California Title and Registration of Diesels

Dec 5, 2017
Brea, Ca
It sounds like you went through the process in 2014. The DMV/CARB have since closed the out-of-state loophole and they won't care if you title/reg in another state for 6 months, a year, or a decade prior to bringing your rig into CA. They consider any non-USDM vehicle a Direct Import, regardless of prior registration history. I managed to skate by this by the skin of my teeth in 2017, and it took 18 months.

I would strongly encourage anyone who wants to bring a JDM diesel truck into CA to just talk to someone knowledgeable at CARB (they exist, just takes some time to find them) to confirm the process. Based on a pretty intense back and forth with them (again, took 18 months) the process they follow now involves a mandatory visit to CEE in Santa Ana and a bunch of money, no exceptions.
That is good to know and have updated my post to reflect that it is outdated thanks to California's overbearing laws. But will leave the info up there as a piece of history to show how it was done back then. I am forever grateful that I imported my HJ61 when I did - when I was in my early 20's cruising around in that unique vehicle, when it was an easy and relatively carefree process to register and not have to worry about your reg being revoked if you managed to. I can even remember back to 2012 when direct imports coming right into California from Japan were slipping through and getting registered, importer minitruckdealer rings a bell. We had Hiluxes, HiAces, Nissan patrols, Blizzards...all that 80's diesel cool stuff getting brought in and registered no prob. That was the true golden era for JDM diesels in California - old enough to conform to the 25-year exemption and still easy to register legally with California plates. Then they got busted. And things seemed to slowly go to hell after that.

I started hearing the horror stories of new owners trying to get their JDM diesel registered and being rejected and having to resell it right away outside of California. People getting their JDM diesels registered in California but then getting a letter in the mail about 4 months later from the DMV/CARB saying they'd have to make it emissions compliant. It made owning my HJ61 I'd receive the dreaded letter revoking my registration any second. I couldn't afford that as a much younger person. Hell, I couldn't afford that now by any means. I ended up trying to sell it both on ih8mud and craigslsit but nobody really seemed to want it because of the drip rail rust it had. Nobody really seemed to want it despite the (what I considered) valuable California plates. I got fed up with it and consigned it to a sorta well-known pretty-sketchy importer who fixed it up to make it more desirable to sell. I feel he kinda gave me a low ball price considering what I've seen some of the other California registered ones go for since. But oh well, at least I had a damn unique vehicle for CA for a couple of years and didn't have my registration revoked like some.

Knowing that info you provided, it and helps to quench my hopes of ever someday bringing in another one to California. Maybe when I strike the lotto I'll get a Cali plated one. For now, if I want to, I'll just register one out of state in a place like Texas. I'd rather give my money to them instead of the corrupt California government with its dumb laws and air Gestapo anyways. Thank you!
May 22, 2014
Los Angeles

What is throwing me off with your registration is saying that you went to a VIN verification service. I'm super happy and glad you were able to pull it off! When I registered my HJ61 in 2014 I was forced to go to the CHP in Santa Ana and have an officer do the VIN verification without option. This should be the case for everyone trying to register a JDM. Verification from a third-party verifier service "VIN verifier" was and is not a legal option for Japanese, or any imported vehicle. This is because vehicles missing a Federal Cerification Label (Safety Label) are not supposed to legally be verified by third-party verification services and are supposed to be referred to the CHP by default. Additionally, vehicles with less than a 17-digit VIN are automatically supposed to be referred to the CHP for verification by default. JDM imports are lacking both a safety label and have a less-than 17-digit VIN. This information is per some fine print on the REG 31 - Verification of Vehicle form that every DMV in California will use and require. This fine print in the form used by VIN verifiers explains it:

View attachment 2779048

I was able to get a title before the HJ61 had even arrived in California by filling out REG 343 - Application for Title or Registration. I hada title and registration from Missouri which made registration in California possible. After I got a title they gave me a hanger in my back window to drive it around for about 2 months which was nice and fun. However, I could not register it (get plates for it) until it was on California soil as I had to get a VIN verification. If I remember correctly, what made them take note of the need for a VIN verification was the fact it was an out-of-state (nonresident) vehicle. All nonresident vehicles in California get a VIN verification and it's usually a breeze because they have 17-digit VINS and smog gear, EPA labels, and smog paperwork.

When it arrived in California (from Missouri) I went back to the DMV for the VIN verification. This involved me pulling into a station at the Fullerton DMV so an employee could do a VIN inspection. When he could not find the VIN or Safety Label ...he checked some marks on a REG 31 - Verification of Vehicle form that forced me to be referred to the CHP. The DMV VIN verifier was just doing his job. The VIN verification form is crucial in the nonresident vehicle registration and is what will trip everyone up who tries to register an imported vehicle in California. Regardless if it has been registered out-of-state or not first...the fact it is missing a 17 digit VIN will always refer you to the CHP who may or may not sign off on it depending on the officers familiarity with emissions law. Registering it out-of-state gives you a nonresident title, and more importantly, out of state registration/plates to transfer. Without those, you have a "direct import" which is IMMENSELY difficult and costly to register in California. As many here know and have found out the hard way.

