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Maine has made headlines on almost every major car site and forum in the last few weeks for the same story: pre-1995 Mitsubishi Delicas, which should theoretically be perfectly road legal, are having their registrations canceled there. What nobody, including state officials, has been able to answer clearly yet is why. And that’s where things start to look ominous for anybody who might be interested in driving a legal, non-standard import car.

Why is the Northeastern state de-registering these vans? The official reason given to Car Bibles was that the vans fail to meet United States Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS). Special Assistant to the Secretary of State Emily Cook contended that “These vehicles are manufactured as off-road vehicles.” In our correspondence, pre-1995 Mitsubishi Delica vans were specifically cited as targets for de-registration. The Truth About Cars seemed to get a little more out of this representative; the site quotes her broadening the definition of vehicles due to be de-registered: “Any vehicle found to be mistakenly registered would receive a similar letter to the ones sent out recently by the Bureau of Motor Vehicles.”

The state is basically positing that these vehicles never should have been registered in the first place. The Secretary of State’s office elaborated even more to Autoblog, which published this quote from them:

“Given that these vehicles [Mitsubishi Delicas] are generally right-hand steerage and have few, if any modern safety features or emission controls, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and EPA have both ruled that this class of vehicles may be only used for off road farming (or similar) use. Maine considers these vehicles to be ATVs.”

As many car fans will know and casual readers will have gathered, the Delica looks a lot more like a minivan than an ATV. Here’s a 1994 Mitsubishi Delica Space Gear LWB 4WD:

Maine’s Crackdown on JDM Vans Represents a Real Danger for Every Grey-Market Import Car
Image: Mitsubishi

I mean come on, that doesn’t look like any ATV we’ve seen. As a side note, that old promotional photo even looks like it could have been taken in Maine, but I digress.

From what I can gather, and from our own communication with the state of Maine’s representatives, this seems like a strange and arbitrary policy that feels almost punitive for owners of cool old JDM vans. And that’s not a large group of people. Anecdotally, our editor (and old Mitsubishi owner) Andrew Collins was talking to Tim Weiss (another Mitsubishi owner, who lives in Maine and is active in the car community) who both reckon it’s unlikely there are more than 10 Delicas registered up there.

“…I am pretty plugged into the Mits community and drive a lot of the state. Every one I see is Canada reg or another state visiting. And this was way before this went down,” Weiss said over Facebook Messenger.

Maine seems to be wielding the right to de-register whatever it wants, and Mitsubishi Delica van owners are the first victims. The way the state is exacting this power is through a state statute called 29 MRSA section 354, which prohibits the registration of off-road vehicles for non-government entities. It also broadly defines off-road in 29 MRSA section 101 as a “vehicle’s design and, configuration, original manufacture or original intended use, [that] does not meet the inspection standards of Chapter 15, the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards.”

Since there are so few Delicas registered in Maine (and in America in general really), it seems truly bizarre that this model specifically would be called out. But while this move by the government only affects a handful of people, practically speaking, for the moment the scary part is the fact that it will almost definitely expand to grab more grey-market cars. Import car enthusiasts have historically been able to bring vehicles onto U.S. roads as long as they were 25 years old, which was already a big hurdle to bringing cars here. Now it seems any imported vehicle that wasn’t federally certified when it was new can be de-registered at any time in Maine. According to the Secretary of State’s office, the legislation that allowed this “became law a few weeks ago.”

What’s most bothersome is the hastiness and vagueness about the language of the law. It gives Maine carte blanche to interpret nearly any vehicle as an off-road vehicle. It’s very important to note that “off-road” doesn’t mean a rock crawler or Baja truck, it literally means a vehicle that isn’t meant to be used on the road, thereby off-road. It’s a similar classification to ATVs and dirt bikes. So while some versions of the Delica have prowess on trails, that is not what the state of Maine means with its legal language.

Judging by the timeline and the haste by which the state started using the law, I wouldn’t be surprised if we started hearing from more Maine import car owners about their cars getting de-registered, well beyond Delicas. It also serves to show that states are getting wise to the still-growing import car craze with popular late ’90s JDM cars becoming legal to import. I’m wary of other states that are actual import car havens tightening registration requirements that slowly start killing these vehicles off, vehicles that ultimately do minimal harm to the environment or other drivers.

As far as a path for disenfranchised Maine Delica owners to re-register their vehicles, Ms. Cook told us: “Vehicle owners who received these letters would need to prove the vehicles were manufactured to US standards (we would need to see the MCO and also the sticker in the door jamb).” I asked the state twice about being able to legalize the cars for Maine, but it seems that they will only accept cars that were made to be compliant, and won’t accept vehicles brought up to compliance.

I know there is a strong anti-California attitude amongst car people, but at least the Golden State’s DMV lets you make imports 100 percent legal, albeit at great cost. Maine is offering no such path. It’s hanging these van owners out to dry, forcing them to register out-of-state or go through the hassle of selling the van out-of-state, with no real warning. While, again, there are only a handful of such people owning Mitsubishi Delicas in Maine specifically, you can bet that these same rules will come for every other not-originally-sold-stateside import soon enough.

And according to Crankshaft Culture, the site which seems to have had the first report of this situation, Delica owners got these notices out of the blue, with instant effect, bricking their trucks from being driven on Maine’s roads.

I can’t help but notice that the messaging from the state of Maine, from beginning to end, has subtly changed and morphed over the days and weeks that this story has been floating around the internet. It seems like the state didn’t really know exactly what it was doing, and arbitrarily chose some weird old vans that they thought nobody would notice to start cracking down on grey-market cars. I have to believe that the attention and backlash have been shocking to anybody in the state government who’s paying attention.

Hopefully, this pressure will translate into the state relenting and allowing these vans to be re-registered. For now, however, prepare. It may get worse, and it may happen in more states than you think. I shudder to imagine a reality where the California system is the best way to make an old JDM car legal to drive.

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