Bill Gates is responsible for the Show or Display loophole in America, and it's all because he wanted a Porsche 959.
The Show or Display rule is a fantastic bit of legislation that allows wealthy enthusiasts to legally import a car to the USA that was never sold here, without the 25-year wait associated with JDM icons. But did you know that Bill Gates helped get the law passed? And did you know it was the iconic Porsche 959 that prompted him to do so?
Bill Gates is known for many things: founding one of the largest companies of all time, unprecedented philanthropy, and his high-profile focus on combating climate change, but one of his lesser-known achievements has to do with his love for the Porsche 959 and the lengths he and others like Bruce Canepa went to import some into the US. Their import journey took over a decade, but the eventual success changed car importation forever, introducing the Show or Display law that is still used today.
US laws on all kinds of importation are generally stringent, and there aren't many people who can afford the costs and the time necessary to try to alter them. This is the story of how one of those men helped shape the automotive climate in America for the better.
It's 1981, the Donkey Kong arcade game has just been released, the first DMC DeLorean rolls off the production line in Dunmurry, Northern Ireland, and Porsche is looking to reinvent itself and its most famous model, the 911. Soon after Peter Schutz was promoted to Managing Director, Porsche's Chief Engineer Helmuth Bott approached him with ideas of how to advance the 911 platform for the modern day.
Wanting to see how far the platform could be pushed, Bott proposed some radical changes, including a state-of-the-art AWD system that would open up new possibilities for the rear-engined platform. Understanding that racing helps to accelerate development, he also received the green light from Schutz to enter the model in Group B rallying, putting the vehicle on center stage.
Entering into Group B meant that Porsche needed to homologate at least 200 examples for road-going use. The prototype "Gruppe B" debuted a few years later at the 1983 Frankfurt Auto Show to the delight of many spectators. It was innovative and bold, being powered by a similar powerplant as the Porsche 956 and 962 race cars and offering twin-turbocharging and the aforementioned AWD system.
Unfortunately, stuffing all of these advanced components in the car turned out to be costly and much more difficult than originally thought. It would take two and a half more years before the car was finally finished, and by then, Group B was already a thing of the past. Due to this, the focus during production shifted from just building a homologated rally car to building a halo supercar instead, and the final product was something to behold.
Based on a regular 911 chassis, the body was lengthened and widened utilizing an aluminum/Kevlar composite for the panels and chassis, along with Nomex for the floor instead of the typical steel. In its rear sat a sequential twin-turbo 2.85-liter flat-six that featured an innovative mixture of water-cooling for the cylinder heads and air-cooling for the rest of the engine. The result was 444 horsepower and 369 lb-ft of torque sent through a six-speed manual transmission.
That power was then sent to all four wheels thanks to the Porsche-Steuer Kupplung (PSK) AWD with a power split of 40:60 front-to-rear, which switched to 20:80 when greater acceleration was needed. The result was a 0-60 mph sprint of just 3.6 seconds and a top speed of 196 mph. These were shocking numbers for the late 80s, with the only real competitor being the Ferrari F40.
The car then featured wild aero and an adjustable suspension on top of everything else to make it look and drive unlike any else on the road. 292 production models were produced, consisting entirety of regular models, "Komfort" models, and 29 being turned into the higher performance "S" models.
It was the definition of a halo car, and it had a halo car price to match starting at $250,000 which equates to $691,706 at current rates. That's an unbelievable price, even today, and in it lies the initial conundrum that eventually led to the creation of the Show or Display law.
But more important than its price was the fact that Porsche didn't homologate it for sale in the US...
The story that is always told is that the automaker refused to send the United States Department of Transportation (DoT) four complete 959s for crash testing because the company was already losing tons of money on each car sold. As a result, the US didn't permit the car to be imported until it was 25 years old, which wouldn't happen until 2012.
The thing is, this story isn't correct, at least according to racing driver and 959 aficionado Bruce Canepa. Canepa asserted the reason the vehicles weren't sold here was merely due to the high costs of the program. Selling a car for $250,000 was bad enough, but losing $200,000 on top of each one sold made the prospect of spending more money simply untenable.
