Bringing a French Car Back To Wisconsin

It looks as if the improved value of the dollar against the Euro has spurred new interest in buying cars overseas to enjoy here in the United States. While some of you have been through this before, it won't hurt for me to tell you about my experiences. Perhaps it will help you avoid pitfalls and perhaps not. But I have long thought about putting the experience into prose. So here goes.

Since seeing several Citroen GS's and GSA's while attending meets in Niagara Falls and Nashville, I had been working my way up to selling my very nice 1968 Citroen ID 19 and getting one of my own. The sale of my D was very difficult. I had poured years of time and love into her and she was really near to being a trouble free, durable car. Not having a lot of spending money meant it took every year of the ten I owned her to get it there. But when Richard Griffin flew up from Charlotte, North Carolina and cheerily bought her sight unseen, I knew I had done the right thing. He drove her back without incident. We exchange experiences regularly. His care has been unflagging and the car continues to improve. Still, it has been hard to put her out of my mind.

original owners of the GSA
Rene and Christiane Mari parting with their GSA.
The back of my ID
Saying goodbye to my D was very difficult.

I first tried to find one here in the New World, but soon discovered that there were not very many of them around, and the nice ones were being held close. I ultimately came to the conclusion that to get quality, I would have to go to Europe and bring one back. I initiated the process with only a loose idea how the process works. It turned out that each separate operation in the process had its own life, so the only way to do it was to complete one task before moving to the next. Also, looking back I wish I would have waited until now. When I did it the value of the U.S. Dollar was at its lowest in history. But then, I have never been one to avoid mountains to climb. And I did not have the advantage of a crystal ball.

Knowing I could never be able to go to Europe myself, I chose to buy a car through a reputable agent. For me, Citroen Andre in the Netherlands was a good choice. I bought parts from him before with great results and his reputation for finding good cars made the choice simple. I emailed him with my desires and he sent me several choices within my price range. He rejected out of hand all of the cars I found on Leboncoin, which is the "Craigslist" of France.  I think this was partially because of his experiences and partially because he felt he would have less control over the process if we bought that way. I quickly realized that in order to make the sale work, I need to entrust the entire process to Andre. I have no regrets.

As he would have to travel to actually look at the cars, there was some bantering about the positives and negatives about the various cars. The first batch of cars he could find were all rejected, but the second had 2 cars that appealed to both of us. We settled upon a car that had rather low miles and was owned by the daughter of an older man who got the car from his brother shortly before he died, a complete traceable history. The pictures they sent were of fair quality and showed no real issues. Andre sent me an estimate of the price, which included purchase, flatbedding the car from Lyon to the Netherlands, an expense account for repairs and the shipping. In other words, he would take care of everything up to the point the car went on the ship to come over. Once we decided upon a car, the entire process took about a month.  I wired him the money through my bank and the car was soon mine.

Moving the large amount of money overseas could have been done in several ways. It may have been more convenient to use a charge card, but the cost of doing so was just as high as using our banks to directly move money. He supplied me with the IBAN and SWIFT numbers, unique numbers used to identify his recieving bank and the account into which the money was to be deposited. This process took about 2 working days to complete, the price was not exhorbitant. I was far safer and cheaper than using private wiring sevices such as Western Union.

In France, the Gris Carte, or Certificat d'Immatriculation represents both the title and the registration papers we use here. It is really more like a birth certificate. It follows the car throughout its life. To sell a car in France, the former owner merely writes, "Vendue", which means, "Sold" in French, the date, followed by the owner's signature. Of course as here, a wise buyer also demands a bill of sale to prove that money has exchanged hands and that the deal is closed.

A Gris Carte

My Gris Carte, or "Grey Card"
Once the car was flatbedded to his shops, he replaced the battery and a questionable exhaust pipe, both wise repairs, as I was planning on driving the car straight off the docks back to Wisconsin. Another option I took was dock insurance. Say, the car rolled off the edge of the pier into the drink. Dock insurance would reimburse me for my loss. I thought the $75 was worth it. Is insurance reverse gambling? Perhaps, but it is peace of mind too. If the car were to get damaged, the $75 would seem a bargain.

I told Andre aproximately when I would be able to pick up the car and he picked a shipper and date that would fit the calendar. We discovered that the shipper had to be set at least 5 days before shipping. There had been trouble with scheduling because the shippers were reluctant to embark with partial loads. We finally locked on to September 3rd, 2009 via "K" Line's Georgia Highway from Zeebrugge, Belgium to Baltimore, Maryland. I chose Baltimore over New York because of geographics and ease of access.

