How to Import Your Dream Vintage 4x4
Earlier this year we spent an entire weekend drooling over an incredible selection of 4x4 and off-road vehicles at Overland Expo West, in Flagstaff, AZ, a bi-annual gathering for all things overland that’s as much car show as it is a crash course in vehicle-based adventure.
From tricked out Tacomas to custom army trucks-turned-campers and re-purposed ambulances, the variety of vehicles that people use to get out and explore on the weekends (or live in full-time) is staggering. But the group that gets the most attention are the classic 4x4s, the coolest of which are imported from overseas. They check all the boxes: they’re simple, rugged, reliable, and often get better fuel economy than their American counterparts thanks to small diesel engines.
Which got us thinking: it’s about time we make a how-to guide for importing adventure vehicles from overseas. The ground rules are actually pretty simple: just make sure the vehicle is at least 25 years old and has its original engine (or an EPA certified engine) — beyond that it’s all fair game.
Read on for everything you need to know to snag your dream overlander.
Vintage 70-Series Toyota Land Cruiser
Models/Years: 1985-1993 BJ70/73/74/76
The Land Cruiser, in all its iterations, is arguably the most capable series of overland vehicles ever built. There’s nothing wrong with the gas-burning versions you can get in the U.S. (the FJ 40, 55, 60, 80, 100 and now 200 series), but the crown jewel, the 70 Series, was never sold here. Unlike the modern day 100 and 200 series Cruisers we have in the U.S., the 70-Series Land Cruiser sold overseas got more of the iconic FJ40’s genes: simple, rugged, and focused more on off-road ability than getting the kids to soccer practice.
Their diesel power plants net them much better fuel economy (think mid-20s), and since diesel engines generally last longer than gassers, you can feel more confident buying an older, high-mileage model. They started production in 1984, which means you’ve got a lot to choose from.
Missouri-based Land Cruisers Direct specialize in importing low-mileage 70s from Japan. Prices run from around $10K to $30K, and LCD takes care of all of the paperwork and customs red tape for you. Note: everything from Japan will be Right Hand Drive, which is totally legal in the U.S., but does take some getting used to.
New 70-Series Land Cruiser
Model/Year: 2018 L79
Price: $85K and up
The coolest thing about the 70-series is that Toyota still makes it today. If you like the sound of a 70-series Land Cruiser but don’t want to mess with an older vehicle, you’re not alone — a new importer out of Colorado Springs called LC America is leading the charge in bringing brand new 70s to the U.S.
LC America are working with the EPA and DOT to retrofit purchased cruisers and make them compliant with U.S. emissions and other standards. They’re currently accepting reservations for vehicles, and plan to have them out to people within a year and a half. If you’ve got the cash, this is the best way to get a modern version of an iconic, imported 4x4.
Land Rover Defender
Price: $30K and up
Land Rover is the other big name in overlanding — images of Land Rovers traversing exotic jungles and deserts are synonymous with the sport. They started building the Series model back in 1948, and began production of the more well-known Defender in the 80s. We got a few years of Defenders stateside, but missed out on the best models with turbo diesel engines. They’re coveted for their off-road prowess, simple mechanics and tank-like build quality—and they’re also not nearly as luxurious as their younger American counterparts (like the LR4), which makes them better-suited to extended periods of off-road travel.
Look for a 1990-93 model, as they’re the latest you can legally import. There are a few importers around the country, and that’s the easy way to go when it comes to purchasing one — Mad Rover Imports in Durham, NC, specializes in sourcing clean, lower-mileage Defenders.
4WD Diesel Vans
Vanlife has a presence at Overland Expo, mainly in the form of tricked out Sportsmobiles and Sprinters. The coolest vans are those that are imported from Japan, like the Mitsubishi Delica, which has been produced in one form or another since 1968 and is sold all over the world. They get decent gas mileage, are known for their reliability and simplicity, and most importantly will be the envy of all of those Sprinters parked at the crag.
The best examples come from Japan, and you can pick up a clean, low-mileage example very reasonably (sometimes less than $10K). The best Importers are Delica Star Wagon and Japanese Classics (which has a cool selection of other Japanese 4x4s aside from Delicas for reasonable prices).
Price: $10K +
A Pinzgauer always draws attention at Overland Expo. They are quirky little army rigs from Austria that make great build platforms for overland rigs thanks to their dead-simple mechanics and open bed design that’s ripe for building out or leaving alone for versatility. Some options have six wheels, and they’re the right size for off-road travel — not to big, not too small.
These are fairly rare in the U.S., but a ton were made starting in the early 1970s so there are plenty of options that fall into the 25-year import rule. Importers like Swiss Army Vehicles and Expedition Imports source incredible examples from all over the world.