When your boss appears at work and strides over to your desk, a cloud of dread and fear starts to engulf you. Often you don’t know what you’ve done wrong; this time I definitely did. I stared straight at my computer, daring only to
glance furtively in his direction. I smiled my best innocent smile. It didn’t work.
‘I mean… it’s very nice, but you might want to move it somewhere a bit less conspicuous,’ said Andy Entwistle, our managing director.
He was, of course, referring to the giant boat- like car you see above. It was parked in the same location as pictured here, but at a jauntier angle, occupying two spaces in our car park.
Not only that, it wasn’t UK-registered and we have fairly strict overlords running the site where Workshop Towers is based.
They would not be pleased to see a huge, rusty addition to the Workshop Mag fleet, I was told.
I wasn’t really worried about Entwistle seeing the car, in all honesty. After all, he was the first person I’d texted in a mild panic when I’d bought it. What I was worried about was the next nugget of information I was about to impart.
‘Well, there’s a slight problem with that. The move part,’ I said. ‘It doesn’t have any brakes.’
I omitted to mention the fact it didn’t have a battery either, so I wasn’t sure whether it would even turn over.
I knew that he wouldn’t mind once he’d got over the fact it was number plate-less and not working. He’d already offered to buy the 1966 Ford Thunderbird (although probably just to make me feel better about the fact I’d just spent all my money on a car I’d never seen before) and had just imported a Nissan Elgrand himself from its home country of Japan. Entwistle had followed the example set by fellow Workshop Magazine bod Jon Reay, who had decided to import a Subaru Legacy, also from the land of the Rising Sun. Reay had bought his car out of his desperate need to own a Legacy and I really have no explanation as to why my wonderful boss had his heart set on a Japanese MPV apart from, maybe, the fact that it was cheap.
The three cars were bought blind and delivered to the UK, but the lead times on the Asian exports were far longer. Several weeks, in fact. I’ll let their owners explain in their own words exactly what’s ahead for these very different cars as they are prepared for the roads of the UK.
When it comes to my American aircraft carrier, it was imported for me in the sense that I found it on eBay just after it had made it to the UK therefore cutting out the waiting time.
It sounds like I’d planned it, but really I was just stupid. I’ll ruin the ending for you though.
It still doesn’t move. It rolls quite nicely backwards, but not so much forwards.
That’s why, you’ll notice, it is in exactly the same location for every photo in this feature…
1966 Ford Thunderbird ‘Flair Bird’
So here we are. I’m stood in a car park with a car that doesn’t move under its own steam.
Unfortunately, it’s 20cm longer than a Range Rover and weighs about as much as a small private island.
It’s about 7.30am and a man with what appeared to be serious breathing difficulties had just delivered my new car on a trailer attached to a Land Rover Discovery.
That was when I found out it had no brakes.
Through a strong scouse accent, he said: ‘Where do you want it?’
‘Well anywhere is fine,’ I replied.
‘Well, you see, it’s got no brakes. So I need some space to roll it back.’
Oh, oh dear, I thought to myself. Well, that’s just one thing to add to the shopping list. No problem. The next thing I know, the Thunderbird is free from its shackles and is rolling backwards off a trailer and straight towards me.
Fortunately, Mr Delivery Man had placed a wooden fence post on the ground which just about saved me from the full brunt of a 1960s American classic as a rear wheel collided with it – taking the hub cab off with the force.
Add that to the shopping list…!
I had anticipated that the car might run after adding a bit of fuel and administering some gentle encouragement. After all, the eBay adver said that the sellers had had it running and moved it backwards and forwards.
The chance that it would even arrive seemed extremely slim but, with my positive hat on, I assumed that if it did turn up, I would be able to move it fairly easily. So the first job of the day was to enlist the help of my colleagues to move it into a parking space.
The car had been living in Wales for a week or so and the windows weren’t quite shut so, as you can imagine, it was quite damp inside.
