By on August 3, 2014

I’m pretty sure that everyone reading this has interests beyond the world of automobiles. As both an observer of and participant in the news and information biz, it’s fascinating for me to see how a story in the automotive media will sometimes percolate into general news outlets, showing up on the front page, print or digital, of your local newspaper (if it’s still in business) weeks after you’ve read about it here at TTAC or at another car enthusiast or news site.

Although automotive blogs have covered this story in the past, news of  Homeland Security raids on private individuals to seize 40 Land Rover Defenders that were suspected of not complying with relevant Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards have only just started showing up at regional and national news outlets. The Feds claim that the trucks were illegally imported into the United States and then passed off as older than they really were so as to appear to be exempt as being 25 years old or older. Paperwork is alleged to have been falsified and numbers on engine blocks changed. At the same time some owners claim that their Landies are obviously more than 25 years old and claim that their vehicles’ VINs back them up. Owners have about a month to appeal.

This spring I attended the Vintage VW Show in Ypsilanti, Michigan. While there are car shows and events, big and small, that I try to attend every year, serendipity and spontaneity make for good stories, so one year I might go to Camaro Fest and another a VW show. I have to admit, though, that while I’ve never owned a Camaro, I have owned a couple of air-cooled Volkswagen Type IIs, aka Buses, building a slightly hi-po’d engine for the second, so I’m sure many of the people at the VVWS were kindred spirits to me.

There were plenty of rare and interesting cars, photo worthy for sure, ranging from VW Things (including their Opa, an actual Kubelwagen), to split-window Type II Kombi pickups, to Type 34 Karmann Ghias, to a Harlequin edition Golf, but the two cars that really caught my eye appeared to be simple VW Beetles. What got my attention was the fact that they looked so shiny and new compared to most of the cars in the show, and most of their trim that should have been chromed was body color,with some black hardware. When I looked at the placards on their flat glass windshields, I saw that they were both listed as 1998 Mexican Beetles.

When I saw the cars I had the same thought that most of us do when we see a car or truck not made for the U.S. market that’s less than 25 years old: “How did they manage to get it registered?” One car, sort of a dark green-blue, was wearing Michigan license plates. The other MexiBeetle was driven up from Toledo.

At the time, I thought about doing a post on the cars and started looking into how Mexican VW Beetles made it into the U.S. legally or otherwise, but stuff happens and that post never got written. Now that the Feds are seizing grey market vehicles, it seemed like a good time to return to those Hecho en Mexico Vee Dubs.

Now before anyone accuses me of snitching, creating publicity that might result in these cars’ seizure, by now I’ve spoken to both owners and they’re confident that their cars are 100% legal. Also, it’s not like they’re trying to hide them. The cars were on display at a car show open to the public, and you can be sure that if Homeland Security was concerned about black market Beetles from south of the border, down Mexico way, a vintage Volkswagen show is exactly the place they’d be looking for them.

According to the owners, both cars are fully Mexican spec, though supposedly only one of them was actually Hecho en Mexico. Patrick, the Dodge salesman who owns the green-blue car, told me that in fact his car was Hecho en Michigan, one of 13 assembled by a shop in Waterford from all new Mexican parts, including swing axles. Think about that for a second or two. It made economic sense for Volkswagen to save a few pesos using swing axles, something U.S. market Beetles abandoned in 1967 if I’m not mistaken. The car is titled not as a Volkswagen, but rather as an assembled vehicle. It has a Mexican spec fuel injected engine with a catalytic converter and an aftermarket air conditioner.

Apparently there were plans to make many more than just a dozen or so Mexican Beetles in Michigan, with talk of a small assembly plant in the Upper Peninsula, but VW’s decision to kill the Beetle finally in 2003 killed those plans as well. It’s not clear if those plans were related to Nostalgia Motorcars, an Arizona company that announced in 2000 that they were going to sell 10,000 brand new classic Beetles made in Mexico, modified to comply with all DOT and EPA standards.

It’s perfectly legal as far as the state of Michigan is concerned since all the requirements of an assembled vehicle title have been met. None of those requirements say anything at all about emissions or safety standards beyond required on-road equipment, typically regarding lights. However, I suppose to be fully compliant with federal regulations, it would have to have some kind of major component that comes from a Beetle that was imported to the U.S. before those regulations applied.

