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Suzuki Alto Works – Importing Shenanigans

Well, here it is, the culmination of months of trying to import a car.

Months ago, I heard through Facebook about an estate sale auction that was happening a couple of hours north of where I live. There were a few cars there, including some cool MG and Healey classics, but only one really caught my eye; a little 1990 Suzuki Alto Works nugget.

I’ve always loved Altos, and here was one that was small, manual and turbocharged.

It had been off the road for at least 11 years or so, and the rego was on hold. There were no keys, the condition was unknown and they could not confirm it ran. Excellent, my sort of car then!

Long story short, I took some time off work, borrowed a truck that could tow a trailer, and made a trip up the line to see if I could win the car, with a plan to bring a trailer back the next day if I won it.

We get there, and there it is, in all its glory. Look at that little face, what a nugget.

I’m not sure how long it had been up on the blocks, but it was certainly in “barn find” condition, dust and all.

It’s clear that it hadn’t been touched in a long time. The interior was…. disgusting.

Everything was covered in dirt, or mould. On the plus side, it still had all the original features, like the cool seats and steering wheel with WORKS horn button.

How good is the dash cluster though

The little F6A twin cam 660cc turbo engine would love to rev all the way to the 7500rpm redline.

The car had been converted to manual, and wasn’t quite in showroom condition, with peeling paint, the horrible interior, and a large dent in the front RH guard, which had slightly damaged the door and bent the hinges

Worst of all though it had rust in both sills, and the rear boot seal lip was just crunchy flakes at this point.

Still, I wanted it. I found the keys to it (on the keyring for the Wagon R next to the Alto), but didn’t try to start it.

Long story short, the bidding started at about $200, and there were a handful of us bidding on it. Suddenly it was jumping up in hundreds, and only two of us were left bidding, in the thousands now. I had a firm budget in mind but the guy I was bidding against was there to win. Not once did he drop his hand. I hit my limit, and bowed out.

I later heard from someone else there, that the winner had wanted an Alto Works as a garage ornament for years, and was prepared to pay whatever it took to secure it.

It was not to be. Hopefully he got what he wanted, and it sees the road again one day.

So, I did what any reasonable person does and began to obsess over Alto Works.

Old ones were cool, but had the inherent issues of being old, and harder to keep on the road. I knew of the newer HA36S models from 2015, and although I always loved how they looked with their angry face, I had never seen one in NZ and didn’t think I could afford one.

But as it turned out, between the sale of the Yaris, and Lucas, I suddenly had a healthy looking bank account.

The next problem was the fact that as far as I could tell, when I started this process, there were none in NZ.

I had been curious about the importing process and buying from auction in Japan, so got in touch with an importing broker, who agreed I should be able to get what I want, with the budget I have.

The HA36S Alto Works comes in a few variants (including the Turbo RS, which is more common but didn’t come in manual and is a bit less “hard core”). I wanted manual, not black or red, and preferably 4WD.

I bid on a few cars at auction in Japan and just kept falling flat. Despite watching auctions for a bit before I could afford to jump in, the prices were suddenly thousands of dollars more than I was expecting. Not only that though, 4WD ones were proving rare, particularly ones that weren’t from the snowy northern regions.

After bidding on a couple of dozen cars, and missing out (one, a nice blue 2wd one, by only a few hundred dollars, which ended up being imported by another Kiwi and now lives locally), I finally had one on the hook. It was 4WD, manual, wasn’t from the north, in silver, and had good KMs. It was grade 4, and had minimal damage marks on the sheet.

It looked nice in the photos, but Japanese auctions are very limited in the info and photos they provide unless you can get an inspection. In this case, it had a couple of exterior photos, and an interior one. No underside or engine bay.

I did spot and liked the slightly wider flares, and aftermarket muffler though.

I liked it. I contacted the importers, who translated the auction sheet and gave me some bad news. It had underbody coating, and some rust.

Not to worry though, in their own words, “for around $2000 trade rust repair will be carried out under the supervision of the repair certifier and come with a repair certificate. It will be sandblasted and rust treated and painted black. Rust repair is in fact a good thing, your car will be protected from future rust and will pass every WOF for a long future”.

Sounds good, but to be sure, I ordered an inspection at my cost. In the mean time, knowing that it’d only be a couple of grand to have it blasted and coated, I submitted my bid, factoring that repair work into my bid. It was all the specs I wanted.

The auction came and went, and I heard nothing, and no inspection results were provided. Guessing I had lost it, I went to bed that night and forgot about it.

I woke up the next morning to two emails. One, at 10:51PM

“YOU WON A CAR TODAY!”

and a second, at 11:03PM, the inspection result with photos from the inspection. Handy.

Well then, I had an Alto!

I was excited. I looked over the inspection photos, and noticed some spots of rust I would rather weren’t there, like in the bottom of one of the doors

and around the engine bay

But other than that, nothing really concerned me. The underside had been undersealed and there was still some rust in the seams, but nothing a couple of grand of repair work couldn’t fix

This is where it started to go pear shaped.

I got an email from the importer, asking “are you sure you want to import the car, we don’t know how bad the rust is and the rust work costs could be higher”.

