By E.B. Tucker, editor, Strategic Trader

E.B. Tucker

Last year, I flew to Spain with my friend Fadi Garcia to buy a Land Rover Defender 90.

When he first told me about the trip, it didn’t make any sense. I’ve seen plenty of these vehicles in the U.S. I agreed with him that it’s a classic. I wouldn’t mind having one myself. But why fly all the way to Spain?

After he showed me this video posted by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, I understood why.

In 1988, Congress passed a restrictive law limiting vehicle imports to a very narrow scope. An extensive list of prohibited features prevents many of the world’s most popular cars from touching U.S. soil.

And in the video, U.S. Customs Officer Hunt is all smiles as an imported Land Rover Defender 100 is destroyed at a government scrap yard for not meeting so-called highway safety regulations. A $100,000 car, mutilated into a worthless pile of metal.

A “safe” car, according to U.S. law, is one that adheres to Department of Transportation and Environmental Protection Agency mandates. On the surface, that sounds like a positive. The last thing we want is dangerous, mechanically unpredictable vehicles running wild on our roads. But that’s not what the U.S. regulations do. In truth, they limit your choices in the name of safety. The actual beneficiary is the automotive industry.

E.B. and Fadi taking the Defender for an off-road test drive in Vilafranca del Penedès, Spain

The Land Rover Defender pictured above is “unsafe” because its five-cylinder TDI diesel engine does not meet smog standards. It does, however, meet E.U. and Canadian standards, proving that the U.S. law is a technicality.

There are other features Officer Hunt pointed out as problems. The battery casing is in the wrong place, the back seats run front to back for utility purposes… not good enough for America.

Land Rover introduced the original Defender Series I in 1948, to meet demand for a product similar to the U.S.’ Willys Jeep.

Ironically, the Willys Jeep is actually a piece of crap. I sat in a fully restored one recently. I don’t see how they survived normal use, much less in combat.

The Land Rover Series I, however, is a fine piece of machinery. The same goes for an authentic, non-U.S. Defender. It’s as close to indestructible as any vehicle I’ve seen.

I’ll decide what’s safe and what isn’t. An overbooked rental car company stuck me in a Chevrolet Cruze recently. I’d take the “unsafe” Land Rover Defender over that aluminum coffin any day.

How to Legally Skirt the Law

There is one way around the law. Officer Hunt mentions it in the video.

Once a prohibited car is 25 years old, the Customs Bureau offers importers an antique exemption. 24 years and 364 days old, and Officer Hunt shreds it. One day older, and he deems it roadworthy. Go figure.

Fadi found the Defender pictured above for sale online by a small dealer in Vilafranca del Penedès, Spain. It’s a town about one hour southwest of Barcelona.

At a list price of €9,600 (about $12,500 at writing), the car was a serious deal. In the U.S., an imported Defender 90 in good working condition costs roughly $50,000.

Last year on a trip to Norway, I met a lawyer from Barcelona and we kept in touch. It turns out his brother heads up a Barcelona-based Land Rover enthusiast club. He helped us verify the listing before the trip, to make sure it was real.

The only issue with the Defender was that it’s a 1994, meaning it did not qualify for import. We asked the small-town dealer if he’d store the car and drive it occasionally until its 25th birthday next year. He agreed.

A Few Days in Spain

While Fadi took care of the paperwork, I looked around Vilafranca. There’s not much going on. I got the sense villagers wouldn’t mind going back to the economically challenged Spain of the 1980s.

“Capitalism is Poverty”

The car transaction went faster than anticipated, leaving us a few days in Barcelona. We stayed at a fantastic smaller hotel called Monument Hotel on Passeig de Gràcia. It’s one block off the much quieter northern section of La Rambla.

We also spent a few hours at the Mies van der Rohe Pavilion. The German modernist architect designed and constructed the building in 1928 for the Barcelona International Exposition. Two years later, they disassembled and removed the impeccable structure. In 1986, a group of architects constructed a replica. If you visit Barcelona, consider touring the building. Spend some time sitting quietly in its well-thought-out spaces. The admission fee is €5.

Happy Ending for the Defenders

We ended up buying two. At the U.S. port, dozens of overzealous Customs officials examined every inch of the fine machines to determine if they’re “safe” for U.S. operation.

Fadi (left) and I went to Spain twice, once to purchase and once to ship the two Land Rover Defender 90 cars pictured back to the U.S.

Fadi and I legally imported these cars for $12,500 (plus Customs and shipping fees)… and they’re easily worth $50,000.

This whole boondoggle was a lot of fun and the car is absolutely incredible.



E.B. Tucker
Editor, Strategic Trader

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