The owner of the silver car had a different story. He’s the second American owner and he said with certainty that the car was assembled in Puebla, Mexico. He wasn’t sure of the details, but he said that the previous owner spent $8,000 beyond the purchase price to get it legally registered in the United States. Some states, I’ve heard that Maine is one of them, are fairly lax in their vehicle registration processes.

If you’d like air-cooled vintage VWs and you’d like to take a gamble on your house getting raided by the Feds, Patrick had a For Sale sign on his car at the Vintage VW Show. I checked with him and it’s still for sale, sort of. Patrick is more of an American car guy so the Beetle isn’t the only car in his collection, but he’s rather fond of it. He says that it’s a ball to drive. The price would have to be right, but if the offer was close enough, he wouldn’t dicker over $100. Give him a call at 258-701-5581 (yes, he gave me permission to post his phone #). For less than the price of a Yaris, you can drive something that will put a smile on your face, even if it doesn’t make the folks at the DOT or EPA happy.

Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, a realistic perspective on cars & car culture and the original 3D car site. If you found this post worthwhile, you can get a parallax view at Cars In Depth. If the 3D thing freaks you out, don’t worry, all the photo and video players in use at the site have mono options. Thanks for reading – RJS

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50 Comments on “Don’t Crush That Bug, Hand Me The Pliers...”


  • avatar
    -Nate

    You’re dating your self Ronnie ;

    I still have that Firesign Theater album from 196? .

    Anyway , yes these are wonderful cars , I had an older carburated Mexican Beetle , my buddy has a new fuel injected one he doesn’t register and only takes to VW Shows .

    -Nate

    • 0 avatar
      anonymic

      At least it’s not Toad Away?

    • 0 avatar

      Dating myself? Well, I guess that means there’s one person who will date me. Every time I see an original survivor car that has the original spare tire, I make a joke about “factory air-conditioned air from our fully factory-equipped air-conditioned factory”.

      Apropos of the subject of this post, here are the ads that Firesign Theatre did for LA’s Jack Poet Volkswagen:

      http://www.firesigntheatre.com/fstads/fstads_jp.html

      Those ads couldn’t be done today. Well, sure, Peter Bergman died a couple of years ago, and Jack Poet Volkswagen no longer exists, but that’s not what I meant.

    • 0 avatar
      gottacook

      “Antelope Freeway, one-eighth mile… Antelope Freeway, one-sixteenth mile… “

      • 0 avatar
        bunkie

        Few things make me have hope for the future as much as seeing *any* reference to the Firesign Theatre in public. Thanks, Ronnie.

        I might remind everyone that prior to the recent passing of Peter Bergman, they reunited and produced a series of albums that are as good as anything else they have ever done. For those not familiar, the FST produced a nuanced, deeply-layerd and not-always-obvious form of humor that gets better with each listening. It can take decades to get all the jokes. “Looking for a two-door, four-door or more door clowndominimum? Check out Tudor Nightmare Village!” Hint: it helps to know the history of Ford models to get that one.

        You can get a real Ralph Spoilsport Motors license plate ring. My CTS wagon wears it proudly: “Ralph Spoilsport Motors: Head in any direction on the freeway of your choice!”

        On the subject of Beetles, I’ve been feeling the tug lately. Early indoctrination is hard to shake, my dad had three: a ’58 a ’65 and a ’70 in which I learned to drive. Why I want one is inexplicable since the ’70 (an A.S.S.) did its best to try to kill me one night while trying to clear an intersection avoiding a drunk driver. A friend of mine just finished restoring his ’57 oval-window which I have not yet seen, I”m looking forward to it.

    • 0 avatar
      Rod Panhard

      The best way to start a week is with laughs, and not water cooler discussion over the current events of the newspaper. How many things are funnier than Firesign Theater? I’ve been laughing with these guys since before I discovered Monty Python’s Flying Circus.

    • 0 avatar
      msquare

      I have a friend who wanted a Smart car before they became available in the States. So he bought one in Canada and registered it there. It still carries north-of-the-border plates (withholding the province should the Revenooers come snooping around).

      So all you have to do is have an address in Mexico to register the car to, keep it up to date and you’re golden. You see plenty of Florida-plate cars in the Northeast to get around high insurance rates, so the same idea applies here.

