What is the Show and Display Rule?

If you’ve ever looked into importing a car to the United States, you’ve probably heard of the 25-year Import Rule. For a car to be eligible for importation it must be 25 years old - that is, unless it follows the Show and Display Rule. What is this rule and what does it allow you to do? Let’s look deeper.

What Does the Show and Display Rule Do?

This statutory amendment to the U.S. Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards allows privately imported vehicles to be exempt from import restrictions under certain conditions. The most important qualification is that it must have “historical or technological significance.”

The Show and Display Law went into effect in 1999 and only applies to vehicles that can’t comply with the regular FMVS guidelines - that is, it never passed U.S. safety standards and was never sold new in the United States.

If a car qualifies for the Show and Display Rule, it may be granted limited use on public roads (only 2,500 miles each year). The NHTSA reserves the right to approve importation but disallow the car from being registered.

All applications are processed through the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). As you can imagine, there’s a lot of effort and expense required to get a vehicle tagged with this exemption. That’s why the approved list, which is found on the NHTSA website, is mostly limited to exquisite high-value sports cars.

Requirements to Meet the Show and Display Rule

For a car to fall under this rare exemption, it must meet specific requirements. First, the prospective importer must document the car’s historical or technological significance and that it was produced in a limited number. Typically 500 units is the threshold.

Once an import approval is granted for one vehicle of each production year, make and model, there’s no need to apply for the same type of vehicle again. That’s why the NHTSA keeps a running list of vehicles already approved and disapproved for import.

Even though the mileage limit was originally 500 miles per year, they did increase that to 2,500 through a later statute. The NHTSA has the right to inspect the vehicle annually to verify its mileage.


A car may qualify for the Show and Display Rule if:

  • No more than 500 were made

  • It was never sold in the United States

  • It is no longer in production

  • It is not a kit car or replica

  • It is of noted historical or technological significance


Limitations include:

  • You cannot sell the car without written consent from the NHTSA. (They aren’t looking for people to make money off this rule).

  • You can’t drive more than 2,500 miles each year. Get that cross-country trip in your McLaren F1 out of your mind!

Of course, the NHTSA also has several loopholes that serve them if they feel there are concerns regarding public safety. For example, they can approve the vehicle under the guidelines but disallow it from being registered for use on the road. They also have wording that allows for any other limitation or restriction they want to impose on a Show or Display vehicle.

How Bill Gates Paved the Way

While you might know Bill Gates mainly as the man that created Windows, he has a significant role in bringing the Show and Display Law to pass. After earning billions of dollars, it makes sense that he would be an exotic car enthusiast. That’s what led him to desire owning a legendary Porsche 959.

The trouble was that it didn’t have the approval of the Environmental Protection Agency or the Department of Transportation. So, his Porsche 959 sat for 13 years in storage at the Port of San Francisco thanks to Customs.

If you don’t know about the 959, you should! This supercar had a 2.85-liter twin-turbocharged six-cylinder engine and it put out 450 horsepower with a top speed of 197 mph. At the time, it was the world’s fastest production car and it certainly wasn’t meant to be left in storage.

With that in mind, it’s no wonder Gates lobbied so hard through the early 1990s to get his Porsche back. The trouble was only 329 of them were produced and Porsche wasn’t willing to sacrifice any for crash testing. That wasn’t good enough for the United States government. They wanted four cars to crash-test.

When Porsche said no and stood their ground, the car was banned from coming to the country.

After many years of pursuing change, Gates finally had the government enact the Show or Display law. This permitted various exotic and rare cars to come into the country even if they didn’t comply with the FMVSS. All rare car collectors can now thank Bill Gates for his time and sacrifice to enact this law.

Other Ways to Legally Import a Car

If you can’t bring a car to the United States with the Show and Display rule, there are other ways to do it legally.

Bring it Into Compliance

The easiest way to import a vehicle legally is to make sure it complies with all U.S. regulations. First, you need to allow crash testing on the car to ensure it meets safety standards. If you thought you were going to purchase just one car – think again. You would have to buy a few and then allow the government to destroy them during testing.

Further requirements include changing the speedometer to read miles, adjusting headlight angles, installing orange reflectors and adding a third brake light. There are some things you would have never thought about like ensuring the bumper strength, having a chime when you don’t wear your seatbelt, and adding a device that limits fuel spillage if it’s involved in an accident.

This is only relevant if your car passes the crash testing. If not, plan to add some structural reinforcement as well. Then, you need to pass the EPA testing. Needless to say this is quite the process.

Substantially Similar Rule

If the vehicle is deemed “substantially similar” to something already sold here, then just ignore the last guideline. This mainly works when someone wants to import a car from Canada. If the vehicle is similar to one that already exists here and it shares the same emissions, it’s just a matter of filling out some forms.

With that in mind, it’s difficult to get this rule to apply to cars outside of Canada. That’s because the majority of other markets don’t share the same reciprocity. These cases might require the manufacturer to write a letter stating that the car is similar to one already in production in the U.S. Most likely, it’s not going to happen!

Ensure the Vehicle is 25 Years Old

All of these rules don’t apply once the car is 25 years old. Once that happens, you are free to import whatever you wish and there are no restrictions. The only guideline is that it uses its original engine or an EPA certified replacement.

Final Thoughts

Importing a vehicle is quite the hassle thanks to all the red tape and guidelines. With the Show and Display rule, you can follow in the footsteps of those that have gone before you. Of course, if you have the money to import an exotic car in the first place, you probably won’t be too concerned about all the hoops you have to jump through and expenses you need to pay, and the rest of us will be grateful to see another timeless automobile on the road.

We are not attorneys. This article is not legal advice.

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