By Jonathan Finer
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 16, 2002; Page E01


Robert L. Johnson's Ferrari 360 Spider zooms from zero to 60 mph in 4.1 seconds. Getting it from a German dealer's warehouse to the garage in his Washington home took considerably longer.

The car finally arrived Nov. 22 after 15 months of delays that included government-mandated environmental and safety testing and retrofitting. Johnson says despite objections he and other buyers have raised, bureaucratic problems remain for those who bypass U.S. dealers to import foreign-made luxury cars.

"This has nothing to do with engineering," Johnson, the founder and chief executive of Black Entertainment Television, said as he leaned against the hood of his $189,888.44 speedster in a Georgetown parking lot. "No one can explain to me what is in the public interest about making people wait more than a year for cars that are relatively easy to retrofit. It's either incompetence or officials not acting in the public interest."

Like a growing number of luxury-car buyers, Johnson went searching for his dream machine overseas, where he could save up to 40 percent on the sticker price and avoid waiting lists that can be years long.

Overcoming regulatory hurdles, however, proved more difficult than the 56-year-old media magnate had imagined when he bought the car back in August 2001.

Cars built for distribution in a foreign market must be modified to meet U.S. standards. The National Highway Transportation and Safety Administration, a subsidiary of the Department of Transportation, which oversees the approval process, says that conducting emissions and safety tests can slow the processing of an imported vehicle, and that in Johnson's case, standard procedures were followed.

"There are a number of regulatory and statutory requirements that had to be met, and several offices in the Department of Transportation worked with [Johnson] to assure that all parties understood the process," a department spokesman said.

But Johnson, as The Washington Post reported in January, blames the long delays he and other buyers have endured on collusion between the U.S. government and foreign carmakers, which he says lobby to protect their U.S. dealers and stymie American buyers who shop for cars abroad.

Representatives for Ferrari did not respond last week to requests for comment.

Frustration over such delays has galvanized an unlikely coalition of billionaire car buffs, medium-sized mechanic shops and recently returned expatriates who bought cars while living abroad.

"Many of us have very little in common with each other," said Gabriel Jabbour, a longtime Ferrari enthusiast whose 360 Spider has been in the United States since spring 2001 but has yet to be approved. "We are committed to fixing a system that seems to be badly broken."

Johnson's quest for a Ferrari reached a bottleneck just a month after he bought his car, when his lawyer told him that the Italian automaker had petitioned the Transportation Department to restrict entry to vehicles that weren't built to U.S. specifications.

With the car he had already paid for sitting in Munich, Johnson decided to take matters into his own hands and use the full weight of his celebrity and wealth. In January he drafted letters to Democratic Maryland Sens. Paul S. Sarbanes and Barbara A. Mikulski and to several members of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure -- including Chairman Don Young (D-Alaska), Jack Quinn (D-N.Y.), Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) and Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.) -- urging them to contact Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta.

In April, the Ferrari arrived at customs in New York, and Johnson had it sent to Amerispec Corp., a company that modifies Ferraris and other luxury cars to U.S. standards. When he still could not get government approval, Johnson called Mineta's office directly and spoke with aide Martin Whitmer, who said he would do what he could to help.

Johnson had the Ferrari transferred to another company that does retrofitting, Baltimore's JK Technologies LLC, on Sept. 30. He bumped into Mineta at a Kennedy Center function on Nov. 15, and the transportation secretary told him that his problem would soon be solved. Johnson thanked him for the help.

The NHTSA authorized his Ferrari's release, along with that of others in its class stuck in purgatory around the country, on Nov. 19. Three days later, Johnson had his car. Retrofitting and import charges for a Ferrari 360 Spider range from $25,000 to $35,000, said Lois Joyeusaz, owner of JK Technologies.

Johnson said he's certain that if he had not exercised his political leverage, he would not have his Ferrari today. The real losers in this process, he emphasized, are not the uber-rich suffering from delayed gratification, but the owners of some half-dozen retrofitting shops around the country whose businesses have been hobbled by government-imposed delays.

"I can live without a Ferrari, and so can anyone else," Johnson said. "But some of these companies are getting killed for no good reason."

The increasing restrictions have slowed the average time it takes to get an imported car approved to anywhere from eight months to a year, from just 60 to 90 days three years ago, Joyeusaz said.

The delays have caused a 90 percent reduction in her business, since her company does not get paid until the cars are delivered, she said. In a good year she used to be able to guide well over 100 cars through the approval process. So far this year she's only been successful with 12, and she now has a backlog of about 40 Mercedeses, Ferraris, BMWs and Porsches sitting idle on her lots.

While her clientele includes a host of billionaires, she says that about 80 percent are military or State Department employees returning to the states whose foreign cars are their only means of transportation. Many are outraged, she adds, that their cars have sat in a warehouse for as long as two years.

"We're trying to help these people out as much as we can," Joyeusaz said. "But I don't know how best to do that. We've called and written everyone we can think of."


© 2002 The Washington Post Company