  • avatar
    Joss

    Over in Europa as FWD was being phased in @ Wolfsberg some of the last beetles came basic with black instead of chrome. Gone were the turn signals from the top of the fenders, down into the over rider free bumper.

  • avatar
    Big Al from Oz

    Maybe it’s about time the US allowed for a grey market to exist again.

    It was in fact the more prestigious Euro manufacturers and UAW (read German, ie, Mercedes Benz)in the 80s that encouraged the US to not allow grey imports in, so it was killed off, what a pity.

    It would be great for many to be able to get their hands on some fantastic and unusual global vehicles in the US.

    But freedom is great isn’t it in the US? Or should I state a protected and very socialised vehicle market is great.

    Imagine someone driving a global Ranger that has it’s safety rating higher than many vehicles in the US.

    As for the indicators (blinkers), etc. Then why does the US allow me to drive with my foreign license? How would I understand how to operate and understand what other road users are doing, let alone how to operate a US regulated vehicle?

    It’s all bull$hit with the loser being the car enthusiast and consumer at the end of the day.

    • 0 avatar
      TheyBeRollin

      US signal indicators are different from most of the world. We’re allowed to have brake lights double as signal indicators (that is, they’re not amber).

      I had to look up the global Ranger. It’s a shame that Ford doesn’t sell it in the US and we can’t import it.

      I wonder if/when they’ll switch to universal automobile laws regarding things like indicators and lights. The US has always been incredibly backward in this regard, even in comparison to Canada.

      • 0 avatar
        Pch101

        “We’re allowed to have brake lights double as signal indicators (that is, they’re not amber).”

        The US rule re: rear turn indicators is more liberal than the rest of the world, since the US permits something that others do not. And sure enough, there are automakers that give the US red turn indicators even though they don’t need to, presumably because of the aesthetics.

        Likewise, the US is also more liberal when it comes to front side marker turn indicators, since the Europeans require them while the US does not.

        Where the US is more conservative is with headlights, although DOT should probably be getting around to allowing more headlight options in the next few years once it has fully studied the matter. (The feds don’t tend to move very quickly.)

        While I prefer amber turn indicators and wouldn’t mind seeing them mandated, I seriously doubt that there is data to support the position that they reduce crashes, particularly in a driving culture such as the US in which few people bother to signal in the first place.

        • 0 avatar
          darkwing

          “The principal finding of the report is that amber signals show a 5.3% effectiveness in reducing involvement in two-vehicle crashes where a lead vehicle is rear-struck in the act of turning left, turning right, merging into traffic, changing lanes, or entering/leaving a parking space.”

          http://www.nhtsa.gov/DOT/NHTSA/NRD/Multimedia/PDFs/Crash 20Avoidance/2009/811115.pdf

          I can’t wait to find out if this is or isn’t racist…

          • 0 avatar
            Pch101

            “…amber signals show a 5.3% effectiveness in reducing involvement in two-vehicle crashes where a lead vehicle is rear-struck in the act of turning left, turning right, merging into traffic, changing lanes, or entering/leaving a parking space.”

            The proportion of crashes that involve those particular factors is small.

          • 0 avatar
            darkwing

            “It is proposed that rear turn signal color is influential in crashes where a careful driver usually activates the turn signals – turning left, turning right, changing lanes, merging into traffic, exiting from traffic, making a U-turn, entering parking, or leaving parking.”

            Seems reasonable to me. Then again, I’m not anti-science.

          • 0 avatar
            Pch101

            Science and literacy aren’t your strong suits.

            The proportion of crashes that involve those particular factors is small. The vast majority of crashes, particularly fatal ones, have nothing to do with the turn signals to the rear of the vehicle.

            For example, a typical intersection crash involves a vehicle turning left that collides with oncoming traffic. The color of the turn signal in those instances is irrelevant, since the oncoming driver is seeing an amber turn signal on the front of the opposing vehicle (assuming that the turn signal is being used at all.)

            Reducing a minor factor by 5% does not reduce the total crash rate by 5%. That’s how arithmetic works.

          • 0 avatar
            darkwing

            And rhetoric isn’t yours.

