“Have Racecar”

Last week I finally drove my Lotus in Belgium! Four months to the day since it was picked up by the shippers to be brought here. That process was certainly one of the most confusing, beureaucratic, stressful things I’ve ever done. Probably #2, right after completing a Master’s Thesis, and before actually taking up residence in Belgium. Having a car again has made life feel almost normal again, removed a lot of stress, and greatly opened up my travel opportunities.

The name of this blog is “Have Racecar, Will Travel,” but for the last four months, only half of that has been true. Up until now, I’ve only been doing the travelling bit, and then only so far as not having a car would allow me, which, to be honest, is not very much. If I wanted to get to Brussels, it took over an hour via trains. If I wanted to get somewhere without easy transit access, I had to fork over a hundred bucks for a weekend rental car, or try to convince someone to take me in their car. I had to walk to and from stores, which severely limited where I could go and how much I could buy.

Basically, a lot of things were very difficult, expensive, or impossible to do, and the other things took three times as long as they should have. It was driving me a bit mad. What made me particularly annoyed is that my car (which is named Elena) was supposed to have been here by April, so it was an unexpected situation and threw off a lot of plans I had made. It had been so long, with so many delays, I thought maybe the people I’d told about it might be thinking of it like a high-school junior’s “canadian girlfriend.” If I had known it would be June before I drove it again, I could have made other arrangements, or at least mentally prepared myself.

The main reason for the extra delay was US customs not accepting my paperwork. My research had shown that I needed the original title, a notarized copy of the original title, or an “original copy” of the title to get through customs. After musing about what it means to have an “original copy” of something, I called the bank and asked for one. What they gave me was a notarized copy of the printout of the electronic title that was on file, because it’s the 21st century. After freaking out a little, not sure if it would be ok, I made some calls and sent some e-mails, and the bank and shipping company told me this would be ok.

But this was not ok, because, as we all know, the United States government does not believe in the 21st century. So I go notified, after my car was already in the container, nearly ready to go, that US customs had looked at my electronic title printout and basically said, “what the heck is this?”

Of course it is fruitless to try to talk logic and sense to government officials, so I had to go find a proper paper copy of the title. The bank had previously said it would take over 6 weeks to procure this, which is understandable because it involves complicated things like “printing a two-sided document.” But after a conference call between myself, the bank, and my agent at the shipping company who knows how these things are supposed to work, an extant title was located, notarized, and mailed to my US address (care of my parents) in just two weeks.

From there, we got the title to customs (or at least some guy named Vlad) in New Jersey, and Elena was cleared to leave on the next boat in mid-April. Finally she was on the way! I just needed to get some driving insurance and submit some papers to European customs, and I’d be driving again by mid- or late-May!

Except no. As I tried to get insurance quotes, I couldn’t find any company that would insure my car on foreign plates. Not from Europe or America. As I made more calls, to various insurance, shipping, and importation companies, I learned that to get insurance, I’d need local plates, and to get local plates, I would need to register my car, and to register my car, I would need to make the requisite EU modifications and apply for registration. This ran contrary to what I had been told before by the shipping company that it would be possible to get a kind of “temporary import” or otherwise get insurance help from the import agent to drive the car as soon as possible.

Well, not to worry too much, I could just get the modifications done sooner than I planned and get a local registration. Except, as I further learned, it would take between three to five months to complete this process.

At this news I was understandably distraught. I was dazed. I had known I would have to eventually do some small modifications to localize the car and get it registered, but somehow none of my prior research had mentioned this timetable! In my mind it would be a day in the shop to get modified, another day at the DMV or wherever to get inspected, and then I’d be on the road. But five months?! I could miss the entire Lotus driving season for the year! Not to mention having to quickly find alternate ways to get to LeMans, Spa, and Zolder for races I wanted to see. I could barely think, I was in such shock.

As near as I can tell, the multi-month process consists of a day of the car in the shop getting modified, then three to five months of the Belgian DMV staring at a at my car (which is nearly exactly the same as the Elise 111R that they sell here in Belgium) saying, “We’re just not sure if this is really a car. We need to think about it some more.”

It makes me wonder how anyone can buy a car at all in Belgium if it takes over three months to register an in-spec Lotus.

