Swimming Against the Import Tide : Trade: Wilmington's Berth 195 is flooded with cars from Japan, but there is a trickle of mostly used automobiles flowing in the other direction.


For anyone who worries about the U.S. trade deficit, the vast parking lot near Berth 195 in Wilmington may be a depressing sight.

The 80-acre lot is jammed with thousands of shiny, fresh-off-the-boat Nissans, Infinitis, Mercedes and Volvos. Row after row of them, millions of dollars worth of new cars, all waiting to be loaded onto trucks or trains and shipped to dealerships throughout Southern California and as far east as Chicago.

Every few seconds more of them roll off the three huge ships--600-foot-long floating parking lots, each capable of carrying up to 5,000 cars--that are tied to the dock. On this particular day the Eternal Ace and San Marcos together are unloading more than 5,000 Nissans and Infinitis--Sentras, 300ZXs, Q45s--while the Swedish ship Madame Butterfly is dropping off 250 Volvos.

It's a sight to warm the hearts of auto workers in Japan and Europe.

Meanwhile, in a quiet little corner of the parking lot, the flip side of the Los Angeles international car trade sits waiting to be loaded onto a ship, their windshields plastered with stickers that say "YOKO," meaning their destination is Yokohama, Japan.

These Japan-bound cars are not, for the most part, new cars. Instead, they are a '61 Chevy Impala, some '69 Camaros, a '79 Mercury station wagon, a '68 blue Cadillac De Ville still bearing California vanity plates that say "ASTRAL"--someone's dream car of a quarter century ago.

There are also camper-trailers, RVs, some beat-up old dune buggies. There are a few newer cars, Corvettes and van conversions, and some erstwhile imports that are about to become exports: Porsches, Volkswagens, even a few old Datsun 240Zs.

All of the cars are destined to become part of Japan's growing American used car and specialty car markets--a tiny countercurrent amid the tide of auto imports.

The numbers tell the story. During the last fiscal year more than 330,000 imported vehicles were shipped into the Port of Los Angeles. Another 180,000 cars, almost all of them Toyotas, were shipped into Long Beach.

In the same period, only about 35,000 vehicles, new and used, were shipped out from the Port of Los Angeles to foreign destinations, primarily Japan and Taiwan.

Nevertheless, some people see the handful of westbound clunkers and new cars as the first glimmer of dawn in the L.A. export car business.

"Yes, it's almost a one-way street," says Ian McKenna, vice president of Noram Ocean Transport, a Seattle-based company that ships about 10,000 vehicles a year from U.S. ports to overseas destinations, most of them used cars.

About 80% of the company's auto exporting business is in Los Angeles. "But we're doing our best to turn it around, at least a little bit. . . . We have some very fine older cars going to Japan, and also quite a few new vehicles," most of them performance cars or specialty vehicles such as van conversions or sport utility vehicles.

"The export side of the business is growing," said Martin Richards of Distribution & Auto Service Inc., a Wilmington auto receiving and preparation company that handles about 150,000 incoming Nissans, Volvos and Mercedes annually, as well as about 10,000 of the vehicles exported to foreign destinations from the Port of Los Angeles.

"Right now it's not a very significant part of our business, but we hope it will continue to grow. . . . Over the past two or three years particularly, the shipping companies have started to realize that they have a lot of empty cargo space westbound. They're eager to fill it."

And they're filling it in large part with relics of the days when America ruled the automotive world.

The used cars being exported come from hundreds of different sources, ranging from Asian students or business people who buy a used car and ship it home, to companies that buy cars by the hundreds and ship them to used-car dealers in Japan.

"It (L.A.) is a good climate, and because it is a big city there are many cars," said Yuji Tani, executive director of Hearte International, a Torrance company that ships about 400 cars a year from Los Angeles to Japan, about half of them used. It is one of hundreds of used-car exporting firms, large and small, scattered throughout the United States. "Here there are many good 20-year-old cars, 30-year-old cars. In Japan, they are all junk" because of the moist climate.

Tani, 28, a native of Shikoku, Japan, has been buying used cars in Los Angeles for the past five years and finds cars the same way domestic buyers do--he scours the classified ads and auto trader magazines, goes to auctions, scouts out used-car lots. He specializes in Corvettes, Camaros, Porsches and other "muscle" and high-performance cars for the young male Japanese market, but the parking lot at his shop on Del Amo Boulevard also contains an occasional '66 Chevy station wagon, an old VW van, a dune buggy--anything that will sell in Japan. Tani's company repairs any body damage, repaints the car and makes minor mechanical repairs before shipping.

The markup can be considerable. Tani noted that a 1969 Camaro in good condition with a 350 cubic-inch engine--"Japanese people like the V-8"--can be bought here for about $5,000 to $8,000, while in Japan the car will sell for up to $20,000.

There are costs involved in the U.S.-to-Japan used-car market. For example, Noram Ocean Transport charges $700 to ship a car from Los Angeles to Yokohama, and there are certain equipment changes--smog devices, different colored taillight lenses, and so on--that are necessary to sell an American used car in Japan. There is also an import duty of 3% on used cars, Tani said, and about 4% on new cars.

Like any used-car dealer, Tani said that despite the high markup, his profits are small.

"It's the dealer (in Japan) that makes most of the money," he said. "We only make about $500 a car, sometimes only $200. But we have a big volume. Our policy is, sell cheap, but with high quality."

Curiously, one used car that Tani says is consistently in demand by Japanese used-car dealers is the Datsun 240Z--a Japanese-made car that was shipped to the U.S. by the thousands in the 1970s.

"It is a classic now in Japan," Tani said. "But there are none left over there, so we look for them here." The markup is significant: $2,000 or $3,000 here, up to $15,000 there.

"The variety of vehicles we ship (to Japan) is very interesting," said McKenna of Noram Ocean Transport. "We've shipped buses, motor homes, even those 'monster' trucks with the huge wheels. Anything that can be driven or even pushed on board. Last year we had one shipment of 194 antique cars, from the turn of the century on, that a Japanese businessman on Hokkaido had bought from a collector in Oklahoma."

True, a few thousand old Chevys, Mercurys and Fords and new Corvettes and specialty vehicles sailing away to Japan may not solve trade-deficit problems. But almost everyone involved in the auto export trade figures that it's at least a start.

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