The UK car market is very competitively priced these days. But it is still viable to import cars from Europe and further afield and make a profit. Specialist Porsches for instance can be worth a lot more in the UK than they are in Germany, and the market for specialist Japanese domestic market (JDM) cars is still strong in the UK.
Inevitably there are advantages and disadvantages when importing a ”parallel” or ”Grey import” car. Plus there is some paperwork involved. Read on for the pros, cons and options of importing a car and selling it for a profit.
Types of imports
In the late 1990s, manufacturers in the UK came under pressure to reduce new car prices. Official reports showed that prices for UK car models were considerably higher here than in many other European countries. So importing from mainland Europe became popular. These days UK dealer new car prices have fallen, narrowing the gap with European dealer prices.
European type approval means all cars sold in Europe meet the same standards of crash protection, emissions, lighting, braking, etc. So you don’t need to worry that a car bought from a dealer in Germany or France for example, won’t meet the same standards as one bought through a franchise dealer in the UK. But you should make sure a vehicle is built to UK spec, as this can vary from country to country.
The term grey import refers to any vehicle imported to the UK from outside Europe. However the term is generally used to refer to cars imported from Japan. JDM cars were imported in large numbers in the late 90’s and early 2000’s.
Technical regulations in Japan and other countries are not the same as those in Europe. Vehicles will need modifications and testing to ensure they meet the European safety and environment standards.
So before registration a non EU car will have to undergo an Individual Vehicle Approval test (IVA) to prove they comply with EU standards. This is a thorough inspection and a test, covering emissions, noise levels and safety standards. You will most likely have to change the speedometers to MPH and fit a fog light, plus other modifications when necessary. You can learn more about the IVA test and other requirements on the governments website here.
There must be a lot of paperwork involved
Assuming you were bringing a car in yourself. If the car is registered you can simply drive your new car back to the UK. If a the car is EU registered and you have the car documentation, you simply get the car MOT’d(if the vehicle is older then 3 years), contact Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA) and fill out the relevant form to register the car, pay the road tax and get the plates made up and are good to go.
If the car is brand new or unregistered you would need to arrange temporary transport plates, but a dealer would be able to assist you with this. A new or unregistered car will also need a Certificate of Conformity to prove that it meets EU safety and emissions standards. A car may also be liable for VAT if it hasn’t been registered or you can’t prove it was at some point. If that is the case you need to contact and declare the import to HM Customs and Excise within 7 days of arriving home. You will be charge VAT on the total import cost so will need receipts for all expenses involved regarding the car, petrol, travel tickets etc. Once you have a receipt of this payment you simply carry out the registration process as explained above.
Buying from outside the EU is more complicated. Typically you will be charged an additional 10% if the car is of none EU origin and has never been registered in the EU, you then pay VAT on the total price including the 10%. This is why so many Japanese cars came via Ireland in the early days of Japanese imports. But a recently Japan and the European Union concluded free trade negotiations so you will no longer be charged the 10% tariff on Japanese imports.
Where to buy from?
Most UK buyers find their cut-price cars in European counties or Japan. It’s easy to scour sites such as Mobile.de or other country specific website looking for cars. You can then simply travel, inspect the car and drive it home. Lots of dealers in Europe have English-speaking staff and are familiar with the UK importation processes.
You can easily find and search the car auctions sites when looking for a car from Japan, they have a useful and guaranteed grading system so you can buy with confidence. The JDM market is easy to assess with most auction houses being able to assist you with almost everything apart from the UK paperwork. The cars are also well supported and understood in the UK and Europe.
This is a great place to start and has the most potential for profit in most cases. There are also lots of companies offering agent or brokerage services, if you are unsure or worried about buying from Japan. These agents may cost you some of your margin, but they can save you a whole load of hassle.
Importing cars from Australia, New Zealand or America can be done in similar ways as importing from Europe or Japan. But with the added advantage of language not being a barrier. You will however be liable for the additional 10% importation duty in most cases.
Is it worth the hassle?
Currently new or nearly new parallel imports don’t offer the large savings they once did. But sometimes there are opportunities. But I would advice doing you research first, and having a car sold and payed for in advance.
