The Nissan Skyline R34 GTR is one of the most celebrated and legendary Japanese performance vehicles of all time, loved and desired by many. The R32 and R33 Skyline generations aren’t too far behind in the popularity stakes either.
And in this article we are going to answer definitively why Nissan Skylines are illegal in the United States of America (believe it or not, the answer is much more complicated and interesting than you might think).
While the R34 GTR was never particularly successful in motorsport (especially when compared to the R32 – the OG “Godzilla” – learn why the R32 earned that nickname here) in our view the R34 is probably the most famous Skyline of all time, at least in the American market.
For example, here is the relative Google search ‘demand’ over the past 12 months for the R32/33/34:
However, when you consider that no generation of the Nissan Skyline was ever properly sold new in the United States, it does seem a bit peculiar that it has achieved such a loyal following in the USA.
How is it that a car which you cannot (apparently) legally buy could become so desirable?
In this edition of Car Facts, we go in-depth to discover why Nissan Skylines are illegal in the United States?
What is the truth; and how do some people seem to get their hands on Skylines for use on the road, as per this Doug De Muro video:
There are so many misconceptions, myths and urban legends around the legal status of the Nissan Skyline in the United States, so we want to try and clarify to the best of our ability what happened during the development and release of the Nissan Skyline to prevent it from legally being sold in America.
Is The Nissan Skyline GT-R Actually Illegal In The United States?
In short, the Nissan Skyline GTR was/is (depending on which exact generation you are talking about) effectively illegal in the United States.
There are a number of myths about why, the most common being that either the Skyline is too powerful for the roads in the United States, that its being right hand drive only is problematic, or that due to the legendary performance of these cars it is too easy for drivers to outrun law enforcement.
While these are great urban legends, the truth is far more mundane and is rooted in legislation. How boring!
All vehicles that are sold in the United States must comply with various items of legislation that relate to safety, environmental impacts, and so on. If a vehicle doesn’t comply, then it cannot be sold.
Japanese vehicles of the 1980s and 1990s were generally never famed for their safety features, especially performance cars. To compound the issue, many Japanese cars of this era had a fairly “loose” approach to emissions control as well, especially performance vehicles.
The illegality of the Nissan Skyline is all thanks to the 1988 Imported Vehicle Safety Compliance Act.
In the mid 1980s, Americans were importing upwards of 50,000 “grey market” cars a year from overseas (often from Japan).
These grey market cars were imported into the United States and then brought up to compliance standard before being driven on the road; it was a thriving industry, and owners were attracted to potential cost savings and greater choice in vehicles.
While many grey market importers were doing a stellar job at importing vehicles and bringing them up to the full, required American standard, there were undeniable issues with importers who were side-stepping the rules and not making the required modifications.
This provided sufficient ammunition for auto manufacturers (spearheaded by Mercedes Benz) to lobby Congress to pass legislation that prevent the import of grey market cars. While there were doubtlessly some genuine concerns about the safety and quality of grey market vehicles, it is clear now that the bigger motivating factor for car makers was lost profit from imported grey market vehicles.
With the passing of this legislation, the soon-to-be-released R32 GTR would no longer be compliant for sale.
If The Skyline Was Illegal, Why Didn’t Nissan Modify It To Be Compliant For Sale In The World’s Largest Car Market?
This all begs the simple question – why didn’t Nissan bother modifying the Skyline to be compliant and suitable for sale when new?
All of this hassle could have surely been avoided had Nissan just jumped through a few hoops when designing and manufacturing the various generations of Skyline.
While it’s hard to find a definitive answer to this question, basically it seems that Nissan were not confident at the time that they would have been able to turn a profit on the Skyline if they built it for sale in the United States.
GTR Skylines were always niche, specialist vehicles, which are often less profitable models for manufacturers to build when compared with “mainstream” cars.
The cost of testing and complying cars for the American market was immense, and this would have played on Nissan’s mind and profitability calculations.
Furthermore, there was a risk that Nissan would have had to make modifications to the car that might have decreased performance (whether due to safety or emissions/environmental standards).
Finally, because the car was only ever designed to be right hand drive, making a factory left hand drive variant would have involved substantial re-engineering due to the placement of the steering column and turbocharging system.
To cut a long story short, it would have been more trouble than it was worth to re-engineer the Skyline for the American market.
In hindsight, Nissan probably missed a trick by not making the Skyline for the American market in left-hand drive configuration and going through the rigmarole of compliance testing and certification. You don’t need to know much about the state of the “JDM hero car” market to know that GT-R Skylines are selling for a fortune to collectors, often in America (we will explain how this is possible shortly).
Why Are Some GTRs Available? How Did Others Come To Buy Them?
With all that in mind, how is it that some people seem to have access to Nissan Skyline GTRs for legal use on roads and highways of the United States?
There have certainly been Skylines on the road that were never legal to begin with. All manner of strategies have been employed by various enterprising individuals and businesses over the years, from sticking fake plates on a Skyline through to complex VIN swapping and the age old “kit car” trick (where you import the car as a series of components and then put it back together again). While acquiring an “illegal” Skyline can be tempting, there is massive risk in doing so; if the government catches up with you, your pride and joy could be off to the crusher as happened to this poor owner.
There are a few ways to achieve legal ownership and use of a Nissan Skyline:
25 Year Rule
This is the main reason you are starting to see more R32s and even some R33s on American roads. Once a vehicle reaches 25 years old, it becomes exempt from the rules outlined above and is able to be imported, complied and then driven legally on the road. There are some exceptions to this, such as California (who would have guessed?) where stricter emissions standards make compliance more of a challenge.
