OK... sorry I didn't get to this earlier, it was one of those days at work where the phone just rang constantly, I had 3 conference calls, and then a video call to Hawaii, Japan, and Australia. To make things worse I had planned to go to the base brewhouse during a 2 hour block of free time to eat and have some suds and they had the damn place closed for maintenance. Dealing with Japanese speaking military acronyms in English over a cross-pacific VTC is painful enough with a few Fire Rocks in you, and intolerable sober.
I will answer each of these one at a time:
Trying to register a diesel defender is pretty much a complete non starter. Correct? I did call the DMV once and they seemed to say it wasn't. But tribal knowledge here seems to differ. I lean toward trusting the latter.
There is the letter of the law, and then there is what you might get away with. California will accept the fact that your vehicle does not meet DOT safety standards. What they will NOT let you get away with is a vehicle manufactured after Model Year 1975 that is not approved by either the California Air Resources Board (CARB) as a California truck, or approved by the EPA as a Federal Standards truck.
This is NOT the same as a Smog Check. Smog Checks are simply to validate that a vehicle model that has already been tested as CARB compliant remains within standards.
If the vehicle is coming from out of state, you will need to perform VIN verification with a DMV employee. As part of that process, the employee will be looking for a sticker that states the vehicle meets either Federal or California emissions. Every single vehicle since at least 1975 has this sticker. Go outside, pop open the hood of any modern car in your driveway, and there will be a sticker either on the hood, near the radiator, or possibly on the driver's door frame that states this.
If your truck doesn't have this (and it won't), you will be punted to a CHP inspection for further investigation. If you actually go to the CHP, this will end badly with them telling you it is illegal.
Many folks have found friendly DMVs that check the boxes on the forms that state the vehicle has the magic sticker, due to either apathy or sympathy.
This is truly the only way you will get it registered, on a hope and a prayer. Be forewarned that we have heard from several people that all mid-80s Land Rover titles/registrations are now being sent to Sacramento for review just for this reason.
Importing directly into CA seems to be doubly difficult. So buying one already cleanly titled/registered somewhere in the US is a better bet. Correct?
Correct. A direct import will be a complete nightmare.
Even if titled somewhere in the US, does it still have to go through the big CARB process mentioned here for Grey Market registration? How onerous is that? Is it akin to Neill's comment in the link above?
So, what else should I realistically expect? Is it worth it?
This ties in to the original question. If you get punted to CHP, it will end badly. You simply cannot get a Tdi Defender to meet modern 2014/2015 standards.
The only good news about the VIN verification is that if you *do* get sent to CHP, there isn't anything entered into the computer, so you can shop it to another DMV. But keep in mind you are in fact circumventing California Law.
The only legal way to import a grey market Defender into CA is to convert the engine and emissions systems to a California or Federally approved variant. You will need to follow all rules (like a smog check) for the model year of the engine. The engine must be at least the same model year as the vehicle.
The 2 most promising ways forward are the engine in the Ford Transit that should be the latest Puma variant, and will most likely be a close bolt in for the Defender since it's being used in the ROW models today, and conversions such as Nick's LS motor transplant. Since both of those engines are California compliant, as long as you include all of the required systems the DMV will accept it as a valid engine swap. You may have to go to a Referee for a more in depth inspection, but as long as you included all of the smog components, and any aftermarket parts have an EO number, you will be good to go.