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Category: Minivan/Van

What is the ‘Chicken Tax’ and why is it bad for imported trucks?

If you’re an American fan of small pickups and other utility vehicles, you may often find yourself reading about unobtanium models that are sold in what seems like every automotive market but our own. Hey, this is America. We love trucks, right? Even tiny ones like the Ford Maverick have proven wildly successful, suggesting that small trucks imported from overseas could perform similarly well. So why don’t we see them? Blame the Chicken Tax. 

What is the Chicken Tax?

You’d be forgiven for assuming the Chicken Tax has something to do with transporting barn fowl, but believe it or not, the two are almost entirely unrelated. So how is it that we live in a world where chickens are to blame for expensive imported pickup trucks? Well, the simple (and simultaneously quite complex) answer is “politics.”

Essentially, “Chicken Tax” is a complete misnomer. It refers to an import tariff imposed on (among several other things) light-duty trucks. It gets its name not from its purpose, but from its genesis: it was conceived as part of a series of retaliatory tariffs intended to punish Europe for taxing American chicken exports. So there were chickens involved at some point, you see, just not in any way that relates to cars. The story is pretty wild, and we’ll refer you to this excellent Writeup by Wired if you’d like the full version.

How much is the Chicken Tax?

This is no small penalty: The import tariff on light duty trucks was set at 25%. That’s stiff enough to deter quite a bit of overseas competition, and as some automakers have learned, difficult (and not to mention costly) to circumvent. Ford recently settled a decade-long “Chicken Tax” investigation over its importation of Transit Connect utility vans in a way that it still maintains was compliant with U.S. regulations. Needless to say, federal regulators disagreed.

What does it apply to?

Nominally, the tariff was imposed on light trucks, but given how broadly that definition is used in today’s regulatory environment, it’s really more accurate to say that the Chicken Tax applies to utility vans and pickup trucks. Passenger vans and SUVs are exempt from the Chicken Tax, but not exempt entirely from import taxes. They’re assessed at a far more reasonable 2.5%. That’s why you see plenty of imported crossovers and sport ‘utes on the road, but not nearly as many trucks or cargo vans. 

In the early days, overseas manufacturers found ways around the Tax by exporting “chassis cab” models to the U.S. At that point, a bed would be attached to the rear frame and the entire truck could be sold as a pickup. This loophole was eventually closed. The Subaru Brat (as featured in the Wired story above) famously came with two jump seats in the back to qualify as a “passenger” vehicle until the law was adjusted to account for anything with a bed, jump seats or not. Womp-womp. 

Who pays the Chicken Tax?

In theory, the Chicken Tax is a cost eaten by the manufacturer and baked into the car or truck’s sticker price. In practice, very few manufacturers are subject to the Chicken Tax in 2024 because most trucks and cargo vehicles sold in the United States are built here. The rare exceptions tend to be smaller boutique builders whose customers may not love paying extra, but are likely able to afford it. 


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Junkyard Gem: 1998 Plymouth Voyager Expresso

For the 1994 Chicago Auto Show, Chrysler brought a Neon-based concept car that looked like something families would drive around the Mars Base in the year 2094. This was the Plymouth Expresso, and you’d never have guessed that the Plymouth Division itself would be terminated just seven years later while gazing at its whimsical shape. As often happens with concept cars, the Expresso’s design itself was a dead end (though some claim it influenced the later Chrysler PT Cruiser), but its name survived… on an option package.

As the 1990s began, Chrysler felt Plymouth remained relevant despite few American car shoppers understanding that the brand was supposed to live below Dodge in the company’s prestige hierarchy. The PT Cruiser originally was planned as a Plymouth, and the Prowler really did start out bearing the badging of the Chrysler division named after a brand of twine popular with 1920s farmers.

The first use of the Expresso name on a Plymouth came in the 1996 model year, when Plymouth Neon and Breeze buyers could get the Expresso Package for $375 (about $762 in 2024 dollars). The reviewer for Edmunds was scathing about “a new transparently-named Expresso package aimed at so-called Generation X buyers who supposedly spend all their time slacking off at the Coffee Plantation sipping java.” By 1998, every single Plymouth model except the Prowler could be Expresso-ized.

Expressos got these rad badges (see: Mercury Tracer Trio), body-colored trim and a halfway decent AM/FM/cassette radio. As a member of Generation X who had just hit age 30 at the time, I had no urge to trade in my 1965 Impala or 1985 CRX for a Plymouth Expresso, but my reaction may have been atypical (it wasn’t).

Under the pitiless rule of DaimlerChrysler, the Plymouth Division suffered indignity after indignity during the late 1990s. Even before the axe fell on Plymouth’s outstretched neck, the Voyager was snatched away and given Chrysler badging. The Prowler stayed a Plymouth through 2001, then spent a single overlooked year as a Chrysler.

As you can see, this Junkyard Gem is more about the Expresso Package and the decline of Plymouth than the Voyager itself, because sometimes junkyard automotive history works that way.

