Sunny GTiR hatchback or an R32 GT-R. In almost all these cases there was demand but demand alone doesn’t always create a market. What does? Demand + a strong currency. Specifically, when the currency in one country goes up and another goes down there’s an opportunity to buy something at a cheaper rate if you hold the more valuable currency.
For various geopolitical reasons having to do with post-COVID recovery, supply chain weakness, the illegal occupation of Ukraine, and the Brits blowing up their economy for essentially no good reason, the US dollar is strong and the Euro and British Pound are not. What’s a simple country boy who grew up desiring weird foreign cars to do? Import one.
It’s A Trend
“I’ve done more purchases (to retail) from Europe than I ever have,” Rami Fetyani, who imports cars through his company Inbound Motorsports, told me. “And [I] have received an immense amount of requests to import/assist with imports of cars purchased from Europe over the last two months.”
(Full disclosure: I am definitely one of those people. I’ve got a specific car I want and, should it work out, I’ll probably try to import it at the end of this year or beginning of 2023. I’ll let you all in on what that car is if/when it happens.)
While Inbound Motorsports has historically specialized in Japanese imports, the market has led to a lot of interest in the importation of European-only spec cars like Audi RS2 Avants, Euro-spec BMW M3s, and Porsche 911s they never sold over here.
Before visions of Citroën Meharis go dancing in your head, it’s worth noting that just because the Euro and GBP are down doesn’t mean that it’s suddenly the cheapest way to get a cool car.
“It’s a good time to buy if you are firm on all of the back end costs post-purchase, and understand the full process to get the cars to the US,” warned Rami. “Any ‘good deal’ you think you might be getting could potentially be zeroed out on shipping costs that are now 2x or 3x what they were even just a year ago.”
You can add to that shipping delays that could see your car stuck outdoors for months waiting to get onboard and delivered.
How To Find A Car
If you’ve got a specific car in mind you can reach out to an importer like Inbound Motorsports or you can hunt yourself. If you’re just curious and open to something fun you can use one of the many popular search engines for cars.
In the UK, there’s no perfect analog for Craigslist, but you can use the site Gumtree to search for privately-held cars. For example, our own Thomas Hundal found this Vauxhall Cavalier 4×4 Turbo. That’s £13,500 in the King’s script or about $14,500 in good old ‘Murican paper. There’s also AutoTrader.
Another good spot is Pistonheads, which is where I found this extremely cheap Rover 200 1.4 214 with some tasteful modifications in a lovely sounding place called Rotherham. That’s barely $2,000!
Adrian Clark’s response to this was:
For Europe, the best search engine is, by far, is Auto Scout24, which searches most of the current European Union. Check out this great Fiat Coupe for sale in Italy. If there’s a specific country you’re targeting you may do better elsewhere (for instance, in France, check out Leboncoin). If you want an auction site you can try Car and Classic.
All of these search engines have the ability to sort via date, and you’re looking for a car that’s going to be at least 25 years old when it arrives.
What To Look Out For
Assuming that you cannot travel yourself to this country to look at a car you’re going to have to rely on either local friends or common sense. Definitely have the prospective buyer get on WhatsApp if you can and have them walk you through the car and point out anything you’d be curious about.
As David found out, countries have more stringent requirements for getting a car inspected and approved than we do, which can work to your advantage in two ways. The most obvious way this helps is because a German car that’s been through TÜV or a British car that’s recently passed MOT has at least had a basic review to ensure all the pieces are there and the car is functional. It’s not a guarantee that your vintage Escort cabrio is going to be in tip-top shape, of course, but it’s better than nothing.
The other way this can help is if you’re willing to take a risk. A car that can’t pass local inspections may be good enough to pass the cursory review that most states give to cars. A Brit’s loss could be your gain! This doesn’t apply to other European countries where they have Arkansas-level inspections.
Of course, as with any car, make sure you’re buying something you can get parts for. A European-spec BMW E36 M3 shares a lot of parts with the car here so it should be easy. The aforementioned Fiat Coupe? Go with God.
Once you’ve found your car essentially need to get it to a port so that it can be shipped to the United States where it’ll need to be registered and approved. This is something you can do yourself or you can pay someone to do it for you.
How Much Should It Cost?
Unless you have the Bitcoin to fly a car across the ocean, your car is going on a ship. The kind of ship depends on the condition and type of car. If you’ve found something that’s reliable enough to drive then your best bet is RoRo (roll-on, roll-off) which is literally driven onto a ship and then driven back off when it gets to port. If you have a non-functioning car (or something special you don’t want handled by a random person in a shipyard) then you can put it in a container.
Your first cost is just getting it to the port. Let’s assume you have a buddy in Essen that’s willing to pick up this Audi 100 in Moers, Germany. You kick them some money for tolls, food, et cetera to drive it to Rotterdam where there’s a good port for shipping cars across the ocean. The car cost you $961 and your friend eats cheap so it’s another $200 to get it there and take a train back. That’s $1,161.
A shipping container is anywhere from $5,000 to $10,000 so that’s out of the question. A RoRo is a better deal at about $1,500. Add in an approximate 3.0% tariff on value and entry fees and your cost has jumped another $330. So far you’ve spent $2,991 and the car cannot be legally driven or registered in the United States.
It’s possible that you can do all of the paperwork if you love that sort of thing and you can save some money, but assuming you don’t find paperwork fun assume you’ll spend $1,000 to $1,500 on the importation of something that’s relatively straightforward. This is all hypothetical so we’ll assume you get a break and the person doing the importing takes pity on your weird choice and only charges you $1,000.
The final cost is getting the car from port to your place, but just to keep the math simple we’re gonna say you live in New Jersey and have it shipped to Newark and your other friend is going to drive you.
Costs can obviously be higher for certain trucks and “gas guzzler” high performance models and shipping prices vary over time.
- Car: $961
- Transport to port: $200
- RoRo shipping: $1500
- 3% Tariff: $30
- Entry fees: $300
- Importer paperwork: $1000
- TOTAL: $3,991
That’s not a ton of money, though you’ve spent basically another $3,000 on top of the cost of the car to get it here. The relative costs are lower if you have an expensive car. That Cavalier is $14,500, but only $17,935 imported.
Overall, it’s not a time to get European and English cars for absolutely nothing. Shipping a car and importing is not free. However, if there’s something across the pond you’ve been dying to get and you’re in no hurry then it’s an ideal time. And if you’re going to do it I think it’s best to follow Rami’s advice:
“It’s important to do your homework, get firm quotes, or if you are unfamiliar, work with someone who knows what they’re doing,”
Now that this is a possibility what would you import? Is anyone else seriously considering it?