Kei trucks are a special designation of Japanese car that have very small
engines (660cc) and dimensions (~10m^3). Tell ’em,
Wikipedia. Whoever coined
the idea of “creative constraints” should take a gander at Kei trucks; there’s
definitely an upper bound:
Japan’s tax incentives have created a brisk export business for often lightly
used trucks. As a result, they’re available for purchase in the US.
I recently decided to do just that and had a heck of a time getting on the road.
This guide serves as a lamp in the dark, helping guide fellow fools to
Why did I want one? I’m glad you ask – Kei trucks:
- Have a 6ft bed
- Which can fold flat
- And carry ~1000lbs
- With 4WD (including a locking rear diff1 and axle)
- While getting 40 MPG
- For $X,000.0
- With very low mileage (22k miles in my instance)
I often need to haul stuff and had gotten sick of U-Haul rentals. I decided to
find a cheap 90s/early 00s small truck. Pandemic prices were getting me
rusted-out Rangers or 250k mile Tacomas2; then the Kei came into my life.
Libby and I were pulling in to Construction Junction
when a couple in a Honda Acty pulled in behind us. I picked the guy’s brain
about how useful it was, getting it insured, and so forth; it all sounded
pretty straightforward, and I was sold.
Step 0: Find a truck
You have some choices here: you can import it yourself, buy from an importer, or
risk craigslist. Prices rise as you work down that list.
You’ll need to find a truck that is at least 25 years old. In the US, cars more
youthful than that must comply with FMVSS
(safety standards). If you buy a more recent vintage, you won’t be able to
get it registered anywhere, so pay attention to that model year!
There are exporter websites out there promising a truck for
~$3-5k all in, provided you can pick it up at the port and are willing to do the
paperwork. As I understand it, the importation process is high stakes – if you
make a mistake, US Customs puts your truck in a garbage compactor and you’re out
the money. If you’re brave enough to try it, I wish you the best – come back
here after you’re leaving your port of choice.
The safer route is to buy from an importer. If you’re smart, you’ll find an
importer who has already titled the vehicle and you’ll be set. Of course, you
wouldn’t be Googling “how to title a kei truck Pennsylvania” in that case, but
here we are. “Don’t worry,” you thought, “it can’t take that long to get a
Step 1: Getting the car titled
Wait, back it up – you’re going to need some paperwork only the seller can get
you. Otherwise I honestly have no idea what will happen to you or your truck.
Right, uh, Step -1: Make sure the seller has the paperwork
Before you buy, make sure you’ll be able to get everything you need to title
the thing. You’ll need:
- The Export Certificate – this should look like this
- Proof you paid sales tax – PennDOT will really, really want you to prove this, like
a lot. I sent in a photocopy of the receipt from the place I bought the
truck, Twin Ridge Lawn and Garden.
Great, back to Step 1a: Translate your Certificate
So you’re gonna need a translation of that certificate. It’s not required, but
it supposedly helps to have the document notarized with an American Translation
Association seal. You definitely need the translation to be accompanied by a
sworn affadavit from the translator, though; they should know what to do.
I used the American Translators Association directory
and emailed a handful of eligible translators. The prices and response times
were all over the map. In the end I ended up working with
Patricia Pringle; Patricia was super responsive
and very reasonably priced!
Step, I don’t know, 3? 1b? 2.5?: How much does your truck weigh?
Okay, so you’ve got your translated export certificate, you’ve got your proof
of paying sales tax. Forget all that – now you’re going to need to prove you
know how much your truck weighs. Why? Because in the state of Pennsylvania that
information is absolutely crucial to verifying the VIN of your vehicle. You’re
going to need an MV-41,
but first, you’re going to need to get the unladen
your shiny new truck.
You’ll need to get your truck to a salvage yard or other weigh station4 where a
weighmaster can weigh and certify the weight of your vehicle – I visited D&D
Auto Salvage on the recommendation of my
mechanic, Tim Walters.
