One Sunday afternoon in October, I joined Mark Torok at Dover to observe the latest convoy of used cars bound for Eastern Europe. Torok featured in Autocar last year in a story about his Skodas – he owns at least 80. He lives in Kent and his mother is from the Czech Republic.
“Every Sunday for the past few years, I have been treated to the sight of dozens of comically blinged-up and spectacularly knackered Merc Sprinters and VW LTs flying down the M2 and M20,” he told me when we met in the small public car park at the Torok’s fleet of Skodas came the other way entrance to the port. “They’re dashing for the ferries, each one towing a trailer with either an old German or Japanese diesel car or 4x4, destined for Poland but mainly Romania and Bulgaria.
“They must have depleted the UK of thousands of vehicles and, what with ULEZ and the demonisation of diesels helping to drive down prices, there’s every reason the trade will continue, assuming Brexit doesn’t stop it.”
Ah, Brexit. In fact, as this is written and the deadline for the UK leaving the EU looms, there are rumours that the inevitable extra paperwork and imposition of import duties might spell the end of the trade. But then as far as Brexit goes, nothing’s certain…
Another reason the UK is a happy hunting ground for the Eastern European exporters is our habit of regarding a car as washed up by its third birthday. We can’t wait to change it, at almost any price, for a shiny new one. Romanians think we’re mad, as Torok found out when he had a brief chat outside his local Tesco with a Romanian driving a Mercedes Sprinter recovery truck.
“The UK is crazy,” he told Torok. “You think a car is too old from three years. Here, working for one month, I can buy a car. In my country, I have to work two, maybe three years, to buy one.”
Our old cast-offs are also a great source of spare parts, while what we would class as a wreck can, thanks to Eastern Europeans’ technical skills and resourcefulness, be put back on the road – although whether you’d want to drive the cut-and-shut BMW X3 that features in an online Polish repair film I watched while researching this story is another question…
Of course, the elephant – or maybe that should be large brown bear – in the room is the fact that we drive on the right and Eastern Europeans on the left. Apparently, it’s not an issue. Most people are happy to carry on driving on the right but, if it’s a problem, converting to left-hand drive is cheap and straightforward.
The economics of exporting UK cars to Eastern Europe are finely balanced. To help make the numbers add up, a van might carry UK-bound passengers (many vans have rear seats and side windows) and goods in the load space, taking the night crossing to save money.