With so many collector cars available, in most cases you should be able to find the treasure you want right here at home. However, there are a few cars — the truly rare and exotic such as an 8C2300 Alfa, Maybach or a racing Bugatti — which may be available only in an overseas location.
The cars you don’t have to travel overseas to buy include these reasonably common postwar sports cars: MGs, Morgans, Healeys, Jags, Mercedes, even ACs and Porsches. Most of these cars were primarily built for export to the United States. Some, like Porsche Speedsters, weren’t even sold in Europe. Even most of the SLs from Stuttgart emigrated here. And there’s a huge selection of postwar Rolls-Royces and Bentleys ranging from magnificent to mangy.
If a particular car was exported to the United States in reasonable quantities when new, the chances are you won’t need to look anywhere else for a good example. But, because few European cars were imported into the United States, there is a much smaller pool of prewar cars from which to choose.
So You Want to Import a Car
With plenty of fine examples of collector cars right here in the states, you’ve got to want a particular car very badly to go through the time, trouble and sometimes even the genuine pain of buying a collector car abroad. And these things can often outlast any pleasure you’ll find.
Unless you know the car and the seller, you’re taking a big gamble purchasing a car long distance. Photos do lie, sometimes inadvertently and sometimes deliberately. Be very careful of English cars offered with their license plates blanked out in any pictures you’re sent. The photos may not be of the car you’re anticipating buying but of a better-looking example. The neat thing about an English car is that you can trace its ownership history through its British license plate because, like its chassis number, it stays with the car from new. Don’t even consider inquiring about a car that’s had its plate blanked out in a photo ad.
You have very little legal recourse if you do get stuck with a lousy car from overseas, and any legal action will likely end up costing more than what the car is worth.
Transporting the car to the United States will put another appreciable dent in your checkbook. Trying to import a car yourself can be a maddeningly frustrating experience dealing with customs, stevedores and general bureaucracy. A shipping agent will add that much more to your overhead but is the better choice than doing it yourself.
If you try to import a car that doesn’t comply with safety or pollution regulations, you might as well kiss it goodbye before it even gets here. Customs is going to grab it and destroy it or send it back home — with no monetary compensation to you. This applies to post-1967 cars that aren’t built to U.S. standards for the model year concerned.
So why do collectors and would-be collectors do it? In the case of English cars particularly, there appears to be a large element of romanticism at work. The idea of finding and importing your very own TD or Plus 4 or R-Type Bentley has a certain appeal to the romantic side of collectors. It can make for great conversation at the next club meet. It can also make for an unending tale of woe at that very same meet. But remember that importing a car from another country doesn’t add one cent of value to the car itself. In fact, a right hand drive car might be harder to sell in the United States.
Be Careful Out There
If you decide to bring a car here from another country, please follow these tips:
Join a marque club devoted to the car, particularly one with home-country membership and connections. Ideally, the club will have specialists on the various models who will share their expertise with you.
- Do all the reading you can about the car or cars you want. Find out what makes them tick — particularly their weak points.
- Spend the money to inspect the car yourself. Don’t buy by phone — either overseas or in this country. I have heard too many horror stories from trusting souls who thought the seller’s word was all they needed to assure a good car. A plane ticket is a cheap alternative to a bad purchase.
- Most of all, ask yourself if an equal or better example is available closer to home at the same price. In nearly every instance, it is.
The Exceptions to the Rule
If you can, buy a car close to home to allow a personal inspection and access to experts you trust. It also eliminates expensive shipping, customs and duties. However, there will be times when the car you want is so rare that there are no alternatives to buying from another country. Should your dream be to own a chain-gang Fraser Nash, Alfa Monza, any car with a body by Corsica or Figoni et Falaschi, or a factory race car, there’s such a limited pool of these cars that you may have to go far a field.
If you do buy a car overseas, take your time, inspect it yourself and if you can, take a qualified marque expert. And whatever you buy, spend the extra money to use a qualified shipping agent to help you anticipate and avoid the many problems along the way.
Dave Brownell is the founding editor of Old Cars, the long-time editor of Hemmings Motor News and Special-Interest Autos magazine, and currently works as a motoring writer and vintage car appraiser. His work has appeared in AutoWeek, Automobile Quarterly, Car Collector, Sports Car Market, Auto Aficionado and Automobile magazine. He lives with his wife and their cars and pets in East Dorset, VT.