LONDON - European automakers are flouting European Commision rules by actively discouraging their dealers from selling vehicles to cross-border buyers, according to the operator of a service that ferries UK buyers to the Continent in search of bargains.
Simon Empson, managing director of Broadspeed Engineering Ltd. in Colchester, England, said Renault, the Volkswagen Group and most Asian manufacturers are among those who have tried to stop Continental dealers from selling right-hand-drive models to UK customers.
'The tactics they employ are becoming very sophisticated and highly managed,' he said. 'These tactics aren't just applied to customers using our ferry service. Any cross-border buyer will suffer the same treatment.'
For example, Empson said manufacturers have told dealers in Holland - where pretax prices are much cheaper than in the UK - they can sell a right-hand-drive car, but it will cost them a left-hand-drive car in next year's allocation. Other tactics include delaying delivery times; responding very slowly or not at all to faxed inquiries from UK customers; demanding excessive deposits; adding substantial charges for right-hand drive; and setting separate prices for export buyers and domestic buyers, Empson said.
Renault is among those manufacturers being investigated by the EC for refusing to sell cars to customers crossing borders to take advantage of lower prices. Others include Opel and DaimlerChrysler.
EC rules make it illegal for dealers to distinguish between buyers from one country and another within the European Community.
Broadspeed takes car buyers from Harwich, Eng., to the Hook of Holland aboard Stena Line ferry boats. Broadspeed acts as a 'nominated intermediary,' helping customers negotiate and get through the paperwork to buy a car in Europe and bring it back to the UK.
Empson said he has been finding it more difficult to find right-hand-drive vehicles for his UK customers recently, in spite of highly publicized investigations of several manufacturers.
His service has been overrun by inquiries from British customers seeking to avoid high UK prices. In November, UK prices were highest for 57 of 76 best-selling vehicles in Europe. Holland had the lowest prices for 20 vehicles.
Empson divided the automakers into three categories: those that are 'highly dissuasive;' those that are more moderately discouraging; and those that place no restrictions on the practice.
'At the moment, Renault is at the top of the dissuasion league, followed by the VW group, and all the Japanese manufacturers,' said Empson. Also in the top group are Chrysler-Jeep, Ferrari and Porsche. In the second category are Ford, Opel, Citroen, Peugeot, Porsche, BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Jaguar. The third group, those open to selling to cross-border buyers, includes Fiat, Alfa Romeo, Rover, Volvo and Saab.
A Renault spokesperson declined comment on Empson's charges. Attempts to reach VW were unsuccessful.
Darcy Nicolle, spokesman for the Japanese Automobile Manufacturers Association in Brussels, said: 'There's a very clear legal requirement that no obstacle should be put in the way of consumers to buy a car wherever they want to in the EU. We regularly inform our distributors and dealers of this.'
Marc Greven, legal affairs director for ACEA, the European auto manufacturers' association, said it is important to distinguish between individuals searching for cross-border bargains and companies trying to buy cars en masse and resell them at a profit.
'If all they (Broadspeed-Stena) do is provide services for individual British customers who want to buy a car in Holland, they are simply acting as an intermediary. The situation would be different if this company was itself buying up large numbers of cars, which it would try to resell in Britain.'
Dealers, distributors and manufacturers have had difficulties in the past distinguishing between private buyers, or their legitimate representatives, and companies that want to buy vehicles in bulk and resell them, Greven said.
'That is what makes manufacturers and dealers cautious about all this,' he said.
Alan Pulham, director of the National Franchise Dealers' Association in the UK, said: 'The whole thing is a symptom of the fact there is something inherently wrong with prices in the UK. If prices were harmonized across Europe, there would be no mileage in this whatsoever for Stena and Broadspeed.'
He also suggested, for example, that French dealers might be justified in charging a high deposit or making customers wait for delivery. That's because a French dealer has no one else to sell a right-hand-drive vehicle to in France if a sale falls through.
David Crundwell, spokesman for Vauxhall Motors Ltd., General Motors' UK unit, said: 'We are totally committed to our customers' rights to purchase right-hand-drive vehicles on the Continent.'
Some manufacturers claim they are taking a more proactive approach in order to comply with EC rules and to help customers who want to buy across borders.
Ford of Britain is preparing a pamphlet for UK dealers telling them how to assist customers who want to buy on the Continent, said Joanne Sheehan, a spokeswoman for Ford of Britain. Ford wants to be sure customers understand they can buy a car on the Continent and still get it serviced under warranty at a local UK dealership, she said.
In spite of the difficulties he has faced, Empson said he is about to expand the ferry service he offers. He will begin taking customers from the UK to Denmark, another country with low pre-tax prices, this summer aboard Stena Line ferries.
Stephane Farhi contributed to this report