Take this slip of paper to a mechanic along with your MV-41 and your truck4.
They’ll need to fill out the MV-41, verifying the weight from the weighmaster
and the VIN in your truck (which may be in an unusual location – mine was
stamped on the wheel well). If you’re lucky, you’ll find a guy who’s done this
recently and also thinks imports are super cool – thanks
Step 4: Insurance
This was actually relatively easy. Don’t even bother trying the “Request a
Quote” forms, just start calling shops that give you multiple quotes (e.g.
Zebra). They’ll help tremendously. Almost all the
providers declined to cover my
dangerous exotic trash hauler minitruck, but
Safco gave me an acceptable rate on liability
insurance5. Getcher self a copy of your proof of insurance.
Step 1000: Submit the paperwork
Once you’ve gotten your:
- Original export certificate
- Translated export certificate
- Proof of paid PA sales tax
- Filled out MV-41
- The mileage on your odometer, converted to miles
- The gross weight of the vehicle, converted to pounds
- Proof of insurance
- A photo or two of the truck6
It’s finally time to fill out the big kahuna – the MV-1, a request for a title.
You won’t find this form online – only an authorized agent can fill one
There are some helpful instructions for filling this out
I went with AAA here in Pittsburgh.
You’re also going to find out that you can only register these vehicles as
antiques in PA. This isn’t
as onerous as it once was. You can’t use the vehicle for commercial purposes,
and you’re not meant to use it more than occasionally – for most folks, that
should fit the bill just fine.
Once you’ve got an agent, they’ll take a look at all your documents and ask you
a few questions about the vehicle. It’s important that you:
- Explain that the truck can be registered as an antique
- Demonstrate repeatedly that yes, you have paid the PA State sales tax7
- Request it be titled as a truck
- Ensure that they send in the original export certificate and not a copy
At this point I’d like to share a bit of wisdom I received early on in this process:
this is a once-in-a-lifetime type situation for whomever you’re going to
work with. You are the edge case and corner case they’ve been warned about.
You are going to be their anecdote about the wild stuff that comes through the
door. “Some kind of crazy tiny truck from Japan,” they’ll laugh, “My God!
Months!”. They’ll accentuate that last point by waving their hands in the air,
like they’re waving an imaginary beachball from side-to-side. Be ready to be
Once the paperwork is submitted, you’ll wait about ~30 days before you hear
from PennDot. If you’re super lucky you’ll get a plate in the mail along with
the title in a few weeks. If you’re a little lucky, they’ll send your agent
feedback on your packet that you can correct and resubmit. You’re going to need
to follow up with your agent – they’re probably not going to reach out. Once
you’ve addressed their concerns, it’ll be another 30 days before you’ll know if
things are fixed. If you’re really unlucky, you’ll do this loop, oh, I don’t
know, three or four times8? Finally, you’ll get a thick envelope in the mail
and inside will be your prize – an antique PA plate.
Step 1001: Go buy some screws
Ah, crap, sorry – you could have done this way sooner. The holes in the plate
won’t line up with the holes in your plate holder – damn metric system. Grab
a drill and a pencil, mark where the holes should be, apply drill, and you’ll
be all set. You’ll need two M6 20mm galvanized screws, which you can find at
any hardware store.
So what’s the downside?
In case you’re still weighing the pros and cons, here’s my take as of a few months
- It attracts a lot of attention. This might be a little overwhelming.
- You’re topping out at 60 MPH, maybe.
- No air bags, air conditioning, power steering, or crumple zones.
- Parts are all across an ocean.
- Right-hand drive is unsettling for everyone involved.
I’ve been really happy with it – it’s a lot cheaper than a
similarly sized truck would have run me, with way fewer miles on the odometer.
For bopping around town hauling lumber, yard waste, and furniture, it’s perfect.
Just don’t expect to be cruising on the interstate in one of these.