I get this question about once a week these days, “Are the Skylines really going to be legal when they are 25 years old?” It’s a loaded question. The answer is actually yes, and no, as it all depends where you live. In North America, Canada is an exception, but even in the United States the rules have some variance. Since I live in California, the answer is actually yes, but no. Yes, because the 1989 Nissan Skyline will be federally legal to import once it’s 25 years old in 2014, but no because vehicles 1975 or newer are subject to direct import laws in California. These direct import laws make it very expensive to bring a car into California compliance. However, for the purposes of this article, I won’t get too far into the downside of the upside of 25 year old vehicle import.
First off, since it is now 2017 it is legal to import 1992 vehicles that never met US FMVSS (Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards) as regulated by the NHTSA, DOT (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Department of Transportation). This is because the Code of Federal Regulations Title 49 part 591.5(i), also written 49CFR591.5(i), says you can. Title 49 has to do with transportation while 591 is the section called – IMPORTATION OF VEHICLES AND EQUIPMENT SUBJECT TO FEDERAL SAFETY, BUMPER AND THEFT PREVENTION STANDARDS. The .5 designation is a reference to the subsection that details Declarations Required for Importation and the (i) designation is a reference to a section of that subsection. The legal importation of a vehicle is not up to the guy on a random internet forum, the guy at the DMV or even the police officer on the corner. The Code of Federal Regulations is the definitive word on the rules. The contents of its pages trumps casual opinion. The laws used to only be written in these cool things called books, but now you can look up the parts, numbers, and sections online. If you have access to a hard copy of the CFR like I do, it’s like the worst choose your own adventure book ever. It is a difficult book to read. If you ever pick one up you will probably want to put it right back down.
The pertinent text of the Code of Federal Regulations section 591.5 states:
No person shall import a motor vehicle or item of motor vehicle equipment into the United States unless, at the time it is offered for importation, its importer files a declaration, in duplicate, which declares one of the following:
(i)(1) The vehicle is 25 or more years old.
The declaration form referenced by the Code of Federal Regulations is the NHTSA form called the HS-7. On the HS-7 form 25 year old cars are Box 1. This is a document that should be extremely familiar to anyone who regularly imports automobiles.
On top of the NHTSA, the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) is another regulatory body with a say in vehicle regulations. However, the EPA is even more lenient than the NHTSA, DOT. The EPA says at 21 years old, and in its original configuration, a vehicle is exempt from EPA requirements. This is something that needs some explaining as different people read into it what they want. They only pull the words out of that last statement that suit them. If you want to be a well informed cookie, read it carefully and understand what it really means. The EPA importation form is called the 3520-1. For vehicles over 21 years old, and in their original configuration, an importer would fill in code E on the 3520-1.
The text of the pertinent EPA regulation states:
A vehicle is exempted if it has been 21 years or more since its original production year and it is in its original unmodified condition. Vehicles in any condition may be excluded if they were manufactured prior to the year in which EPA's regulations for the class of vehicle took effect. Vehicles at least 21 years old with replacement engines are not eligible for this exemption unless they contain equivalent or newer EPA certified engines and emission control systems. Upon entry, the importer must file an EPA Form 3520-1 with Customs and declare code “E” on the form.