The Georgia Highway is in immense ship capable of holding over 6000 smaller cars. It looks like a tall pair of walls with curved stern and bluntly pointed bow. There is little in the way of superstructure. In the side is a built-in deployable ramp, so it can pull up close to a dock and unload rapidly.  She was at sea for only  5 days. This is perhaps the most exciting part of the process when you imagine your little car bobbing about in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean! I had some fun tracking the position of the ship on Vesseltracker and Sailwx. When the car was offloaded, I received an email. The paperwork, with included a bill of sale, the original Gris Carte (French Title and registration paper) bill of lading were already in the hands of my import broker, my agent entrusted to get the car through customs.
The car carrier Georgia Highway

The Georgia Highway

I will now say a few things about the customs broker and the importing process. First, you do not actually require an agent, but without one, you have to make sure all of the paper work and forms are made out and are run through the bureaucracy correctly. This can be a daunting task, taking several days. There is a form to be submitted to the EPA to prove that the car is either old enough to be exempt from emissions control compliance or has been checked out. In my case the car was older than 21 years old, so it was exempt from meeting requirements. Visit the EPA site for information.  For my car I had to submit form 3520-1.

The DOT has requirements as well, such a compliance with safety requirements. They stipulate that a car has to be over 25 years old to be exempt from restrictions. I used form HS-7The DOT has a website that covers imports.  Here is an independent website that covers the matter quite well. Occasionally a car will be more thoroughly inspected and then the delay can take a long time. To do this yourself could tie you up for weeks. Unless you really know what you are doing, I strongly suggest you use an agent. The one I used was E.H. Harms. Another I would recommend base upon hearsay would be J.A. Steer.

The broker will want you to pay them a fee for their services, plus the amount required for duty. Harms charged $175 and my duty was based upon the value of my car. Here was another issue which I chose to remain on the straight side of. You can make agreements with your seller on the selling price of value of your car and it may save you some money on this and your dock insurance, but there are risks involved. If your car does get damaged or lost, you will not be able to recover your full loss. Plus, should customs question your claim or make further investigation, you could find yourself in hot water with them. These people are not customer oriented in the least, so you do not want to get on their bad side. I would strongly suggest you pay up and put up. In addition, I had to pay a $75 "escort fee". This covered the service for taking me though security at the dock, to my car.
Getting the car here was not by any means the last bout. Had I not chosen to drive the car straight off the dock back to Wisconsin, I could have simply taken the car via a dolly or other conveyance and had no issues with registering the car when I got home. But my goal was to fly out and drive the car back, seemingly the easiest and cheapest way. Unfortunately I was thwarted by the process of getting a license plate in a timely manner. Getting insurance was no problem. All I needed was a VIN for that, but the Wisconsin Department of Transportation wanted fully completed importation papers, the duty paid. In other words, the car had to be actually here and through customs before they would issue a title. I thought that I could get this done at a licensing bureau, but when I arrived, I was told that this could not be done onsite. All the paperwork had to be submitted to a reviewer in Milwaukee and the process would take upwards of 2 weeks. I had already booked a flight for the next morning! Leaving the car on the dock for another 2 weeks was unthinkable. For one thing, I had already wasted one plane ticket due to customs delays, storages fees would have begin to accumulate and I was going to start a new job the following week. I was between a rock and a hard place.

When I went to the registration station to get my plates, I got a huge shock. I had assumed that I did not have to pay any sales tax. Not so. I was told that the car was purchased intended for use within the state and therefore it was subject to tax. The law says, "sales AND use", not just sales! That meant I had to fork over 5.5% of the value of the car. I nearly fell to the floor. But I must have had a Guardian Angel with me the day. The people there were extremely accommodating and went at least an extra mile for me, calling in to the office in Milwaukee that handles imports. They put me on a phone to a gentleman there who heard my plight and sent back an approval over the phone. This was highly irregular and none of the registration people had ever heard of it happening before. But Milwaukee got a huge fax and I walked out with license in hand. Much poorer, but I was finally ready!

The flight to Baltimore was uneventful. I took a cab from the airport to E.H. Harms office, where I paid the fees and was given the paperwork to release the car. The next step was to make the connection with the escort service which was to take me through dock security. This is a relatively new process, a result of 9-11 and heightened security on the docks. I was to meet the escort at a motel on the other side of a bay, actually across the bay on which Fort McHenry lies, barely 2 blocks away from Harm's office. People familiar with American history will know that McHenry was site of the battle about which Francis Scott Key wrote the Star Spangled Banner in 1814. But of course, I could not concern myself with such trivia: I had a date with a Citroen!

Because I had some time to kill and because I had spent every dollar I had to get this far, I thought I could save myself some money and hike around the bay to the motel. Unfortunately was was given the wrong directions by two people, one of them in the Harms office. I quickly found myself totally lost. Again, my Guardian Angel was there. One of the people in the Harms office had just left the office and saw me wandering down the road and gave me a lift to the motel. I arrived with time to spare, and was even able to find a place to get lunch.

A beat up old Dodge van pulled up and that was my escort service. I began to wonder just where this mandatory $75 escort fee was a good investment, but I soon found out how it should have been twice the amount. Getting through the security was an unbelievably complicated and difficult task. Before we even saw another human, we had to go though one phone check point with an electric gate. That took 5 minutes of shouting over the crude phone system. I hear my name spelled 5 different ways before everyone was satisfied that we were who we claimed to be. 3 more check points with ever more careful screening, and I was finally allowed onto the dock, where our van was escorted by a security officer, in whose truck I had to ride. I was allowed to make a quick inspection of the car, put the plates on then drive the car in convoy up to the final release gate, where the paperwork was checked for the last time.

