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Importing vintage car to Canada a whale of a project

Published January 2, 2013

What if Captain Ahab had global positioning, video feeds that monitored almost every whale, and jets to fly a crew to a nearby harbour? It wouldn’t have taken him long to catch his prize.

That’s what the Internet has done to the world of collectible cars. It is not exaggerating much to say almost every vehicle ever manufactured is out there, and that an example will come up for sale on the Web.

Meanwhile the Internet that’s flushing out the world’s cars — more of them, I wonder, than there are buyers — is also feeding car obsessions with history websites, parts and literature sold on eBay, and fan websites full of pictures and advice.

You can see the dangers; what’s in your mind’s eye? A near-mint 1934 Ford four-door sedan with just 13,000 miles on the odometer? Here’s one, right now, on the Web, for immediate delivery. Chasing a Checker? Going by Google, they seem more numerous than when they were made. Lusting for a 1970 Dodge Challenger convertible with a Hemi V8? Don’t imagine it, get it; one such muscled machine is — for a price — online at Hemmings.com, the leading print- and Internet old-car classified site.

The catch, when the Seven Seas are your old-car lot, is borders. Chances are good your car will turn up outside Canada and will need to be brought home.

My odyssey began last in January with a call to Pennsylvania in response to an online ad at high-end classified site Dupont Registry.

“Extremely Rare!,” it said, about a 1974 AMC Ambassador station wagon, a claim I knew to be correct even when the big cars were new. The ad, which still comes up, says, “Odometer reading is 51,896 miles.”

But stop, for a moment. Buying vintage automobiles involves financial and emotional investment, wrestling unknowns about complicated old things, tinged with mixed emotions and a big question: Is this a priority?

Only the buyer herself can reckon with those points.

If they aren’t a barrier, the rules and regulations sure are. A vintage car from another country is no easy cross-border errand. There are negotiations, documents, skeptical insurers, transportation logistics, bank drafts, fees, borders with booby traps.

I realized you could end up in deep trouble, or have a great adventure. Trying for the latter, here’s the benefit of my experience.

Starting out. The voyage begins with your search skills, computer and telephone. The seeking and finding’s a big topic, worthy of another story. Let’s say you find your car. Then:

-Launch a dialogue with the seller, alert to hints at the kind of transaction it might be. I found dealers in vintage cars have less to say — so you have more to ask — while private sellers like to talk about their cars, so get them going. My seller’s family bought the AMC almost new in 1974, and emailed me much data. On the phone, I said I was interested in the car warts and all, and asked, “And, by the way, what are the warts?” The owner had a list. Assume imperfection in car and humans, while leveraging the kinship of people who share a hobby or appreciate the car, to glean as much information as you can.

Early on we reached a tentative price, $8,500 (U.S.). I could not afford full asking, and didn’t want to travel if I couldn’t afford the car. Holding off until after you see it gives you data to dicker with including your own impressions. But your position could be worse if the seller decides that, having travelled this far, you are captive to desire. Lots to weigh — another topic for another day.

-Go to the Canada Border Services Agency’s Web page, Importing a Vehicle to Canada, for the regulations — seven pages of fine print, applying to the U.S. and “countries other than the U.S.” A car must be admissible; call for their list. Cars built more than 15 years ago are exempt from Canada’s RIV (Registrar of Imported Vehicles) inspection and certification program and its $195 fee. New and newer cars are actually more complicated to import; they have to meet, or be modified to meet, a truckload of very specific Canadian standards. And you finally must prove that they do, by registering at the Canadian border with the RIV program. I buy my new cars in my neighbourhood. Happily the auto registrar, 1-888-848-8240 (1-800-333-0371 for cars not built for North America), said the Kenosha, Wis.-built AMC, age 38, was welcome in Canada.