When you read my colleagues’ reports, you’ll realise they put a lot of thought into their new project cars. I didn’t.
Ford Thunderbirds have always been a dream car of mine, but if I had to pick a generation to own, it would be the third, made between 1961 and 1963, with their arrow-like front bumpers and circular rear brake lights.
This 1966 version is a generation further on in design and technology, looking almost completely different.
It came up at the right price, but I had never driven one or sat in one, so taking a look around for the first time was an exciting prospect.
Sure enough, there were the brake drums. Sat in the rear footwells of the car and actually not in too bad shape. There are no chips or cracks and they will be sent off to be shot-blasted soon.
Not only was I unsure what the car would look like, I also had no idea how to get into it.
Mr Reay was very supportive in the process of trying to work out how to get under the bonnet. We Googled and pulled about at the ‘hood’ until out of sheer luck and persistence we worked out how to unlatch it. As it turns out there are quite a few variations on these cars.
Alas, there was no battery. I had a feeling that would be the case, but that filled me with hope. Hope that with a new battery attached, I would be able to turn over the engine with no issue.
Finding a battery that would fit the allocated space and was powerful enough to turn over the 6.4-litre V8 lump was tricky, but once it was in place, things were looking up.
Everything was in place and hooked up correctly – but still nothing.
After some more online searches, it appeared that there was a starting procedure, which involved putting the steering wheel in the correct position – after all this has the tilting steering wheel – something anyone who knew anything about American classics would have worked out.
The sound of it turning over was a blessing, but there was still no firing up.
Don’t worry! We made it in the end – but that’s a story for the next edition of Workshop mag. Right now I’m just a girl, looking at a Ford and asking it to function.
￼Model: 1966 Ford Thunderbird ‘Flair Bird’
Engine: 6.4-litre V8 390
Max speed: 127mph
0-60: 9.1 secs
Bought for: £4,250
Spent so far: £150
2003 Nissan Elgrand VX
Project Bertha started much like most things do, over a few beers down the pub. Jon Reay and I got talking about Japanese imports and how they used to be a big thing.
Once upon a time, every other MX-5 was badged Eunos and you couldn’t move for imported S2000s. However, importing cars from Japan seems to be less prevalent these days – at least we thought so. Jon and I, as you can see before you, went down very different avenues.
I’d describe his as a rare performance wagon.
I, on the other hand, went for a Nissan Elgrand.
There is a big following for Japanese ‘day vans’ as great alternatives to the multitude of VWs on the road. Well-specced and comfortable, they make a compelling alternative and most have very active followings in the UK.
As I would be technically buying blind, finding a reputable company was important. Relying on a firm literally on the other side of the world is a risky business! The better companies will also offer condition reports and provide a good number of detailed pictures on their websites. We ended up using a well-established auction exporter called Be Forward.
It stocks a good variety of vehicles and provides excellent detail for most of the vehicles on its website. This was critical to me, as I was prepared to get the car in the workshop for some bits but didn’t want to break the bank!
Eventually I settled on a late 2003 Elgrand VX with around 70,000 miles on the clock. It looks clean and relatively unworn, and at $2,228 (£1,900) including shipping, it was a good deal.
This is where things got scary however.
My chosen exporter would not accept credit card payments, so in order to buy the car, I had to send the whole amount via direct bank transfer to the company.
This goes against every piece of advice you’ll ever hear! If the vehicle didn’t turn up I’d lose my cash, with zero chance of getting it back.
So, in order to truly give myself some peace of mind I conducted a BIMTA check. BIMTA is the official UK trade body for independent vehicle importers and is able to give you something similar to a UK provenance check. They can confirm vehicle mileage and assure you that it isn’t reported as having been stolen or on finance.
The BIMTA check is recognised by VOSA and the DVLA. It’s worth doing one, not only for peace of mind, but also because the document will prove helpful when you sell the vehicle on.