The DoT doesn't test every single car that is sold in the US every year; it simply doesn't have the time or manpower. Additionally, the DoT isn't responsible for ensuring vehicles sold in the US are up to our safety standards - that's the manufacturer's responsibility.
The NHTSA states that "Even though a vehicle may not have been rated under the New Car Assessment Program, all vehicles sold in the United States are certified by the manufacturer as complying with all applicable Federal motor vehicle safety standards (CFR Title 49: Chapter V, Part 571)." Although the wording has been updated for the modern day, the rule has been utilized the same way for decades.
Instead, about 80% are tested as they represent a large portion of the US fleet, with the last 20% trusted to be in good order. With such a low production volume, the US government was never going to test the vehicle outright, but it caught wind of the non-compliant car when 30 were imported to be sold by Al Holbert as "race cars."
When inspectors saw them, they were surprised these weren't stripped-out, lightweight track cars but leather-wrapped, luxurious road-going models. It was this deceit that led to the 959 being declared non-compliant, not because it wasn't crash-tested by the government.
Bill Gates liked to enjoy his money, but when Microsoft cofounders Bill Gates and Paul Allen had their 959s impounded by U.S. Customs officials in Oakland, California in the early '90s, Gates decided to fight back.
Imported by none other than Canepa himself for the cofounders and others, they all soon found themselves in a frustrating back and forth with the US government. According to an Autoweek article from 2003, the initial reaction was to declare Canepa a manufacturer like RUF to expedite the process, but it appears the group wasn't getting any help on the political front to do so.
This is when Gates suggested the crew take a legal approach, and soon after, Canepa found Washington D.C. attorney Warren Dean. "Dean went to EPA, NHTSA, and all the major manufacturers, to keep everyone happy," Canepa told Autoweek. " We formulated a law that if 500 or fewer cars were produced, if they weren't currently produced, if they were never US-legal, and if they were rare, you could import them without having to pass DoT standards. As long as they met EPA standards and were driven no more than 2,500 miles per year, they'd be legal."
After a few failures, it was officially signed into law by President Clinton in 1998 after being attached to a Senate transportation bill. Then, two years later the DoT created a practical law that brought the entire thing to a close. All that was left was for the cars to be re-engineered to meet US emissions standards from 1988, and this is where Canepa took it a step further.
He knew emissions mods would hurt power output, so he decided to re-engineer the cars for the then-modern day. 450 hp was so 1988, but this was the year 2000, and 450 hp wasn't all that wild anymore. He upgraded tons of things on the car, including adding new simultaneous turbos, ECU, new catalytic converters, new GT2 air pumps, upgrading the battery, redesigning the intake, and a lot more. By the end, the cars produced 575 hp and 501 lb-ft, and 959s reimagined by Canepa have been a hot commodity ever since.
Over time, he managed to re-engineer a couple dozen, adding $85,000 to the car's already expensive price but changing the automotive industry forever.
Cars that are historically or technologically significant are now eligible for Show or Display importation, which has unlocked the door to some seriously cool cars on US soil. The McLaren F1 was never eligible because of its central seating position - the same reason the McLaren Speedtail and Gordon Murray Automotive T.50 aren't US road legal. But all three can be brought in under the SoD law. Other examples include windshield-less speedsters like the Ferrari Monza SP1 and SP2, Aston Martin V12 Speedster, and the likes of the Bugatti Divo, De Tomaso P72, Jaguar XJ220, and the Lotus Evija. The full list can be viewed on the NHTSA website.
All of these special cars would be forbidden in the US had it not been for the legal and financial might or Bill Gates, and the technical prowess and passion of Bruce Canepa.
To this day, if you have the desire and the means, you can petition the DoT to bring a car over here under the Show or Display law as long as it does not meet any of the following standards:
If the answer to any of the above is affirmative, you should not expect NHTSA to grant permission for importation. If the answer to item 4 is affirmative, the applicant must establish that the vehicle is of exceptional technological and/or historical significance.
But if you're so lucky to get a car in under SoD, then thank Bill Gates for the privilege.