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ON RAMP : Buying American

In the tradition of Cal Worthington and Earl (Madman) Muntz, Torrance used-car merchant Yuki Onaka wants to buy your old car.

Then he wants to ship it to Japan.

Onaka is the president and owner of Protech, one of scores of L. A.-based companies cashing in on Japan’s red-hot market in used American cars. Every year, the company buys, reconditions and ships about 400 cars--many of them classics like ’69 Camaros, ’57 Chevy station wagons, ’65 Mustangs, ’63 Corvettes--and ships them to dealers in Japan.

Los Angeles, says Juki Tani, Protech’s executive director, is used-car buyer heaven. “It is a good climate, and because it is a big city, there are many cars,” says Tani, 28, a native of Japan. “Here there are many good 20-year-old cars, 30-year-old cars. In Japan, they are all junk,” because of the moist climate.

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Tani scans the classified ads and auto trader magazines, goes to auctions and scouts used-car lots. He specializes in well-kept cars from the 1950s and ‘60s, although the company ships virtually any car requested by its clients in Japan.

The markup can be considerable. For example, a good-condition 1969 Camaro with a V-8--"very popular in Japan,” Tani says--costs about $5,000 in L. A., but in Japan it can go for as high as $15,000. A new $40,000 Corvette will go for about $50,000.

Like every used-car dealer since the invention of the internal combustion engine, Tani insists that as a middleman his profit margin is small. “It’s the dealer (in Japan) that makes most of the money,” Tani says mournfully. “We only make about $500 a car, sometimes only $200.”

But America is not the total victor in this car-wars skirmish: One hot export is actually an import: the Datsun 240Z, thousands of which came here from Japan in the 1970s. “It is a classic now in Japan,” Tani says. “But there are none left over there."-- Gordon Dillow

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