So, armed with a Certificate of Authenticity that showed everything checked out, fortune favours the brave and the cash was duly sent.
Bertha (the name bestowed on the Elgrand) was then allocated to a ship and 10 days later left Japan heading for her new home. About four weeks later, she arrived in Newcastle.
There are a few things to consider before importing a car, the first of which is import tax.
Once it arrives, the vehicle won’t be released until this is paid and you will need the customs forms to register it. Another potential requirement is ‘type approval’ although Bertha, happily, is exempt because she is more than 10 years old. Now here with us, she’s ready to be made roadworthy.
Model: Nissan Elgrand VX
Engine: 3.5-litre V6
Max speed: 112mph
0-60: 7.1 seconds
Emissions: Many emissions
Bought for: $2,228 (£1,900)
Spent so far: £0
2002 Subaru Legacy GT-B Blitzen
This import thing is all my fault. I’m afraid I’m the founding member of this ridiculous car club, and like most large purchases in my life, it started with a winning combination of boredom and man-maths. The idea was pretty simple: get rid of my pristine(ish) but quickly depreciating Impreza, buy something cheaper and older that I could fiddle about with myself, and pocket the spare cash.
For reasons I can’t hope to explain, I decided the only possible candidate was an unremarkable estate car from the late 1990s – and more specifically, a twin-turbocharged version of it only sold in Japan.
Once I’d settled on the idea, I had two options: either find one that someone else had already imported to the UK, or do it myself. Because I’m either brave or stupid, I went for the DIY approach – so the car you’re looking at now is one I bought over the internet from 6,000 miles away.
So what’s so special about my car? While it was in its native country, not a lot.
rom what I can work out, these twin-turbo Legacys were to Japan what the Golf GTI is to Britain, and as a result there are plenty of them to choose from – and at low, low prices.
Mine is at least a little bit rarer – it’s a ‘Blitzen’ special edition, made in collaboration with Porsche Design. For the most part it’s a standard Legacy GT-B – which means a twin-turbocharged 2.0-litre boxer engine and Bilstein shocks, if you don’t speak Subaru – but with redesigned bumpers and 17-inch alloys unique to the Blitzen.
Anyway, now it’s here and on the road, I can concentrate on what I actually want to do to it.
Firstly, I need to give the powertrain some proper TLC. The engines in these – labelled EJ208 in manuals and EJ206 in lesser-powered autos like mine – share most of their bits with the ubiquitous 2.0-litre lumps from Impreza WRXes and STIs, but have the added complication of a second turbo bolted on.
Unfortunately, this isn’t exactly the most reliable set-up. Aside from either of the two sequentially-operated turbos giving up the ghost out of age or boredom, there’s also plenty of other reasons for them to stop boosting as they should.
The cheapest and most obvious place to start is to replace the metres of old rubber vacuum lines in the engine bay, and as the Legacy’s first turbo seems a bit limp, this is firmly on the agenda.
If it runs long enough to justify spending £500, a remap by a Legacy expert (they’re a thing, amazingly) is on the cards too. As standard the GT-B needs 100RON fuel, which we uh… don’t have here. Retuning it to drink 98 would prevent the engine from knocking itself to bits prematurely, and should (in theory) provide a bit of a power boost too.
Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, it needs a proper sound system refit for my own sanity. Thirdly, and in typical Subaru owner fashion, I’ve decided it needs a louder exhaust. It just does – them’s the rules.
Finally, sending the bumpers off for a cheeky respray would make the whole car look considerably smarter.
Add in plenty of maintenance bits and pieces and that should be more than enough to keep me busy for the next 12 months…
Model: Subaru Legacy GT-B Blitzen
Engine: 2.0-litre twin-turbo petrol
Max speed: 150mph
0-60: 5.8 seconds
Emissions: Don’t ask
Bought for: $460 + shipping + tax (£2,300ish total)
Spent so far in UK: £175.80