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Eastern Europeans Flock to Holland’s Used-Car Bazaar

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ASSOCIATED PRESS

It may be Europe’s biggest used-car lot, and is thronged each week with Eastern Europeans who want something better than their shabby Ladas, Trabants, Skodas and Wartburgs.

They travel hundreds of miles in search of Western wheels at bargain prices, and sleep in cars and buses outside the gates of the Utrecht Car Market until it opens for sale day.

Dealers from all over Holland, and from other countries, bring about 3,500 cars every Tuesday to a 15-acre tract on the edge of this university town.

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A 33-year-old potential customer from Poland said: “We come . . . to buy good cars at a cheap price. We’re tired of driving around in cars that are slow, unreliable and aren’t worth more than a case of beer.”

He and some other Poles were outside the sales field on a recent night, looking at cars being paraded by dealers. The prospective customer, contemplating a shiny, white Volkswagen, said he was not sure sales outside the lot were legal and would not give his name.

Robbie de Wit, an Amsterdam dealer showing his wares, said, “I sell as much here in one night as I sell at my garage in one week.”

New cars from Western Europe, Japan and the United States command exorbitant prices in the former Soviet satellites, whose economies are troubled as they move from communism to capitalism. Prices at the Utrecht sale, run by the city government, are even lower than those at commercial used-car lots.

Among the most telling images of the fall of communism were the lines of cars abandoned by people fleeing to the West.

Cars manufactured in the old Soviet Bloc are known for low power, poor handling and dumpy styling.

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Used-car lots in Eastern Europe are flooded with them and Western German lots are flooded with Eastern Germans. So other people with a taste for Western transportation and the money to satisfy it come to Utrecht, where cars go for about $1,000 to $5,300, no warranty included.

Polish tour operators alone send about 20 busloads to the market every week, at $150 a ticket.

Organizers of the weekly sale say it already was Europe’s largest in 1989, when Eastern European countries began lifting travel restrictions. Now, police have to close the gates to dealers an hour after they open at 6 a.m.

“The last thing we need right now is more publicity,” Coen Langkemper, deputy director of the sale, said in a telephone interview. He said the 40-year-old car market always was “a peaceful affair, but then came the flood after Eastern Europe opened up.”

Many wholesalers from the Third World come to the market regularly because of its proximity to Rotterdam, Europe’s busiest port, Langkemper said. The city charges $9 per transaction, which earns it more than $500,000 a year.

With the market’s rapid growth, the wheeling and dealing--mostly in broken English and German--has spilled into surrounding neighborhoods.

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“It’s getting out of hand,” said police spokesman Ab van London, who reported complaints by residents about noise and litter from the camping and night sales.

Bart Schouten, city councilman for traffic and zoning, has threatened to close the market if authorities cannot control it.

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