The other thing that was freaking me out is that the insurance companies kept implying I’d have to pay import duties and taxes before getting registered. I had done what research I could about this as well, and was pretty sure I wouldn’t owe taxes, and was further pretty sure I had the correct documents for this. But I thought I’d had the good documents for US customs as well. And I thought I’d be able to drive away from the port fairly easily. And the insurance people kept mentioning it. What if I didn’t have the right papers?! What if my research was wrong again!? I could owe ten thousand Euros in taxes just to drive my own car again!

So between the potential five month delay, and fear of a huge tax bill, I was struggling to keep my head and not freak out. But I was losing appreciable sleep over it. I started to wonder if the decision I made to ship my car, which was as well-informed and carefully calculated as it could have been, might have been the wholly incorrect thing to do. I had wanted to ship despite the expense and complication because I thought it would be the quickest way to have a Lotus in Europe, given that I couldn’t very well get a car loan as a foreigner. Maybe even less complicated depending on how you feel about selling and buying cars (I hate it). It might even have been cheaper, depending on the markets for American Lotuses in wintertime and European Lotuses in the Summer.

But after some e-mail confirmations and a half-dozen frantic, panicked phone calls, I learned that my import tax would be exempted as I thought, and there would, in fact, be a solution to the insurance problem.

What I found for insurance was exactly one company that would provide comprehensive collision insurance while driving an American car in Europe, but not liability, and exactly one company that could provide liability, but not comprehensive collision. (Clements and Alessie respectively, if you were wondering.) I couldn’t ask for a more perfectly imperfect solution! It wasn’t as cheap as local insurance, but not a complete rip-off either. I could deal with it. So I was now ready to pick up Elena from the port.

But to do that I had to get to Roosendaal in The Netherlands. And of course the Belgian train workers had picked that week to go on strike (only reinforcing my desire to have a car). So waking up that morning, I wasn’t actually sure if and when the trains I needed would show up. So I just kept taking the next train to the next major station, not knowing if I’d have to take a bus or taxi the rest of the way. I had to change trains three times, and at each stop I’d stand around for 20 minutes staring at the departures board to see when the next confirmed train was going to roll out. It took an hour and a half longer than it should have, but I finally made it to Roosendaal.

Oh, and I was also feeling a bit sick that day. For the third time since my arrival. Which kind of muted the emotional experience of seeing Elena again after four months. It was more just a sense of relief than a real catharsis. But anyway.

At Roosendaal, I just had to sign a couple papers, give some people some money, make sure my insurance was in order, get a jump-start, and I could finally drive my car. She was unceremoniously dragged out by a forklift, and looked like she had been through hell and back, having somehow gotten covered in dirt and oil. At least the odometer showed the correct number. Anyway. There was some slight delay when I tried to mount my front plate…I’d had the foresight to get a front plate holder, but it turned out some of the holes were too small for the supplied screws, so I had to run around asking people for a drill…But I could finally, finally take Elena back home.

After so long driving other cars in the meantime, everything felt a bit off at first, and I stalled the first time I tried to set off. And the battery wasn’t ready at that point, so I had to get another jump. But I got used to it all again quickly, and I felt at home. And when I finally got back to my garage that I had worked so hard to get while househunting, everything felt like it was coming together. I could get to church in 20 minutes instead of two hours, I could do the big shopping trips I needed to do, my commute would be five minutes instead of twenty-five. I finally had what really mattered to me for my life in Belgium.

To quickly review the process (for those that are trying to find out how to ship their own car):

