The Big Idea
When one’s employer tells you that you are required to go to San Diego, California for a company event I guess most people’s reaction would be “hey, I hear they have a great zoo there”.
I suspect I am slightly an outlier in that my first thought was “I should buy an old car and drive up the Pacific Coast Highway and consign the car with a shipping agent to transport it home”.
It seemed logical. Well, it seemed a lot more rational than my actual first thought which was to drive to New Jersey and embark it there. That’s a jolly long way. I will absolutely do that another time, though.
A lot of people think about this sort of thing, and a lot of people never do it. Mostly because people like me point out that there is a whole load of really significant barriers to this and many a potential pitfall. But then, when it’s me, well, those kinds of barriers do not apply, and those kinds of risks are just not going to become issues. I am invincible. I live in a protective bubble of my own enthusiastic denial and ignorance. Amazingly, it works a whole lot of the time. I was convinced that this was one of those times.
There are a number of issues that the potential fly-buy-drive tourist must face.
Firstly, contrary to public conception, the streets around LAX (or even the other California airports) are not lined up with cool old cars which can be easily bought for nice and cheap and driven away right there and then. If you just want “some old car” you will probably find things easier, but if you have a specific type or even make and model in mind you may end up searching far and wide for it.
Some Americans are time-wasters, too. Try chasing up cars listed for sale on Craigslist or Facebook Marketplace. You will quickly discover wackos, ghosts, and grifters make up a depressing proportion of advertisers. It’s no better than buying a car back home.
Add to this the coverage of high-profile auctions, the number of TV shows and YouTube personalities who have convinced the general public that any old car can be restored in a weekend and flipped for a huge profit, and all this means that so many sellers “know what they got” and over-price it accordingly. Genuinely, there has been a shortage of drivable used cars in the U.S., no idea why, apparently to do with the Covid supply chain issues, which have also had an inflationary effect on used-car prices and (at the time of this writing) consensus seems to be any old POS is worth upwards of 2 grand if it is drivable.
Remember this also: Other British, German, Polish, Swedish, etc, buyers are also prospecting California for nice exportable cars. The demand is higher there than elsewhere, and many sellers, especially car dealers know this well. Your English accent could put an “export premium” on the price … California also has a higher cost of living than many states. Blue plate bargains are harder to find now.
So even once you have found yourself a car you have some hurdles to consider carefully before jumping. How do you plan to drive your car on the road trip? You have two choices: Illegally or fairly legally. I do know people who advocate the former on the grounds that if you are literally driving a couple of hundred miles tops, over a couple of days, what’s the chances of getting caught or having an accident?
I do not advocate this approach, but I will observe that California is rich with undocumented folks driving unregistered, uninsured cars. You would not be alone. But if you go get caught you will be so screwed. The State of California may impound and confiscate your car. In an accident, you could be liable for hundreds of thousands, even millions, of dollars in damages. This author has found standards of driving in California to be pretty poor, especially near or in the major metropolises. Your call.
Driving sort-of-legally in the US is my preferred option. To do this you will need to achieve a few things, all of which will make dealing with the DVLA (Ed. note – this author is British, and this idiom/regionalism has slid past my limited knowledge of British English) back home seem like the simplest, most efficient, transparent, and customer-focused thing you ever did.
The first thing to note is that every single U.S. state has its own DMV or DOT. They don’t even call it the same thing. Each state has its own rules, and costs and lead times vary by state. Some states will do the transfer of title online for in-state purchases. Some will require a notarized transfer of title. This means you have to be present, in person, with an ID that the notary public considers fulfills the legal requirements of that state. Many titling processes require you to have a U.S. Social Security number. Some will accept a Canadian one. Absolutely none of them accept a British National Insurance number. Although at least one state does not validate Social Security numbers. Beware of cars in California with expired tags as you could find yourself liable for a significant amount in “back fees” when you come to register it.
Now, technically, you could simply take an “open title” on a car you buy, this is like when you have the green slip on the V5C (Brits, am I right? – Ed.) back home. You are only going to be in the U.S. for a short while, you can use this open title in the seller’s name to consign your car for shipping. Or you could always check with your shipping agent before you decide on any course of action as rules change frequently and without much publicity. Your insurance company may require your car to be titled in your name for cover purposes, check if unsure. Some people have successfully titled a car to themselves at their hotel address, but I would not bank on this, because titling can take weeks.
