VW Had US Customs Seize and Destroy a Cute JDM Van for Looking Like the Classic Bus

An attempt to import a VW-styled kei van from Japan ended in disaster when the automaker had it seized and destroyed.

byJames Gilboy|
Volkswagen News photo


Retro body conversions for Japan's ultra-compact kei cars turn the nation's tiny runabouts into everything from classic Chevy trucks to old Ford panel vans. The vehicles are tastefully done and many Americans are interested in importing a pint-sized lookalike. But be warned: Buying a tribute car that looks too much like its muse could get it intercepted and destroyed by U.S. Customs.

Such was the sad fate recently met by a 1996 Subaru Sambar van styled to look like a classic Type 1 VW bus, as relayed to The Drive by U.S.-based importer Tyler Barg. He laid out in detail how his attempt to import the little Subie ended in complete disaster despite his best efforts to save the van, and it’s the definition of a cautionary tale for others. We also reached out to VW for comment and haven't heard back.

Barg operates a company called Tiki Bunny Imports which helps people ship the kei car of their dreams stateside, and the Subaru saga began in early 2021 when a friend reached out for help in locating a VW bus lookalike. After a bit of searching, he found the perfect van; a ‘96 Sambar with just 53,000 miles, a rare multi-panel sunroof, and the aforementioned VW Type 1 body conversion–complete with a big VW badge. It was even in the client’s favorite color. 

Barg put the money together with his wife to buy it. He knew it was risky to front the cash himself, but he had no trouble exporting it from Japan and it reached the Port of Baltimore in a jiffy. It all seemed to be going great, but as it turns out, Maryland was where the trouble started.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection screens every car imported to the United States. One of its jobs is to verify the legality of inbound goods, including whether they abide by copyright law. Because Barg's retro-bodied Subaru had that big VW badge on the front, CBP contacted Volkswagen of America and asked whether the van was authorized to wear the branding, as is procedure. VW said it wasn't and that the company considered it a fake version of one of its products. 

CBP subsequently seized the Subaru on November 1, 2021 on the suspicion that the van was “counterfeit.” Barg, however, didn’t learn of the seizure for more than a month. As it turns out, a typo in his email address meant he wasn’t notified and remained completely in the dark until customs sent an official letter in late December. He had no idea the vehicle was taken; this delay ultimately sealed its fate. 

"I didn't know it at the time, but that typo had cost me the ability to send the van back to Tokyo and save it," Barg told The Drive. If he knew it was seized when it was, the situation may have been very different.

After months of emails, another letter from a law firm representing VW arrived in March 2022 and laid out the automaker’s copyright complaint in detail. The document accused him of importing a “knockoff Volkswagen Microbus,” claiming that “the public will be confused if [it] sees these vehicles driving down the road or sees them otherwise, and will erroneously believe that VW has created this vehicle." The letter offered Barg various resolutions, from abandoning the van to taking the issue to court. Barg chose a middle ground and petitioned VW and customs for a compromise. He asked to be given access to the van to remove the VW badge, alter its paint, restore its Subaru branding, and sign a nondisclosure agreement.

VW didn’t budge.

Barg then tracked down a more helpful contact from the automaker. They suggested he enter a bond offer with criminal penalties. The bond offer proposed Barg would destroy the VW badge, provide proof he did so, and then refit the Subaru with its stock bodywork while still on the customs lot. 

"I'd understood from the get-go this was going to be an uphill battle,” Barg told us. But he thought this common sense approach might prevail. As he points out, "The only actual change to the van is the single front panel. The rest is repainted and reupholstered, sure, but none of it has any bearing on VW's trademark." If he reversed the overt branding, he felt he would be addressing the automakers concerns. This turned out not to be the case. He didn't even get a response from VW’s legal team, while U.S. Customs ultimately denied his petition in July 2022, stating that short of a costly court battle, the van will be “disposed of in accordance with governing guidelines.”

Soon after the communications went dark, Barg’s hope faded. The Subaru was never given back to him. As far he’s aware, it’s joined the seven stars in the sky. He doesn’t know if it was crushed outright or rendered inoperable and parted out, but either way it’s gone. He and his wife are now out nearly $9,500 and he isn’t going to waste more time or money worrying about it. 

Berg said he feels rotten for letting down the friend he’d sourced the van for, though he has successfully imported a similarly retro Nissan Pao as a replacement. "Of course, my poor friend this van was destined for was patiently waiting, hoping for her chance to have something cute, quirky and amazing, as it fits her to a T,” he continued. “I feel awful, even now, that it didn't work out and we ended up abandoning the kei van route."

The replacement Nissan Pao, which arrived without a hitch.

Having spoken to others in the import industry, Barg said he’s heard several instances of “tribute kit” seizures like this. Apparently, the best way to avoid interception at customs or more serious legal troubles is to have body conversions de-badged before shipping. Though VW argued that the van’s design infringed on their trademark, it’s possible customs wouldn’t have flagged it without the big, recognizable badge. That's far from a guarantee, however, and Barg has heard from at least one other importer who had a de-badged vehicle seized. He later learned that VW also could’ve sought damages for up to half the van’s value; almost $5,000 in his case. 

Despite all of the trouble, though, Barg is just relieved it's all over. He lost his money and didn’t get the van, but things could’ve been worse. “I'm at peace with it,” he said. “The sacrifice will hopefully save others from the same fate. If it helps even one person? Worth it.”

Got a tip or question for the author? You can reach them here: james@thedrive.com

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