Importing nostalgia: Javan Imports is bringing vintage Japanese 4x4s to America

Written by Marqued Staff, Photography by Alfie Goodrich & Joseph Hunt

Dan Cadwell and Ian Garlington never set out to sell cars, and they certainly never imagined that they’d one day be scouring the farthest reaches of the Japanese archipelago in search of them. And yet, here they are, the two men – the two friends behind Javan Imports, the Portland, Oregon-based outfit that specializes in turbo diesel, four-wheel-drive Japanese SUVs and vans such as the Land Cruiser Prado, the Toyota HiAce van, and the Toyota HiLux Surf. 

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Cadwell, who grew up in Los Angeles with a Japanese mother and an American father, initially found his way to Japan as a student (where he first met Garlington) and then as an employee at a Japanese advertising agency. Garlington, meanwhile, headed to Japan after college to teach and then to pursue graduate studies. Eventually, though, an arbitrage opportunity walked up and stared them straight in the eye: Americans were clamoring for these vintage Japanese 4x4s, even as the Japanese market was done with them. 

Javan Imports

We recently sat down with Dan Cadwell and Ian Garlington for a conversation about their own personal journeys, the origins of Javan, and a discussion of what drives the market for imported vintage vehicles. We set them loose by asking how they came to be so enthusiastic about these niche Japanese vehicles in the first place...

Javan Imports

Ian: Who knows why we like what we like? When you're a kid, you don't start with an abstract notion of “car” and then begin to recognize individual instances of automobiles. It's more like, “there's a Tercel,” and then someone explains to you that that's a car. You move from the specific thing to the abstract thing, and for me that process was rooted in my parents’ Toyotas. I grew up in the suburbs of Portland, and my family had a baby-blue, manual transmission, four-wheel-drive Tercel station wagon. That was my first memory of cars and it was the car that I learned to drive on.  Later, when I first got a 3D printer, the first thing I did was print a little four-wheel drive Tercel station wagon shell for an RC car I was making.

Javan Imports

Dan: I was really into Mitsubishi Eclipses and 3000 GTs, things of that sort, but as a kid in Los Angeles, I certainly wasn’t thinking about vans or four-wheel drive vehicles.

Ian: I've been studying Japanese since I was about eight years old. When I went to the University of Oregon, I just kept studying Japanese on the side and did my junior year at Waseda University.

Dan: That's where I met Ian in Japan. We spent our junior year together in Japan and then we both went back to America, graduated, and then went right back to Japan after college.

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Ian: When I moved to Japan after college, a lot of my friends were really into cars. They were asking me, "Hey, can you get me this steering wheel?”  So, I would buy used steering wheels off Yahoo! Auctions in Japan, put them in big boxes, and ship them back to the US.  This was back when the drift scene was taking off in the US and I had a buddy here in the States who would sell these steering wheels to people who had, mainly, Nissan 240 SXs. They wanted these crazy cotton candy pink steering wheels with silver spokes, or any variety of something with glitter and sparkles, or funny, weird shift knobs. These things were going for anywhere from $10--$30 in Japan, but in the States they were worth $200-$250. It made us realize that people placed a different value on things in different places.  

At some point, one of Dan's friends, who lives in Portland, said to him, "Hey, we're starting to see a lot of these imported vans on the streets in Portland." Dan put all this together and said, "Ian, maybe we should open a car dealership." I think we started with two cars and maybe sold three cars total in 2019, our first year in business.

Dan: When I started working with these vans and 4x4s, I initially didn't get them on an emotional level. I told Ian, "That van is not a cool car whatsoever," and I was skeptical that these cars would sell in America. It took me a bit to envision them on the streets of America and to realize how cool they'd look there, if I'm being honest. But after I started driving them, and as I saw people putting rims and outdoor accessories on them, then I started to think, "Oh, these are actually really, really cool." 

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Ian: So far, we've really specialized in the Hilux Surf, the 90-series and 70-series LandCruiser Prado, and the HiAce vans, all of which share the 3.0-liter 1KZ-TE turbo diesel engine. In part, this was a function of startup costs. Cars like the [Nissan] GT-R and the [Toyota] MR2 are popular both in the States and in Japan and, really, around the world. When there's a nice one that's up for auction, it's probably going to go for a fair amount of money. So, when we were starting, we tried to go the opposite direction and find the gaps in the market that no one was filling.  

Dan: There was some trial and error as we found our way to this platform, but it wasn't really an accident.  We played around with a lot of different types of engines, and we found that the 1KZ-TE was probably the most reliable; it has good power; and we can procure parts for it. So, yeah, about 90% of our vehicles right now have that 1KZ-TE engine.

