How It All Began: OEM Cars
The exportation of vehicles started in the early '80s with the kids of military families. They would bring their personal vehicles from America when they were stationed around the world in places like Japan. As more and more vehicles were shipped to Japan, the Japanese people took notice and wanted them for their own. The Japanese were attracted to the large bodies and powerful V-8 engines that weren't available in their own mass-produced, subcompact cars.

It wasn't long before American vehicles were being sold as fast as owners could ship them over. Realizing how big the market was becoming, exporting companies (specifically for vehicles) like Hart International, Contact USA, Garage Daiban, and California Custom USA started popping up in the L.A. area, distributing to dealers all over Japan. All totaled at the peak of vehicle exporting craze, there were 25 companies exporting vehicles worth more than an estimated 650 million dollars, annually.

These companies started off exporting Chevy conversion vans and other luxury vehicles from America. They were buying as much as 10 at a time from several dealerships, loading them straight onto a ship outbound for Japan. This, of course, hurt OEM sales for Ford, Chevy, and Dodge in overseas business, so the Big Three implemented new company policies that made it harder for exporters to buy brand-new vehicles and export them out of the U.S. Any dealership caught knowingly selling vehicles for the purpose of export would lose their franchising rights, so exporters started looking at other vehicle markets that might provide more capital.

Japan Gets the Custom Bug
Export companies found a sizable used-vehicle market in America that could make up for the loss of exporting new vehicles to Japan. The only catch with buying pre-owned was the fact that the Japanese were going to spend a lot of money to purchase used vehicles so they needed to be flawless. For this reason, show vehicles became more appealing to exporters who wanted to sell clean vehicles for top dollar, overseas. Street Shock, Kolor Kings, and dozens of other custom shops were used in preparing vehicles for shipping.

The benefit of using a custom shop to prep vehicles for export is that they could in turn make each vehicle look different from the next. It wasn't uncommon to see dozens of trucks and vans all of the same make and model loaded onto a ship, each one with a different set of wheels or custom paintjob. Japanese citizens jumped all over it, and the demand for these vehicles skyrocketed. Large-scale American truck shows such as California Truck Jamboree and the Pomona Swap Meet became giant aftermarket used truck lots in the eyes of exporters who would buy as many as 10 show vehicles at a time. This was in addition to the hundreds of trucks and vans that were getting built by shops strictly for export.

The height of the exporting craze occurred between 1995 and 1997, when more than 400,000 vehicles per year were shipped to Japan. The custom market in Japan inevitably grew way beyond just trucks and vans, as Japan's appetite for all things custom also turned to stock right-off-the-showroom-floor vehicles, to lowriders, old American musclecars, and restored classics. For the people of Japan, it was all about status. If you lived in a big city in Japan, owning your own home was nearly impossible because urban land was so scarce and costly you would have to be very well-off to afford your own. You might not be able to afford a house, but you could afford the next best status symbol, a new ride. Because the yen was so strong at the time, interest rates were low, and it was easy to get a loan to buy a nice vehicle. The good fortune in the export market did not last for very long, though.