A U T O   I T A L I A  -  R E D    T A P E

AutoItalia, no. 22, June 1998


By Phil Ward

"Free trade in
the European
community has
made importing
cars easier than
ever before . . ."

I don't think so.

The current strength of the pound makes buying a car in Europe a sensible option; that is, of course, if left hand drive. Prospective Fiat Barchetta owners don't have the choice, so I imported one to find out how it's done. UK car prices have always been high when compared to mainland Europe and buying from across the Channel currently makes sense. In theory you can buy a right hand drive car in Belgium significantly cheaper than you can in the UK. BBC's Top Gear would have you believe that a European dealer will not sell you a new right hand drive car - well, anything is possible and it has been done.

Back to the plot . . . to some, driving a left hand drive car is not a problem, to many it is the end of the world. I suspect that most who say they can't possibly drive a left hooker have never tried.

When the Barchetta was launched, Paolo Cantarella was asked if the car would be available in the UK, he said it would and it is, but only in left hand drive form. It is hard to understand how such a brilliant little car should be handicapped from birth. The argument seems to be that the car would be expensive to buy because of the additional tooling costs. Consequently the Barchetta has no advertising campaign, it is under-promoted, and it is on special order only.

With an on-the-road price of 16,995 in the UK the Barchetta is reasonable value, but when you compare this with European prices it's worth thinking again. Now the model has been available for three years, secondhand cars are well worth considering but are still quite rare in the UK, keeping the prices up. In Europe, however, where the car has been freely available, prices are more attractive.

Most sensible people living in the UK have accepted that we are no longer Anglo-Saxons but Europeans. We are told that the free market allows trade across all member countries and that we have equal rights. This may be true on paper, but the reality is quite different. In theory it should be easy to buy a car anywhere in the EC, drive it home and register it in your own country. This is not true. I will explain how the system operates, or not, as the case may be.

In the past, it has always been the Customs and Excise regulations that prevented free importation of European cars. Provided the car that you wish to purchase has had the VAT paid when it was first registered then there is no problem, you simply drive the car through the Green Channel at the port of entry. If your car is new you will have to declare it and pay 17.5% VAT, usually in cash or with a pre-arranged bankers draft.

There are specialists who are well accustomed to importing cars into the UK and who know how to get round the red tape. Understandably, they are reluctant to pass on the information, after all they are in business. Having decided that a Barchetta would be a worthy successor to our trusty 124 Spider, I set out to source a European car myself and thus experienced what the average Auto Italia reader might expect to encounter.

Beware huge lies!
If you purchase one of the many Exchango and Marto type magazines in Europe you will find a plethora of apparently wonderful cars for sale. Basic instincts warn you that used car dealers in any country are in business for profit, however, the reputable ones with manufacturers' support will have some level of warranty back-up. Everyone knows that private sellers tell huge lies and there is no real redress if it all goes wrong. Even the most experienced of us get caught out occasionally in our own country, so do you have a better chance in Europe? It takes a brave person to fly to Milan and buy a car sight unseen, hand over loads of readies and drive home, hoping all will be well!

It's really about who you know. Any self-respecting Italian car owner would benefit from being a member of the appropriate owners' club. You don't have to go to their tea parties, but if you want to know more about your car and the best places to get it serviced, then the contacts are invaluable, you might even make some friends!

I met Phillippe Bacquaert the very active President of the Fiat Motor Club Belgium, at the excellent Classic Car Races he organises each year at Zolder, an event I recommend to any Fiat/Alfa/Abarth/Lancia enthusiast. Phillippe often comes over with a crowd of Belgians to the annual Auto Italia Festival and we have built up a Euro friendship - he is also a 'good bloke'. When we were looking for our Barchetta I asked Phillippe if he would scan the local press in Antwerp for possible cars. His brief was that the car should be red, have air conditioning and preferably with alloy wheels. You may enquire why a soft top car should need air-con - wind in the hair and all that. Anyone who has driven in the roasting heat - even at speed - in the height of a Central European summer will know what I mean. Phillippe quickly located a car to our specification and even took the trouble to test drive it on our behalf.

This is where the UK rules come in. There are two ways to bring a car into the UK, a general import or a personal import. General importation requires you provide documentation to prove that the car has UK type approval (necessary for all post 1978 cars). If the model has never been sold through the UK dealer network then forget it. Some owners who brought cars in from the States fell foul of this regulation. Consequently, some unlucky purchasers bought European built cars in America sight unseen, shipped them over, and were left with cars they couldn't register which were worth only the sum total of spare parts - that is, unless you knew the right people!

Personal importation means that you have owned, registered and insured the car at an overseas address; for how long is a grey area. If you decide to follow this route then a UK Vehicle Registration Office will require you to provide proof of European use. A personal import will allow you to run the car temporarily on Euro lightning and a km/h speedometer until the car is due an MoT test. You might get away with beam deflectors and an mph overlay, in any event you should take steps to avoid dazzling other road users with badly adjusted lighting. We opted for general importation and played it by the book - well, almost.

It would be quite easy to buy a car in Europe and carry it back to the UK on a trailer. I chose to drive the car home, which made things a bit harder. One way or another you must have registration plates to drive a car on the road. The Barchetta that Phillippe Bacquaert sourced was for sale at a Belgian dealer. Consequently it had had the registration plates removed. Having spoken to Phillippe on the phone about obtaining 'Customs' transit plates he told me it could be done, but I would have to spend two days in Belgium and queue with 'Americans and crooks' at the Euro 'DVLC' in Brussels. Having already purchased a personalised numberplate from DVLC for the car I decided to drive the car back from Belgium.

