One of the many data sources we track over at Hagerty Insider is the movement of classic cars through international sea ports to and from the United States. Although these imports and exports account for a small slice of the collector car market, they can provide a clue as to which cars are destined to appreciate most. For instance, air-cooled Porsche 911 exports from the United States to Europe picked up early in the last decade, presaging the huge spike around 2015. Exports of Supras to the United Arab Emirates similarly provided a hint that those cars were about to take off.
This sounds odd, yes, but the reasoning is dead simple: Selling a car to someone overseas, versus a local, is relatively difficult and often includes extra costs. It only makes sense to do so if there’s profit to be made. So, if a particular classic is heading in or out of the country in appreciable numbers, it likely means collectors in the destination market(s) are paying princely sums for them. Often, the overseas movement settles down only when the value disparity between the import and export country level out—meaning collectors at home are willing to shell out more, too, and/or that the destination market has been saturated.
That in mind, we've sifted through publicly available import/export data to identify cars older than 25 years old and have mapped out the top 20 export countries for collector cars to the United States from 2010 through April 2021. Peruse it (by clicking the dots), and you'll find some amusing esoterica—someone went through the trouble to import a Rolls-Royce Silver Spur from Spain, and a few third-gen F-Bodys have come home via Poland. You also get a new appreciation of the United States' global military footprint in the dozens of American classics that get repatriated from places like Guam, Saudi Arabia, and Germany. (You can find a full-screen version of the map here.)
But from a market perspective, the clear takeaway is that there is a lot of money to be made in importing JDM cars from the 1990s and vintage SUVs.
In particular, Americans are hungry for Nissan Skyline GT-Rs, Land Rover Defenders, and Toyota Land Cruisers. Most of them, no surprise, are being imported from their respective countries of manufacture—Japan and the United Kingdom—but demand for these vehicles is so great that they dominate export registers from many other countries, as well. Germany, for instance, exports far more Skylines and Defenders to the United States than it does E30 3 Series or early Golfs. Italy sent over six Fiat Jollys ... and 159 Defenders.
A couple of caveats to keep in mind: The shipping data show only vehicles that have passed through a seaport and then went directly to the United States. We won't see, for instance, cars that were shipped through Canada and then proceeded by car carrier over the U.S. border. Also, some of the top-dollar classics skip the water altogether and arrive here on a plane, which is why we rarely find a Ferrari in the shipping logs. Lastly, we can't always say for certain that an imported car has been sold, although logic, coupled with our insurance data and contacts at dealers specializing in imports, compels us to assume the vast majority do.
Overall, the wave of imports clearly reflects what we're seeing in terms of prices. This year, we've reported unprecedented price jumps for 1990s Japanese sports cars and vintage SUVS. American collectors' appetite for these vehicles is also rippling through these vehicles' home markets. UK Hagerty Price Guide publisher John Mayhead reports that the average price for Defenders sold at UK auctions this year is up more than 10,000 pounds compared to last year. It still has some way to go—the current #2 value for a 1990 Land Rover Defender 90 200 Tdi is $57,600 in the U.S. version of our price guide and only $24,370 (£17,500) in the UK guide. It's likely that Defender prices in the UK will quickly rise as the stock dwindles. GT-R values in Japan, meanwhile, seem to be rising to match those in the United States and then some, per Sean Morris, director at Toprank International Vehicle Importers, widely considered one of America’s top GT-R importers.“The market is sort of silly right now. We are seeing higher prices for some cars in Japan than we are seeing in the U.S.," he told Hagerty recently.
With international travel and commerce returning after the pandemic and cash flush collectors looking to get out on the road, we suspect the shipping ports will be busier than ever. We'll be watching.