Watch the feds crush a classic Mini for breaking the law

Twenty-five years. In classic car circles, it's the bright blue line between a vehicle that's old enough to be easily imported to the United States from another country, and one that can only come in if its shown to meet all modern U.S. safety standards — a bar so high that clearing it would typically require the car in question be crash-tested. That doesn't stop hundreds of people every year from trying to sneak high-dollar imports past customs, even though the law enforcement tools for spotting them have never been stronger.

To emphasize their point, U.S. and British officials gathered on Thursday in a snowy junkyard in central New Jersey for the crushing of a classic Rover Mini that had been caught in a federal dragnet. It's not the first, and it won't be the last.

According to customs officials, the Mini was one of about 100 vehicles identified in the past year as illicitly imported under a program known as Operation Atlantic, a joint venture bewteen British and U.S. law enforcement which targeted older generations of Austin/Rover Minis and Land Rover Defenders shipped from Britain. After this Mini landed in the United States this May, U.S. customs agents and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration personnel began scrutinizing its data.

While it carried a VIN plate from a car made in 1988 that would have been legal, none of its details checked out: that VIN matched a right-hand-drive vehicle, not a left-hand-driver, and flagged a different engine. Best they could tell, this Rover Mini was likely built around the year 2000.

"Foreign sellers were defrauding American consumers who thought they were purchasing a vintage car," said Nancy Lewis, associate administrator at the U.S. Department of Transportation, "when in fact they were purchasing a potentially unsafe car."

Many importers have been caught trying to run around the 25-year rule by cobbling together pieces of vehicles under bogus VIN plates. Since the car can't be matched to a manufacturer with a legal VIN, under federal law there's no alternative but to destroy it — no matter how good a condition it's in. Officials said the flow of illicit car imports has slowed dramatically since Operation Atlantic, and given the sound a Mini makes when being crushed, it's easy to see why.