-I got a three-ring binder and started depositing everything — printouts of customs instructions from the Web, emails, AMC literature, notes, even Google maps. I asked and the seller provided family photos of the car through the years, a valuable resource. With tabs for insurance, U.S., Canadian, state and provincial motor vehicle requirements, the binder was the AMC’s DNA repository, and proof of my goodwill. If an official decided I missed something, look here — I tried.

-Your insurer will say, “You have a what?” Persist; they have a place for vintage cars, which present low risk. “Antiques” are a force of good on the road — they turn rage to smiles.

If you plan to drive a vehicle home, get the vehicle identification number (VIN) for the insurer. When you seal your deal, tell them when you plan to pick the car up, and they will issue the pink proof-of-insurance slips to take effect that day. Allow a few days for them to arrive in the mail, and take the documents with you when you get the car.

If the car lacks documentation, or a VIN, or is not drivable, you must investigate alternative procedures. If your vehicle is coming from a country other than the U.S., the rules differ in some details. The government links above will assist with your homework.

I added the AMC to my standard auto policy, as a regular car, initially with limited collision coverage. But recall the old rule, “don’t insure what you can afford to replace.” Liability coverage is mandatory, but if your car isn’t worth a lot the insurer won’t pay out much to fix it, making collision coverage a poor buy. My insurer quoted only $42 a year extra to include collision insurance on the AMC on an “agreed value” basis, which would limit payout. They wouldn’t cover collision until the car was registered here, which means driving from the U.S. without it, a tolerable risk. But finally they said I submitted the wrong kind of appraisal, and I went without collision.

Another route to go is an insurance broker specializing in collectible cars. Lant Insurance Co. in Stouffville quoted me less than $200 a year, with limited collision coverage. Some restrictions apply and low mileage is expected.

You may be eligible for the $18-a-year Ontario Historic Vehicle plates for antiques, but read the fine print. For $52 in savings you may not want to limit outings to Sunday and holiday drives to car shows.

-Never buy sight-unseen, though some people do. You want to inspect, but also reckon with the vehicle as part of your life, which is better done seeing, touching, and if possible driving. Will you enjoy it, can you cope with it? My personal spec was for a driveable, low-mileage “survivor,” restoration being beyond my capabilities. A can of worms may be the challenge a diehard restorer wants. If the car you coveted by Web isn’t what you thought, keep your cheque but enjoy the trip.

(As one blogger wrote on the Hemmings website, “What makes this truly a hobby is the people we meet along the way.”)

My AMC’s upstanding owner would not sell unless I came in person to see the car. The family invited me to stay overnight, though I didn’t. In January 2012 I drove my Maxima to the Mainline suburbs of Philadelphia to look at the wagon, and I took US Airways to pick it up Feb. 21. The boarding pass is in the binder, now part of the car’s history.

-Visit your bank. I took a draft for the tentative price on my initial trip. The U.S. requires certain financial instruments be declared if their value is greater than $10,000. This didn’t apply, but I was told easily-traceable formats such as bank drafts present no problems, above or below that amount.

As it happened, I returned home with the draft, and when I later decided to buy, cabled payment. I was comfortable with that, though a better practice is probably to pay with a bank draft when you collect the car.

Yet here’s a chicken-and-egg problem: were I the seller, I’d want the draft to clear, before parting with the vehicle. Does anyone have a suggestion?

The road trip. Should you drive your car home? It’s not an adventure for everyone, or every car. The best advice is no. But . . .

I inspected the AMC’s radiator, hoses, and tires, tested its power brakes, interviewed the seller and parsed evidence of his stewardship. There was a trail of recent maintenance receipts and a current Pennsylvania inspection sticker. The AMC ran, and stopped, well so I gambled — the word for it — that the car and I were up to the trip.

I had regrets driving north through Pennsylvania’s icy darkness. The car never faltered. A better-case scenario is arriving by car with a friend and driving both cars home in convoy.

Friends may also have trucks and trailers. Or, hire one: firms such as US Canada Auto Transport and MVS Canada ship cars, and take care of much of the paperwork described here. Have no adventure, for a price; compare some at www.uship.com.)

