U.S. Customs agents have seized 18 handmade British TVR sports cars and filed unusual criminal charges against their owner for allegedly importing cars that don't meet federal pollution and safety standards.
Importer Pierre J. Arquin of McLean was charged with eight federal grand jury in Baltimore.
Also named in the indictment was TVR Engineering Ltd. of Blackpool, England, one of the world's smallest car manufacturers.
Customs officials said the eight-count indictment against the car maker and its U.S. importer was the first criminal case of its kind.
Arquin and TVR were charged with falsely telling customs officials the TVR roadsters met U.S. Department of Transportation bumper standards and carried all the pollution control equipment required by the Envronmental Protection Agency.
The tiny TVR factory -- smaller than many American auto dealerships -- turns out a few hundred handbuilt sports cars a year. About 125 of the $20,000, 140-miles-an-hour card were shipped to the United States last year, Arquin said yesterday.
Arquin called the indictments "a wholesale prosecution of a highly vulnerable and defenseless company.
"We were only doing what everybody else does," he said, claiming other small importers bring in cars that do not meet U.S. standards, then add the equipment required by federal law.
The indictments charge Arquin and TVR falsely certified the cars met federal standards. The federal statutes under which they were charged carry penalties of two to five years in jail, plus fines.
Officials of the National Highway Transportation Agency said yesterday TVR once held an exemption from federal bumper standards, but the exemption ran out in 1978. The law requires auto bumpers to survive a five mile-an-hour crash with minimal damage.
Even General Motors Corp. has complained that federal safety and pollution standards are costly to comply with, and Chrysler Corp. has blamed the regulations for its financial problems.
Arquin said the criminal charges were "ridiculous" and said customs agents raided his office and drove of in a quarter-million dollars' worth of cars -- some with the tops down -- as "evidence in the case."
"They came in with guns and walkie-talkies and had people on every corner.You'd think we were dangerous," said the 29-year-old auto importer.
The indictments claim 28 TVR's, all of them open-topped roadsters, did not meet federal standards, Customs officers seized 15 cars, worth an estimated $270,000, from Arquin and picked up three more from dealers in Pennsylvania and New York.
The 10 others were delivered to their owners before the raid.