Sadly, for car aficionados the federal government’s regulations have kept us from enjoying the world’s coolest rides. A right-hand-drive car, or a vehicle too small to pass crash-safety tests, or one with an engine that would not pass emissions—all are viable reasons to not give a free pass for cars never meant to be sold here.
But time—enemy of yellow bananas and pop music stardom—is the friend of gray-market car enthusiasts with an appreciation for Japan’s coolest cars of the 1990s. Cars like the Nissan Figaro, Suzuki Cappuccino, and the head-turning gull-winged Autozam AZ-1 weren’t designed to meet U.S. government requirements, so they were never sold here. It wasn’t even legal to buy one in Japan and bring it home yourself.
However, after 25 years, it turns out there is an end to the irrational prejudice against these irresistible baubles—because that’s when the U.S. government issues a pardon. All sins are forgiven, and for 2019, cars built in 1994 or earlier are eligible to be imported.
That’s where Gary Duncan comes in. He has navigated the inscrutable Japanese export bureaucracy and figured out the myriad U.S. government regulations nonetheless still in place to hinder importing a classic JDM vehicle into America. If you want a quirky old Japanese car, Duncan can get it for you. In fact, he likely already has one in stock.
His venture started in 2016, when the 1991 Nissan Figaro boutique car became eligible, and Duncan, a car dealer in Christiansburg, Virginia, became motivated to start bringing in the almost indescribably cute pastel-colored convertibles. Duncan fell in love with the little car at its 1989 Tokyo Motor Show introduction. He suffered more than two decades of unrequited love until today, when Duncan Imports & Classic Cars is a titan of Japanese Domestic Market right-hand-drive cars, trucks, and vans.
Although Duncan’s original motivation was just to import the Figaro, once he’d established the pipeline to locate, purchase, import, and title cars from Japan, it only made sense to expand it to include other JDM cars, too.
Now, Duncan brings in utterly unremarkable RHD mini-SUVs for rural mail carriers who want an affordable vehicle with the steering wheel on the mailbox side. And he sells tiny commercial trucks to colleges and amusement parks that want small work vehicles to scurry around sprawling campuses.
But bringing whimsical boutique cars like the Figaro to ecstatic American customers is Duncan’s highest-profile work. Duncan’s website lists more than 500 classic right-drive JDM cars that have been imported, prepped, titled, and are ready for delivery to customers. Of those, nearly a quarter are Figaros.
His giant warehouse holds another few dozen minitrucks and hundreds of classic American, British, German, and Japanese cars. You won’t see any Nissan GT-Rs because Duncan says it’s too hard to find ones that haven’t been thrashed. But if you want a right-hand-drive ’93 Supra twin turbo, you’ve come to the right place.
Duncan sells right-hand versions of other cars that were available in the U.S., like the Honda del Sol and Toyota MR2. The cars that come from Japan are both more affordable and more distinctive than the U.S.-market cars, Duncan says.
Although Duncan says he’s seen interest in older classics cars like ’55-’57 Chevys and ’55-’57 two-seat Thunderbirds cool as their fans have aged, demand for Japanese cars from the ’90s is surging. “Buy every original Japanese car you can buy right now,” Duncan says.
Duncan’s bread-and-butter Figaros are rising in price. Now he is paying more to buy cars in Japan than he was selling them for in the U.S. last year.
He puts his money where his mouth is, too. That clean 1,200-mile 1997 Acura Integra Type R that sold at the Barrett-Jackson auction for a record $63,800? Duncan was the buyer. This car will increase in value for the same reason those T-Birds are going down: demographics.
“We’ve got the demographics, but we don’t have the disposable income yet,” Duncan says of his customers. “The Japanese stuff is aging like fine wine.”
Walking into Duncan’s 110,000-square-foot warehouse feels like the closing scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark, when the ark is packed away in a vast government storehouse. But in this building, the treasures are in plain sight. There are so many cars inside that, in places, there’s no room to squeeze between them.
The effect on a car aficionado can be stunning. There are so many cars! Look! There’s a perfect 1984 Honda City Turbo! And a 1992 Toyota Century luxury sedan. That 1976 Celica is the only clean, original first-generation Celica that Duncan has been able to find. It just goes on and on.
See something you can’t live without? Duncan can provide you the names of some third-party inspectors who you can hire to check the car out for you. Their fees tend to run between $85 and $100. That’s money well spent for peace of mind before committing to a sight-unseen online purchase.
Duncan does very little to prepare the cars for sale, even ones that have visible flaws that could easily be touched up or wet-sanded out. “I want the customers to see the cars as we bought them so they can see that we didn’t cover anything up,” he says.
This is also why he’s careful to only buy very nice examples of the cars. “I do all of my restoration with a rag,” Duncan says.
Prospective customers could be wary about buying these imported cars, concerned about their legality. But Duncan buys the cars, ships them to Virginia, and gets a Virginia title. All that’s left for the buyer is to pick up their car and register it in their own state using that Virginia title, just as they would any other car.
Christiansburg is fairly remote, in the southwestern part of Virginia. Virginia Tech’s football team plays a few miles away over in Blacksburg, and Roanoke is the nearest airport, 32 miles away. Duncan will dispatch a driver to pick up customers from the airport or train station in Roanoke.
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If you want the car to come to you, Duncan can suggest a list of delivery companies available to truck the car to your driveway. Their fees vary wildly; Duncan says he’s seen charges of as little as $1,200 and as much as $2,200 to take a car to California. One company took a car to Texas for $750.
A better solution, Duncan says, is to arrange the purchase through a broker who pays Duncan for the car. The end customer pays the broker for the car when it’s delivered, after inspecting it themselves. This avoids any chance for dissatisfaction over the car’s representation.
Duncan is opening a satellite store in Smyrna, Tennessee, outside Nashville, in July. This will put cars nearer to some customers, making in-person purchases easier for them. You can expect to start seeing home-team Figaros in the nearby Nissan Motor Manufacturing employee parking lot.
Internet surfers might be tempted to buy a car directly from the auctions in Japan where Duncan gets his cars. He gets phone calls from some of them, after they’ve encountered the obstacles that can make DIY importing harder than it looks. “There are a lot of unsavory people between here and Japan,” Duncan notes.
Duncan himself daily drives a new Audi Q7 rather than one of the classics he loves so much. “The problem is that the interiors have shrunk in ’em,” he says. “I’m sure I haven’t gotten any bigger.”
Maybe not, but the demand for fun JDM wheels sure has. Get ’em while they’re hot.
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