Not all U.S. states require insurance but it’s really not a good idea to drive without any, even if it is legal. It is not legal in California and that’s where I was road-tripping and that’s where most people want to go. So, you will need to find an insurance company that will cover you and your car.
Problem one: Most U.S. insurance companies require you to have a U.S. driver’s license and a U.S. Social Security number. Those who insure “foreign drivers” only insure modern cars. So a foreign driver with a classic car will have their work cut out and will need to make a few phone calls.
Skype is your friend. For £2.40 a month (at the time of writing) you can get unlimited free calls in the U.S. / to the U.S. through Skype. You will also find that phoning people selling cars is 1,000x easier than emailing or messaging via an app. If you need to speak to the DMV / DOT again, you should phone.
If all of this is making you think “this is going to take some planning” then you would be absolutely correct. And planning is what I started doing. This is the point where life becomes 1,000x easier if you have friends or family in the U.S.
The Search, The Team
As you see from the preceding paragraphs, if you are going to plan this stuff, you need time to plan and time to react. As you will see in the following paragraphs, more time and reaction than anticipated were going to be required.
My original timescale called for me to be in San Diego in late February of 2022 and knowing that sorting out “the technicalities” was going to take me a little while I started looking for a suitable car fairly early on, probably from the latter part of summer 2021. I had lined up my Stateside support team in advance and all was looking cool.
Team member 1: I have a chum by the name of Chuck who was a kingpin in this whole plan for two key reasons. Reason the first: Chuck lives in Palm Springs, which is not a million miles from San Diego. Thus my car could reside with Chuck prior to my arrival and I could “easily” pick it up from him there. Reason the second: Chuck is not just a proper cool car guy, he runs a business restoring, maintaining, and generally working on old cars.
Team member 2: My chum Craig who lives up near San Francisco. My original plan saw me fly out of the San Francisco airport on a Sunday evening, so Craig had agreed I could leave the car at his house Sunday through Monday / Tuesday so that the shipping company could collect it.
Having these two guys on hand meant I was not tied to a tight timetable of buying a car just prior to traveling and having to negotiate storage with the seller until I could pick it up. See, I’m not as dumb as I look. Or so I thought.
I spent an awful lot of time looking at adverts on eBay, Craigslist, and Facebook. These are the most accessible places for you to look at U.S. cars for sale when you are in the U.K. There are other listings like OfferUp and so on, but they block U.K. IP addresses. You can use something like Tunnel Bear to get around this, though. Looking at cars for sale is fun, except when you actually need to buy one. See notes above about flaky sellers.
Another point of failure is that so many sellers just say “best you just come and have a look” when asking for more details about the car for sale. “I am in the U.K.” replies tend to cause them to ghost.
Eventually, in December 2021, I was browsing through a Ford LTD group on Facebook and I spotted an advert that caught my attention. There was a fella in Arizona selling a 1975 Ford LTD sedan in a curious shade of yellow, which turned out to be green. Reading the advert, it transpired the car was a fairly low-option model (crank windows, fixed steering column, manually adjusted seats. Etc.) which is very much what I like in an old car since I find Murphy’s Law very much in evidence with elderly-car electrics (and much as the Americans malign Lucas, I have to say some of the worst electrical nightmares I’ve had have been with old American Fords).
The ad got better and better from there. The car came factory fitted with a 460 4-barrel big-block V8, dual exhausts, the heavy-duty C6 transmission, and the 9” rear axle with the Traction-Loc limited-slip diff. So, she’s a base-spec car with the biggest, most powerful engine option. I’m listening. The seller also had some paperwork that stated the car’s first owner was The Ford Motor Company, Engineering Department. Sign me up!
The price was heavier than I was expecting to pay for a mid-1970s, full-size, four-door sedan; regardless of it being of interesting provenance and hot-rod spec. Comments on the advert were in the same vein. Nevertheless, I contacted the seller, a chap called Scott in Phoenix, and asked for some photos of the roof, since it looked like a vinyl top had been removed.