-If you drive the car, another chicken-and-egg problem arises. Ontario won’t issue temporary plates to cars outside Canada. You must get home using documents from the jurisdiction where you buy the car. At their motor vehicle office website, find a used-vehicle “fact sheet” of protocols. Cross-check anything unclear with a phone call, and check where licensing locations are.

For PennDOT I needed Ontario proof of insurance and the transfer-of-ownership form from the car’s title. My seller took me to an American Automobile Association office where, in Pennsylvania, motorists can do a title transfer, get a cardboard 30-day plate (you get a sticker in some places) and an “in-transit registration credential” to sign and carry.

The bill of sale was in the binder, but not asked for, since taxes are paid closer to home.

For a fee I could have obtained a Pennsylvania used-vehicle information package — the state’s records for the car. Online services such as Carfax and Autocheck sell car histories from various databases, but did not recognize the 1974 AMC’s ancient VIN number.

At the border. You can’t just drive away from the U.S. in your new old car. Check the export rules at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s website.

-You must visit the border station you plan to use at least three days before crossing, bringing the car with its original ownership papers and two copies. My parents live in Burlington, Vt., so I chose to export from Highgate Springs, and spent the waiting time with family.

What, exactly, happens? I dropped off my documents on the U.S. side at Highgate Feb. 22. It’s helpful to phone the particular border station for their local procedures. They never looked at the car — “nice sound to that (V8),” a border guard did say. I took my binder inside, where an officer stamped the original ownership, handing it back while keeping a photocopy. Then I drove in the AMC back to Burlington.

On Feb. 27 I stopped back in with the car, had the original ownership stamped again and handed back, and I crossed into Canada.

-At borders, honesty goes on your record and makes crossing stress-free. “C’est extraordinaire,” said the officer at St-Armand/Phillipsburg, Que. who processed the Ambassador’s papers, on seeing its condition, low mileage, and especially the detailed documentation.

Honesty doesn’t cost much, either. Old U.S.-made cars, and likely others (check with Canada Border Services) are duty-free. The car was easily old enough to be exempt the RIV program and fee. AMC brochures in the binder supported its age, had they been needed.

The federal GST and excise taxes paid at the border came to 4.8 per cent of the price. The customs official deducted my $400 48-hour exemption, crunching the taxable number down to $8,189, added back the $100 air conditioning excise tax (air was standard on Ambassadors; customs were surprised), and we put the bill for $414.45 on my Visa. I’ve spent more and gotten less. Into the binder went the vital Vehicle Import form (form 1) she had completed, and the needed “casual goods accounting document” (form B15). It tells me the exchange rate that day was 1.0.

On the last, long leg home on Highway 401, the AMC got many thumbs ups from other drivers. I’d earned them.

Back home. Exhausted and expensed-out, I still had work to do.

-I took the AMC to my regular mechanic for mandatory safety inspection and a going-over. “Great engine,” Angelo, on Dupont St. in Toronto, said about the 304-cubic-inch, small-block V8. He put in new front wheel bearings.

Later I biked to Service Ontario at College Park with my Application for Registration.

My Safety Standards Certificate, the Pennsylvania ownership, the seller’s signed bill of sale, and customs forms 1 and B15 came out of the binder.

Provincial taxes were $663.12, and registration was $106.35.

There hadn’t been a glitch. I was Ahab, with less to regret: I am honoured to be a rare and handsome car’s steward and protector.

American Motors cars have personality, and the crisp lines of the underdog automaker’s last big wagons project a timeless modernity.

Should such indulgences ever be a priority?

My mother Sylvia — wise, kind and now 83 — put it this way: “Alfred, if you want to do something, you had better do it.” From his 1985 Oldsmobile, as he squeezed by in our underground garage, my Toronto neighbour John Winder said about the 1974 Ambassador, “It’s a mile long but it’s great.”

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