  • You will need ALL the documents that prove you bought and owned and drove the car in the US for at least six months before import if you want to avoid import tax. The original bill of sale, notarized copy of the title, receipt of payment of VAT equivalent (bill of sale or title should suffice), proof of insurance six months prior to import, proof of residency in the US.
  • To be safe, the copy of the title should be the copy of a document that looks like a real paper title, or it could be rejected. If you fully own your car, this should be easy. If you still have a lien, it could be more complicated to get this, and also…
  • …You will need written, notarized permission from your bank or lien-holder granting permission to take the car out of the United States. This wasn’t a problem for me, but I don’t know if it might be for some financial institutions or lower credit levels, so call early to make sure you can get this.
  • If all the paperwork is in order the first time around, it could easily take up to two months to arrive at the destination port. Then two more weeks for import processing at the destination before you can pick it up. Don’t count on having your car back before three months.
  • To drive away from the port in a timely manner (i.e. without waiting another three months for local registration to process), you will need to get your US plates on both ends of your car, and insurance that will cover an American car in Europe (see alessie.com and clements.com)
  • The entire process should cost about $3000, not including costs of normal vehicle registration and insurance. Plus or minus a bit, depending on specific companies. About $1600 for the actual shipping (I used a container rather than RO-RO), $600 for the import agent, and $800 for the European Type modifications (for a Lotus, anyway). Much more than that, and you’re either getting ripped off somewhere, or your car is complicated to modify. (Get a second opinion if you can about the modifications. The shop at the port wanted $3000, the Lotus dealer wanted $800).
  • It was about $300 cheaper for me to ship to Rotterdam in the Netherlands than to Antwerp in Belgium, but doing this resulted in some extra legwork for me to get the “Application for Belgian Registration” form. So select your arrival port with caution.

In reality, the process is probably not as complicated as it felt. It felt really friggin complicated while I was trying to correct paperwork for US customs and figure out on the fly how to get insurance to avoid a five month delay. And I was warned a few times by my HR rep that it would be really complicated to ship my car. But written out as it is just above, it seems pretty simple. You just need to know the right papers to have, the right companies to call, do the right steps in the right order, and you’ll be on your way. I hope what I’ve just written can help the next person have an easier time about it, and have fewer surprises. (I can’t guarantee this is all 100% accurate, please try do your own independent research to confirm).

One thing that made this all so difficult for me is that nobody seemed to know the whole story. The shipping company knew how to get the car to Europe, but didn’t know exactly what US customs would demand, or exactly how to drive away from the port, or exactly how I would need to modify the car. They were helpful in finding information about insurance after things got hairy, but they didn’t give me a lot of information ahead of time. The import agent in the Netherlands could process the import for the EU, but couldn’t provide the specific documents for Belgian registration that I needed, nor could they tell me anything about insurance. The Import Auto shop could convert the car to EU specs at inflated expense and provide very short-term liability insurance, but couldn’t help me be on the road for the three to five months it takes to process the registration, or tell me how to get longer term insurance. The normal insurance companies couldn’t tell me how to get insurance before I had local plates, and couldn’t help with getting the plates. The most information I found online about importing to Belgium mentioned a need to modify the car, but not the months it would take to process the registration, or the difficulty in finding insurance. I found one page that said Belgium is one of the easier countries to import to, then someone at the shop in Roosendaal said Belgium is one of the hardest. Phoning ahead to Europe by a few months, if you can even figure out which companies to call, costs a lot of money and doesn’t make sense to do when you think you’ve got things figured out. The only concrete example I found of the process for bringing a Lotus Elise to the EU was going to Estonia, which is not precisely the same as Belgium.

In the end I’ve had to deal with seven different companies and five different governments and wait four months to change from driving my car in the US to driving it in Belgium. It seems ridiculous to me. Why does the government care so much about cars?! Why can’t it just be another personal good?? (That’s a different rant for a different time.) And it’s not even registered locally yet. It makes me understand why someone would want to marry their car to make the process easier. They’d never demand your wife be modified to European standards before enjoying her company! (Funnily enough my proof of liability insurance coverage is literally a green card.) Anyway. Next week I’m going to LeMans, and I’m happy I can drive my car instead of enduring another terrible rental car (the Citroen C1 I had was lamentable, to put it simply). Maybe one day soon I can even get out to one of my local race tracks (like the Nurburgring)!

So was it worth it? I would say yes. It wouldn’t have been if it had taken until October. It wouldn’t have been if I had owed the import tax. It might not have been if the shipping cost had been twice as much. I would say a Lotus Elsie is probably close to the lower limit of rarity and value to make shipping and import worthwhile. But it was a dream come true when I bought it, and I’m so happy I could bring it with me on my new adventure.

Author: haveracecarwilltravel

Moved from America to Belgium in early 2016 (mostly for the racetracks) and brought my Lotus along for the ride. Back in the US now (with the car), pursuing some photographic endeavors...

One thought on ““Have Racecar””

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