At the very end of November 2016 I had surgery. The surgery itself wasn’t particularly remarkable, but what is remarkable is how I woke up from anesthesia to find my savings account empty and the only clue was a series of seemingly blackout drunk emails to a guy in Japan named Abror.
For context, this was nine months after turbocharging my Miata, three months after we bought our first house, and two months after picking up my Focus RS. My boyfriend and I were up to five cars by this point, so the concept of finding parking for yet another had my boyfriend rather displeased.
I don’t know what first sparked my interest. I’ve tried to go back through all of my conversations and internet posts to find exactly when I first started considering importing a car, but the closest that I could find was a Jalopnik post from very early 2016 where I stated that the Honda S660 was a really cool car. Which it is. But I don’t even know how I found out about this car, let alone decided to get one. Long story short, while coming off of anesthesia I had sent my entire life savings to a guy in Japan so that he could buy me this.
I’m not sure who had more broken English during that exchange, me under anesthesia or him being Japanese. But I had gotten my point across and he accepted. The car was 11 months from its 25th birthday and as a result would be spending 10 months in storage in a warehouse in Nagoya before being placed on a boat destined for Baltimore. The exporter was responsible for the import paperwork as well, so my only duty, aside from being forced to wait 11 months to see if I had fallen for a comically easy scam, was to get myself to Baltimore in November of 2017.
So in addition to spending 2017 failing to make my Focus RS worth owning, I also dumped money into importing from Japan parts that I thought I might need. I bought a wiring harness that I thought was the engine harness, but it wasn’t. I bought spare headlights in preparation for a projector retrofit. I bought a spare gauge cluster in preparation for an electronic speedo retrofit. I bought a shift knob and a trim piece that I knew was missing from mine. I bought a second set of wheels. I bought an intake manifold and throttle body from an HA21S Alto Works. I bought spare ignition coils and engine mounts. I bought a second harness that I thought was an engine harness but wasn’t. I went crazy obsessing over what I might need in order to occupy myself until the car arrived.
I also spent this time deciding what I wanted to do with the car. The Miata had become my project car and it was a lot of fun working on it and upgrading it, but that project was now long over and the car was exactly where I wanted it. Slightly bitter about how easy and quick the Miata had been, I decided that the Autozam would now be my project car and its scarcity and complete lack of English-speaking documentation should draw that process out a bit.
So I bought an engine. And a transmission and all of the ancillaries. I’m going for an engine swap, baby! I chose a Suzuki K6A, knowing that it would at least fit in the microscopic engine bay of the AZ-1. There are enough off-the-shelf parts to make that engine support 250hp, so that became my plan. Build for 250hp, detune to a level that the chassis can actually handle, and have a reliable modern powertrain for my “antique” sports car.
I spent a month scouring the internet for engine importers and making calls. I contacted 33 companies, and all but five ended the conversation immediately by saying that they wouldn’t handle Suzuki engines. Of those, two said that they couldn’t request engines and only had whatever ended up in their shipping container that month, so three were left as a possibility. I played phone tag with one for a few weeks before they gave up. The second put me in direct contact with their Japanese supplier who couldn’t be convinced that it was going to be worth his time. The final company was actually familiar with the engine that I wanted but called it “unobtainable” due to scarcity and that I really should just give up now and stop wasting everyone’s time. I politely told him that if he wasn’t going to help me then he should have just said so. I’ll do it myself. I mean, how hard could it be to find an engine in a foreign country, convince someone to ship it to me, and then take it through customs on my own once it arrives?
It turns out the answer is very easy. Sort of. I immediately found plenty of these engines in Japan through a retailer whose only business is exporting auto parts to other countries. They wanted $1400 for the engine, transmission, and all ancillaries, but freight shipping would be $1000. Fine. Whatever. They threw it on a boat and I got an ETA in Philadelphia. Since Customs & Border Protection is only open during the week, I took two days off of work and took the Focus to the East coast. Long story short, they had given me the wrong ETA and I was more than a week early. Unable to take more time off of work to go back, I had to look into freight forwarders to take it through customs for me.
There is a document, the ISF, that tells CBP what will be arriving at port. It must be filed at least 24 hours before the ship departs from the port of origin. As this wasn’t mentioned on the CBP’s instructions for importing items, I had not filed one. And while it is incredibly common for individuals to forego this step, the insurance policies for freight forwarders forbid them from handling these situations since the penalty is $20k per offense. I found one singular freight forwarder who was willing to late file the ISF and handle my case, but their fee was quite high. They did handle absolutely everything and dropped the pallet off at my front door, but it was to the tune of $2000. And since that was the money that I had set aside for the parts to build this engine, it sat in my basement untouched and actually continues to reside there to this day.
