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Import Interview - Part One

Talking with Australia's leading low-volume vehicle importer - Craig Dean of Sports and Luxury Cars.

Interview by Michael Knowling, Pix by Julian Edgar and Michael Knowling

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Craig, what's your background in the automotive scene?

"Well, to be honest I never really gloated over cars until I'd been in this business for three or four years. My father always owned American muscle cars - he had a GTO, a Thunderbird, the first 6.6-litre Smokey and the Bandit TransAm and stuff like that. Growing up around those sorts of cars, I'd never really looked at them and gone waa-waa. Anyhow, I joined the air force as a motor mechanic and got bored of that after six years; I was planning on starting a conversion business in '84, but I decided to wait a bit longer. I opened this business with a partner in 1989 but, really, it was officially 1990 as far as registrations are concerned. Converting had been a hobby of mine while I was in the air force - I did a few '84 - '86 era Camaros here and there.

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"Straight after leaving the air force I worked for six months as the conversion manager of an existing auto business. We did a lot of conversions - in the six months I was there, seven staff did twenty-two conversions. We all worked pretty hard! That was mainly on Fieros, TransAms, Mustangs and Corvettes - a good variety of the American stuff. During my fairly short time there I also met Albert - a guy who worked under me - and we ended up sitting down and discussing opening our own business. As I said, we began this company - as partners - in '89/'90 and we haven't looked back."

And tell us your involvement in motorsport.

"Motorsport was something I wanted to do for quite some time. I got into it in 1997, just after we left our earlier Moorabbin business premises - where we're at now is our second location. My earliest involvement was in a bit of sports sedan racing and my goal was then to compete in Targa Tassie. My first go at Targa was in a Soarer twin-turbo 5-speed and I came 14th outright. The next year I came 2nd outright - that's been my best result so far. I also raced GT-P in a Soarer for a while, but that wasn't hugely successful. I then moved into a Saleen Mustang, which was a bit of a handful to drive and more recently I've driven a couple of Toyota Supra RZ twin-turbos. The Supras are just fantastic on the road.

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"About the time we started racing the Soarers we'd begun complying and selling them. We'd always been leading in American cars and we decided to delve into some of the quality Japanese import vehicles - not so many people were doing them back then. TransAms weren't that popular back in the early/mid '90s because they were that much more expensive."

What sort of work was involved converting those early TransAms (for example) from left to right-hand-drive?

"Well, all the American cars had to be built under the National Code of Practices, which set guidelines for engineering changes. We approached the conversion so that we had to modify the least amount possible. For example, the wipers were never swapped over - we just extended the mechanisms. These were all acceptable practices within the rules.

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"I used to 'mirror image' the first cars I converted but that's really not a profitable technique. There are a couple of common approaches to a conversion - the most basic is a rod link conversion, where the steering is changed over but the brake booster and clutch system is left on the left side. A rod link conversion is a fairly quick job, so profitability is higher; this was the common approach when there was plenty of competition like there was in the late '80s. There were lots of people converting cars in Australia during the late '80s because there was no licensing; you'd import a car, get an engineer's report and then register it. In 1992, though - when we had a recession - imported cars really started slowing down. Luckily for us we were doing the Pontiac Fiero, because that car alone probably saved us through the recession period. We specialised in those cars and we were the only company to do mirror image conversions for them - we did our own steering rack and did quite a lot of detailed work on them. They were really good when they were finished.

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"The Fiero was designed as a sub-frame car that was to have composite panels put on it - you can take all of the body panels off and it looks sort of like a beach buggy. But it's still good in terms of safety; you could crash a Fiero without its body panels and it'd still meet ADR standards! They came with a mid-engine'd 2.8-litre V6, usually connected to a 4-speed manual or auto and, toward the end of its model life in 88, it came with a 5-speed in a fast back version. The Fiero died fairly early in America mainly because of insurance - young kids were crashing them all the time.

"Back in those days - the mid '80s/early '90s - there were quite a few Mazda RX-7s coming into Perth, for example. I was posted in there at one stage. I didn't take much interest in it at the time - I was more interested in the stuff that was hard to do, because it was more of a niche market. It wasn't until about 1992 that we bought our first couple of Japanese cars. They too were products that were also very good though the recession period because they offered a high level of luxury at low cost. We started doing cars like the Nissan Austar (which was a plush 4-door sedan designed for the European market) and then the Toyota Soarer (with leather, TV, you name it). Since then we've done the entire Soarer range - they're beautiful cars."

And - back in those days - what sort of work was involved in complying a Japanese import car?

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"Well there was nowhere near as much work done to the Japanese imports, but the car had to meet ADRs just like an American vehicle. You had to put door bars in it, the fuel filler neck had to suit unleaded fuel and you had to fit a cat converter - not unlike now really. It's mainly been the stringency of the rules rather than the rules themselves that have changed over the years."

What are the current the processes for a left to right-hand-drive conversion?

