The American car market is one of the largest of them all. You can get anything from American muscle to JDM to European supercars. Well, I say anything. Unbeknownst to some, there is a long list of banned cars in America. In this article, we are going to take a look at some of the illegal cars in the US and how you can get your hands on them.
Most cars that have ever been in production are available in the US. Even if you are looking for something a little more exotic, you can always pay the import costs. Some cars are banned but can be owned “for Show or Display”. However, there is a list of cars that are banned in the US by the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration (or the NHTSA, for short).
We are going to explore why there are illegal cars in the US. Following that, we are going to take a look at some examples.
Why Are There Illegal Cars In The US?
The US is well known for its strange laws. Whether that be it being illegal to drive with a blindfold in Alabama, or condemning the act of reading a comic book while driving in Oklahoma. They even have laws about which cars can and can’t be driven in the country. Some cars are only allowed to be driven up to a few thousand miles a year. Whilst others are banned altogether.
Most of these laws are put in place by the NHTSA. The governing body that oversees the legislation put in place regarding new cars, their safety, and, ultimately, if they are allowed into the US.
What Is The NHTSA?
The National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration is an agency of the US federal government. It operates with a mission statement of “save lives, prevent injuries, reduce vehicle-related crashes”. Operating within the Department of Transportation, they have the last say on what is legal, and illegal, on the streets of America.
They have a budget of just under $1 billion. And they are also responsible for the licensing of manufacturers and importers, the development of the dummies used in the US safety testing, and the test protocol themselves. They also take charge of the creation and management of the Fatality Analysis Reporting System. A system that is used for traffic safety research around the world.
In a bid to live up to their mission, they are responsible for ensuring that all vehicles that are available in the US are safe. This means they are safe to operate, travel in, and be near. Also, they need to be safe for the planet and the US economy.
What Makes A Car Illegal In The US?
To follow all of the restrictions, there is a lot of legislation around what makes a car eligible for US roads. Some of these rules are different from where the manufacturers are based, and due to this foreign companies often produce American variants of their vehicles. By not doing this, the company would be cutting off themselves from a large consumer market.
On the other side, a lot of manufacturers are not willing to put in the work that comes with fitting this legislation. For this reason, many old and new cars are not available to import and are therefore illegal in the US. Some people believe the legislation is mostly in place to protect the US market. Some cars that are legal don’t even have public safety records.
Anything from safety, speed, or environmental concerns can lead to a car being denied the right to entry. Some of the cars we discuss below are deemed too fast. Others have been named as unsafe. Some don’t meet the necessary emission levels. This means that regardless of how big the US market is, there are still some cars that petrolheads may never get their hands on. However, some cars are available to own if you are willing to only drive a few thousand miles per year in them.
What Is “Show Or Display”?
The “Show or Display” rule is a rule that allows certain cars to be exempt from this NHTSA legislation. It allows private owners to import cars that would not normally be allowed. However, it comes with some drawbacks. You are not allowed to drive the car on public roads any further than 2,500 miles per year.
There are other things to note on the “Show or Display” too. At the time of import, the administration is within their right to permit the import but denies public road use. They are also allowed to add any other additional restrictions or limitations on the vehicle. At the time of writing, there are around 60 vehicles currently on the list approved for import under “Show or Display”.
What Makes A Car Eligible For “Show or Display”?
The NHTSA outlines that if a car is being imported by a sole person then there may be a chance it can be imported even if not on the list. However, it must fulfill the following requirements:
- No other vehicle of the same make, model, and the model year was manufactured and/or certified for sale in the United States
- No other vehicle of the same make, model, and the model year has been determined eligible for importation under 49 CFR Part 593, which pertains to the importation of vehicles by business entities
- The vehicle is not currently in production
- Less than 500 of the vehicles were produced, unless it is proven to the NHTSA that the vehicle is of extreme technological and/or historical importance
- The vehicle was not created as a kit car, replica, or special construction vehicle
Bill Gates, founder and former CEO of Microsoft and once the richest man in the world, bought a Porsche 959 which was not approved by the NHTSA. The car was held in customs for 13 years until the Show or Display rule came about, allowing him to have the car released.
What Cars Are Illegal In The US?
Below is a list of cars that are banned in the US by the NHTSA.
British Cars Illegal In The US
Many cars built in Britain were designed for the European market. With the US as an afterthought, sometimes it was not worth the time to make a car meet the regulations. Below is a list of some of the British cars that are illegal in the US.
2003 TVR Tuscan
Any TVR car built between 1996 and 2006 is banned in the US. Many TVRs are built to accelerate very quickly and most do not have airbags or anti-lock brakes. The British-built sports car are rejected due to their low weight and their low score in overall NHTSA safety tests.
If TVR were to include features such as airbags and anti-lock brakes, then they would have been considered for import. However, as it does not have these it is unsuitable for US roads. The car is too fast and unsafe. Therefore, it is just a dream for most Americans. Specifically, the 2003 TVR Tuscan that was featured in “Swordfish”. The popular John Travolta movie.
