When his cherished Austin Metro was damaged beyond repair last year, Automotive News Europe's Chief Sub-Editor Geoff Barton was forced into the market for a new car. But what Barton didn't anticipate was that he would eventually buy that car from a broker on the European continent - and not through the traditional UK dealer network. What's more, he paid a bargain price. Here is Barton's story.
The Barton family runabout, a 1986 Austin Metro, is badly damaged while parked in the road outside our house. A neighbor driving a Mini plows into the back of the Metro. Neighbor says she veered off course while attempting to pick up a carton of milk that had fallen over in the front passenger footwell!
Metro judged to be beyond repair. Insurance company offers 1,000 (A1,600 at November 1999 exchange rate) compensation. Search for a new car begins.
Consider buying a Renault Clio as a replacement for the Metro. But my local dealer is charging more than 10,500 for a mid-range model. That seems very expensive.
Discover that Motorpoint, a dealer based in Derby in the English midlands, sells mid-range Clios for about 8,500. Apparently, Motorpoint imports a lot of its stock from Ireland. It is a right-hand-drive market like the UK, but prices are much cheaper there. Starts me thinking.
A friend tells me he recently saved 3,500 by buying a new Honda CR-V sourced from Cyprus - another cheap right-hand-drive market. Which reminds me. Earlier in the year, my brother-in-law bought a bargain used Nissan Fairlady (more commonly known as a 300ZX) that was originally registered in right-hand-drive Japan.
Automotive News Europe staff reporter Bradford Wernle loans me his press car for the weekend. It's a metallic red Alfa Romeo 156 2.0-liter T. Spark.
Quickly conclude that the Alfa is a stunning car. Discover that a 156 with a similar level of specification has a UK list price of more than 22,000. But, I wonder, how much would Motorpoint charge?
Check out the Motorpoint website (www.motorpoint.co.uk). It has a selection of new Alfa 156s for sale starting at just under 17,000. But is it possible to buy cheaper as a personal import?
Contact Simon Empson of Broadspeed Engineering. Among its services, Broadspeed runs a ferryboat operation in conjunction with Stena Line to take car buyers from the UK to Holland and other European countries. Broadspeed helps customers negotiate with continental dealers and get through the paperwork to buy a car in Europe and bring it back to the UK. Empson says a 2.0-liter T. Spark will cost about 12,750 as a personal import.
I gasp in amazement. Where would the Alfa come from?
'Probably Denmark or Finland,' said Empson. 'They're left-hand-drive markets, but our contacts will accept orders for UK-specification cars. It's an excellent price, but the drawback is that you will have to wait a long time for delivery.'
Empson informs me that, as a European Union citizen, I can buy a car tax-free in any member state providing that I then pay tax in the car's country of use. The level of tax fluctuates across member states. In the UK it's 17.5 percent; in Denmark it's a massive 218 percent. To make cars affordable in high-tax countries such as Denmark, carmakers slash their pretax prices. So, for a UK buyer, importing a car from mainland Europe can result in huge savings.
However, Empson says that delivery times can be as long as five months. Nevertheless, I ask him for a full quote.
Empson faxes across a quote from a car-broker firm called AutoCar in Denmark. Their price for a UK-specification Alfa? An astonishing DKK140,804. At the December 1999 exchange rate of 11.6 Danish krone to the British pound, that works out at 12,138. Metallic paint, climate control system, alarm/immobilizer and 'Sports Pack No. 1' (alloy wheels, body-lowering kit and special seats) are included.
But Empson reminds me that I will have to pay UK value-added tax (VAT) on top, plus the costs of transporting, shipping and registering the car. Delivery time? Between 18-22 weeks.
For that price, I'm prepared to wait.
Arrange a money transfer of DKK28,160 (20 percent deposit) to AutoCar's account at the Jyske Bank in Denmark.
Receive an e-mail from Soren Dahl, sales manager at AutoCar: 'Please be informed that today we received your deposit. We proceed and order your car for production.'
The long wait begins...
