As car enthusiasts, we’ve all been there:
Sitting around the house, or at work – bored. Looking at sites like Craigslist, eBay Motors or Facebook Marketplace, looking at cars you will more than likely never buy. Find something in your price range? – Sure, but it has 300,000 miles. Look promising in photos? – In person it’s so beat up that it’s a deal breaker. Right car? – Wrong spec. It always seems like there is something that prevents us from finding good stuff locally or even regionally. Try looking at a JDM import – you might see differently.
After talking with a lot of my enthusiast friends, almost none of them considered importing a car from Japan when it came to replacing or adding to their fleet. It seems like the biggest hold ups were uncertainty about purchasing a vehicle sight unseen and unknown paperwork, fees & hoops to jump through to get it legal. Well… I decided to take a closer look for myself and import my latest daily driver. Let me present to you all my 1996 Honda Orthia:
No, it’s not a Subaru.
This little nugget just became legal for importation this year. Currently, the United States has an imposed 25 year import law preventing cars 24 years and newer from being imported into the country. Of course, this rule only applies to cars that were not intended for sale in the US when they were made. The Orthia is one of these cars. Made in Japan, for Japan. But enough about my specific car, I want to educate YOU on just how easy a car like this could be sitting in your driveway.
1. Cars can be bought at auction for STUPID cheap
A lot of times, you’ll see these JDM cars sell for ridiculous money here in the states. Even cars that seem ordinary, like the Orthia, can command a fairly high amount if you were to buy them from an individual – this is not the case when you buy directly from auctions most of the time. A common misconception is that you can’t find cars in Japan for a good price & that the prices reflected here in the US will mirror those overseas. Not true, again, most of the time. A car that sells for $10,000 here in the US can often carry an initial price at auction of a quarter of that or even LESS. Most times, it’s the shipping, duty, brokerage fees & taxes that inflate the price before it’s landed.
*This is where having a middle man is a huge asset.*
I purchased my Orthia from my good friend, Adrian of Midnight Motors here in Tennessee. Adrian was able to not only source me the car at auction, but help me through every step of the import process. From finding a broker overseas that would take the car to port, all the way to shipping & landing, Adrian kept me close every step of the way. Having someone that knows what they are doing will definitely be an asset to you. Yes, they will charge you a fee for their services, but trust me – the headache of paperwork & possibly missing key documents is something you do NOT want to go through if you are new to this. It could cost you THOUSANDS in the long run to make things right if you are not careful, so having someone that knows the ins and outs is crucial and comforting.
Read to the end of the article & I’ll share some links with contact info to a couple of our friends in the JDM import business!
2. Less kilometers & better condition
Going back to the initial part of this article – sometimes, local options don’t match all of our discerning criteria. Well, you may be in luck when it comes to importing. Japan is not a very large place, and most of the population lives in a concentrated area. This means that a lot of the cars over there will have less miles on them, or kilometers in this case. Not only that, but most everyone cares immensely about maintenance. The Orthia that I purchased was meticulously maintained. So much so that there is not a single smudge in the engine bay. Most Honda engines found stateside 25 years or older are caked in oil. Not so in Japan.
With the combining factors of maintenance & less miles, most cars at auction are hardly broken in! While the cluster in mine was swapped before shipping, I do have a maintenance record from 2019. This record shows that the car only had 61,000 kilometers on it. Not bad being 23 years old at the time. With that said, it’s not always the case, but it’s mostly the case.
3. Insurance is cheaper than you think.
With the rising popularity of Japanese imports, more insurance options are becoming available. Collector car insurance companies like Hagerty offer great insurance rates. Premiums are pretty low as well. I’ll let you all in on how much I pay a month for mine: $70. That’s full coverage, too. Of course, your rates may vary, but you may be pleasantly surprised. Also, a lot of bigger insurance companies will actually take care of sourcing you the best insurance if they can’t cover you directly. Call your agent and ask them about it!
4. Maintenance & upkeep is not unrealistic.
Most of the time, JDM manufacturers will reuse drivetrains from USDM cars. My Orthia has roughly the same drivetrain as a similar year USDM CR-V. This makes finding parts easier than you might expect. Another great example, Toyota Crestas – come with Toyota’s famous 1G series engine. Swaps are also super easy for most 90’s models. The Cresta can be swapped over with a 2JZ relatively easy. The Orthia can easily have a VTEC head put on it & tuned for more power. These make incredibly fun project cars, obviously. Of course, body panels may be an issue in the event of an accident. Just like the car, panels require a good amount of shipping cost to receive them. However, don’t let this deter you from looking!
5. JDM import cars (typically) do NOT depreciate.
Think of purchasing a JDM import as an investment. That investment will more than likely pay off in the event you need to sell it. Think of it like this, even if you had to sell it immediately, there’s probably a buyer ready to pay you what you have in it. There’s not an abundance of certain JDM import cars here in the USA. Demand for certain cars mean that the market will continuously grow & become stronger. The same cannot be said about a 10 year old Prius going for the same money – just saying.
There are many other reasons to own a JDM import, but these are my top 5 for ownership. The looks you’ll get by folks in traffic is pretty funny since you are driving on the “wrong side.” You can go to any half decent car show and get respect by fellow enthusiasts. You’ll be asked if you deliver mail every time you talk to someone about it. Overall, it is a wonderful experience, and I hope this helps push some folks over the edge.
If you would like to take a look at first time JDM import ownership, contact Adrian at Midnight Motors. They specialize in imports under $10,000, making them great for first time buyers. Matter of fact, for about as much as a decent used Ford Fusion, you can own a JDM import of your very own through these guys.
If you are serious about a collector spec JDM import or something more specialized, contact Prentice Performance Imports. John & his team are friends of the magazine and sponsors of our lifted Civic project! They have an extensive inventory of RX-7’s, Skylines, Supras & more – and of course, they have the knowhow to get you exactly what car you want.
Text & Photos by Ben Battles