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Japan’s miniature “kei” vehicles are having their moment in the U.S. importing spotlight. But beware – peril awaits for those planning to import Japanese kei cars converted to VW Bus knockoffs. As one such importer learned, Volkswagen doesn’t take kindly to such tribute vehicles. U.S. Customs and Border Protection seized a converted kei van Volkswagen Bus tribute at the manufacturer’s bidding. 

Why did U.S. Customs destroy an imported Japanese kei van?

A vintage VW Bus on display at an event.
Vintage Volkswagen Bus | Erik Voake / Stringer, via Getty Images

U.S. Customs seized and destroyed an imported Japanese kei van on copyright claims from Volkswagen that the vehicle emulated the appearance of the Volkswagen Bus and used the brand’s logo. 

According to a report from The Drive, the kei van in question was a 1996 Subaru Sambar. The Sambar had been modified with paint and badging to emulate the look of Volkswagen’s classic 60s and 70s vans. Tribute builds on kei van platforms have become popular since such pocket-sized vehicles are typically affordable to purchase and modify. 

Unfortunately, not everyone views a friendly tribute project as a good thing

Per the Drive, an American shopper decided to get the VW-badged Subaru Sambar at auction and have it imported to the United States. But once the van arrived for its customs inspection, officials withheld it and contacted Volkswagen of America. 

Volkswagen didn’t take kindly to the news of an imported Japanese micro-van bearing its crest and quickly deemed it a counterfeit. The Drive reports that despite efforts on the owner’s part to save the van, Volkswagen refused negotiations. The up-badged kei van’s fate is unknown according to the story. It’s likely that U.S. Customs either crushed the vehicle or disassembled it for parts. 

What is a Japanese kei car/van?

MotorTrend calls kei cars the “smallest street-legal passenger cars, vans, and trucks that you can buy in Japan.”

Kei cars serve as tiny, city-friendly vehicles in the Japanese market. According to MotorTrend, they grew popular out of the post-war economy. They happened to fit the country’s dense urban settings perfectly. 

Many kei car models have recently passed the 25-year rule for importing foreign vehicles into the United States. As relatively cheap, easy-to-drive vehicles, kei cars quickly gained popularity with auto enthusiasts on budgets. Add a healthy dose of kei car memes on social media, and the Japanese micro-cars have developed a loyal fan base. 

There are some hurdles to clear before getting a kei car, though. Typically, purchases are sight unseen from online auctions. There are also plenty of fees and logistics to sort through to import your kei car from Japan to the U.S. 

And, of course, your kei car has to get through customs successfully – a task apparently fraught with peril for those importing rebadged kei cars. 


The Subaru Sambar Is a Small but Mighty Kei Van