The cheap imports are a win/win for fun

Posted on August 29th, 2004 in Opinion by Julian Edgar

The other day I was in an automotive toyshop. There were cars with turbos, cars with superchargers, luxury cars, poverty-pack cars. I walked around, completely entranced. I spent perhaps half an hour there – but I could have spent hours. And if lots of test drives were available, perhaps a week. Now this is nothing unusual – most of us have had similar feelings in places selling cars. But what made this yard fascinating is that the pricing on the day I was there peaked at AUD$3,500.

Yep, not one car cost more than three-and-a-half grand.

The yard was full of grey market Japanese imports that were all more than 15 years old. In Australia, the ’15 year rule’ makes it much easier to get privately imported cars complied and registered. Often, in fact, just new seatbelts, non-concave exterior mirrors and door intrusion bars need to be fitted. In some cases, not even all of these.

And since in Japan these old cars are worth very little – the importer suggested that one car had cost him 12 cents – even when freight and import charges are taken into account, the local cost of the car is chickenfeed.

So what sort of cars could be found? My favourite was the Toyota Crown Royal wagon. Equipped with the 1G-GZE supercharged 2-litre six-cylinder, this car was once the height of Japanese family luxury. What with climate control, cruise, velour, fridges, a curtained sunroof, 4-speed auto, alloys – and a heap of other things I didn’t have time to identify – this was one nice package. Now I know what you’re saying – a Toyota Crown Wagon? WTF? But its very weirdness was fascinating. I already have a supercharged Japanese grey market import blown Crown, but imagine a wagon….

Much the same body – in sedan form at least – is also available with the Lexus LS400 1UZ-FE 4-litre V8. Picture it. You’re in this olde-world, fussy-looking but conservative Toyota Crown, the sort of car pedalled by the elderly on their way to the bowls. You’re at a set of lights, some arrogant lout in a hot Commodore alongside. The light goes green and the Crown leaps forward, nose pointed skywards and DOHC V8 burbling. Ah, creamed another one…

When I was there, the yard – it’s just a holding place for cars being sold mostly through the web – didn’t have any of the V8 Crowns, but it did have some turbo 550cc cars. Yep, the early Kei class turbo buzzboxes are now older than 15 years. There was a Daihatsu Mira TR-XX – spunky body kit and interior and all – with the turbocharged, intercooled, engine-managed 3-cylinder screamer under the stubby bonnet. I once built up one of these cars, using the later 660cc 12-valve engine transplanted into a locally-delivered Mira body. With a big turbo and injectors, water/air intercooling and lots of boost, it used to run 0-100 km/h in the high Sixes. And was one of the most fun cars I have ever owned.

So when I saw this genuine TR-XX – even in 550cc form – all I could do is grin and grin. Especially at AUD$2500….

But perhaps even better were the Daihatsu Hi-Jet vans. The blunt boxes looked much the same as their locally-delivered brethren…but they had turbo intercooled engines! Unfortunately, they’re a blow-through carby design, but still…

And there was one car that I got to drive. It was a Nissan March, complete with a 1-litre powerhouse. Huh? What 1000cc car has lots of factory power? You’d better believe it – this one!

The four cylinder is not only turbocharged, but also runs a positive displacement supercharger. Throw in a top-mount intercooler, a mass of 770kg and short gearing, and well, you have a bloody road rocket. With two people in the car and a soft launch (any revs off the line and the thing just smoked-up a wheel), 100 km/h came up in the high Sevens. With some better front rubber, a single person in the car and a decent launch, I reckon that this would drop to the mid-low seven second bracket. With even the most trivial of mods – say a little bit of extra boost, an exhaust and some intake mods – you’d have to be well into the Sixes. Oh, and probably still get cruise fuel consumption also in the Sixes (in litres per 100 km).

Hmmm. Three thousand, five hundred dollars for the car. Say $500 for compliancing. Exhaust, $200. (You’d just use the factory mufflers off a more powerful car and get 2½ inch press-bent pipe.) A simple pneumatic boost control, $40. Either another car’s airbox or a new intake pipe into the standard ‘box, say $50. You do the addition – and what you can’t see in these bare figures is the sheer amount of fun that would result.

Now don’t get the wrong idea. None of the cars in the yard were particularly clean. Some had a few dents. Others had tired paint. (Though the Crown wagon – what you could see of it anyway – looked very good.) In fact, I think that a lot of people would take one look at the assembled cars and leave… I didn’t ask but I’d imagine that warranties would be non-existent. And sure, in many cases sourcing local spare parts would be problematic – no March bits, for example, were ever delivered locally by Nissan.

But hell, at these dollars all that pales into complete insignificance. After all, a lot of you would pay more in one year’s insurance than the total value of some of these cars! (And talking about insurance, if you bought one of these imports, obviously you’d get only third party property, not comprehensive.)

Having owned lots of cars over the years, I know the fun and enjoyment that you get from a car is in no way related to how much the car cost. So sure your Impreza WRX may go hard both in a straightline and around corners, or your V8 Falcon might have a great exhaust note and fantastic bottom-end torque, or your highly modified Laser 4WD Turbo might go like the proverbial off a shovel. But in these times of high insurance costs and heavily policed roads, there’s an awful lot to be said for a high-tech and incredibly cheap fun machine that doesn’t look just like the one up the street.

If you live in Australia, I think these 15+ year imports are the way to go if you have a limited budget but like playing with high-tech.

Even as a second car.

Or a third….

Contact: Yahoo Motor Sport (Specializing in 15 year old imports)

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