Personal plates
Buying a numberplate is very easy. You simply organise yourself with a list of possibilities, a credit card and ring the DVLC hotline, who will advise you of availability. Our plate cost just 250, which included the transfer fee - good value I would say. Having advised my insurance company of my plans, they issued me with a cover note carrying the registration number. Armed with some shiny new plates and an electric screwdriver (which must looked suspicious on the X-ray in baggage control) I boarded a Sabena Fokker at London City Airport bound for Antwerp in Belgium. Phillippe Bacquaert met me at the airport and off we went look at the car.

Although the Barchetta was an early car (July 1995) it was immaculate and new. It had covered only 29,000 kms and had been owned by a German doctor. It had brand new tyres, to replace the set of winter tyres it had been running on, that were mounted on the 15" optional alloys. When Phillippe had inspected the car he noticed that the windscreen lamination had separated in the top left hand corner and the screen was turning milky. Rather than consider a reduction in the asking price of Bfr 75,000 the garage offered to change the screen at their own expense - fair enough. Because the car looked so good I did not check out all the systems as I should have done which, looking back was a mistake, but then that's life. It was only when I was boarding the Fast Track ferry at Ostend that I noticed the driver's side electric window was very slow and needed lots of 'clicks' to operate it When I tried the passenger side, ft did not work at all! Also, I noticed that at idle there was a rattle coming from the engine that trailed away as the revs increased. A quick look under the bonnet revealed a split in the exhaust manifold heat shield - must have been the cause of the rattle - no, it wasn't!

I arrived home on February 17th. As this is being written on April 4th I have just received my tax disc to run the car legally on the road. Determined to 'do it all myself', the day after the car was in the UK I filled in a tax application and sent all the documents off to my local VRO with a covering letter and a cheque. I did this (a) because I might just crack the system first time or, (b) they would reject the application and I would be advised of the right way to do it - it was to be (b).

My application had been rejected because I couldn't supply the UK type approval number, something that the VRO must surely have had on record anyway. Fiat Auto (UK) have the necessary information and they will supply it on written application and relieve you of 60 for the privilege - a good earner for Fiat. Armed with this number - no, I'm not going to publish it - I reapplied to my VRO. Bingo! I received notification that all my documents were in order but that the car had to be inspected to verify the chassis number.

The paperwork from the VRO informs you that, "the Secretary of State will not inspect any vehicle driven to the VRO that is not licensed" and, "all vehicles presented for inspection must have all four wheels off the ground", the mind boggles. Rossi Engineering came to the rescue and off we went to Wimbledon with a perfectly serviceable Fiat Barchetta loaded on to a trailer to satisfy the jobsworths. With nowhere to park legally, I had to use my mobile phone to attract some attention inside the building in order to keep my appointment on time and not get a parking ticket. 30 minutes after my call an official with a dayglo yellow jacket and clip board came to inspect the car. Tip. Make yourself familiar with the location of all necessary identification numbers. The chassis plate is obvious enough, but where was the number stamped directly into the chassis? Not on the bulkhead, not on the suspension top mounting. "It will be in the manual", said the official. "No such luck", says I, and it was true. Remember those old Fiat handbooks that show you where the relevant numbers are? Well, modern handbooks don't cover sensible information, they are more concerned with how you should dispose of your car in the most ecological fashion. We found the chassis number, under the passengers' carpet and behind a flap covering an aperture in the carpet.

Inspection completed, I was advised that my documents would be forwarded; that took another week. In the meantime I ordered the necessary parts decreed by Fiat Auto (UK) and booked the car in for its first major service at Riviera in Alperton. It was expensive. The electric windows were rectified on the driver's side, but a new motor was necessary for the passenger's window lift. The rattle from the engine on start up was a failed 'camshaft variator', a common problem, I am told, on this engine - so much for modem mechanical technology.

Riviera fitted the UK specification rear light clusters, necessary so that the reversing light and rear fog are on the correct sides. When the car came back I had a white rear fog and a bright red reversing light - ho hum. The cost of an official Fiat service does make you consider alternatives. My bill was 928. Labour rate at Riviera was 62 per hour (53 + VAT). Think about this when they take the engine out of your Fiat Coupe to change the cambelt at 60,000 miles.

The excellent, high-tech Barchetta headlamps are not adjustable for UK driving and have to be replaced. They cost 447 a pair. The speedo console is a sealed unit and you have to replace the whole thing just to display mph - 397. I opted to change the units myself and paid myself 62 per hour.

So what did we save? Well, used Barchettas are still at a premium in the UK and you are unlikely to see a basic specification one for sale at much less than 12,000. They are offered in Europe for as little as 8,500, but check the specification. Buying new in the UK will mean a long wait and watch out for the cost of the extras.

Despite the relaxation in Euro rules, in Italy you will need a lawyer (up to 500) to remove your car from the country. Our Barchetta cost us 9,500 complete with air conditioning, alloys and a keep-your-hair-tidy wind deflector. It needed servicing - but don't they all sooner or later? It required UK specification parts, but was otherwise immaculate. So we are looking at around 11K to 11.5K against a similar specification car in the UK for 14K.

Buying in Europe is a risk, but local knowledge and reliable contacts are the way to go and, until there are more cars on the UK market that suit your personal requirements at a sensible price, why not make the best of the present situation?

Buying new in Italy saves very little when travel and expenses are included. The cost of fitting essential UK equipment must also be taken into account.
Buying secondhand is very attractive because there are more cars to choose from, but there is a risk element - and the red tape!