The photos actually came! Yes, the car had been factory fitted with a vinyl top, but it had been removed and there were no rust horrors. Nice. I started to hint I was interested in the car but interested in paying a fair chunk less for it than he was asking. Conversation continued. “Yeah, best just come look and shoot me an offer”.
This is the point in mid-December 2021 when Chuck introduced me to Toby. Toby probably would have run for the hills if he knew what was coming next, but Toby is a great guy and a car guy and quickly became MVP on Team Dumb-Road-Trip. Toby went to see the car on Christmas Eve, and Toby did a little negotiation with Scott. Toby agreed to handle the paperwork I’d need to get done in order to title the car.
Toby sent videos of the car. Toby haggled with Scott. I haggled with Scott and in the end, I got a price out of Scott that I was happy with and then just PayPal’d some random guy off Facebook something north of $3,000. What could possibly go wrong? Scott seemed OK and some other guy I never met but spoke to on Facebook vouched for the fact the car exists and everything so…
This bit was simple. Scott took PayPal, I sent the money, Scott went over and picked up the title and a bill of sale in case one was needed for the titling, and all seemed to go OK so far. Oh, such naivety all around…
You need friends. Chuck recommended a transport guy. The transport guy was cool and said $650 would be enough to haul the car from Phoenix to Palm Springs. Cash. So I ended up PayPaling Chuck $650 so he could get that amount in cash to pay the transport guy on his arrival. This was New Year’s Eve. I was sat in my favored watering hole, The King Billy, with a pint or two as this was all unfolding. The car arrived safely with Chuck. So far, so smooth…
Titling a car, at least in the state of Arizona, is a task that makes getting a V5C out of the DVLA seem like an informal process (More British – yeah, I know, I know). In order to transfer the title from one person to another, you need to notarize the forms from the Arizona DOT and that requires a Notary Public, who will require you to be there in person. Tricky when you are in a whole other country.
The next hiccup was with the title. It has already been stated that the car came with a title, but it was a title from the state of Washington. And it was not in Scott’s name. And the registration was expired. And the car had no license plates. Did I mention the title was signed in the wrong place? This was about the time that Toby’s “title guy” took sick and ended up in the hospital.
This is the point when Toby proved himself to be an absolute saint.
Toby found another title specialist to advise us, and she told us that the mis-signed title wasn’t actually an issue, the Arizona DOT won’t care about that. All we needed to get the Arizona DOT to issue me a title was to get Toby Power of Attorney to act on my behalf in respect of the registration of the car and I can get the whole thing done by proxy.
Arizona’s DOT helpfully provides the Power of Attorney form online to download. So, download it I did. That was the super easy part. The next part is tricky. The state of Arizona requires a POA form to be notarized. Who can notarize a Power of Attorney for the State of Arizona in the U.K.?
The first thing I tried was exploring “online notarization”, which is a thing in the US. Basically, you sign over a Zoom meeting with the Notary Public and they check your ID and do all that, and then provide you with the notarised copy by post. The main problem is that none of them would do a notarization for someone without a U.S . Social Security number because that’s the only way they seem to be able to check ID.
So the next plan was to find a U.K. solicitor and get them to notarize for me. Several I called were happy to notarize a document for me until they got their eyes on it and then started giving me lines about how they needed to rewrite the document into a form compliant with English law. Which they could do for £140 per hour. Of course, this would be utterly pointless anyway as the resulting document would not be accepted by the Arizona DOT.
I considered a selection of “creative” solutions to this problem but then I discovered there’s a Polish guy here who is a U.S. Spec Notary Public and runs a small business notarizing U.S. documents for folks in the U.K.
Finally, I had the notarized Power of Attorney which I could then post over to Toby! There was a reason for a hold up in this, even though it was sent by some “priority document” service, but the details of every twist and turn of this are becoming legion and I don’t recall each individual nuance!
Toby went to the DOT as my appointed attorney. All went sweetly until the DOT decided they wanted to “smog” the car. You will remember that I had already sent the car to Chuck’s so there was no way to get the car inspected. Toby managed to find some kind of loophole that got the car titled without a smog inspection. I told you, not just a saint: A guardian angel and a wizard of titling.
