What is a wife to do?

Dear Click and Clack,

This is an automotive and marriage question.

My family and I live in Naples Italy, where my husband is working for the United States Government. We brought our tried and true, 1996 Toyota RAV-4 with a mere 211,000 miles with us. We brought it because it is sturdy, reliable, and already looks like?Naples.

Since we have been here, my husband has started to look at other?cars. First it was a Volvo, then an Alpha?now it is a BMW convertible. I tell him there is no future in the relationship. The car will only be destroyed here and break his heart, he will have to leave his new love behind due to import restrictions.

Now he says he will get a used car and bring it home with us. He?s looking at a 1996 BMW 326 convertible with 160,000 KM. (no, I don?t know how he thinks he is going to convert KM to miles when he gets back and is driving on the CA freeways again).

What would he have to do to be allowed to bring the BMW back to the US? Are there companies that do this? What is the cost?

I promise, if it possible and not a ridiculous expense, I will be quiet and let him buy his little euro-toy and get it out of his system.



There are rules and regulations that cover import of non-US spec vehicles into US. Our general conclusion is that the required modifications and work through a Registered Import broker is expensive and dysfunctional. NTSHA and EPA sites cover these issues. Go there and read carefully.

I think the best approach is to use an overseas sales program to buy a new US spec car and have it delivered in the US, at the end of your overseas tour. Saab, BMW, Volvo, Mercedes, etc all offer manufacturer’s programs, and AAFES/NEX Car Sales in Naples may be open to you, also. That way you avoid the import issues with a non-US spec car.

Dera Glee:

We have had many posts on this subject and nearly always is it extremely difficult or impossible to bring an overseas designed car back to the US unless you buy an export model to start with. I have not kept track, but at one time you could take overseas delivery of your US specification Volvo or Mercedes, drive it in Europe and bring it back. Volvo would even ship it for you.

Some models can be modified by specialist companies, but the expense normally exceeds the value of the car.

Fiat does not even sell cars in the US, so service and parts will be impossible to get. Volvo, Mercedes and others sell cars in the US that have many differences from their European siblings with respect to safety and emission standards. Unless your husband gets an exemption as a government employee, he is in for some extremely expensive modifications, and the car will sit in the quarantine compound for a very long time.

If he wants the Euro toy, let him buy it and sell it when you return to the states. I’ve tried to help many expats returning from overseas, having done the same thing myself.

For yourself, I would shop for art, antiques, special pieces of furniture, etc. All things that don’t run on electricity, and don’t have to meet UL standards.

Good luck!

I was an American living in Switzerland in prime “gray market time” I so much wanted to bring my perfect condition BMW E30 home with me. I was a BMW tech at a BMW dealer I had this car beautiful and perfect mechanically,low miles,paid for. I asked and recieved the import guidelines from U.S.D.O.T. Complicated to say the least. Most challenging technical issue was bringing the car up to standandards in regards to crash protection (this european car did not have door reinforcement beams. There were other tech issues (car did not have cats) and then issues with testing,certification,and transportation. The two things that made the “gray market” work were avialability of models not seen in the U.S. but the biggest motivator was the great dollar to franc exchange rate. If a BMW mechanic with a perfect car and perfect economic times along with “workable” vehicle required modifcations put the numbers together and said “not a good” decision,I cant believe factors are more favorable today espically for the non-mechanic. I sold the car that was the automotive “love of my life” and bought a BMW in the states, done deal I was back in a BMW. Hope knowledge of my experience helps you make a sound decision. It would have been possible but not worth it even in the most advantageous economic times, “the gray market eightes”

There’s no reason anyone must hold on to a car forever. Let him get whatever he wants with the understanding it will remain in Italy when you leave.

I think he will agree with this compromise. No doubt he already understands the difficulties of bringing his Eurocar back to the States. So, let him have his driving fun now. When it’s time to leave he will try to find his pet a good home.

You might contact the US embassy to see if they have a package of information for you. Unless it’s a collector’s item, I’d just buy it and sell when I leave. It has to be special to justify the expense of making modifications. Or maybe it might be old enough that modifications won’t be needed. Another alternative might be to buy a US-ready car in Europe and bring it back with you. You will need to check Italian restrictions on this; mostly how long you can drive it in Europe before they stop you. There may be no such restirction, but you need to know.

Let me expand on two items Docnick touched on:

  1. There is no government employee exemption from EPA and NTSHA import rules. That is what makes purchasing US spec cars thru manufacturers or a legitimate car sales dealer in Europe attractive. You don’t say what branch of US govt you work for, but you may fall under the same rules as DoD, and can license the new US spec purchase as a US plated car. You then ship it home if you have authorization to do so, as part of your redeployment to the US.
  2. Volvo and Saab have “accept delivery in Europe; ship it home later” programs. Other manufacturers do also, but they are the two I have reviewed information on, because I was interested in a Swedish connection, due to family connections in Sweden. My knowledge of the German choices is much less.
  3. Selling a non-US spec car at the end of tour can be stressful. There is some doubt as to when the sale has to be done and the potential need to provide a power of attorney to sell the car if you can’t sell it before your port call. Been there, in the 1970’s.

Suggest that your husband sit down and do some research on all of these options. For my family personally, the best option was to purchase a US spec vehicle in Germany, in the last year of my overseas service, and ship it home, at government expense. Your optimum choice may be different, since you live in a large city where car theft and “fender benders” are the norm.

You’ve gotten good advice from lots of folks. To summarize, anything newer than (I think) 25 years old will require modifications to meet US standards. Older cars are exempted as collectibles. I am not sure if they can be licensed for regular use if they are “collectibles”, but you can check that with the California DMV folks.

There are factory programs to buy new cars from Mercedes, BMW, and Volvo aimed at ex-patriots to let you purchase a US spec car for use while in Europe and then have it shipped home at the end. Check makers’ web sites for info. There will be some limits on that.

Finally, yes there are companies that “federalize” non-US spec cars for use in the US. It is expensive and not worth it for anything but a very, very, special car or if you have tons of money for playthings and the cost is no object.

How do you feel about motorcycles? BMW motorcycles are the same in both Europe and the US. I’m pretty sure you can import those without a lot of modifications (like none). There are some interesting Italian motorcycles . . .

I believe Italy allows the operation of non-Italian registered government vehicles until they are shipped home. Friends in the diplomatic service in Italy purchased two right hand drive cars (VW and Mercedes) for later use in Asia. They drove them in Italy and then had them shipped home at the end of their tour. You might need diplomatic or US military plates for this arrangement.