JDM enthusiasts and vanners love Mitsubishi’s quirky Delica, a cabover van with off-road credentials and a right-hand-drive configuration. For those who are familiar with the van-tastic Delica, this is not just a 4WD-capable competition vehicle or weekend off-roader; it’s a daily driver and right at home on a long road trip. But in the state of Maine, the love for this minivan stops at the state line with the Bureau of Motor Vehicles.
With no prior notice, Maine officials recently set out a figurative “Delicas not welcome here” sign, notifying owners of the imported van that they have a limited amount of time to surrender their license plates and abstain from road driving. Apparently, the state’s bureau of motor vehicles has designated it as a minitruck, lumping it in with the off-road-only Japanese kei trucks; the head-scratching part is that Delicas are not similar to these boxy trucks at all.
Oregon-based Andy Lilienthal of Crankshaft Culture is one of the admins for the Mitsubishi Delica owners’ club on Facebook. One of the members of the group posted a letter sent to them by the Maine BMV, indicating the vehicle can’t be operated on public highways, stating the vans do not meet safety and emissions requirements. The recipient of the letter was given three weeks to turn in their plates, effectively making what was a road-worthy van an albatross.
As a result, some owners started selling their Delicas, feeling stuck.
Delicas are funky snub-nosed vehicles about the size of a Toyota Sienna. Still manufactured in China, the vans were launched in a much earlier form in 1968; by the fourth generation (1994-1996) it shared an engine and transmission with the Mitsubishi Pajero SUV. Per the U.S. 25-year rule, these imports from 1996 and before can be purchased for use on American roads.
According to the official site for the U.S. Congress, “the Imported Vehicle Safety Compliance Act of 1988 amends the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1966 to repeal the authority of the Secretary of Transportation (the Secretary) and the Secretary of the Treasury to permit the temporary importation of vehicles that do not conform to Federal safety standards.” In other words, imports that are more than 25 years old that weren’t originally sold to the U.S. market – which as of 2021 includes the Mitsubishi Lancer Evo IV, Nissan Skyline GT-R LM Limited, and more – are exempt from the standards imposed as a result of Ralph Nader’s
Unsafe At Any Speed campaign.
According to Part 1, Group 1, section 7 of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) Importation and Certification FAQ’s Directory, “a motor vehicle that is at least 25 years old can be lawfully imported into the U.S. without regard to whether it complies with all applicable FMVSS.”
If that’s the federal ruling, how can Maine decide separately to disallow the Delica?
Lilienthal, who is also a journalist, decided to dig a little further to find out what is going on with the Delica categorization. Sending a message off to Emily Cook, who works for the Secretary of State in Maine, Lilienthal asked for clarification. Cook told him the definition of an off-road vehicle in Maine is any vehicle that has a sticker from the manufacturer for federal and EPA standards.
“While the EPA and NHTSA allow these vehicles to be imported into the U.S., it is for off-road use only,” Cook wrote in her response to Lilienthal. “Maine considered these vehicles to be ATVs, and they may be used legally for off-road use only. See 29A section 354.”
The net result (as it stands currently) is that Maine residents can bring their Delica in for an inspection, but if the vehicle doesn’t have that sticker, you can’t register for plates. Because the Delica doesn’t have a sticker due to its import status, it’s considered an off-road vehicle, thus ineligible for road use.
“That brought me another question I had to ask her: there are likely hundreds – maybe even thousands – of vehicles registered in the state of Maine that have been imported under the 25-year-rule, and now they don’t comply. Can owners of any import expect this letter? Now we’re talking about the Nissan Skyline, Rolls Royce, Austin Healy Sprite, or the Delica-comparable Toyota Hiace.”
Cook 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.”
This could be a big deal for auto enthusiasts. If this becomes a trend, it’s plausible any bureau of motor vehicles could cut off registration for anything before 1998. And it begs the question: what’s next? Perhaps Grandpa’s newly-repainted 1957 Chevy Bel Air could be targeted, or any imported right-hand-drive vehicle. Delica owners want to know why a BMW Isetta can be registered, but a minivan of the same size as most other minivans on the road have to relinquish their plates.
Owners are still researching and looking for opportunities to speak with Maine officials about the letters in circulation from the BMV. They’ve mobilized the SEMA Action Network, requested documents through Maine’s Freedom of Access Act (FOAA), made calls, and written letters. For now, the fate of the Delica, and possibly other imports, remains unsure.
“Why did they pick on the Delica?” Lilienthal wants to know. “That’s a great question and one we’re all trying to figure out.”
If Maine can do it, so can other states. JDM enthusiasts, keep an eye on this development and we’ll keep you posted as more information becomes available.
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