Lotus Elise Series 1
Another light and fast British sports car is the Lotus Elise Series 1. Weighing in at just over 1,500 lbs, it can accelerate to 60 mph in less than 6 seconds. Quite impressive when you consider it on had around 120 bhp. Capable of speeds over 150 mph, it’s not hard to see why the NHTSA gave it a tough time.
Originally, the car was manufactured between 1996 and 2001 and named after the granddaughter of the company chairman at the time of release, Elisa. However, another version was released in 2000, the 340R. This was a lighter, faster version of the series 1, with only 340 models made in total.
If the Series 1 was banned, then it is no surprise the 340R was also. It was produced with 177bhp, 127 lb-ft of torque, and a weight of 1,550 lbs. It also had no doors, windows, or roof. While street-legal in the streets of Europe, unfortunately, the bare-bones racer will never be owned in the US. This is a shame, as it is essentially a chassis with an engine, two seats, and nothing else.
1993 Jaguar XJ220S
Another rare and collectible 1993 gem is the Jaguar XJ220S. The “S” was designed to be a street-legal version of the XJ220-C racer. However, the NHTSA didn’t get this memo, as they never allowed it on US roads. With only 6 ever produced, only 1 has ever made it into the US.
The hidden headlights of the original XJ220 were removed and replaced with in situ headlamps. The base model’s luxury leather interior was removed as well. Following this, the engine was tuned to 690 bhp. It’s a shame a car as beautiful and iconic as this won’t be seen in the US, but looking at the specification, it is no surprise either.
2002 Morgan Le Mans ’62 Prototype
Unfortunately, it is pretty tricky to find any Morgan car in America. The car maker’s contact in the US is called “Isis Imports”, which doesn’t bode well for the British automaker. The 2002 Prototype is the archetypal Morgan, featuring the classic design and the prestigious LeMans name. However, you won’t be seeing this classic car in the US any time soon.
It is in discussions that new Morgan’s will be available in the US as soon as a few years’ time. Best keep your eyes open for the waiting list, as no classic is being imported any time soon.
1993 Aston Martin Virage Volante
With only 13 ever made, the Aston Martin Virage Volante is one of the more rare cars on the list. Nevertheless, it does make the list as it is illegal in the US. One has been imported into the US, so it’s unlikely you’ll see it any time soon. Five were built with a manual transmission, one of which is the aforementioned import.
1995 Rover Mini Cooper
An odd addition to this list is the Mini Cooper. Whilst many variants are permitted in the US, both new and old, you will not be able to get your hands on a Rover Mini Cooper from the mid-90s.
JDM Cars Illegal In The US
Japan has quite a closeted car scene and the cars that are mass-produced don’t typically make it over to the US in quite the same numbers. However, whether popular or not, some cars are banned completely by the NHTSA so will never be seen on the US roads.
1992 Mazda Cosmo
The Mazda Cosmo was their answer to Lexus. Well, it would have been should the project not have been scrapped. Mazda had planned to launch a set of luxury vehicles under the badge of “Amati”. However, they decided to stick with just the Mazda brand both in the US and worldwide. Should they have stuck with it, you may have seen businessmen driving around in “Amatis” rather than Lexus cars.
The Mazda Cosmo was manufactured only in Japan, leaving any Cosmo fan unable to get their hands on it. On top of this, and due to the car not being designed for the American market, it is banned and was added to the list of illegal cars in the US following its production.
Another car made by a Japanese manufacturer that never made it to America is the Honda Beat. The small, mid-engined, rear-wheel-drive sports car never took off like Honda thought it would. Of the 33,000 sold, two-thirds of these were manufactured in just the 1st year of this car’s 5-year lifecycle.
Another interesting point about this car was it was the last car to be approved by the company founder, Soichiro Honda, before he died in 1991.
1999 Nissan Skyline R34 GT-R
The Nissan GT-R was designed and manufactured as Nissan’s answer to the popular Toyota Supra and Mazda RX-7. It was technologically advanced for its time and had many features that only in the last few years are expected. The car even had a screen that would display live readings of the G-Force the car was under.
The so-called “Godzilla”, aptly named due to it being the monster from Japan. However, its fame didn’t help it when trying to get it onto the US streets. The Skyline as a whole was permitted, however, the 1999 GT-T and GT-R V-Spec are two models that were never approved for US streets. Due to demand in Japan, the effort was never put in to make these legal for the US.
Other banned Skylines include the 1995 GTS-T, all R32 GT-R’s built between 89 and 94, the 1995 R33 GT-R, the 1995/96 R33 GT-R V-spec, the 1994 R34, the 1999 R34 GT-T, and the 2001 R34 25GT-T.
1994 Toyota Supra
Only the 1994 Toyota Supra was banned in the US, so good news if you are happy having any other model year. The specific model year was banned by the NHTSA due to long-term reliability issues that they determined were serious.
Selling for upwards of $100k it’s hard to see whether too many people would miss this. However, having been made so popular with the Fast and Furious series and being in high demand, it can afford to ask for price tags like these. Part of the fourth-generation, the Supra Turbo made over 300 bhp and can make much more with a few minor modifications. It’s unsurprising the other model years are so popular.
