By Martin Gurdon, Sunday Times, March 14th, 2004.
Britain may be America’s poodle, but for some reason unfathomable to most mortals, the pound is currently savaging the dollar on the foreign exchange markets. Last week the pound was trading at around $1.80, making everything American, from holidays to designer clothes and cars, seem very cheap indeed. Growing numbers of British eyes have started peering over the Atlantic with an acquisitive gleam. Combine the favourable exchange rate with the rash of exciting new American cars unveiled at the Detroit Motor Show in January, and it’s little wonder that interest in importing vehicles to Britain has never been higher.
What really made people sit up and take note was when Ford announced at the Detroit show that the expected price for its gorgeous new Mustang sports car would be about $20,000 in V6 form and $26,000 as a V8. In other words, a glorious rear-wheel-drive coupé, with arguably more power to turn heads than a Ferrari, will have a list price of around £11,100, about the same as the cheapest Ford Focus here. It was hardly surprising that many car buyers here did a double take.
“Whereas it used to be mainly for enthusiasts, the appeal is now far wider,” says Anthony Cohen, chairman of the American Import Agents Association. “People are thinking they can have something exclusive without having to pay Lamborghini money.”
Also fuelling the trend is the fact that the growth in popularity of people carriers and off-roaders here has narrowed the gap between US and European cars. No longer are US vehicles laughable gas-guzzling monsters compared with small economic British cars.
So how do you set about getting your own slice of American iron? The first thing to do is to decide whether to use a British importer, who will do all the work for you, or go for a DIY version. Obviously the former offers ease — it is no different to going to any car dealer — the latter offers bargains, but potential headaches.
Just how easy DIY importing is depends on who you ask. Some will say it’s straightforward, as long as you devote a little time to the paperwork. Others will tell horror stories of cars going missing on the high seas, turning up damaged; bureaucratic nightmares and massive bills for conversions.
Mike Etherington, a publisher from Basingstoke, Hampshire, returned to Britain after working in America in 1998 and brought his Ford Explorer with him. Now he is importing a Ford Expedition Eddie Bauer, a huge top-of-the-range off-roader. “I am not a petrolhead at all,” says Etherington. “I’m just a normal guy who needs a car to drive his family around. But importing means I can buy an enormous thing, with a button you press which makes a third row of seats pop up electrically so you can seat nine. I don’t know of any European car at any price that offers that.”
Etherington expects his private import to cost just over £30,000 for the 4.6 litre V8 Expedition, which includes air-conditioned leather seats. As with all big-engined American cars, fuel bills will be steep, but he expects it to return about 20mpg.
Etherington has also been so inspired by the challenge that he has set up a website (www.import-car.info), giving advice to would-be DIY importers. Advice is also available from the American Auto Club International (www.aac-int.com, 01948 830 136), an enthusiasts’ club based in Shropshire.
The main costs to add to the American price of a car are shipping, shipping insurance, 10% import duty and 17.5% Vat.
Shipping is far easier to arrange than you might imagine, and there are numerous firms that will give you a quote and manage the paperwork. Also, if you buy a car from a dealer on the East Coast — say Miami, New York or Boston — you shouldn’t need to pay for someone to drive the car miles to a port.
Import duty and VAT are the biggest costs, but what puts most people off is the vagaries of the Single Vehicle Approval (SVA) system. Since 1998 every non-European vehicle imported needs to undergo a test to check it conforms to safety standards for British roads. The test itself costs just £150, but most people are in the dark about how much work will need doing to their particular car to get it through the test and whether they can do the labour at home.
The way round this is to use a specialist such as the Mildenhall Auto Centre in Suffolk (www.mildenhallautocentre.ltd.uk, 01638 713 962), which will organise the entire process, carry out the necessary modifications and get the car through the test. Because MAC has already done SVA conversions with all the popular models, it should be able to give you an accurate quotation of how much it will cost.
Most American vehicles need alterations to the lights (including fitting separate rear indicators and second indicator bulbs on the side of the car), while some cars also need new tyres with a higher speed rating, or to have heavy tinting on the windscreen removed. Converting left to right-hand drive is rare as it would cost thousands of pounds extra.
Many customers at MAC drop their cars off, stay in a hotel and pick them up the next day. The company says the average bill for parts, labour and Vat would be about £550. “We estimate that importing privately saves around £5,000-£8,000 against buying from an importer,” says Matt Nelhams, general manager at MAC.
However, commercial importers are reporting increasing sales, and say a large part of the market wants the assurance and ease of buying from a British firm they can visit in person.
This month Stephanie Ayres, a housewife with four children from Chipping Camden in the Cotswolds, took delivery of a 6 litre Ford F250 Lariat pick-up, which she bought through the British importer Intercep for £36,000.
“I used the import company because there are quite a few rules and regulations about car importing which I didn’t really understand,” she says. “For a start I didn’t know how to unload at the docks and that from there you had to take it straight to a SVA test centre.
“In the end I decided that if it didn’t cost that much more and I could get someone else to do it all for me, that’s what I would do. I don’t know exactly how much extra it cost but I think it was probably £3,000 more. For me it took a lot of the hassle and pain out of the whole thing. The only pain in it for me was having to wait for the vehicle, really.”
Anthony Cohen, joint director of American Car Imports, a London-based importer, also points out that companies such as his offer three-year warranties and guarantee the quality of the work. But for people like Etherington the importing is part of the challenge. “To be honest I find hassle is all part of the fun,” he says.