Adventure Vehicles

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How to Buy and Import a Rig

In this installment of Adventure Rigs 101, Bryan Rogala introduces us to the surprisingly affordable world of buying and importing a 25-year-old adventure rig.

Video Transcript

BRYAN ROGALA: Hey, guys. Bryan Rogala here for Outside. This is The 101. This series is all about adventure vehicles. So buckle up because we've got a lot to talk about. 

To me, driving is not just about getting from point A to point B. It's about how you get there and what you find along the way. And that is the whole point of a good adventure mobile. It's something that enables you to get outside more often and do the things you love. 

There are tons of awesome vehicles produced throughout the years that make great adventure-rig platforms but were, sadly, never sold in the US-- Toyota Hiluxes, Mitsubishi Delicas, Diesel Land Cruisers, and Land Rover Defenders. The list goes on and on. So you might be wondering why I'm talking about cars that were never sold in the US. 

Vehicles like that are often very utilitarian and rugged and make really good adventure-rig platforms, and they also get way better fuel economy. We're talking old diesel Land Cruisers that can get upwards of 25 miles per gallon versus the gas version that would be lucky to get 10. 

If you know where to look, you can also get a really good deal. Used JDM, or Japanese Domestic Market, camper vans go for anywhere from $5,000 to $20,000, which is a hell of a lot less than a brand-new Sprinter van. Importing one is actually a lot easier than you might think. Here's what you need to know. 

It's really difficult to import a brand-new vehicle into the US that doesn't meet safety or emission standards. But anything over 25 years old is actually exempt from those standards as long as it has the original engine. There are a ton of vehicle import companies that do all the hard work for you by finding the vehicle, importing it, getting all that paperwork done, and then selling it directly to you. If you're willing to do a little research and some paperwork, you can do it all yourself. There are always a bunch of really cool imported rigs at Overland Expo. Let's go see if we can find one. 

BRETT WILHELM: So it's a 1992 Toyota TownAce Am'Craft camper. And I think Am'Craft was kind of like a Winnebago of Japan. 

BRYAN ROGALA: OK. 

BRETT WILHELM: So they would have gotten it from Toyota, put this fiberglass back on it, which just kind of gives you a little more space and a lot more options-- 

BRYAN ROGALA: Sure. 

BRETT WILHELM: --and then sold it as a factory option. 

BRYAN ROGALA: Wow. 

BRETT WILHELM: And so I had to wait, everyone has to wait, 25 years. But I've had it about two years now and been super happy with it. I love to play outside in general, and my work ties closely to the outside. So when I got it, I got it kind of twofold. One is the ultimate playmobile-- 

BRYAN ROGALA: Mhm. 

BRETT WILHELM: --but also kind of like a mobile office. In typical Japanese style, they do really well with a small amount of space. So it's jam-packed with features, especially for an already 25-year-old rig. 

BRYAN ROGALA: Sure. 

BRETT WILHELM: They were able to do a lot of customizations. And I discovered the platform a handful of years before that. I had been looking. 

BRYAN ROGALA: OK. 

BRETT WILHELM: And once I saw that as an option, especially in this day where some of these Volkswagens are $50,000-- 

BRYAN ROGALA: Yeah. Right, right. 

BRETT WILHELM: --and they're 25 years old, and they aren't as reliable as a Toyota. 

BRYAN ROGALA: Yeah. 

BRETT WILHELM: Once I knew this was an option, it was like, it was a no-brainer. 

BRYAN ROGALA: Nice. 

BRETT WILHELM: So it was just finding the right one. 

BRYAN ROGALA: Cool. 

BRETT WILHELM: Yeah. 

BRYAN ROGALA: Can I ask how much? How much does something like this go for? 

BRETT WILHELM: So at the time I bought it a couple years ago, it was-- I got it for 16,500-- 

BRYAN ROGALA: Wow. 

BRETT WILHELM: --all in, like imported. 

BRYAN ROGALA: Wow. That's really impressive. 

BRETT WILHELM: And I'm already seeing them go for like 22, 23. 

BRYAN ROGALA: OK. 

BRETT WILHELM: So I feel like it's a good investment, assuming all the wheels stay on-- 

BRYAN ROGALA: Sure. 