"Basically, when converting a car you've got to think about twelve steps ahead - you've got to make sure whatever you do doesn't affect something else. Nothing is symmetrical in most American cars - they're designed for left-hand-drive only, so you have to fabricate and remanufacture a lot of parts. Dashboards, for example, are a one-way design so in the early days you'd have to cut them up and plastic weld them back together. A dashboard could take over a week to do, so there was a massive labour content. If you use the right materials the dashboard can last a long time. If you use a lot of body filler - which many people used to do back in the early days - it'd only last six months before it starts falling apart.

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"I spoke about the cheaper rod link approach, but the mirror image approach is much better - you put the booster and everything to the right-hand-side, as if it was manufactured for Australia. You use everything you can from the original vehicle - some things require minor modification, but it's better than fabricating whole new things. Wiring is important in terms of colour coding, soldering and heat shrinking them. Mirrors also have to be changed on American cars because Australian compliance requires a flat mirror on the right-hand-side. Of course none of the American seatbelts comply, so you've got to put in Australian seatbelts and you used to be able to get away with second-hand tyres - not any more.

To cover your own backside there are procedures to follow for steering modifications - for example, you have to get the welding areas X-rayed to make sure there are no imperfections. It is quite involved.

"We mould dashboards here now because I don't feel like cutting up a dashboard and taking a week to put it back together. I can't say too much, but we got into manufacturing the dashboard along similar lines to the original. It takes us about three days to make a new dash, but it's perfect and it'll last forever."

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How long does a full left to right-hand-drive conversion take?

"On a Mustang it used to take about 400 hours, it now takes about 280, which isn't too bad. That time saving, of course, keeps the price of the car to a minimum."

Tell us about some of the non-mainstream vehicles that you import.

"Well, there's the Chev Astro which is basically a heavy-duty van. A lot of the vans available in Australia are kind of light and a bit underpowered. The Astro not finished to the level of a Japanese van, but they are quite luxurious, grunty, heavy and robust. The conversion process on those is quite expensive because there's not a lot of room to work in them - the engine is half way into the cab. Again, for those we made special tooling and a moulding for the dashboards. They're not a very popular vehicle, though, because they're a bit more 'truckie' than normal - it takes a specialist person to buy one.

"With the Toyota Prius we're trying to lead the hybrid import business, from a low volume point of view. We also had a Honda Insight, but we didn't get the licensing in early enough for that - Honda beat us to it. We can comply the Prius, though - they're a very cheap running and environmentally friendly passenger vehicle. A new one from Toyota is around $40,000, but we sell them second-hand from about $25,000. Over $30,000 nobody looks at them. There aren't many around still - even locally delivered ones - because I think most people remain a bit sceptical about the technology."

Why do you think Japanese imports - rather than American imports - have taken off in Australia?

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"They're a better all-round car, really. And, look, I think a lot of people in the early days of converting American cars got burnt - there was a lot of speedo flicking and stuff like that. Many of the cars were worn out by the time they got to Australia."

And do you think some of those same antics happen with Japanese import cars now?

"I would think that about fifty percent of Japanese imports - now - would be damaged or played with. There aren't a lot of dealers that sell good, honest, original cars - the ones that do are fairly high-level prestige dealers."

What were the prices of Toyota Soarers back when you first started complying them?

"Well, the biggest dollar I got for one was $148,000 - that was brand new. The highest I got for a second-hand one - still with very low kilometres - was $120,000."

Today, you can find quite a few Soarers twin-turbos for under $20,000. Are these cars any good and - if not - how much do you need to spend on a good example?

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"No, those really cheap ones aren't any good. Look, I've got a 1991 genuine 49,000 kilometre one out the front here for $30,000; that's expensive by today's standards. I just sold a '91 with 140,000km for $27,500 and the car looked like new. Soarers don't wear out very quickly - you can guarantee the ones that look untidy are very high in kilometres. The biggest problem with Soarers is they had an instrument fault, which is fairly well known. Where the fault has occurred in Japan, they put a brand new speedo in it - with zero kilometres. A legitimate car with a documented history - which you don't get with the very cheap ones - would have a note in the service book stating the mileage at which the speedo was swapped."

What effect do you think Japanese import cars have on the local new and used car markets?

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"You could argue whether it affects the new car market or not. I honestly believe that it doesn't; I believe not many people go outside their comfort zone. People that want to buy a Soarer, Supra, Mustang or whatever are people that want something different - something that makes a statement for themselves. The local market also has a high depreciation problem. Mercs and Beemers all depreciate quite highly in the first three or four years - a lot of people are put off by that. After the three or four years they settle down a bit, I suppose. I know Commodores and Falcons depreciate very, very quickly whereas the American stuff doesn't because it's for a very dedicated market. Looking back over the years, you might have lost only five percent on a Mustang - unless you've got exceptionally high kays on it. That's a very good return."

Stay tuned for Part Two of our interview where we take a look at the new regulations for Japanese import cars...


Sports and Luxury Cars
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