With anything upgrade-related on hold, I could only wait for the Autozam to arrive. And one day in late Spring I had gotten underneath Rusty to inspect something and discovered that there was no chassis left. The two structural beams that support the chassis lengthwise had rusted away completely and there wasn’t much metal blocking my view of the underside of the carpet. With the doors open I could visibly see the chassis folding in half when someone got in the car. I told my boyfriend that he was no longer allowed to drive it and listed it for sale immediately as a running parts car.
There was a fair amount of interest and before long a guy came down from Chicago to pick it up. There wasn’t anything remarkable about the transaction beyond my disappointment that I had forgotten to grab the license plate, since I was planning to transfer it to the Autozam once it arrived at port. I thought nothing of it. Many months later, in November of 2017, I got a letter in the mail from the Illinois police department showing that Rusty had run a red light in Aurora and their cameras had snapped a picture of my now long-expired license plate. They buyer had refrained from titling or registering the car and instead planned to drive on my old expired plate indefinitely. I contacted the police department about the issue and was met with some surprisingly strong language from a defender of the peace. “We don’t give a fuck who was driving or even who owns the car. We only want the money, so unless you can give us the name and address of someone else who will pay us, it’s all on you.” Classy.
I didn’t have a copy of the title. A Bill of Sale was not created because neither state requires it. The only document that I had from the car at all by this point was a receipt for the purchase of the original license plate. Our front security camera was running during the transaction and my boyfriend was able to pull up the footage, but it only showed a reflection of my living room and some out-of-focus characters getting out of a pickup truck to collect a pile of used parts before one gets in the Miata and drives away. The truck didn’t appear to have a license plate.
I went back through my phone records to get the numbers of the buyer and one of his friends. Both numbers were burners that were not registered to a person and were only in use for about a month while the transaction took place. I ended up having to drop $150 to make that ticket go away, but all of this effort came in handy when I went to the Indianapolis police regarding the matter.
This was becoming a trend. In 2014 I spent my birthday doing a parking lot engine swap in the snow. In 2015 I spent my birthday helping my boyfriend get back on his feet after his Fiat 500 was totaled. In 2016 I spent my birthday arguing with Ford about honoring their wheel and tire warranty on my Focus, now with a destroyed tire and bent rim. This time, in 2017, I spent my birthday at the police station filing a report in regard to the Miata. Apparently reporting your license plate stolen is a thing and that’s what I was told to do. The desk clerk at the station actually submitted the paperwork to report the whole car as stolen, but whatever.
Later that day (still my birthday) I got a letter from the Illinois Tollway people, saying that the Miata had been blowing through toll booths without paying. I owed $20 in unpaid tolls and $200 in fines and late fees, and since this letter had apparently gotten lost in the mail, I had less than 24 hours to pay the balance before the late fees doubled the amount due to $450. Fortunately for me, however, they have a decent website that allows you to contest fees automatically. They let me upload a copy of the police report as proof that the car was no longer in my possession and dropped the charges, but not before consuming numerous hours of my life.
Stepping back a bit to the sale of Rusty, my boyfriend no longer had an inspection vehicle for the Summer. He and I tossed ideas back and forth about things like del Sols but ultimately decided to go in a different direction. While the Miata’s size had made it perfect for navigating narrow alleys in his inspection district, its low ground clearance meant that it couldn’t actually get down many of the alleys without falling into potholes or high centering on the deep ruts. Looking for something with a small footprint but also with high ground clearance led me to one option: A Suzuki Samurai. But let me tell you just how difficult those are to find. Hot off the heels of dumping a car whose chassis had literally rusted away, we were keen to find one that we’d be able to keep for a few years, and ones in that condition don’t exist within 800 miles of Indianapolis. We found no end to the GM V6 swapped Samurais. Samurais whose bodies had rusted away and been rebuild from diamond plate steel. 80% of the Samurais were titled as offroad only and were built as such with 8” lift kits and 36” tires. There was no example in this market in any price range that would suit our needs as a road vehicle and nationwide they seemed to start at $7,000 and stretch well into five digits so I looked elsewhere.
I’m already importing one car. Why not import two? So I started looking at JA11 Jimnys and boy are those more my style. 660cc turbo engine, narrow chassis and skinny wheels and a removable cloth top. There was no shortage of near-pristine examples for no money at all, and we very quickly ended up buying a yellow one at auction for $2700, the very high end of the spectrum. A plan quickly developed for getting these cars back from port, but that revolved around getting them to both arrive in Baltimore within a week of each other. The exporter of the Jimny went out of his way to accommodate my needs and the exporter of the Autozam went out of his way to not answer any of my emails. I had to guess which port the Autozam would be shipped from and scour the sailing schedules of all major RORO shippers to guess which boat it might be on and therefore when it would be arriving in the States. I relayed this information to the Jimny’s exporter and crossed my fingers.