Since I did this in 2014, California has set in place a mandate that requires you to show proof for direct imports to show "Evidence that the vehicle meets Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and California emissions standards.". However, I did not have a direct import per se as it had been titled and registered in Missouri for about 6 months prior to my ownership. Additionally, nonresident pre-1997 diesels are smog exempt in California. This is what allows one to rightfully register their Japanese imported diesel in California. The fact it is both a nonresident vehicle AND smog exempt under definition of California law allows it to be registered in California.

In my case the officer at the CHP was a bit of a motorhead, we got along, and he signed off on the VIN verification. I pointed out to the officer that I did not need a smog certificate since it was a pre-97 (it was pre-98 then) diesel. Which as I pointed out is crucial in the registration process. He was actually familiar with the out-of-state vs. direct import thing and seemed to be down with it because he liked my car. The officer checked my import docs from Land Cruisers Direct/Steve Jackson (who was great), looked for matching VINs on the body, engine, and the under-the-hood label - and I was on my way back to the Fullerton DMV with a signed-off Verification of Vehicle form. I received my registration about a month later and happily owned that HJ61 for about 3 and a half years. Boy was I nervous as I opened that letter from the DMV though!

If I were to try this now in 2021 I would:
1) make sure my car was considered an out-of-state vehicle by having it titled AND registered out of state for about 6 months before bringing it into California. You could do this without ever leaving California by having it registered through a title service and registered to an address in that same state. Texas and South Dakota for example, seems to allow vehicle registration to PO boxes from what I can gather. There are also title services in South Dakota and Texas. So win-win for you.

2) Make sure that it was a pre-97 diesel so I wouldn't have to submit smog paperwork. Remind the DMV employees and CHP officers that smog is not required for such vehicles if you have to. I would inform the officer that it is not a direct import as it had been registered in another state if needed. If required I would use the precedent that many of the grey-market diesel (and gasoline) Mercedes have been registered in California for years. And in my observance, many of the 80's grey market Mercedes have short (14 digit) VINS much like our Japanese imports, a major yet only difference being those have safety labels attached to the door with a (seemingly assigned) VIN, EPA, and in some cases CARB smog paperwork which was handled by the then-popular and established grey market importers of the 80's who were bringing those into the USA and California in droves which helps the case of registering those immensely.

3) Know the difference between titling and registering, the difference between direct imports vs. nonresident vehicles, know your DMV forms and fine print, know your rights, and don't back down to the grumpies at the DMV. A good attitude, manners, respect, and courtesy will get you far when at the DMV and dealing with CHP officers especially.

It still seems possible in 2021 to register out-of-state diesel in California according to this information compiled off of DMV VIN verification forms and title transfer documents, as well as the information on the DMV website about direct imports. Basically, I would never try to transfer in a gasoline-powered import into California because those are not smog exempt unless they are 1975 or older. I would never try to transfer a diesel into California that was newer than 1997. I would never try to directly import a diesel or gasoline powered import into California and expect to register it with plates in California unless I was willing to shill out the $10,000+ dollars to the sketchy conformance lab that seems like a racket anyways.

I hope my experience with importing a '88 HJ61 into California and this writing helps someone save themselves money and registration headaches. And to hopefully help them set DMV and CHP employees straight if need be. Have fun and enjoy your vehicles.

Here is some info on what the State of California is mandating for direct imports:

View attachment 2779104

BTW: the software on this forum is great, blessings to it for saving drafts as I accidentally clicked out 3/4 the way through typing all this! :eek:

That's some big red lettering you used to prove your point! I have since left California and don't have to worry about this any more, but I have still kept that registration because it was so hard to get ;)

@arctic714 I'm not saying you're wrong, what I will emphasize to anyone who reads this is that leaving your fate in the hands of a DMV or CHP employee is risky. If you get a cool CHP officer, like you did, you can breeze through. If not, and you get all the books thrown at you (even the ones that don't apply to you), you're powerless. I would still advocate working with a VIN verifier and get as far as you can and get your paperwork squeaky clean, from my experience it's all about the pregame and have everything ready before setting foot in the DMV. Like @arctic714 is saying and that we agree on 100% is read the laws back to front, know them and be prepared before you start this adventure, figure out what the state wants to see and go from there. What the state wants to see is paperwork and checked boxes.

Users who are viewing this thread

Top Bottom