A Jalopy in Japan Is a Kiwi's Cadillac

Auto buyers here gobble up used cars from Japan's consumer culture - a letter from Wellington

NEW Zealanders used to keep their cars for so long the country had a reputation as a kind of living auto museum. Now, the Kiwis are turning their antique domestics in - for used cars from Japan.

New Zealanders are flocking to used-car lots that specialize in selling cars that formerly idled in Tokyo traffic jams. Japanese often sell their cars early because registration fees rise as cars get older.

Over the past two years, New Zealand has imported 141,694 Japanese used cars; the remaining 123,482 cars sold have either have been imported new or assembled locally. Used cars are selling faster because they are cheaper.

"It's the first time many New Zealanders have been able to afford a decent car," says Suzanne Smith, executive assistant to the minister of finance. In fact, the Japanese used cars have driven down the price of other used cars in New Zealand.

"They've made quite a significant change" reports George Fairbairn, secretary general of the New Zealand Automobile Association. They've made such a change that the New Zealand automobile assemblers lobbied for a tariff, which the government installed last year.

But the $1,200 (New Zealand; US$650) duty has not stopped the docks from filling up with used cars, so a parliamentary committee is now investigating the imports. They will no doubt look across the Tasman Sea for encouragement, where Australian car manufacturers are now lobbying Parliament to have a $12,000 (Australian; US$9,180) tariff imposed on used-car imports.

The importers of new Japanese cars are also unhappy and sometimes refuse to supply parts to repair the used cars.

"They don't feel the cars give the right image since they were not intended for the New Zealand market," explains Mr. Fairbairn. As a result of this embargo, importers are air-freighting in crates of parts, including used engines, salvaged off young, junked Japanese cars.

Many of the cars do not have very high odometer readings, reflecting the heavy traffic in Japan as well as the laws discouraging ownership of older cars. In fact, lobbyists for the automobile companies maintain that when the imports are used on the open roads, the engines don't last very long, because the engines were broken in at very slow speeds in Japan.

But this year Sheik Najim, a Fiji migrant, purchased a 1982 Toyota Cresta with only 53,000 kilometers (32,900 miles) on it.

"A mechanic said it was really in quite good condition," says Mr. Najim, who now uses the car as a taxi. He notes his brother purchased a similar model assembled in New Zealand for NZ$2,500 more.

The sales are encouraging to used-car salespeople. Chris Bird, the owner of the Chevron Motorcourt in Dunedin, a town 465 miles south of Wellington, flies to Japan half a dozen times a year to choose used cars. One of Mr. Bird's salesmen, Phillip Clarke, says the cars have more options on them than the standard car sold in New Zealand.

"They come with air conditioning, electric windows, factory installed sunroofs, anti-lock brakes, four wheel steering and nicer interiors," Mr. Clarke says. "New Zealand customers are now demanding the same thing."

The used imports are easy to spot on the pier. Some are still covered with the bright logos of Japanese companies that owned them. Still others have Japanese decals or the names of the Japanese dealers who sold the cars. Most also have mandatory Japanese side-view mirrors mounted on the front of the fenders - an addition Kiwi builders do not include.

Ironically, the incoming cars on the loading dock here are only a few hundred yards away from some of New Zealand's antiques, which are crushed and stacked on top of each other, ready to go to Japan as scrap metal.

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