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Local hopes to make Japanese Domestic Markets cars more accessible in Tucson

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Courtesy Chloe Hollenbeck | The Daily Wildcat

George Hollenbeck sits against a wall in Tucson, Ariz. in 2015. Hollenbeck is opening his own Japanese car importation business.

If you drive any Japanese Domestic Market (JDM) car that has been imported to the United States, you may have heard the phrases "Dude, is that legal?" or "Your steering wheel is on the wrong side, you know?" more times than you care to share.

So why would one be interested in importing a weird car with the steering wheel on the wrong side to the United States to begin with? Many of these cars were, and some still are, illegal in the United States because they were not crash-tested and therefore not deemed road legal by the Department of Transportation and in some cases, they did not pass emissions testing. The former problem has been eliminated because the vehicles have been "grandfathered" into the system by reaching the age of 25 years. According to statute Title 49 part 591.5(i), federal law exempts any car older than 25 years from certain federal motor vehicle safety, bumper and theft prevention regulations, thus making the cars legal.

George Hollenbeck, a Tucsonan and a project manager at Raytheon, has always had a massive passion for cars and he is starting his own Japanese car importation business right here in the Old Pueblo.

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“[JDM cars] are one of the best-known cars in the world in the car enthusiast realm of the universe and carry decades of respect and awards with every mile that flips over on the odometer," Hollenbeck said. "They are fast, sleek and modern in a pre-modern kind of way. They offer up an opportunity to stand out when everyone else blends in. The world is full of Ford Focuses and Toyota Camry's, and for about the price of those two, you could drive a car with the nickname ‘Godzilla.'"

Nate Sinn, a young Tucsonan who works at a BMW dealership and frequents car meets, drives an R32 Nissan Skyline GTR that he imported through a Virginia-based company called Japanese Classics.

Sinn said the reason he went with Japanese Classics is because they had a solid reputation for importing quality vehicles. He said it was tough not being able to see the car before buying it because he did not have time to fly out with his work schedule.

“The cars looked really good, obviously I couldn’t fly out to see them, but they looked nice,” Sinn said.

Sinn brought up an issue he was faced with when purchasing his car.

“When bringing the cars over, they had to turn them around so fast and people would just buy them," he said. "Like my car was bought before it made it onto the website … I didn’t even know what the car had before I bought it.”

Hollenbeck aims to answer to some of the JDM importation industry's needs with his own importation business, Samurai American Imports.

"The problem with importing cars from other places around the world isn't the paperwork or shipping or legality; if the car is over 25 years old, as a general rule of thumb, it's legal," Hollenbeck said. "The problem is proximity. The main shipping ports in this country are on the coasts, which is great if you live on the coasts. But for the rest of the country, it means that they have to buy cars sight unseen most of the time.”

He said while pictures and videos of a car are great, it isn't the same as seeing the car in person.

"Because looking at Recaro bucket seats in a car and driving around in Recaro bucket seats—two totally different things," Hollenbeck said. "And if you are importing a car, you don't get a chance to really feel the difference and make sure you like the car before you buy it."

Hollenbeck purchases the cars from reputable exporters who act as a proxy at auctions in Japan and he said he is planning on selling as many cars as the market demands. He also plans to expand the business to the entire Southwest region.

"It's a small start-up, but we have already seen a huge demand here in Tucson," Hollenbeck said. "The idea is to maintain a steady flow of vehicles so that no matter what, a customer can come test drive a car to see what it's like." 

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Hollenbeck has already bought his first car for sale and it will be in Tucson by April. Cars usually take between three and five weeks after purchasing to arrive, but once they are here, they can be driven to the DMV, licensed and registered like any other car and driven home.

"Samurai American Imports is different," Hollenbeck said. "Instead of limiting the market of cars to people in coastal regions, we are bringing the cars to the markets. Our business allows for locals to come ride in a car, feel it out, look at it and inspect it all before they decide to make the purchase.”

Car prices heavily fluctuate with demand. When purchasing a higher quality Nissan Skyline GTR, Hollenbeck said one can expect to pay anywhere from $23,000 to $30,000, depending on the car's condition.

"That's Nissan Altima or new Subaru WRX money, but you get so much more than just a car," Hollenbeck said. "You get an icon, you get exclusivity and you get to blow the minds of drive-thru workers."


Follow Mitchell Furrier on Twitter.



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