Retro physique conversions for Japan’s ultra-compact kei automobiles flip the nation’s tiny runabouts into every little thing from basic Chevy vehicles to outdated Ford panel vans. The autos are tastefully accomplished and lots of People are concerned about importing a pint-sized lookalike. However be warned: Shopping for a tribute automotive that appears too very similar to its muse may get it intercepted and destroyed by U.S. Customs.
Such was the unhappy destiny not too long ago met by a 1996 Subaru Sambar van styled to seem like a basic Kind 1 VW bus, as relayed to The Drive by U.S.-based importer Tyler Barg. He specified by element how his try and import the little Subie resulted in full catastrophe regardless of his greatest efforts to save lots of the van, and it’s the definition of a cautionary story for others. We additionally reached out to VW for remark and have not heard again.
Barg operates an organization known as Tiki Bunny Imports which helps individuals ship the kei automotive of their desires stateside, and the Subaru saga started in early 2021 when a pal reached out for assist in finding a VW bus lookalike. After a little bit of looking, he discovered the right van; a ‘96 Sambar with simply 53,000 miles, a uncommon multi-panel sunroof, and the aforementioned VW Kind 1 physique conversion–full with an enormous VW badge. It was even within the shopper’s favourite coloration.
Barg put the cash collectively together with his spouse to purchase it. He knew it was dangerous to entrance the money himself, however he had no bother exporting it from Japan and it reached the Port of Baltimore in a jiffy. All of it appeared to be going nice, however because it seems, Maryland was the place the difficulty began.
U.S. Customs and Border Safety screens each automotive imported to america. Certainly one of its jobs is to confirm the legality of inbound items, together with whether or not they abide by copyright regulation. As a result of Barg’s retro-bodied Subaru had that massive VW badge on the entrance, CBP contacted Volkswagen of America and requested whether or not the van was licensed to put on the branding, as is process. VW mentioned it wasn’t and that the corporate thought-about it a faux model of considered one of its merchandise.
CBP subsequently seized the Subaru on November 1, 2021 on the suspicion that the van was “counterfeit.” Barg, nevertheless, didn’t be taught of the seizure for greater than a month. Because it seems, a typo in his e mail handle meant he wasn’t notified and remained utterly at midnight till customs despatched an official letter in late December. He had no concept the car was taken; this delay finally sealed its destiny.
“I did not realize it on the time, however that typo had value me the flexibility to ship the van again to Tokyo and reserve it,” Barg advised The Drive. If he knew it was seized when it was, the scenario could have been very completely different.
After months of emails, one other letter from a regulation agency representing VW arrived in March 2022 and laid out the automaker’s copyright criticism intimately. The doc accused him of importing a “knockoff Volkswagen Microbus,” claiming that “the general public will probably be confused if [it] sees these autos driving down the street or sees them in any other case, and can erroneously imagine that VW has created this car.” The letter supplied Barg numerous resolutions, from abandoning the van to taking the problem to court docket. Barg selected a center floor and petitioned VW and customs for a compromise. He requested to be given entry to the van to take away the VW badge, alter its paint, restore its Subaru branding, and signal a nondisclosure settlement.
Barg then tracked down a extra useful contact from the automaker. They advised he enter a bond supply with legal penalties. The bond supply proposed Barg would destroy the VW badge, present proof he did so, after which refit the Subaru with its inventory bodywork whereas nonetheless on the customs lot.
“I might understood from the get-go this was going to be an uphill battle,” Barg advised us. However he thought this frequent sense method may prevail. As he factors out, “The one precise change to the van is the one entrance panel. The remainder is repainted and reupholstered, certain, however none of it has any bearing on VW’s trademark.” If he reversed the overt branding, he felt he could be addressing the automakers issues. This turned out to not be the case. He did not even get a response from VW’s authorized crew, whereas U.S. Customs finally denied his petition in July 2022, stating that wanting a expensive court docket battle, the van will probably be “disposed of in accordance with governing pointers.”
Quickly after the communications went darkish, Barg’s hope light. The Subaru was by no means given again to him. As far he’s conscious, it’s joined the seven stars within the sky. He doesn’t know if it was crushed outright or rendered inoperable and parted out, however both approach it’s gone. He and his spouse are actually out practically $9,500 and he isn’t going to waste extra time or cash worrying about it.
Berg mentioned he feels rotten for letting down the pal he’d sourced the van for, although he has efficiently imported a equally retro Nissan Pao as a substitute. “After all, my poor pal this van was destined for was patiently ready, hoping for her likelihood to have one thing cute, quirky and wonderful, because it matches her to a T,” he continued. “I really feel terrible, even now, that it did not work out and we ended up abandoning the kei van route.”
Having spoken to others within the import trade, Barg mentioned he’s heard a number of situations of “tribute equipment” seizures like this. Apparently, one of the simplest ways to keep away from interception at customs or extra critical authorized troubles is to have physique conversions de-badged earlier than transport. Although VW argued that the van’s design infringed on their trademark, it’s doable customs wouldn’t have flagged it with out the large, recognizable badge. That is removed from a assure, nevertheless, and Barg has heard from at the very least one different importer who had a de-badged car seized. He later discovered that VW additionally may’ve sought damages for as much as half the van’s worth; virtually $5,000 in his case.
Regardless of all the bother, although, Barg is simply relieved it is throughout. He misplaced his cash and didn’t get the van, however issues may’ve been worse. “I am at peace with it,” he mentioned. “The sacrifice will hopefully save others from the identical destiny. If it helps even one particular person? Price it.”