Suddenly I was out onto unfamiliar streets with a totally unfamiliar car. I headed straight for the city limits. Every stop was announced by a howl from the rear pads, which hadn't seen regular operation in years. It took me several miles to figure out even a few controls. For those who do not know, the controls of a GSA are concentrated onto 2 pods, one at each hand as they hood the steering wheel. Any operation can be performed without letting go of the wheel. It took me several hundred miles before I could relax enough to realize that this car was running better with every hill and that it was not going to die. Where were the turn signals? I found that in 50 miles. Where was the dimmer switch? I didn't find that until the next day.
GSA in my driveway
My GSA, safely home after over 800 miles of flawless driving. The 5 speed transmission  gave the car a perfect blend of speed and power, with minimal revving of the windy 4 cylinder. Handling was precise and confident with the ride of a much larger car.
My original plans were to go to Mechanicsburg and visit Brad Nauss, but he was out of town. Instead, I headed straight towards Clarion, Pennsylvania to overnight at Andrew Harvey's place. I had met Andrew at Botham in August 2009. He was the only easterner to make the trip to my Fall Meet in Botham, where he was only the second Citroenist to earn a prize, his for coming from the farthest distance. The car was running merrily and I was gaining confidence in it. Getting it to Brad's would have been reassuring, but now I was sure Andre had done a good job prepping the car for the trip. The brake noise was not going away, but I knew it would be a routine fix and one of my first projects.

Andrew was the perfect host. He had gone out for fish fry and had a takeout waiting for me when I drove up. Being from Wisconsin, we think we know all about fish fries, but I can guarantee you that I have never seen  piece of fish like they served in Pennsylvania. It hardly fit in the box! I was so exhausted from my journey so far, After attacking that fish it was all I could do to find a pillow to flop my head on.

The next day he showed me his haunts. There is little Andrew doesn't know about older American cars. His collection spans 4 decades, from the rare, a Canadian spec Lincoln Zephyr to the mundane, a Dodge K car wagon fake woodie, to a Jeep fire truck and several other big American cars which I was able to see peering out from under their covers. His basement is chock full of old automobilia and equipment, such as a distributor tester that predates me. After a nice breakfast and helping me clear up a few issues, such as how to operate my headlight dimmers, I was again on the road. I drove up to my house late that night, having only stopped 3 times for gas and having only used 50 gallons of fuel to drive one third of the way across the continent.

Andrew Harvey, Hilliard Goldman and Marianne
Drivers' side interior of GSA
From left, Hilliard Goldman of St. Louis, Andrew Harvey and my wife, Marianne with Andy's neat '87 CXA at the Botham Meet, Barneveldt, Wisconsin in August, 2009. CXA's were prepared by Andre for export.
The pods on either side of the steering wheel place nearly every control at my fingertips. The dash looks like it was taken from a spaceship. The radio is in the center console.

Having completed the import process, possibly in record time, I have a few comments that should prove useful. First, make sure you  have plenty of reserve money. For every motion, there is an equal and more expensive counter motion: reaching for your wallet. Do not be dismayed by growing expenses, but be aware that the final cost will most likely far exceed your initial estimates unless you plan more carefully that I did. Even so, you can't figure in everything. Don't forget sales tax. And the face value of your car should be approximately equal to your expenses unless you are doing it straight from the heart.

Make sure you know the car before you buy it. Do not buy based upon emotion and do not buy under duress. Do not buy unless you can see and touch the car yourself or you have a trusted agent. The markup cost of a good buyer is easily worth it when you realize it's a hedge against a bad situation. Prepare the car thoroughly before shipping if you plan to drive the car right away. It will save you a lot of grief and you won't have to pay for shipping of parts later.

Use import brokers. They know the pitfalls of getting cars through customs. Even if you have lots of time and money, they can save you a lot of grief. There are also title and registration processing services, which can be found online, should you not wish to deal with that process.

Since completing my import, a recently passed law has added another step to the import process. A new document must now be generated and submitted to Customs called an "Import Security Filing." This form must be submitted not less than 24 hours BEFORE the import item is boarded onto the vessel for transport to our shores. The purpose of the form is to provide advance information to Customs as to what type of goods are coming in and from where, and where they are intended to wind up, whether they be intended for our consumption or for re-export. This rule was enacted on January 26, 2009, but Customs allowed a grace period of one year for importers to come into compliance, and has added an additional extension for some. Non-complying goods would be impounded and hefty fines would be assessed. For more information go to and The most likely reason I did not know about it was because I was within the grace period, but from now on, importers should be aware that a broker must be selected and contacted well before their intended shipping date.

Importing a car is the ultimate experience for the foreign car buff if you are patient. Do everything in prescribed order, and give yourself enough time for all of the processes to take place. If you have any questions, consult people who have done it before. Most of us are glad to help.

Copyright 2013 Mark L. Bardenwerper, Sr.
Updated 6/29/2013