Why Now Is The Perfect Time To Import Your Dream Car From Europe And What It Should Cost

Stonkstop

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?

R33gtr
Photo: Newspress UK

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.)

1977fordescortrs2000xpack
Photo: Car & Classics

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

Cavalier
Photo: Gumtree

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:

Screen Shot 2022 09 27 At 11.24.02 Am

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

Fiatcoupe
Photo: Autoscout24

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?

Audi
Photo: Autoscout24

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.

So:

TOTAL COSTS

  • 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?

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46 Responses

  1. I used to like mobile.de for searching for cars in Germany. There are a lot of cars from other European countries on there as well, and you can change it to English (in case you can’t speak German).

    As for the UK, cars between 25 and 40 years old tend to be cheap, especially down near London as they are not compliant with the Ultra Low Emissions Zone (ULEZ). Cars 40 years and older are ULEZ-exempt, not to mention exempt from road tax and the annual MOT (inspection) requirement. So there’s a sweet spot in the market for those looking to export cars.

    1. They don’t have to be 25 years old to be cheap. We really don’t value second hand cars here at all. Once they are about ten years old the value of mainstream stuff plummets.

      You’re right about the 40 year thing but really you’re into classic territory there so there won’t be any bargains. Of course classic here are still a bit cheaper than they are in the US.

      1. Agreed about the plummet of used car values after 10 years, especially diesels that don’t meet Euro 6 standards. Values are going to drop even further once the ULEZ is expanded. I know there’s talk that the expansion might not happen, but given the amount London has invested in cameras for the expanded zone already, I think it’s a matter of when as opposed to if.

        1. Yeah it’s certainly a matter of when, not if. My Range Rover is not Euro 6 (it’s Euro 5 I think) so I get clobbered. Luckily I hardly go down to the big smoke now so it’s not such an issue. But still, it stings when I think it costs me an extra £25 to visit Mother Dearest.

          Next year the Mondial is 40, so it will be exempt. A car that gets 15mpg on a good day, and one you can literally smell the unburnt hydrocarbons coming out of the noisy exhaust.

          I’m not sure there’s suddenly been a deluge of good interesting cars that have come on the market because they’re not compliant. There’s been a few mainstream dross mobiles but diesel has been on the way out for a while and the rules for petrol are a lot more lenient.

    1. The Twingo is on a very short list of cars I’d bother with, along with a Fiat Coupe (yes, I know) and a Rover 75 sedan in a couple of years when they hit 25. Maybe a Citroën C15, if I can find one that isn’t run into the ground.

    2. Twingo shouldn’t be too bad – the technology was pretty traditional, and it has a minimum of parts and bells and whistles. Sure, window glass will be a b**ch but I think you should go for it. Plus, Rami is a very good guy.

  2. I’d skip the BS entirely and deal with a reputable importer, like Top Rank or even Duncan (don’t get into the whole BAT debacle, lets put that aside for arguments sake).

    This way you can inspect a car with your own two eyes, DRIVE IT, and make an informed decision.

    One of my friends here in Western Mass had what we believed was the only Mitsubishi FTO in the Northeast. Yeah, it was a basket case of wiring and interior work, but he threw down the money to bring in parts from the UK and even Japan when needed. Think his total investment was like $18k. Sold it for a bit of a loss.

    Wish I had bugged him more about taking it for a spin before he sold it.

    Also saw a very clean 99 Impreza WRX STI Version 6. Sweet car.

    Sucks my poor self won’t ever be able to afford some JDM goodness (unless I convince my wife to let me sell my Mustang and buy a Honda Beat instead of a Miata)

    1. I’d recommend really looking over everything with a fine toothed comb and coming to terms with the fact that you’re paying a pretty hefty premium for someone to basically take care of the paperwork for you if you want to deal with any importer. Tons of them, especially ones that deal only with Japanese cars are bringing over absolute junk and selling it here for top dollar now that they’re sort of scraping the bottom of the barrel for decent cars in Japan now.

      To put it in perspective, I bought my Laurel from Japanese Classics for $8,000 in the summer of 2018. The car itself is extremely clean and I have no issue with the car itself. However, I later managed to find a site that archived Japanese car auction data and found my car on there. They bought my car at auction in the spring of that year for right around $1,800. If I had done more of the legwork myself I probably could have been able to get a similar car landed in my driveway for around 5k. I know they have a business to run and the car was nice so it is what it is but it sure would have been nice to save 3k

      I don’t see myself getting anything else imported anytime soon but if I did, I think I’ll try to do more of it myself, you can save a not insignificant amount of money that way.

      1. I bought my car at auction in Japan for $1400, it ended up costing me $5,200 over here, all said and done. But I have spent $3K (at least) in fixing it up, buying four new shocks and some other bits. Still a good deal, but paying someone else to take the risks and deal with the repairs may make sense.

        I wish there was a way to have a car fixed in Japan before shipping it, but it seems complicated.

  3. Very well written, thank you Matt. Having imported several cars myself, from the US to Europe, Europe to Canada it is important to understand that you will always pay more than buying local. It is freight and it is taxes that add to the bill, so even though right now the exchange rate helps a bit, you should always be able to answer to “why?”.
    The car in question may have a personal history, it may be a unique model or in otherwise unobtainable great condition.
    Ideally it also has trade value, do not follow the above sample where the value is only a quarter of the final amount you are spending. When the portion of not value related expenses (freight, travel, incidentals) is below 10% of the total, it makes sense and is fun.

  4. If you’re thinking of buying something in Britain, definitely check the MOT history online… https://www.gov.uk/check-mot-history

    This is a service run by the DVLA (our version of the DMV) to try and give buyers a better idea of the history of a car before they purchase it. You can see the mileage of the car at each MOT, whether it passed or failed, and what it failed for. It helps that our number plates tend to stay with the cars they’re on, so you can just look up the plate.

  5. Shameless Self-Promotion Time:
    I am Tom McParland for “weird,” “obscure,” and “unobtanium” cars specializing in Europe and Japan.

    If you are serious about wanting to do this, contact me. I handle all of the logistical nightmare and the distant inspection (when necessary) at very reasonable rates. And I can find whatever it is you want. Guaranteed. Maybe not in your price range. Maybe not in the color you want. But I absolutely positively can find anything. And my rates are very competitive.

    Inquire within.

    1. If you like the classic FIAT 500, look into a FIAT 126p from Poland! The 126p used the 500 floorpan and the same mechanicals, so it’s the same car underneath (and even better as they had gearboxes with synchros and more power!)

      They have less cutesy looks and more boxy because ’70s, but the big thing is price. If the Euro being down is good, then you’ll love the Polish Zloty because $1 USD = 5 Zloty at the moment….so an almost mint condition FIAT 126 that you could buy for like 15,000 zloty (and you could likely find one in great shape for a lot less than that!) is like….$3000 USD. 🙂

  6. Looks like a perfect time to import an older motorcycle from the UK. Now to pick up an issue of “Classic Motorcycle Mechanics” or something and see what’s available.

    Though it seems like a waste to not ride it over there first.

  7. Dreams of a Citroen DS 21. Wakes up and finds there isn’t a Citroen mechanic within 2000 miles. Goes back to dream land and thinks about a cool Euro spec camper van. Maybe even a VW at a bargain since they are going for blood money now, or a FIAT or a Ford. Rewakes and reminds himself that he is a tax accountant, not a mechanic of any sort. Deflated, reminds himself that he didn’t just waste $10,000 on a pipe dream.

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