1991 Nissan Figaro
Another Japanese car banned from the US road is the Nissan Figaro. Only 12,000 were produced and they were given out as part of a buyer’s lottery. With modern features like a CD player coming as standard in 1991, it was quite ahead of its time.
It was launched in 1991 and was banned by the NHTSA almost immediately. If you want to pick one up outside of the US, you can pick one up for less than $9,000.
European Cars Illegal In The US
Like the British market, cars manufactured in Europe are typically designed for the European market. With the US as an afterthought, sometimes it was not worth the time to make a car meet the regulations. Below is a list of some of the European cars that may never make it onto European asphalt.
1993 Lamborghini Strosek Diablo
In the early 90s, designer Vittorio Strosek redesigned the famous Lamborghini Diablo as he believed the original design was too subtle (can you believe it?!). Following the redesign, the car is now very expensive and not subtle in the slightest. However, it is illegal in the US. The redesign meant that the wing mirrors were moved to above the windows and the headlights were reduced in size. It is much too fast and unorthodox for the NHTSA to approve it.
The original Diablo was no slouch. With a new bar set in the supercar era, the diablo hit speeds of up to 320 km/h. It is not surprising that Strosek’s redesign was denied when the original was so ferocious in the first place.
Alfa Romeo 8C Spider Roadster
The Alfa Romeo 8C is widely considered a very beautiful car amongst petrolheads. However, the NHTSA does not rate cars off their looks but off their safety. The Alfa doesn’t make the cut. Known for its speed and power, it’s no wonder the US didn’t allow it in unless changes were made.
With demand for the roadster being so high in Europe, the manufacturer never made the time to design a US variant. For this reason, it is not possible to own the 8C in the US. They never pushed the car towards the US market and because of this, the US may have missed out on one of the best Alfa’s ever made.
Whilst it may look like many modern Smart cars, the Crossblade was produced in 1992. Ahead of its time in both looks and style, the car was very desirable by enthusiasts across the world. However, if those enthusiasts lived in the US, they were struck with the fact that they may never own one.
Due to its lack of doors, windows, or a roof, it never passed the NHTSA regulation safety tests. Therefore, it was not allowed in the country. It is shame as the car is often compared to the “futuristic” electric cars of today, despite being nearly 20 years old.
2004 Volkswagen Beetle ‘Ultima Edicion’
It takes some confidence to design and engineer a rear-engined compact. This last edition of the Beetle being built in Mexico didn’t make it into the US due to safety concerns. It’s not the only Beetle banned from the US either. Both the 2000 and 2003 models are not allowed on the US tarmac. Any other year? Knock yourself out.
2008 Fiat 500 Abarth
The Fiat 500 Abarth is a small sporty compact that was introduced to the European market in 2008. The turbocharged 1.4-liter engine made it a lot of fun to drive and well received in the hot-hatch community. However, it wasn’t until 2010 that the Abarth was designed to fit with the NHTSA regulations. Due to this, early versions of the car are added to the list of illegal cars in the US.
2012 Saab 9-5 Sportcombi
Saab went bankrupt in 2011, it’s not hard to see why a car made in 2012 was denied entrance into the US. While designed in 2010 and released to the world at the 2011 Geneva Auto Show, the car never made it to the US roads. Many Sportcombis were produced, however, you are going to struggle if you want to own a late piece of Saab history.
2012 Skoda Fabia Greenline II
This city car may not seem too exciting but with an average miles-per-gallon of over 8o, it’s not hard to see why it was so popular in Europe. It’s not the prettiest, and it’s not too dissimilar from the standard Skoda Fabia. Either way, it is banned in the US.
1995 Audi RS2 Avant
One of the first sports wagons was the Audi RS2 Avant. The car was produced for only a single year, but at the time using the most powerful engine Audi had ever produced. The well-built, iconic-looking estate can do 0-60mph in less than 5 seconds and carry 5 people and a good amount of cargo. It can also hit 160 mph. Whatever the stats say, you won’t be able to test them on US roads, as the German wagon is banned by the NHTSA.
1989 Porsche 959 S
The previously mentioned, the Porsche 959 was banned from the US and permitted following the “Show or Display” law. However, the 959 S never received such treatment. The “S” is a limited version of the already limited racer made in the 1980s. Only a number were built and none were allowed in the US. Which is a shame, due to how beautiful it is.
1985 Citroen 2CV Dolly
One of the stranger cars on this list is the Citroen 2CV. A lot of model years were allowed in the US, however, the 1985 model didn’t make the cut. The NHTSA banned this car following its production.
1987 BMW M6
The BMW M6 of 1987 was a pinnacle of its time. It’s still sought after by collectors all over the world due to its performance and classic BMW looks. However, collectors in the US will have to look over in jealousy at Europe, as this car is illegal in the US.
Whether you are browsing just to know or are seeing if your dream car has made the unfortunate list, you will be glad to hear that most cars that are banned are limited to just one year of production. If you are really set on a certain car then you can apply to have the car for “Show or Display” purposes and you may get it for a few thousand miles per year.
One thing to note is that cars over 25 years old are exempt from “Show or Display”, so you may see some of these in the US soon.
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