Because a 1975 Toyota Land Cruiser was different, the U.S. government sentenced it to die.
Unable to conform in a land of conformity, the gray Land Cruiser was found guilty of violating federal pollution control regulations. The government condemned it to a Northern Virginia scrap yard where a giant shredding machine reduced the $7,000 vehicle to $20 worth of 18-inch metal shards.
It died alone in May. Maria Burcroff, who owned the car with her husband Richard, said they "couldn't bear to watch."
The Fairfax County couple's war with the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Transportation ended that month, when the couple surrendered and paid $25 to have the cruiser towed to the Alexandria Scrap Corp. They agreed to the execution -- one of only a handful ordered each year -- as the only way out of a bureaucratic nightmare that threatened to cost them the $2,300 bond they posted to get the car off a Baltimore dock.
The controversy orginated five years earlier in the Philippines when Richard Burcroff, an American economist with the Asian Development Bank in Manila, bought the Japanese car, which lacked many of the pollution devices, required in the U.S. The Jeep-like auto spent the next four years roaming the island of Luzon, seeking outposts of unspoiled pleasure where few other cars could go.
"We drove that thing all over the Philippines," Burcroff says. "We forded streams to get to remote fishing villages where the fishermen took us diving. We slept in the back of the cruiser on the beach, looking up at the moon and the stars."
Then Burcroff took a job with the World Bank in Washington. Since the bank was picking up his moving tab, he decided to bring his cruiser back home, confident that any adjustments to the car would be minor.
He had read government brochures on importing cars. "They didn't sound too discouraging," Burcroff recalls. "They said there could be problems, but there wasn't a lot of detail."
About a month after the Burcroffs settled into their Northern Virginia town house, the car arrived in Baltimore. Customs inspectors combed over it and, alas, failed to find a required U.S. government label on the engine. To get the car home, the Burcroffs posted the bond.
Customs notified both EPA and DOT of the noncomplying car's arrival and told the Burcroffs they would have 90 days in which to bring it in compliance with federal air safety regulations. Within two weeks, Burcroff says, he received a notice from DOT of the dozens of safety requirements the car would have to meet, covering everything from windshield wipers to safety belts to door latches.
"The regulations," Burcroff says, "proved impossible." For starters, they indicated he would need a new engine, a new carburetion system and a new gas tank with an approved vent.
Burcroff insists his car complied in nearly every way. "About the only thing wrong with the car was the mirrors," he says, "and the seat belts." (The mirrors were convex, not flat, and the seat belts nonexistent.)
Meanwhile, Burcroff registered his car unhindered in Virginia. Two months passed without word from EPA, Burcroff says. Frustrated and anxious to recover his $2,300, he called EPA representative Carolyn Blackstone in January.
She told him she had received neither the customs notice nor a copy Burcroff sent her earlier. She was prepared to act nonetheless. She mailed him an ultimatum: "If an importer is unable to demonstrate conformity because of expense or any other reason, his/her vehicle must be exported, redelivered to Customs or destroyed."
Along with the warning, Blackstone sent the name of a manufacturer's representative who would assist Burcroff in modifying his car to meet emission standards.She included a list of testing facilities where for "$500 or more" his Toyota could get an approved emissions inspection.
"I called the Toyota representative in California to find out if there were any shortcuts or any way to save money," Burcroff said. "They said they would have to write their engineers in Tokyo and it probably wouldn't do any good."
When Burcroff totaled the expenses, they came to more than $2,500. The car's assessed value was $3,475 (about half its probable market value) and there was no guarantee the car would pass inspection even after he made the improvements.
EPA officials say Burcroff took his next step hastily. Of the 3 million cars imported into the U.S. each year, they say, only 1,600 fail to comply with federal standards. Fewer than a handful of those have ever been destroyed, said environmental protection specialist Timothy Fields.
Behind the EPA's forbidding literature, he explained, lies a heart of gold, one nearly always willing to waive its written deadlines and negotiate a fine that allows nonconforming cars to go through.
"You can come in and let us know your hardships," Fields explained. "We've been sympathetic in the past. We try to be reasonable."
"In retrospect, I would have put up a much bigger fuss," Burcroff agrees. "But we were still settling into a new home, we had a new baby to take care of and my wife's mother was dying."
The 90-day grace period having already elapsed, Burcroff faced losing his $2,300 bond and a possible $10,000 EPAfine. He wrote the EPA and told them he was exercising his third option, destroying the car. "What I should have done is drive the thing through EPA's front window."
Burcroff had to arrange for the car's destruction and for a customs inspector to witness its demise.The Burcroffs stayed home.
On May 5, the same day Maria Burcroff's mother died, a crane hoisted the family's Land Cruiser into the air and dumped it into the Alexandria Scrap's 2,500-horsepower grinder. According to the customs report, it came out "in pieces no bigger than 18 inches long."
It has since been sent to a foundry for recycling into, perhaps, a Chevy since a General Motors plant buys scrap metal from the Alexandria yard.
For the Burcroffs the $183 Fairfax County personal property tax bill they recently received for the car has become something of a joke. "If they want to," giggles Maria Burcroff, "they can come down here and haul the car away any time." CAPTION: Pictures 1 through 4, The Burcroff's 5-year Toyota Land Cruiser was sent to a Northern Virginia scrap yard where a shredder reduced it to $20 worth of scrap.; Photos by James A. Parcell and Gerald Martineau; Design by Alice Kresse -- The Washington Post