The Adviser

How to navigate the waters and airspace—literally—when chasing classics abroad

by Stephen Serio
24 August 2020 4 min read
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Photo by RM Sotheby's

There is a great temptation in finding jewels abroad. There is also, even in the best of times, a minefield of foreign sellers, currency exchanges, and laws, not to mention the logistical challenges of getting something thousands of miles away into your garage. If you’re considering buying a car from a strange land, this is a primer on how to Zumba your way through it all. 

To simplify things so that this isn’t a lesson in exasperation, tears, and money gone bad, I’m going to focus on importing a car from Europe. The rest of the world possesses far fewer cars you want and presents far greater challenges with myriad local laws (says the guy who once imported a car from Guatemala). Japan? A whole other thing for another time.

There are fine reasons for bringing cars back from Europe—models that were never sold in the United States, opportunities from important auctions, and rare and unusual color combinations with exciting specifications, just to name a few. There are also financial opportunities, such as last spring when the British pound hit a 35-year low against the dollar.

Let’s also assume the car you want is at least 25 years old—the fine folks at the EPA and DOT have rules that prevent 99 percent of newer cars from making it over here—has low miles, and looks to be in good original condition. And, to state the obvious, it should be something you absolutely cannot find locally. Avoid anything that can be duplicated within the United States. 

Once you’ve identified this prize from your online searching, European magazine reading, or from the email lead your best friend sent you because he knows you’re a car addict and you can’t help yourself, the first order of business is to see the car in person. The best way to vet a car before purchasing it is to see it (and the seller) yourself. In normal times, that means a vacation. 

Of course, international travel is not in the cards for most at the moment. The next best option is to employ a trustworthy third-party professional to lay eyes on the car. Now is not the time to be stingy with your budget. You are looking for someone who not only has the knowledge to inspect the car, but also a deep understanding of the area where the car is located. Car culture is very different in each and every country in Europe. Overall condition of cars, as well as how local cultures describe them, varies enormously. This is particularly true for restorations, which are not all carried out equally. Most of the restored cars I inspected at Rétromobile last February would need to be restored again in order to be correct. Even in the absence of malice, navigating a car purchase without having a knowledgeable local on your side is as prudent as completing a crossword puzzle in Chinese in total darkness with a Popsicle stick as a pen and with Latin as your mother tongue. Capisce?

The seller will ideally be a reputable, well-established dealer (think 20-plus years in the business), someone who will answer the phone after the deal is done. If you’re buying from a private party, be aware of the potential for scams. Much like art, the more expensive the purchase, the greater the chance for nefarious behavior. Yes, Timmy, people make fake and counterfeit cars and ask millions of dollars for them. I simply would never buy anything from an unknown private seller, from any distance, where there is no recourse.

After you and your inspector are satisfied with your car and you’ve agreed on a price—but before you hand over any cash—ask about title and registration work. This varies from country to country, and there’s a good chance you’ll need a translation service to satisfy your local DMV/RMV. There’s also a chance you’ll be asked for an ownership paper trail to get a new title stateside. 

You’ll need to pay in the local currency—another junction where you can spend more than you should. Engage an exchange business that will get you the best local rate. (I happen to use tempusfx.com.) 

Try to coordinate pickup of the car the moment the wire hits. This is another point where a local agent can be helpful. There are many shipping agents worldwide, but I stick to carseurope.net or cosdel.com. Shipping quotes, like everything else, can also vary from country to country, and on whether you put your car in a 20-foot container or share a 40-footer with another car. I like to ship door-to-door in a container, as the car will be touched by fewer people at the various ports. Ever see someone at an airport set off a fire-safety system in a car and fill it with white powder? I have. Ever see someone try to pry open the hood of a vintage car because an inspector couldn’t find a hood release? I have. If your new ride is valuable and not too large, you might fly it over. 

More expenses to consider: customs duties, surety bond, and various handling charges. 

Once the car is en route, cross your fingers that the container ship doesn’t sink while on the Atlantic (yup, that happened to me once with a new Aston Martin, so get it fully insured!), and prepare to be patient. I bought a car in Austria and, using airfreight, had it in the States within 10 days. I also bought a car in Switzerland that was booked into a container, and I didn’t see it for two months. When the car arrives, enjoy. 

That’s how I do it.  

Stephen Serio has been selling cars for more than 33 years and specializes in overseas transactions. 

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