The Voyager was the cheapest of all the Chrysler minivans for 1998, which made it a very strong deal for the money despite the depressingly forced-cheerful Expresso badges. The MSRP for the base 1998 Voyager was $17,995, or about $34,915 in 2024 dollars; its Dodge Caravan sibling started at $20,535 ($39,843 after inflation).

This generation of Chrysler minivan (the third) was sold in the United States for the 1996 through 2000 model years. European minivan shoppers could buy them with Chrysler Voyager and, later on, Lancia Voyager badging.

Get up to $1,000 cash back! Hurry, before Plymouth itself disappears.

Wait, make that up to $2,145 back in “total values.”

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Junkyard Gem: 1992 Volkswagen EuroVan CL

Volkswagen is once again in the van-selling business in the United States, after a best-forgotten period of attempting to sell rebadged Chrysler minivans plus the occasional teasing of vans that we never got here. The last gasp for the good old VW Transporter aka VW Bus here was the fourth-generation model, known in North America as the EuroVan and sold from the 1992 through 2003 model years. Here’s a first-year EuroVan, found in a Denver-area knacker’s yard recently.

The EuroVan had to compete against increasingly popular SUVs plus a huge range of affordable minivans from Detroit and Japan, so not many made it to our shores and they are quite rare in junkyards today. I find quite a few third-generation Transporters (aka Vanagons) during my junkyard travels, as well as the occasional second-generation model, but years go by between EuroVan sightings.

This one was built for new sale in Canada. I find Canadian-market cars in United States junkyards regularly, including a 1985 Peugeot 505, a 1991 Honda Civic, a 1997 Acura EL and a 2004 Acura EL. It’s legal for a Canadian- or Mexican-registered vehicles to drive in the United States for one year, after which it must return home or get proper registration in the United States. Since 1992 is well before the 25-year federal importation limit, this van might have been imported legally after 2017.

The instrument cluster was gone, so I didn’t see the telltale km/h speedometer, but the transmission type suggested that the original buyer of this van purchased it across the border. EuroVans with five-speed manual transmissions were sold in the United States, but few bought them.

The engine is a 2.5-liter gasoline-burning straight-five, rated at 109 horsepower. Since this van scales in at just under two tons, it would have been firmly within the tradition of excruciatingly slow VW Transporters.

It’s never a good sign for junkyard engine shoppers when you see spare engine parts inside the vehicle.

EuroVan sales in the United States continued through 2003, and these vans still have their devoted zealots enthusiasts in the United States today. There are two of them that park on the street in my Denver neighborhood, though I’m sure those Transporters don’t impress the owners of the half-dozen Vanagon Syncros who also live within a few blocks.

It’s definitely not a minivan, according to VWoA’s marketers.

Nothing mini about it!

When you do some serious begetting, you require something bigger than a Passat.

VW never gave up on the Transporter for Europe.

Just the thing for hard work.

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Junkyard Gem: 1982 Volkswagen Vanagon

Volkswagen began selling Transporter vans in the United States during the early 1950s, with sales continuing through three generations and through the 1991 model year. There are those who will tell you that VW Transporters are now much too sought-after by enthusiasts to ever appear in the big self-service car graveyards I frequent, but they are incorrect. We saw a second-generation Transporter in a Colorado yard last year, and now here’s a third-generation model currently residing in a South Carolina facility.

The T3 Transporter first appeared in the United States as a 1980 model, and it was badged as the Vanagon. This name was a mashup of “van” and “wagon,” which followed decades of VW stubbornly pitching its passenger vans as station wagons (to be fair, Detroit did the same thing with its passenger vans). When Toyota attempted to sell an Americanized version of the MasterAce Surf with “Van Wagon” badges here for 1984, Volkswagen’s lawyers forced them to change the name to, simply, the Toyota Van.

Gasoline-fueled Vanagons had air-cooled engines until well into 1983 (water-cooled diesels with 49 mighty horsepower were available in the Vanagon for 1982 and 1983), but we can see a radiator in the snout of this van. What’s the deal?

The build tag says it started life in Hanover, West Germany as a 1982 model with the 2.0-liter gasoline-burner, so it must have had a Wasserboxer swap later on. I saw an ’81 Vanagon with a similar swap in Colorado a few months back.

The engine was grabbed by a junkyard shopper before I arrived.

Unusually, this van has the optional automatic transmission. The water-cooled VW engines most likely to have been swapped into this van made well below 100 horsepower and the curb weight is close to 3,100 pounds, so this machine would have been very, very slow to accelerate.

Jim Hudson is still selling new cars in Columbia, though not Volkswagens these days.

It turns out that the Vanagon shares its wheel bolt pattern with that of the Mercedes-Benz W123. There’s just one of these wheels installed, but it looks cool.

It’s not rusty and the interior probably wasn’t too bad in its pre-junkyard-arrival state, but the cost to restore one of these vans can be prohibitive.

Essentially a European luxury car. You’d want to avoid hills with a diesel Vanagon and a load of seven passengers.

The Vanagon was all about performance.

The room of a van. The comfort of a station wagon. There’s a crafty dig at Detroit’s recently downsized wagons in this commercial.

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