What is the 25 Year Rule and How Does it Apply to You?

We have laws to keep us safe and protected. We trust in our authorities to do whatever is in our best interest. Then, we come across statutes such as the infamous 25 Year Import Rule and wonder – Who are they really working for?

On the surface, this law sounds understandable. I mean, of course, they want everyone on the road to be safe and secure. Except, that’s not really what the 25 Year Rule is about. Contrary to popular belief, it’s never been about your safety.

Actually, they created this rule to protect the interests of the automakers. They’ve gone as far as to crush some beauties along the way. Take the time they demolished a Land Rover Defender, or the time that a 2000 Mini Cooper saw the end of its life. Then, they made sure to share the videos with the world to serve as a lesson as to what happens if you try to bring a car into the country that’s not allowed. All for the sake of safety, right?

I mean, the Defender and Mini Cooper came complete with airbags and other standard technology that made them roadworthy. But no, according to that it would be far better to drive a “classic” 25-year old import instead which might not have this technology.

Hopefully, you are starting to see my point here.

How Did The 25 Year Import Rule Begin?

Let’s talk about a man named Douglas deBoard. In the early 1980s, Douglas was an American living in Southern Germany. While there, he realized there was a lucrative market in importing Mercedes vehicles to the United States.

The Gray Market Problem

The European models had more horsepower and offered additional features that weren’t part of the American lineup. On top of that, they were cheaper.

In 1980, about 1,500 gray market vehicles came to the United States. Just five years later, that number topped 60,000, with a third of them as Mercedes – thanks in no small part to enterprising people like Douglas deBoard. As a result, the automaker lost about $300 million in sales from the American market. This became unacceptable.

Mercedes Fights Back

Instead of doing what they needed to provide Americans with the cars they wanted, Mercedes decided to fight back instead. They started in 1984 by warning consumers about the dangers of purchasing from the gray market. They said that aftermarket shops weren’t bringing the cars into compliance and it would cost the owner more than they were saving in the long run.

By 1988, Mercedes enlisted the help of other automakers as well. Their joint proposal became the Imported Vehicle Safety Compliance Act which banned the importation of cars that failed to meet U.S. safety and emissions standards. That included providing ten vehicles for crash testing. Who has the resources to do that? Only the big guys.

Cars and Politics

Importers in Texas, New York, Florida and California all fought against the company, but they didn’t have a chance of winning. Representative Walker of Pennsylvania even called these companies out, saying that the bill was to help automakers make more money instead of protecting the public. Nevertheless, it passed without much fight.

The impact was clear. When the law was first passed, gray market vehicles declined from 66,900 in 1985 to just 300 in 1995. It became completely impossible to import a car with a few select exceptions that didn’t much benefit the general public.

Even Canadian vehicles are unable to meet many of our requirements, which is why it can be difficult to import a car from Canada.

The 1998 Amendment: The 25 Year Rule

Then, in 1998, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration issued the 25 Year Rule. This allowed vehicles older than 25 years to be admitted into the country because they are “collectible.”

Clearly you see how ridiculous this is. We don’t have to submit cars older than 25 years for crash testing, we can drive them on public roads, but the entire rule has to do with our safety?

No, what it really has to do with is the bottom line of the automakers. Since they started playing politics, we as consumers lose out and can’t have what we want – at least until the car is 25 years old.

Finding a Way Around It

Now, you might think there are some ways around this rule, and there are. None of them are easy and many can lead to trouble.

For example, the Show and Display rule protects some vehicles that have already received approval for entry. But those guidelines are incredibly strict; often only the most exotic vehicles are allowed.

There have also been companies working on finding loopholes. For example, some people found that shipping the car without its motor makes it a legal import as a “kit car.” Then, they have the engine shipped in separately and assemble it stateside.

While this might sound like a good idea, it’s still not legal to drive that car on the streets.

The Case of Motorex

When discussing gray market importers, people often refer to Motorex. They were a California-based company that specialized in getting the Nissan Skyline GT-R to the United States. In 1999, they even had the R33 GTS25 crash-tested to appease the government.

Then, they submitted the information and petitioned to allow 1990-1999 GT-Rs and GTSs into the States. As a result of their efforts, many Skylines made it to American roads.

It only lasted a few years, however, and the NHTSA put a stop to the party in 2005. They determined that the various Skyline models wouldn’t all perform the same in crash testing, even though Motorex had gathered data proving that they would.

At that point, the NHTSA determined that only the 1996-1998 R33 was allowed according to our safety standards. Not only did Motorex have to stop all operations, but the owner Hiroaki "Hiro" Nanahoshi was put in jail with a $1 million bail for assault, kidnapping and various financial charges. Those events spelled the end for Motorex.

Movements Against the 25 Year Rule

Anyone that learns about the 25 Year Rule gets angry; there’s no way not to. It’s an injustice that we can’t have the cars we want, especially the modern ones that feature plenty of safety technology. Personally, I would be one of the first to drive an R34 Nissan GT-R if I was allowed to.

Instead, we are only allowed to drive the gas-guzzling “classic” cars that don’t feature safety technology. Because, you know, it’s for our own good.

Through the years, many people have turned their anger into action by filing petitions. They’ve pretty much been a waste of time because you aren’t going to take on the automakers or a government that stands to lose money if they anger the foreign car companies.

Until the car you want becomes 25 years old, you aren’t going to legally import it into the country. That’s just the way it is and you are supposed to be okay with it. We understand your frustration and think it’s just as unfair as you do, but there’s little that any of us will ever be able to do about it, for now.


Title Gods specializes in recovering lost car titles and solving all kinds of title-related issues. We are not attorneys. This article is not legal advice.

Cover Image Source