            You asserted: “…I seriously doubt that there is data to support the position that they reduce crashes”. But sticking to that might mean — gasp! — you were wrong about something, so suddenly the goalposts are in motion.

            Thanks for the comic interlude, though.

          • 0 avatar
            Pch101

            I’m beginning to see why your politics are as they are. Your cognitive abilities are modest at best.

            For example, I look at data from the CHP that tells me that about 4% of total fatal and injury crashes between 2007 and 2011 have unsafe lane changes as a primary cause.

            Of that 4%, only some of them will be related to signal usage. But if we take that 4% figure and aggressively apply a 5% to the entirety of it, we end up with a reduction of 0.2%, as in 2/10th’s of one percent. That’s close to zero.

        • 0 avatar
          racer-esq.

          There was an interesting article on amber turn signals by Daniel Stern on TTAC a while back. It looks like it was purged from TTAC for some reason, but is still reposted at some forum:

          http://www.carspin.net/index.php?topic=19134.250

      • 0 avatar
        RobertRyan

        @Theyberollin,
        Agree on that score, amber turn signals are much more effective even in the day

        • 0 avatar
          racer-esq.

          From a cost benefit perspective amber turn signals don’t deliver a huge benefit, but are effectively free, especially if a 2 – 3 year notice was provided.

          • 0 avatar
            Pch101

            Apparently, the automakers must think that amber turn signals would cost them money in other ways, i.e. presumably the cars will be less attractive, so they would sell fewer of them.

            For example, why does GM bother to make red signals for the US Corvette when it makes amber signals for export? Or similar, why does Audi bother to make red signals for the US when they have perfectly fine amber signals that could be used in both the US and Europe? They’re going out of their way to make two variants.

          • 0 avatar
            JimC2

            The car dealers don’t like them because it means their parts departments are required to stock both U.S. (red) and Euro-spec (amber) blinker fluid.

          • 0 avatar
            DenverMike

            Red turn-signal cars have a different switch (at the column) and have the brake lights controlled (or cycled off) by the switch. Not a big difference, but then trailers are set up for simple stop/left/rights, not usually compatible with amber ts wiring. Not without the circuit board to change back all reds.

    • 0 avatar
      DenverMike

      What we saw when grey-market imports were legal was mostly German luxury and Japanese sports cars. It’s never been cheap. Back then, you wouldn’t bother importing a pickup that didn’t sell here, just to be (slightly) different. Doubtful anyone would do that now, for a grey-market global pickup. I don’t see the point. And no warranty, no financing, etc.

    • 0 avatar
      msquare

      The manufacturers did compromise a bit and started importing many of the models that had been gray-marketed, like big-engine S-classes and 7-series. If anything, the gray market proved there was a demand for them.

      Nowadays, the only desirable cars you can’t get here are some of the better diesels, the ones that turn those fat Benzes and Bimmers into economy models. No problem getting the hot ones.

  • avatar
    TheyBeRollin

    It surprises me that they were able to import complete or even semi-complete ones, but even the originals are pretty seriously rebuilt by this point if they’ve been driven with any regularity.

    My dad has owned a 1970 T2a Transporter since the mid-80s and by the mid-90s it was far from original. Both bumpers and the engine block were manufactured in Brazil. The alternators had been Mexican for as long as I can remember. I know the transaxles and exhaust came from one of the two when they finally went due to bad boots and road salt.

    Certain parts were particularly difficult because VW changed them a number of times through the run, meaning something from a 69 or 71 may not match. This was also before the explosion of the Internet, so obtaining parts that wore out in a backwater town in a state with strict annual inspections was quite the project. Signal indicators (only used once a year for the inspection since dad always does hand signals to preserve it) and door handles were a killer, as was basically anything electrical, in spite of the general simplicity of the vehicle.

    The interesting thing is that he could rebuild it indefinitely and it would never end up with a rebuilt or assembled title. Nobody cares that the block doesn’t match the chassis since it hasn’t for decades.

    The Defender situation could have been avoided if they simply shipped in the old vehicles, registered them, then rebuilt them with parts in the US. Worst-case, you simply fabricate things like the frame and bolt on old or remade parts. One day soon, with the advances being made in 3D printing, you’ll just be able to download models from the enthusiast community and print out what you need. I wonder how the government will respond to that…

    • 0 avatar
      DenverMike

      The Defender situation would have cost considerably more to do it the right way. Perhaps double. Just stripping it down to nothing and rebuilding it (on the old frame) would be very labour intensive. And guaranteed to have lots of ‘bugs’ to work out.