The real opportunity currently is in specialist performance cars. For instance rare mainland Europe cars that were never available in RHD or in the UK can make excellent money when imported. The same is true of classic cars that can be imported in great condition from drier climates.
With the JDM market being particularly easy to assess its a great place to start. You can potentially find some rare and desirable models and the japanese climate is very easy on vehicles, with even the older cars being in great rust free condition. The cars are well supported and understood in the UK and Europe. There may not be as much profit to be made as there once was, but there is still a lot of money to be made.
In all markets you need to look for anomalies, some Japanese cars can make significantly more in the UK. Some older Porsches or Ferrari models can make significantly more money than they do in say Germany. This can be easily exploited if you can source the right contacts and cars.
So despite all the costs attached to importing a vehicle, from the shipping charges, import duty/VAT(in most cases), registration fee, and all the other costs and potential tests. Importing cars can be very rewarding. In truth once you have imported your first cars the process is quite easy, and most trade routes have specialist companies willing to help with any issues.
What should I buy
If you are looking for cars in Europe, you can do very well with cars from the likes of Mercedes, BMW ,VW, Porsche and Audi. Air-cooled Porsche models and especially the Turbo cars make premium in the UK. 964 models and the GT3 variants also make more money typically. Older Mercedes and BMW’s can also be good news, think BMW E30 M3’s, 190 Cosworth’s and 500E models. I have done very well with LWB G-Wagons in the past. Older VW Campers, Beetle Karmann convertibles and Golf variants can still be found cheaply in mainland Europe.
Thinking outside the performance box, Citroen 2Cv’s can be profitable to import along with Mehari models. The original Renault Twingo is rare in the Uk and popular secondhand, but commonplace and cheap in France. The Fiat Barchetta was sold in LHD only in the UK so importing a car from Italy doesn’t put you at a disadvantage. The original 500 is still an everyday sight in Italy and can be bought for peanuts, you can then sell them for a premium in the UK.
Japan has a huge selection of performance cars to pick from and you can find the options overwhelming. But and fast turbo’d Toyota, nissan, Honda or Subaru’s are a sound bet. But you can also look for more family focused cars people carriers. Quirky cars like the Nissan Cube or the Figaro are a good choice. Lots of the cars originally imported in the late 90’s are still good news if harder to find. But whatever you do stick to higher grade cars.
Japanese auctions are also a good source of older European cars, and due to their climate they are often in exceptional condition. It’s not uncommon to find modern classics like a Lancia Delta Integrale, Mercedes SL or air-cooled Porsche on the block. So they are well worth searching for.
The American, Australian and New Zealand market imports are mostly dominated by Muscle car and Pickup models. These can be harder to sell in the UK but the markup is normally good. But classic cars from the dry states of America are always sought after, and again you don’t have to limit yourself to American brands. LHD cars are always harder to sell but an original and rust free Mercedes or Porsche will always find a new home. Holden UTEs and Commodore SSV’s are well known in the UK thanks mostly to Top gear, and while a left field choice they do have a following.
Whatever you buy I would always recommend getting in inspected properly and only buying good cars. Again Japan makes it easy by having a great car grading system and strict testing, allowing you to buy in confidence. But you will find companies offering inspection services wherever you are buying from.
It’s easy to think of importing cars as being not worth the hassle. But in practise it is relatively easy to do and in some cases highly profitable.
Importing car from Japan is possible the easiest way to start, the trade routes are the most established, with no real language barriers and a helpful auction system. Shipping is straight forward and the UK market for Japanese cars is strong.
European cars are probably the easiest and cheapest to actually import. However the fact that most cars are left hand drive can limit the appeal and market. So it is important to stick purely to specialist niche cars. It is a similar story with American cars, but both still offer great potential for profit.
But whichever cars you decide to import its essential that you do your home work. Prices for both shipping and purchasing vary with the currency exchange rates. These can work both for and against you when importing cars. You also need to be aware of parts availability and differing spec levels. Incompatible diagnostic equipment making servicing more difficult and potentially increased insurance premiums.
Only once you have a full understanding of your chosen market should take the plunge and import a car.
We have written an article covering importing vehicles and the costs taxes and duties involved here –importing a car to the uk, customs, vat and import duty.