Lost in the mail
Arizona DOT was happy to issue the title! It sent the title out to my attorney’s address. But then the U.S. Postal Service got in on the game. It decided that since this was an official document, it should only be delivered to an address where my name was on the mailbox. Seriously. The “Land of the Free” seems to be burdened with more red tape than anywhere else!
Toby approached the Post Office, which said the documents were returned to the DOT. Toby went to the central DOT office where he was told that it would have been sent back the local DOT office. So Toby went there, where he was told it was returned to the central office. So he called the helpline where they then told him that all returned titles were destroyed.
In an attempt to save Toby’s nerves any further damage, I decided to try make an online application for a replacement title (a thunderous $4 is charged for this service!) but although I was able to set up an online account and find my records (I find it kinda weird that I’m in a government database in the USA) I was unable to get through to the document request. Yeah, you guessed it, Toby made another trip to the DOT and got the title replaced. Title, licence plates and a registration document were all provided!
I thought insurance was going to be a tremendous pain in the backside to resolve. It was astonishingly simple once I quit trying to be all Millennial about doing it online. And also it was delightfully “American”.
The first problem you have is when trying to Google for car insurance in the U.S., or collectors-car insurance (they call it that rather than “classic” insurance), good old Google decides it knows best and gives you all the insurance companies in the U.K. (who won’t cover you for a road trip in the U.S., I asked) and a whole load of other stuff. It also gives you loads of information on how an American can insure their car in the U.K. Quite literally the reverse of what I needed.
It struck me that Hagerty is the biggest collector-car insurance company in the U.S., and that it’s busy establishing itself in the U.K. So, obviously folks there would be able to help. There’s even an “International Department” listed. So I called Hagerty in the U.S. Nope. I called it in the U.K. Nope. I called the International Department and the fella I spoke to said that he couldn’t help me but that he so wished he could because he was really interested in seeing how this all works out.
What you need is a Chuck who can Google for you in the U.S. Or use something like Tunnel Bear to flummox Google into thinking you are in the U.S. Whatever. Next, you should give up on thinking you can do this online. A couple of insurance companies would insure me, but only on a modern car. So, in the end I got my Skype call-U.S. subscription and I phoned the insurance company I liked the looks of the best and put on my best telephone smart voice.
“I am a British citizen domiciled in the United Kingdom but visiting the USA, and with an address in the USA, and with a U.S. registered car titled in my name at that address. I hold a U.K. driving licence and an International Driver’s Permit type 1949. The car is older than I can enter into the online form, it’s a 1975 Ford sedan.”
I’ve said this a few times — by this point I speak to someone called Cindy or Candy who is in the Arizona office. Cindy suggested Hagerty as I was insuring a collectors car and I explained that Hagerty would not offer me cover as I didn’t have a U.S. licence. Either Sindy was reprising her Academy-Award nominated role of “Horrified Insurance Agent Clerk” or she was genuinely mortified by this eventuality.
“That just isn’t fair now” she said, “We will sort this right out for you now” and by golly it seemed like I was in the hands of a woman on a mission.
Well, she described what happened next as “creativity”
Within a few minutes (and but one call to higher authority) and she was able to offer me coverage. She recommended I stick with “liability only” which is like the U.S. version of “Third Party” and I thought we were done. Oh, but no! American insurance is weird (if you’re British) because there is no NHS over there, all injury and so on has to be covered by insurance. So I had to pick how much liability I wanted to cover for injury to myself, to anyone I hit, to any passengers … Also curious was the option of “motor vehicle death burial cost cover” – Jeebus, way to take the buzz out of things.
Within minutes I was paid up ($360 for 6 months coverage) and downloading my policy documents and “insurance cards” which must be kept in the vehicle.
Failure to Proceed Contingency
The last thing I decided to do was join the AAA, which is similar to AA Relay without the preliminary bit where they have a crack at fixing your car for you. Towing can also be insanely expensive in the U.S. and there are some fairly insane long distances to go. If you go do this, then check the options, as there are a few, but AAA seemed like the best deal to me at the time. $119 for 12 months coverage. Towing otherwise starts at $5 per mile in an emergency.
More to come…
[Images by the author]
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