BRETT WILHELM: --and the engine keeps running. 

BRYAN ROGALA: Yeah. So this isn't something that you can just drive to your Toyota dealership and they're going to know exactly how to service. 

BRETT WILHELM: No. They'd probably look at you like you had five heads. 

BRYAN ROGALA: OK. Got it. 

BRETT WILHELM: But I was able to find an English-language engine manual. 

BRYAN ROGALA: Uh-huh. 

BRETT WILHELM: And the other cool thing with a lot of Japanese domestic-market vehicles is they have a pretty rigorous, road-worthy certification every year. So you have pretty good confidence that if the car has been licensed to be on the road in Japan in the last year, it's in good shape. 

BRYAN ROGALA: OK. 

BRETT WILHELM: And that's what I found with this. 

BRYAN ROGALA: You want to show me the inside? 

BRETT WILHELM: Yeah, absolutely. But one of my favorite features is the drop-away shower floor, which, right now, I have a little cassette toilet in there that I can lift out if we're in the BLM. But this hose connects up here, and you can actually shower inside the vehicle. There's a little shower curtain. Because all of this is marine-grade fiberglass, so it can all get wet. It's no problem. 

And it does have a pop top, which is great. I can barely stand in it with it closed, which is nice for winter camping. But this definitely opens it up a lot more. It gives you a lot of stand-over height. So they do a pretty good job with the space. This drops down into this channel and becomes a twin bed. 

BRYAN ROGALA: OK. 

BRETT WILHELM: Or the table can pop out, and that panel drops in here. And it becomes one big-- 

BRYAN ROGALA: Sleeping platform. 

BRETT WILHELM: --full-size to queen. Something like that. 

BRYAN ROGALA: Nice. 

BRETT WILHELM: And then these, there's two more panels that are stacked like this, and they just slide back. 

BRYAN ROGALA: OK. 

BRETT WILHELM: And you have a full-size bed. You can either pull one back and hop down, or you can go out this screen and the ladder on the backside. 

BRYAN ROGALA: So if somebody wanted to find something like this, how would you recommend they do it? 

BRETT WILHELM: There are a handful of great importers on the West Coast. I used a guy, JDM Car and Motorcycle out of Seattle. The Japanese have a very well-developed auction system. 

BRYAN ROGALA: OK. 

BRETT WILHELM: I mean, there's thousands of cars being sold every day on their auction system. 

BRYAN ROGALA: Yeah. 

BRETT WILHELM: It's like a government-monitored thing. So you can do it yourself. You just have to know a ton about paperwork-- 

BRYAN ROGALA: You've got to know what to do. 

BRETT WILHELM: --and the right things to file. So it's easier, I think, to go through an importer. 

BRYAN ROGALA: OK. 

BRETT WILHELM: Because that way, you just roll into the DMV. 

BRYAN ROGALA: Yeah. 

BRETT WILHELM: And here's your import paperwork. Here's how much it weighs. Here's the original specifications. And they just-- I was able to get it titled really easily in Colorado. 

BRYAN ROGALA: Nice. So it sounds like this is something easy enough. It takes a little work but it's like-- 

BRETT WILHELM: Yeah. 

BRYAN ROGALA: --anybody could do it. 

BRETT WILHELM: And I do think you'll see more of them coming in, especially as the van market continues to be hot. 

BRYAN ROGALA: Sure. 

BRETT WILHELM: It makes more sense for people to be bringing in unique vehicles like this. 

BRYAN ROGALA: Yeah. 

BRETT WILHELM: And I love it because the more vehicles there are like this, the more commonly there are going to be parts available here. 

BRYAN ROGALA: Absolutely. 

BRETT WILHELM: The rising tide lifts all ships as far as getting more of these in the country. 

BRYAN ROGALA: Gotcha. 

BRETT WILHELM: Yeah. 

BRYAN ROGALA: Cool. Well, thanks for showing us around. 

BRETT WILHELM: Yeah, definitely. 

BRYAN ROGALA: OK, maybe it's just me, but I love that little camper van. It's so cool. If you like this video and want to see more like it, follow us on YouTube. We'll see you next time.