What to know if you’re thinking about importing a classic Land Rover Defender

I had always wanted to import my own classic Land Rover Defender 90 or Land Rover Defender 110. The process scared me, as I had read many horror stories about the process. I imported my first Defender through a British ex-pat living in the states and had owned my 1988 Land Rover Defender 90 for a couple years when I came up with the idea to make a series of short films about her: the places she could go, and the lifestyle that comes with owning a classic “go anywhere” Defender.

As the last Defenders rolled off the line at the Solihull factory in the UK, an emptiness was left in the market. North American (NAS) spec 90’s and 110’s were well beyond my price range, with most of them restored to museum quality, making them impractical to use for anything other than going to Whole Foods or the Yacht Club. Yes, I’m poking fun at people who spend $150k for an “off-road” vehicle that will never see dirt.

Importing a Land Rover Defender to the USA

After months (and months) of research, scouring message boards, government documents, forms, regulations, specs, and seeking advice from a new friend in the UK (who also loves these Landy’s), I decided to give importing a try. This would become the centerpiece of my documentary series (more on that later).

The rules for importing a classic vehicle were pretty straight forward, even if getting the information wasn’t as easy as I anticipated.

  1. Must be 25 years old to import to the USA (22 for EPA regulations, 25 to pass DOT rules)
  2. Must have matching VIN number on chassis and VIN tag.
  3. Must have original spec motor (the motor she was born with at the factory – or same spec replacement).
  4. Must have valid V5 (UK title and log book) with matching information.
  5. No be reported stolen (this can be a problem).

The issue is that very few sellers in the UK are familiar with the rules and paperwork. Complicating matters more is that very few of these 25+ year old vehicles come with much history. Motor swaps are common, as is chassis repair. Knowing when the cut off is for each year motor-body combination takes quite a bit of patience, as well.

The Selection Criteria for Importing Land Rover Defender

I narrowed in my search for the following:

  1. Defender 90/110
  2. 2.5 Turbo Diesel
  3. 1986 – 1991 (ensuring she was 25 by the time she got to the port)
  4. Starts & Stops
  5. Limited Rust & Corrosion (this is a big problem with imports)
  6. Valid V5 with matching information (this can be an issue with motor and color swaps)
  7. Reasonably Priced
  8. Good communication from current owners/sellers

I found many options, but few that checked every box (ensuring I can legally import her). Once I narrowed down my selections, I pulled the trigger on the three below. I checked each of them out, performed an inspection, and transferred funds (I will post an entire advice column on this issue alone).

My Land Rover 110 and Land Rover 90 Adoptions

  • 1989 Land Rover Defender 110 – Green – 2.5L TD
  • 1990 Land Rover Defender 90 – Blue 2.5L TD
  • 1989 Land Rover Defender 110 – Silver – Turbo Diesel (more on this later)

Process for Actual Importing of Land Rover Defender

While I thought this first stage (finding eligible USA Export eligible Defenders) would he the hardest, it ended up being fairly straight forward.

The next stage proved to be the most difficult–and where little mistakes can come back to hurt you. Some owners where better at communicating than others, and some more honest than others. Getting inspections are always recommended, keeping in mind that a 25+ year old car is going to have issues.  Try to find out as much as you can about a vehicle first-hand, as an owner/seller that hides major issues can prove to cost you way more than you can imagine, and even prevent your investment from being certified for export.

Arranging transport of 3 Defenders from 3 different locations proved difficult to coordinate. I wanted to get the all on the same Bill of Lading meaning I had a 48 hour window to get them all to the port in Southhampton, UK. Getting them past port inspection was just the beginning. The next stages would be: arranging UK shipping, insurance, customs payments, paperwork, transport tracking, filings, US customs paperwork, power of attorney documents, more paperwork, more insurance, customs clearance, shipping brokerage, delivery, and final inspection.

I found an exceptional UK shipper that helped me pick up all 3 vehicles – including a return trip back to one of them when the port refused it the first time for a broken brake line.  He was originally contracted to pick up just one, but when I had difficulty getting others that could handle the port drop off, I stuck with what I knew and trusted.

Side story: I was going in for dental surgery when the Green 110 was turned away at the port. As the gas mask was being put on, my driver saved the day for me, earning life-long loyalty.  If you ever need good UK transport drop me a line and I’ll make an introduction.

After delivering them to the port, they were all loaded on a Ro-Ro (Roll-On Roll-Off) car shipping boat called, Horizon Highway. I will admit I I compulsively tracked the boat via an online shipping line tracking app, that pings the GPS coordinates all the way from port to port.

it would take 10 days for her to cross the ocean and a few more days for the cars to clear customs.  Having completed all the steps properly, 3 new Land Rover Defenders now called America home.

Investment Calculations for Importing Land Rover Defender 110’s and 90’s

Below is a checklist of things to consider if you want to import a Land Rover Defender from the UK:

  1. Time (research, research, research)
  2. Negotiating with sellers
  3. Pre-purchase inspection
  4. UK ground transport to port
  5. Shipping deposit (confirming spot on the boat)
  6. Shipping paperwork & fees (paying for spot on the boat)
  7. Shipping insurance (to cover if your car falls off the boat — or is damaged)
  8. US customs brokerage assistance
  9. TWIC card (allows for you to go to the port unattended — optional)
  10. Customs taxes
  11. Port taxes
  12. Filing fees
  13. More random fees
  14. Some more fees

And then … you have to get them home, which is a whole other logistics battle.

Fortunately, mine turned out well. Here are the girls at their final destination:

You’ll notice the “Smoke Free” green Land Rover Defender 110 being unloaded from the trailer has quite a bit of … um… smoke.  Like I said, some sellers are better than others.

The drivers said they had a blast driving them from Baltimore to Minneapolis.  The exception was all the people driving next to them to take photos kept them from being able to switch lanes a lot

The trailer barely made it down the road to my house.  The drivers were concerned the trees may scratch the Defenders. I reminded them that they were designed to be off-road.

UPDATES + SPECIAL NOTES:

We’ve published a follow-up post to share some additional experience, but also to answer some of the common questions we get about the importing process.

Importing a Classic Land Rover Defender – Part II (The Sequel)