Opinion: Maine's Mitsubishi Delica Dilemma is Troubling

Andy Lilienthal
by Andy Lilienthal
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opinion maine s mitsubishi delica dilemma is troubling

The Mitsubishi Delica is one of those quirky right-hand drive, four-wheel-drive vans from Japan. They’re popular among outdoor enthusiasts, fans of ’80s/’90s “rad-era” vehicles, and people looking for a capable camper without having to spend VW Syncro bucks. But in Maine – The Pine Tree State – Delicas are not welcomed, at least by the Bureau of Motor Vehicles. The state has sent letters to owners canceling their registrations.

Thanks to the 25-year import rule, Delicas of the right vintage can be brought into the U.S. with little issue and typically registered with minimal hassle in most states (I’m looking at you, California). However, it came to light recently that Maine was sending letters to Delica owners telling them their registration was canceled, and not because they didn’t do the paperwork correctly.

I first heard about this issue from the MDOC: Mitsubishi Delica Owners Club USA group on Facebook, of which I’m an admin. (Full disclosure, I own a 1994 Delica Space Gear, albeit not in Maine). Some Mainers in MDOC USA posted photos of their state-sent letters talking about how under Maine rules, “minitrucks” can’t be registered, and how they’ll have three weeks to remove their van’s plates and send them back in. This, of course, leaves the owner with a 4,500 lb. JDM paperweight in the shape of a Delica. This didn’t seem right. Perhaps the Maine BMV had simply never seen a Delica.

I read more accounts of this happening; the first from May of 2021. Maine Delica owners were now putting their vans on the market as they are no longer considered road-legal. I had to know more and brought this to light on my website, Crankshaft Culture.

I reached out to Maine’s media contact, Emily Cook, Special Assistant to the Secretary of State, with some questions about what was going on. The answers are pretty interesting, slightly confusing, and potentially bad – and not only for Delica owners.

Much Ado About Minitrucks … Maybe

The letters Delica owners in Maine were getting stated the reason for the cancellation was because the vehicles were minitrucks (e.g. kei vehicles), and they don’t meet Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS)or Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) standards. Maine isn’t the only state that doesn’t allow kei trucks to be registered for street use. But the Mitsubishi Delica—something about the size of a 2021 Toyota Sienna—is no kei truck.

I asked for Maine’s definition of a minitruck and if the state considered the Delica to fall under that definition.

Cook wrote back citing definitions about Japanese minitrucks, kei-class vehicles, and how they were right-hand steerage and/or had few (if any) safety features or emission controls. Cook went on to write that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and EPA both have ruled kei-class vehicles don’t meet U.S safety and emissions standards and can only be imported for off-road use only. And as such, Maine won’t register kei-class vehicles. Cook initially did not mention if the Delica was considered a minitruck even after I’d mentioned the Delica’s dimensions.

I also asked if Maine could shed some light on the state’s guidelines for vehicle registration, and why the Delica does not meet these requirements. Cook again responded, “While the EPA and NHTSA allow these vehicles to be imported into the U.S., it is for off road use only. Maine considered these vehicles to be ATVs, and they may be used legally for off road use only. See 29A section 354.”

Cook explained that Maine follows U.S. and American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators (AAMVA) policies. They also stated that both BMV and Maine State Police have consistently ruled against registration of minitrucks based on EPA and NHTSA requirements and rulings. “BMV has stated our policy in public hearings on bills, and in official reports,” Cook wrote.

Finally, when asking if Maine works with any safety or insurance organizations, Cook referred to an NHTSA document with a best-practices guide to dealing with mini trucks, which the BMV follows. Cook also stated the Maine BMV works closely with the Maine State Police, who is in charge of inspections. There is also more about following guidance from the AAMVA and their published recommendations on dealing with off-road vehicles.

More About Minitrucks And Off-Road Vehicles

As you see, the language keeps going back to “mini trucks,” or “kei class” vehicles. In Japan, kei vehicles must have engines with displacements of 660 cc or less, be 11.2 ft. or shorter, 4.9 ft or narrower, and have a maximum height of 6.6 ft. Most Delica vans imported into the U.S. will have engines ranging from 2,400 cc to 3,000 cc, and they’re far larger than what would be considered a “kei” vehicle under the Japanese regulations. This didn’t make sense, so I asked for further clarification.