A package arrives from Dahl in the post containing a variety of Danish registration documents. Dahl wants me to sign and send the documents back to AutoCar, together with a copy of my passport and driver's license. He finishes his letter with the words med venlig hilsen. That's Danish for 'yours sincerely.'
I notice from Dahl's letter that AutoCar has a website (www.autocar.dk). I log on to the home page. 'We specialize in handling enquiries from all types of customers in the European common market,' says the introduction. I am pleased to see AutoCar has been in business since 1964. The firm is based in Aarhus, the second-largest town in Denmark after Copenhagen.
In the intervening months, furor about 'rip-off' new-car prices in the UK has continued unabated. Today, I e-mail AutoCar to tell them I will be on holiday from April 15-22. I also ask if they can give me a firm delivery date for the Alfa. By my reckoning, 18 weeks have almost passed since AutoCar received my deposit and confirmed my order. (By the way, I never did hear back from Audi about the A4 test drive.)
It appears that my e-mail coincided with the delivery of the Alfa to Denmark. Lars Tjornelunde, managing director of AutoCar, e-mails back in reply: 'We are pleased to advise that your new car arrived yesterday and that the predelivery inspection is currently being made. Attached you will find a copy of our invoice covering this vehicle.'
Time for some serious financial commitment. I apply for a loan through the Alliance & Leicester Building Society's car purchase plan.
My car-loan check arrives in the post. Arrange a bankers' draft for the balance owed to AutoCar. I plan to fly over to Aarhus on Friday, May 5, to collect the car.
Book a one-way flight through Ryanair's website (www.ryanair.com). I will stay in a hotel in Aarhus on Friday night and pick up the Alfa from AutoCar the following morning. I plan to travel back to the UK by ferry from the port of Esbjerg on the west coast of Denmark.
Lars Tjornelunde of AutoCar confirms my travel arrangements. However, he tells me there are no ferries back to the UK from Esbjerg on Saturdays. Instead, I will have to drive into Germany and board a ferry at Hamburg.
The whole car-collection trip goes smoothly - although the ferry port at Hamburg proves very difficult to find. (Up until a few days ago, I didn't even know Hamburg had a port!) I eventually board the ferry back to Harwich, England, just 15 minutes before sailing time. It's a long journey - the ferry leaves Hamburg at 5.30pm on Saturday, sails along the picturesque river Elbe and into the North Sea, and arrives in England at 12 noon on Sunday.
Register the gleaming new Alfa for use on UK roads at my local VRO (Vehicle Registration Office) and arrange payment of VAT. I take with me my sales invoice, insurance certificate and all-important Certificate of Conformity that proves the car meets all the EU safety standards.
My road-tax disc arrives in the post from the UK's vehicle licensing center in Swansea, Wales. (It is illegal to drive a car in the UK without displaying a road-tax disc.) I am also allocated a UK license plate number. The Alfa can now officially leave the confines of the Barton driveway and cruise UK roads. I can't wait.
It was an entirely pleasurable new-car buying experience - and one that was conducted, for the most part, on the web.
Broadspeed and AutoCar couldn't have been more courteous and helpful, and the whole adventure was one I'd definitely repeat.
Moreover, the long wait for delivery of the Alfa actually worked in my favor. When I paid my deposit in December 1999, there were 11.6 Danish krone to the British pound. But when I settled the balance, the exchange rate had risen to about 13 krone to the pound. In this instance, the strength of sterling was a positive advantage. Of course, I was lucky. The exchange rate could have swung in the krone's favor.
Until taxation levels harmonize across Europe and the UK joins the single European currency, UK buyers such as myself will continue to find new-car bargains on the continent. And with the increased popularity of Internet retailing, I may never need to visit a car showroom again.
l Alfa Romeo has cut prices in the UK by an average of 15 percent and added extra equipment such as air conditioning as standard. An Alfa Romeo GB spokesman said the move was in response to UK trade and industry secretary Stephen Byers' plea for lower new-car prices. But the spokesman also admitted that Alfa is concerned about rising numbers of unofficial imports - particularly of the 156.
You can e-mail Geoff at [email protected]