  • avatar
    April

    Here in Oklahoma I bought a used 1981 Mexican Beetle from a nearby Chevrolet dealer in 1983. This guy who lived in Missouri bought it in Tijuana (still had the Tijuana VW license plate frame). He putted around in it for a year or so and ended up here in Oklahoma when he traded it in for a El Camino. Thanks to a local VW bug repair shop I was able to enjoy it trouble free for several years (their mantra was adjust the valves on a regular basis and run straight 30-weight oil). While it was dangerous as anything (it only had lap belts) that car was so much fun.

    :)

  • avatar
    28-Cars-Later

    “if Homeland Security was concerned about black market Beetles from south of the border, down Mexico way, a vintage Volkswagen show is exactly the place they’d be looking for them.”

    Not sure, as DHS was all over those Land Rovers. Let’s hope EPA or CARB doesn’t get into a bind or is forced to justify their existence and decides to seek out and destroy the Mexican built/spec’d Bugs.

  • avatar
    PrincipalDan

    Fuel injected, air cooled, VW bug? That’s kinda cool.

    Here in NM you see lots of legally imported air cooled VW from the 60s and 70s simply because the dry air here doesn’t rust them away making restoration fairly straightforward because it doesn’t require extensive body work.

    • 0 avatar
      MRF 95 T-Bird

      Actually the US version had fuel injection from the mid-70’s until the final models in 79-80. I see the model in the picture has the optional or dealer installed AC unit.

    • 0 avatar
      bk_moto

      The US-market Beetle had fuel injection (Bosch L-Jetronic) from the 1975 model year until the end in 1979.

      The US-market Type II (aka Bus) did as well from ’75 to ’79, except with a different engine (the 2.0L Type 4 engine as it was known) which was carried over into the Vanagon for 1980-1983 model years when the air-cooled option was finally dropped in favor of the infamous 1.9L “wasserboxer” water-cooled boxer engine.

      The earliest US-market air-cooled VW to get fuel injection was the Type III sold here in two body styles, the squareback and fastback. This ran a modified version of the Beetle engine with Bosch D-Jetronic fuel injection, which it had from 1967 until it was discontinued in 1973.

      The VW Type 4 (411) also had fuel injection from around the same time but that was never a big seller in the US and they are rarely seen today though the engine developed for that model went on to be used in the Bus starting in 1972 and a variation of it was used in the Porsche 914.

      The US market Karmann Ghia never got fuel injection as it was discontinued in 1974 just before the switch to FI on the Beetle.

  • avatar
    krhodes1

    Maine is pretty straightforward. The two big things are that first you don’t need a title to register a car older than 1995. Used to be 15 years rolling, but a few years ago they stuck it at 1995. The other is that Maine will accept a Canadian title, no questions asked, for any year. We also have no emissions testing other than the CEL cannot be lit. And there is no VIN inspection or anything like some states have.

    So it is pretty easy to get that non-conforming car into Canada from wherever, drive it across the border, and register it here. Not that I would EVER do such a thing for some of my Saab Club buddies. Which is why I may or may not have owned, on paper at least, a RHD Saab 900, a 1984 Saab 99, and a 1980 Saab 96. And possibly a couple of other interesting European oddities that were about 15 years old at the time…

    The big issue with those Rovers is that the Feds caught that company doing it and selling them. I suspect that if you have just done it yourself, they would never likely bother you.

  • avatar

    These guys may still need to be careful, looks like the feds don;t care what the states think is OK

    http://www.eastcoastrover.com/imports.html

    Krhodes does Maine still have saftey inspections? that bit a few my friends in the butt driving beater Japanese cars as they would fail them for rust.

    • 0 avatar
      krhodes1

      Yes, and it is fairly comprehensive. And also why Japanese cars do not enjoy the reputation for longevity in this state that they do elsewhere. They rotted away and failed inspection, which until I was in High School in the 80’s was every SIX MONTHS, not annually.

      I think the inspection is quite reasonable overall. Especially given some of the horrors I have seen on the streets of states that do not have an inspection regime.