The 25 year rule is the easiest pathway to Skyline GTR ownership in the United States, provided you are happy – for now – with either an R32 or a very early R33 example.
Good things come to those who wait, it seems!
Show Or Display
Another way that some GTRs have found themselves into the United States is via the “Show Or Display” system. This was most famously used by Bill Gates in order to import a Porsche 959, as Porsche refused to take any steps to have the vehicle complied for sale in the United States. Basically, Show Or Display is a system where extremely rare vehicles – produced in volumes of 500 or less – can potentially be imported and complied for the purposes of showcasing (i.e. showing and/or displaying).
The system was originally brought into being by seriously wealthy individuals lobbying for the ability to import and occasionally use rare, collectible cars. In order to be successful with this system, you must “establish that the vehicle is of such historical or technological significance, and that it is in the public interest to show or display the vehicle in the United States” (reference).
Vehicles brought in under this system are only entitled to do limited mileage, which is currently up to 2500 miles per year. This is one of the hardest ways to legally import a Skyline GTR into the United States, as you’ve got to be sufficiently wealthy and well-connected to secure one of the ultra-rare Skylines that exist in the wild. A normal R34 GTR, for example, won’t cut it.
A list of vehicles that have been imported under Show Or Display is available here on Wikipedia.
If you’ve done any research on the legality of the Nissan Skyline GTR in the United States, then you’ve probably come across the term “Motorex”.
Motorex was a company that was founded in 1998 and made import applications for the R33 GTR that involved providing enough cars for crash testing. Motorex partnered with another company – JK Technologies – to then make the required compliance modifications to the R33 GTR in order for it to pass United States safety regulations. At this point in the saga, everything that Motorex was doing was very “legit”.
However, Motorex went on to claim that the crash testing and safety data for the R33 GTR also applied to the R32 and R34, despite these being clearly different in terms of construction, safety features and so on. To make matters worse, Motorex eventually stopped even bothering to make the modifications to their cars, simply choosing to import them and sell them “as is” and relying on the historical approval they had been given in their earlier, more legitimate days. There was also dubious behavior from the ownership of Motorex in terms of withholding money from clients, and even rumors of illicit drug dealing – this is a complex story with many layers and components, and we’ve only scratched the surface.
In the end, the government closed the door on Motorex.
However, any vehicle that had already been certified as legal (despite the fact that Motorex hadn’t been bothering with the modifications for some time) was allowed to continue to be used on the road.
This is the reason why there are a handful of coveted ‘Motorex R34 GTRs’ in the United States. Despite the fact that these never should have attained compliance, the government was kind enough to accept that owners had purchased these vehicles in good faith and should therefore not be denied use of them (simply that future imports would be blocked). The GTR Registry has a list of known Motorex R34 GTRs; there are believed to be around 14-16 all up in the United States.
When Will The R34 Skyline GT-R Be Legal For Import?
The first R34 GTRs rolled off the production line in 1999 (as per our R34 GTR buyer’s guide and history).
Therefore, it will be 2024 before you can legally import an R34 GTR into the United States under the 25 year law.
Patience, young grasshopper, and you could have your own legally imported R34 GTR in the not-too-distant future. However, you will surely need to do some saving as prices on these have been going up like crazy in recent years.
Can You Make A Nissan Skyline Legal In The US?
If you really want to get your hands on a Nissan Skyline, then you might be wondering what mechanisms are available to make one legal for import and compliance.
Unfortunately, there is little you can do beyond:
- Wait until the car you want to import is at least 25 years old – which is definitely going to be the easiest option but will require patience.
- Apply for a Show or Display exemption
- Find an example for sale that has already somehow been complied
We’ve heard stories of people doing all sorts of things like importing Skylines and putting fake plates on them to drive around (e.g. plates registered to a different type of car). Although this might be tempting, it simply isn’t worth the risk and you could encounter legal issues, insurance problems and risk having your car seized and destroyed!
As far as we are aware, there is no way you can make a Nissan Skyline road-legal in the United States by modifying it – short of being able to supply other modified examples for crash testing and compliance purposes which clearly isn’t feasible.
Conclusion – Why Is The Nissan Skyline Illegal In The United States?
Long story short, the Nissan Skyline GT-R is illegal in the United States because it doesn’t meet the requirements of the 1988 Imported Vehicle Safety Compliance Act. The Skyline was not built with the right safety features to comply with the relevant road safety legislation.
However, once a vehicle reaches 25 years of age, it is exempt from these regulations and can therefore be imported and driven on the road in the United States.
This means that the R32 GTR (the original ‘Godzilla’) for example can be imported into the USA, with California being perhaps the most notable exception in terms of individual states where you might have trouble importing due to stricter emissions control laws.
The earliest models of the R33 GTR are also starting to become legal for import and compliance as well, and by 2024 you should be able to start importing the R34 GTR (provided there are no additional changes to legislation by then, or further tightening of emissions and environmental rules which is always a risk in the current climate).
One word of warning – we’ve heard stories of people looking to buy and store Nissan Skylines with a view of registering and complying them once they turn 25 years old to hopefully gain value (as far as we can tell there are no rules preventing you from importing one as a “show piece” that isn’t allowed to be driven on the road but instead sits in your garage). While this is probably not a bad idea, there is always a risk that the government may change import laws and suddenly you could be left with a depreciating liability instead of a depreciating asset. The chances of this are low, but it’s worth mentioning.
If you know of any other legally approved means via which you can acquire a Skyline GTR in the United States, then we would love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below!