A couple of days later, Cook replied, “Maine law is clear in Title 29-A (which was just recently updated in LD 1433 Sections 1-8) on what off-road vehicles are, and that they cannot be classified as antique autos for on-road use.”

However, Cook then states, “We should have been more precise in our language around the Delica and ‘mini-trucks,’ but regardless, the underlying statute is what is being followed.”

OK, so it’s not a minitruck thing after all? So it’s an off-road vehicle thing.

If my logic is sound, Maine’s reasoning goes something like this:

  1. A vehicle that does not meet (or hasn’t been tested for FMVSS) and/or doesn’t display the FMVSS decal or meet EPA standards cannot be registered for road use.
  2. Any vehicle that cannot be registered for road use is an off-road-only vehicle.
  3. Off-road vehicles cannot be registered for on-road use.

Maine’s conclusion? The Delica, which has not been run through FMVSS or EPA testing seems to be an off-road vehicle and therefore can’t be registered for the road.

What About Other Vehicles?

It sounds like Maine has its mind made up on minitrucks and Delicas. But, there have to be dozens (if not more) vehicles in the state that have been brought in under the 25-year import rule and registered by enthusiasts. In fact, I’ve had direct contact with owners of other JDM (Japanese Domestic Market) vehicles including Toyota Hiace and Nissan Cedric owners, and none of them had received letters. The FMVSS and EPS stuff doesn’t just pertain to JDM vehicles, either. There are plenty of other vehicles from Europe and perhaps other places that won’t meet these standards too.

So I asked Cook the daunting question: What about other vehicles?

I specifically said there are other makes and models registered in Maine that also do not comply with FMVSS and EPS, many of which are also Japanese imports (and are also not minitrucks). Can owners of these vehicles (regardless of country of origin) also expect Maine to cancel their registrations?

Cook simply replied, “Any vehicle found to be mistakenly registered would receive a similar letter to the ones sent out recently by the Bureau of Motor Vehicles.”

Take note, auto enthusiasts.

Delica Owners’ Thoughts

The U.S. Delica community (which I am a part of) is definitely up in arms about Maine’s actions. There are multiple accounts of similar explanations with other representatives at the Maine BMV, such as the Assistant to the Director. Most of that person’s language is similar to what I heard from Cook. This includes statements about FMVSS and EPA stuff. Some have been instructed to contact an individual at the Maine State Police Inspection Unit who is “very familiar” with Delicas and minitrucks. The thread I started on July 1, 2021, at delicaforum.com about this ordeal features multiple accounts of owners’ interactions with BMV and state officials.

Recap: Importation vs. Registration

The federal 25-year import rule allows vehicles to be imported into the United States even if they weren’t ever run through FMVSS and EPS tests. However, the federal government is not involved in vehicle registration. That is a state issue. So, it appears states have the ability to say what can and cannot be registered for highway use.

The Solution?

Right now we have not heard of any solution to this issue. The State of Maine has said these Delica owners have three weeks to remove the plates and send them back to the BMV leaving van owners with 4,000 lb. lawn ornaments (or really small Airbnbs). If someone were using their Delica as a daily driver, that could be a serious inconvenience. One would think there could’ve been some sort of clause that allowed currently registered Declias to maintain their licensure, but future Delicas would be prohibited from registration. However, that was not the direction Maine went.

A Slippery Slope?

As an automobile enthusiast (and avid JDM vehicle enthusiast), Maine’s stance on this is troubling. Will Toyota Hiace owners start getting these letters? What about owners of vintage Rolls Royces or even Land Rovers brought into the U.S. from the U.K.? And let’s face it: A 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air probably doesn’t stand up to FMVSS or EPS standards, either. Are their registrations next? Oh, they were sold here originally, so they’re grandfathered in, perhaps. But if all of this is being done in the name of safety and emissions, why stop at Delicas? Why stop at any 25-year-rule vehicle? Why aren’t antique cars, motorcycles, mopeds, and specialty vehicles being taken off the roads?

If Maine sets a precedent, what’s to stop the rest of the nation from adopting this stance? This could leave thousands of owners with unusable vehicles. And that is something all auto enthusiasts should not take lightly.

[Images © 2021 Andy Lilienthal, Mitsubishi]

Andy Lilienthal
Andy Lilienthal

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