To make things worse, Rolls-Royce sent me to the UK at the end of October. It was supposed to be a one-week trip that they extended to two weeks and then tried to extend another two weeks. I told them that I would stay until a certain set of boats arrived in Baltimore and then I would be out, and as payment for the inconvenience Rolls-Royce would be paying for my transportation to Baltimore. This was deemed acceptable so I bought a ticket to get my boyfriend to Baltimore the weekend after the most likely week of arrival.
In the end, it couldn’t have worked out better. The two boats arrived in Baltimore within six hours of each other and customs had four business days to inspect the cargo before I arrived to pick them up. I showed up at CBP on Monday with all of the paperwork for the Jimny and within 45 minutes we had the keys and were driving the Jimny back to our hotel. The Autozam, however, was being handled by the export company so we had to wait for them to get the paperwork cleared on their own schedule. Many angry phone calls later I finally convinced them to file the damn paperwork Monday night (I even offered to do it for them), and the Autozam was confirmed cleared first thing Tuesday morning. Now a day behind schedule, I was eager to hit the road.
The port that this shipper used required a TWIC escort on premises, so I found an escort service that would take me to the car to the tune of $50/hour. We spent 25 minutes going through successively more specific security checkpoints, presenting our paperwork at each one to get another stamp. By the time we got to the car, the first hour had already passed. And, not surprisingly, the battery was dead.
While the escort and I waited for the port’s dedicated serviceman, I checked out the Autozam and the other cars in line to be picked up. It was a mix of imported cars. Most were Japanese, but the one that I remember vividly was a blue Renault Clio V6 that was in no way legal for import at the time or any other time in the following 15 years.
The serviceman hooked up the jumper cables to his giant battery pack in the bed of his truck and the Autozam fired right up, but as soon as he removed the cables it died again. I checked the engine and immediately discovered that the car was missing an alternator belt. There was a belt wrapped around the alternator and flipped inside out, but it was far too loose to be effective. I didn’t have access to a service manual but the mystery belt was 10x760 and a group of Cappuccino owners said that the belt on their F6A was 10x600, so I had the escort drive me around Baltimore looking for a 3L230 accessory belt. None of the chain auto parts stores had anything. Tractor Supply didn’t go that small and lawn and garden stores could only special order it. After touring Baltimore for three hours, the escort took me back to my boyfriend and the Jimny so that he could take a lunch. Michael and I discussed ways to tow the Autozam out of port but we couldn’t use the Jimny to do so because the escort couldn’t get it into port. We looked for belts on our own but didn’t have any luck.
When the escort came back from lunch, he told us of a local hole in the wall auto parts store that had been suggested by one of the other escorts. He took me there and I was relieved to see that three of the four walls were completely covered in hanging v belts. I grabbed 3L230 and 3L240 since 10x600 was perfectly in between those two sizes. We went back to port, notified the serviceman so he could loan me the tools and…..they were both way too small. So we went back to that store and I grabbed 3L270 since they were out of 3L260. That was way too big, so we went back to the store for a third time to pick up 3L250, which finally ended up being the right size. We got back to the escort’s office at 3PM, seven hours after leaving there originally. $300 in escort charges later, we were finally done. We went back to a few stores to return items that we had bought for towing, then hit the road.
The plan had been to drive straight home in one trip, but we had also planned to leave Baltimore around 10AM on Monday. It was now 3:30 on Tuesday, and we knew that we were going to have to stop on the way home. Fortunately the parents of my college roommate live in Columbus and they were pretty eager to see our new cars. They offered to let us stay the night there in exchange for a photo op with his BRZ.
As far as the drive goes, the Autozam was incredibly darty. I had to give it tons of steering input to stay in my lane. They Jimny required two and sometimes even three hands to turn the steering wheel. The clutch was weak but not yet slipping. The speedo was pretty off but according to GPS it could just barely maintain 65 mph through the Appalachians whereas the Autozam was eager to go much faster. The Jimny’s cigarette lighter didn’t work so we had to take turns charging our phones in the Autozam, whose battery was continuing to not hold a charge. The first gas stop was at a station on a hill so I got it started by dumping the clutch. The second stop was on flat ground in the middle of nowhere, and a group of children who were most certainly not old enough to drive offered to drive their truck home and get jumper cables to help out. When we needed gas for the third time, we stopped first at an Autozone to get our own set of jumper cables but, ironically, didn’t need them again.
We made it to Columbus safely and in the morning we did a walkaround of each car. The Autozam’s tires were at 60 psi, which explained the terrible handling. The Jimny’s tires were at 12 psi, which explained why we couldn’t turn the steering wheel. The Autozam achieved 47.8 mpg but, unfortunately, correcting the tire pressures didn’t improve the fuel economy for the Jimny, which had been averaging 19.2 mpg. We finished the drive home in the rain on Wednesday.
Yet again I have been way more verbose than expected and still haven’t made it to the worst month of my life, so next time you’ll get to read all about The Great Massacre of January 2018.