  • avatar
    Wheatridger

    After such a long, impassioned debate over the relative safety merits of turn signal colors, I’m surprised that no one has explained the much greater dangers of the Mexican Beetle’s use of swing axles. This obsolete technology has led to countless spinouts and snap rolls, when the camber changes it allows reach extremes Truly unsafe at any speed, as has been pointed out. I like to learn that some new suspension part has been added, like the old “camber compensator,” to limit the axle’s pivot range to keep it from acting like a vaulter’s pole. Until I do, I’ll just assume that VW values the lives of its Mexican customers lower than it values mine.

    • 0 avatar
      Vega

      Oh god, that deadly swing axle, pass the smelling salt! Apparently it is a miracle I was born at all given my parents (and most of Germany in general) exclusively drove these cars up until the 70s. And no, they didn’t roll their beetles and karmann ghias at every second corner…

      But considering you’re nervousness I can reassure you that all swing axle beetles since 1967 (with the exception of a few standard models in Europe in the early 70s) had a very effective compensation device installed, sometimes called the “z-bar”. Since then, instant cornering death was a thing of the past:
      http://www.shoptalkforums.com/viewtopic.php?t=122651

      You can safely un-clutch your pearls now…

    • 0 avatar
      DC Bruce

      It might interest you to know that Mercedes-Benzes of the 1960s also used swing axles. When BMW entered the US market in the late 1960s, one of their selling points over Benz was the fact that they used double-jointed axles, rather than a swing axle. Thus, there was no camber change as the rear suspension loaded up or unloaded rounding a corner.

      VW went to the same system in either 1969 or 1970. I had a ’68 Karmann Ghia, which, of course, had a lower CG than the Beetle. Despite my best efforts, I did not roll the car. It helped to have bias-ply tires that were not too sticky. That way, the tire would let go before the car rolled.

      Also, Porsches — both the 356 and the 911 — had swing axles if memory serves. The 911 was particularly vicious as compared to its 4-cylinder predecessor because of the heavier 6-cylinder engine out back and also its use of stickier radial tires.

      • 0 avatar
        Vega

        356 yes, 911 no (trailing arms). The viciousness of early 911s was a combination of short wheelbase, weight distribution and early radial tires, which were very unforgiving at the limit.

        Mexican beetles never had the trailing arm suspension of later European or North American models. Nevertheless, the (Porsche-developed) z-bar effectively counteracted the dangerous swing axle camber change.

  • avatar
    jeffzekas

    Most of the classic Minis have been totally rebuilt with new parts (you can buy a complete body shell from the UK) so the whole brouhaha over Land Rovers and Bugs seems silly. I mean, the gray market affects so few people- probably less than one percent of all vehicles- sure wish Homeland Security would focus on terrorists (their original mission).

  • avatar
    mkirk

    Why would homeland security worry about illegal Mexican vehicles when they don’t worry about Illegal Mexican people.

  • avatar
    petezeiss

    That roof rack fills me with confidence. I’ve seen sturdier desk trays.

  • avatar
    shaker

    Considering the millions of $ per year of crop damage caused by Mexican Beetles, I’m surprised that the Department Of Agriculture isn’t involved.

    • 0 avatar
      Jellodyne

      From what I’ve seen migrant field workers tend to travel in pickups and vans. I doubt there’s been too much crop damage because of a lack of Mexican Beetles to get the workers to the fields in time.

  • avatar
    FirmerX

    You see these from time to time at VW shows.
    In the late 90’s early 2000’s there was at least one company who was taking chassis tunnels (where the VIN is stamped) from otherwise rusted out or totaled beetles, and shipping them to Mexico where they were welded into Mexican Beetles. The “1998” Beetle was then imported back into the US as a “197x” Beetle. At VW shows I attended then, this bit of info was not hidden by the company, and deemed completely legal by NJ standards. I always thought it was a little shady though. Most of the ones I saw were red or silver. You can usually tell these pretty easily by little to no chrome trim, body colored bumpers and headlight rings, black plastic door handles, and more modern interior and steering wheels. Yes they are fuel injected, but US Beetles were fuel injected from 1975 on. 99% of the population and I’m sure regulators, wouldn’t even take a second look at them and assume these are “70’s” Beetles.


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