Reader Question Kei Cars?

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Here’s the latest reader question, along with my reply!

Tom writes: I have long had a fantasy of importing a Kei car from Japan. It used to be that if a foreign car was over 25 years old it didn’t have to meet emission or safety dictates. Is that still the case?

My reply: For those not hip, a “Kei” car is a Japanese market microcar, known as much for their small size as their funky styling. Some of these have been brought to this market. Examples include the first-generation Scion xB and the Nissan Juke.

As for importing an antique one – which would be one at least 25 years old – my understanding is that it is legal. But it is also expensive. You may spend more to get the car than on the car itself. But there are also companies that specialize in this (see here, for example)  and if you are willing to wait, then shipping costs may be tolerable. It’s the same basic issue as with buying a car or motorcycle within the United States but in another part of the United States that you need to get shipped to your part of the United States. If you want priority shipping, it’ll cost you $1,000 (or more). But if you’re willing to wait – as by using a company that allocates space on a truck (or container ship) on a “piece” basis (they pick up your vehicle along the way or only start the delivery run when the truck is full, etc.) then you can cut that down considerably.

So, in summary, you’ll need to shop for the car and the shipping company. It is probably sound policy to work with a seller that does both. But make sure of the seller by checking them out thoroughly before you buy!

. . .

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  1. They’ve been imported in large batches for more than 20 years, so finding one that is 25+ shouldn’t be too much trouble.

    The problem for making one street-legal might rest in the inanity of federal regulations — a 25+ Kei imported today might have a different classification than an identical model that was imported 20 years ago.

    Some states (like Arkansas) treat them as agricultural vehicles. So, just like a tractor, they can be driven on the road… but ONLY for agricultural purposes.

    In New Hampshire, they are an Off Highway Recreational Vehicle. That would be fine, but they really suck as a side-by-side ATV. But again, you can get NH plates for them so that they can be used on the roads for certain purposes, such as agriculture or plowing snow.

    Heh. Can you imagine one of these with a 7′ Boss V-plow on front, trying to push through 10 inches of wet New England snow?

  2. Someone actually brought one of those little trucks in the picture to a recent car show near me. Very different for sure. But people do bring these in.

  3. How many of those cars are still around when they’re 25 years old? Old cars are virtually fatwa-ed off the roads in Jap-land…I don’t think you even see a 10 year-old car there.


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