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Ian: My fear is also that if we buy a lot of different models from different companies, our ability to really know the vehicles will be hampered.  Because these vehicles all share the same engine, it makes our parts department and our ability to access information – the wiring diagrams, engine maintenance information, all of that – very simple.  We're also better able to help the customers if anything ever goes wrong, because the things that fail typically fail the same way across the vehicles. 

Dan: Hunting for these cars, finding the right cars here in Japan is like being a kid in the candy store for me, to be honest. I get to look at all the sweet cars and decide, “Oh yes, I really want this one, or I really, really want that one." I have to pinch myself every single day because it doesn't feel like a job. It feels like more of a hobby. 

Javan Imports
Javan ImportsJavan Imports

Ian: Our main advantage is that Dan and I are very embedded in the Japanese business world and this helps us find the best cars and then make sure they’re properly serviced even before shipping them to the States, so that we don’t don't get people coming back to us with complaints or returns or saying, "Hey, I bought this car. Now it's having this problem. What can you do about it?" If a car does arrive in Portland with service needs, we’re able to fix those, but we prefer to have everything in order before a car even leaves Japan. 

Dan: We've really created a bond over here [in Japan] with our mechanics and I don't think that would be possible without our Japanese background, not just from a communication standpoint – although it certainly helps that Ian and I are both fluent in Japanese – but also from an emotional and cultural standpoint.

But our Japanese partners certainly think it’s wild that these vans and trucks are so popular in America. They think Porsches are cool, Mercedes are cool, but a HiAce van? They’re just trying to figure that one out. I guess it’s a little bit like an American getting a tattoo in Japanese or Chinese characters. For Americans, it’s exotic and different; in Japan, it’s just their language. 

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Ian: I can't always explain it, but there is something about the form factor and the smallness, and the lines on them. They're also aging in the way that vintage stuff ages, becoming more attractive with time. People who were born after the manufacture date of the vehicles are falling in love with them. If you're 23 years old and you think that the 25-year-old van is perfect, it's an interesting cultural process that brought you to that conclusion, because somebody 10 years older than you might not share the same idea about that design. 

And in general, Japanese people don't really see used, utilitarian four-wheel-drive vehicles as something desirable. It's a cultural thing: buying a used vehicle, especially one that's 25 years old, is just not on the radar for them. 

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Dan: I’ve even been surprised by how much the HiAce has blown up in America – certainly more than I ever envisioned. The prices have steadily increased since 2019. Part of that was Covid: a lot of people thought, "If I have a van, then I could do so much more. I could work outside. I wouldn't only have to stay at home or go into the office."

Ian: The HiAces are definitely getting more difficult to find. The demand for them is higher, so the nice ones are going for much higher prices than they used to, and that's been an overall trend even despite the exchange rate being fairly favorable for us in the last year or so. The 70 Series Land Cruisers are also more expensive than they were before. 

Looking toward the future, different cars are always turning 25 years old for the first time but it's never clear if people are going to be into those models or not. 

Javan Imports

Dan: There are a few exciting cars that will be eligible for import soon. The HiAce with the intercooler will become eligible for import in mid-2024. Most people might see that as a small, incremental thing, but that's probably the peak HiAce. Another car that I'm really looking at right now is the Nissan Stagea wagon. Some of those shared a lot of internals with the Skyline GT-R, so it's kind of like a GT-R wagon – the Autech-tuned, Series 1.5 models with manual transmissions even have the twin-turbo DETT engine. We can import those now but they’re a little pricey for a lot of people’s tastes, so I’m looking forward to bringing over some models that keep the excitement of these cars but which are a bit more affordable. 

Ian: We also get the 100-Series Land Cruiser this year, and I’m looking forward to those because they’re pretty well built vehicles. 

Regardless of the car, though, it’s really rewarding to be able to help people solve their transportation needs. Reliable transportation  is something that people struggle with in their lives, regardless of whether they're doing really well financially or not, so it's rewarding to help people solve that problem in terms of both cost and reliability. 

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Javan Imports

Dan: The most rewarding part of all this for me is just to be able to drive these different vehicles, to take a HiLux Surf up to the mountains to go skiing, or to take a HiAce to Lake Biwa  [In Japan's Shiga Prefecture on the island of Honshu] and go paddle-boarding. Those experiences are just so magical. That's what everyone dreams of doing with these vehicles.

Meet our contributors

Alfie Goodrich is a British photographer and photography educator based in Tokyo. Follow his adventures on Instagram.

Joseph Hunt is a Portland, Oregon-based photographer and art director. Check out more of his work on Instagram.

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