Based on the photos, I was still confident it wasn’t that bad. Heck, I could’ve fixed most of it in an afternoon with a wire brush and some rust killer. Also, I had agreed to buy the car already, I didn’t know at this point rejecting it was even an option.

I said to continue.

The invoice for the car comes through, and I pay promptly. Yay, I’m getting an Alto!

Three days later, I get another email. This is where the scaremongering really kicked up a notch.

They had “spoken to compliance” and would need the engine removed to repair the rust, plus sand blast, plus repair cert $$$$$. “Good thing the car will be protected from any future rust” he continues to say.

Suddenly the repair work was being quoted at approx $5000.

Well, I own it now. I’ve paid. What other choice do I have?

About two weeks of radio silence later, I get an email from the boss.

It failed border check and has been flagged for rust. That was expected, they fail any signs of underbody rust.

The advice was to abort, and send the car back to auction, otherwise the potential repair costs were now “$8000++”. That’s a lot of money for a car that was already going to be $15,000 landed, on the road.

I weighed up my options. I could import it and risk the costs. Or lose my $1000 deposit, get a refund and either try again, or find a different sort of car.

I chose the latter. I rejected the car, and asked for a refund. That was the end of that car 🙁

He agreed to refund my money, less the deposit, by the end of the week. Happy days.

The money didn’t arrive. I wasn’t too worried though, I could use that money to bid on another car; so I was still looking, and bidding in the mean time.

I was advised to stick to higher grades like 4.5, and to avoid anything that mentioned rust. In order to be sure, they wanted to get an inspection on any car before I could place a bid. The funny thing is, now they could suddenly get an inspection to me before the auction closed, unlike the one I won.

I found a nice looking blue one. It was manual, 4WD, 67,000km and grade 4.5. It sounds like a winner, so got them to get an inspection with the intention to throw big money at it. The auction sheet said nothing about rust.

I actually found this car later listed on Beforward (another importing site), listed in the north, in Hokkaido. Not a good start.

The inspection came through quickly, well before the auction time. Externally, it looked very nice.

The drivers seat was worse for wear. The bolsters were squished, and the fabric looked very worn and gross. Surprising for 67,000km.

But worst of all. Rust. It wasn’t as bad as the one I won, but it was there. It was on suspension components, on the sills and worst of all, coming out in the seams in the engine bay.

Clear signs of having spent time in the snow. Keep in mind, this was a grade 4.5, with no rust noted on the auction sheet!

I decided not to bid on that one, I couldn’t take the risk again.

There were a couple more, but only one that was really notable, made me very angry, and was the nail in the coffin of my importing experience.

Manual, 4WD, silver, completely stock standard, 117,000km on the clock. It was the spec and condition I wanted, in the Ks I could afford. It was a grade 4.

I wanted it. I asked for an inspection, and sure enough, it came through with plenty of time to spare.

And it looked GOOOOOD. It was spotless. New AD09R tires all around, the underside was clean, no sign of rust, the interior was nice. The body even had minimal dents and marks. Someone had looked after this one.

I was very excited. It was perfect. Nothing could stop me now.

I placed a very generous bid on it, to make sure I would win it.

I didn’t win it.

It sold for well under my top bid. It went for less than my last one.

Why did I lose it? Because they chose not to bid on it, based on the recommendation from the person in Japan bidding on the car. Why? because of this dent in the rear quarter panel.

Apparently that would “need a repair cert” to import.

I threw my toys at that point. There is no way a dent you can barely see would stop that car being imported. My closest guess is they forgot to place my bid.

I was angry. On top of that, I still hadn’t got my refund.

Twenty two days after I was told it would be refunded by the end of the week, after me asking repeatedly, I received a partial payment of about a third of my money, with an excuse that “Japan was holding the money from him” but he could “manage it next week”.

Next week came and went.

Just shy of a month later, after a rather terse email, I received anther partial payment of less than half of what was left and yet another excuse, about the car having not sold (not that that was ever a condition or term of the refund, that’s what the deposit is for), but that it would be sorted.

Two weeks later, and my patience was done. I threatened court action to recover the remaining money. I was sick of the broken promises and deadlines. Two days later, I had the rest of my refund, in full.

I know it’s not the norm, but the whole auction and importing thing just left me feeling really bitter. If I didn’t know two people now who have used their service (albeit at least in one case, not completely smoothly either), I would’ve wondered if it were a scam of some sort.

The auction system itself seems to be broken and the auction grades mean nothing. A grade 5 is as close to a new car as a used car can be, so a 4.5 should be near new with some minor marks. Grade 4 should still be very good, with a couple of slightly bigger marks. So why were the grade 4 and 4.5s so junk? I have heard reports of corruption in the system too, where sellers have paid for higher grades, but I don’t know how true that is.

Long story short, I was left $1000 out of pocket, with no car to show for it, and a bitter taste in my mouth. I’m very glad I could even get a refund; although the Terms on their site allow for it, I still wouldn’t have been that surprised if they tried to decline the refund, or wait for the car to sell first.

Don’t worry though, not all is lost. I gave up on importing, but I didn’t give up on an Alto Works.

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Rob Murray
Rob Murray
2 months ago

Bad luck, it does seem to be a scam.
I’ve never seen or heard of the Alto Works, I bet they’re a blast to drive.