Do you remember the 80’s? Gordon Gecko said “greed is good”, guys got to wear pastel colors and gals had bad haircuts (remember big hair?) and wore Capezio dance leggings. Oh yeah and some band called Kajagoogoo had a hit called Too Shy. And for a brief few glorious years the US Government allowed European spec cars into the US.
I had been reading Autoweek for some time and turning to those center pages with that tempting layout of classified ads, a treasure trove of exotic and sports cars waited. I lusted over them, reading all the details, calculating the prices based on current exchange rates, hoping I could buy one someday. But they seemed unattainable; after all I was in college and barely had enough to pay bills…let alone a Porsche or BMW.
But I noticed a trend. Many of these cars were so-called Grey Market cars, meaning they were European spec, but legal in the US. There was a loophole in the US Department of Transportation (DOT)/ Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) code where someone could import “a-once-in-a-lifetime” car that had to meet DOT or safety rules, but did not have to pass EPA regulations. This was a huge deal; the car could be Euro-Spec and that usually meant a more powerful car with way more HP than its American counterpart. And to make these cars DOT legal in the US meant bars in doors, the correct lights but frequently could retain Euro-bumpers, not the HUGE US federalized versions. Man…I wanted one of those Euro-versions!
So I made some calls. I got the DOT / EPA rules and talked to some of the shops that did the conversions. Now I must admit, many of these shops were…ahhh….let’s be frank here, not entirely honest in the methodology they used to make these cars “legal” and there were raids by the US government, but that is not our story here. For me I had the glimmer of hope that I could import a few of these cars and save enough money for one of my own.
I talked to a friend and we agreed to put together a business to bring over cars for our friends that wanted bad-ass Euro cars for far less money than the Americanized versions. We presented our idea to many of them and they took us up on the offer. Our goal was to make a few bucks on each car, enough so that we could both eventually end up buying our own. But here was the best part, I would get to go over to Germany and buy them. Sweet!
Through Autoweek ads I eventually found a guy that seemed to be a pretty good source of cars and he set up a bunch for me to look at when I went over to Germany during the Christmas break. I went with two of my college friends, we hung out in Munich for a few days to get our bearings before they went on to party in cities like Amsterdam, while I went on to test drive prospective cars to purchase.
This guy I had discovered and befriended was a major character; a crazy German I will call Klaus. He had this STUPID Mercedes 500SEC (the sexy 2-door coupe) that was deep dark blue with black tinted windows. It had a 16 speaker Kenwood stereo system and either Brabus or AMG tuning (not sure which). This thing was fast and it was loud…at least the stereo part. Because of the color and window tint, a lot of people thought it was an undercover German Polizei car and for the most part left him alone. He was fine with that as it meant that he could drive it fast…which was pretty much all the time.
The first time we headed out to look at a car, we had to drive about 100km on the Autobahn; Klaus entered the highway and floored it. Funny thing, he never let up, until we had to leave the highway a few minutes later. We hit over 165mph (270kph) and I was scared and trilled at the same time. It was an amazing feeling as the highway compressed, the sides rushing in and the cars in the distance floating up right in front of you….now! We pulled up to an auto dealership that specialized in exotic cars and we tested a few BMW 6-Series. The sales manager handed me the keys and said I needed to drive them.
AHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!! OMMMMMMM!!!!! I was in automotive nirvana. WOW, I had never driven anything like this before and he told me to take it out on the Autobahn to see what it would do. Smiling, Klaus said that we would! With his thickly accented English accent, he told me I had to drive the car very fast, as fast as it would go. So we headed out, and I got it up to about 155mph (250kph) before I chickened out not wanting to push the BMW any harder.
We sourced several cars through Klaus over the course of about a year and a half. But I want to tell one more story. One time over spring break, while all the other students at UT were partying away in Daytona or Padre, I was across the pond driving and buying fast cars. There was a weekend where there were no cars to be bought so Klaus suggested that we head down to the French Riviera to move his offshore boat from one port to another. We got in the Mercedes and drove non-stop, at top speed, passing slow moving Renaults, Peugeots, FIATS and everything else for the matter. We drove and drove, never below 140mph (225kph) until suddenly the cars started missing and chugging. Then the fire went out of the belly of the beast and we coasted to a stop on the Autoroute. Great…stranded by the side of the road in the middle of France. No problem said Klaus as he pulled a 10gal (40lt) gas can from the trunk and filled the tank. Wow…glad we did not get hit from behind…
We did move the boat; it was one fast mother, a huge offshore or cigarette boat with two Lamborghini motors. It was the first time I had to stand up in a boat as we hit wave after wave catching air. Klaus knew of only one way to pilot this boat – flat out. Figures. It is like the time we picked up a brand new BMW M6 for one of his other US customers in Freiburg and had to drop if off in Munich. He asked me to follow him and when I reminded him that the car was brand new and the motor would probably be tight…he said there was only one way to break it in…fast. I had that car up to 160mph (260kph) and that Mercedes 500SEC of his would just leave me. Man that huge 2-door Merc was fast.
Although we bought several more cars through Klaus, I needed to find another supplier as he only specialized in BMW’s and Mercedes (and we had a couple of Porsches that we needed to source) so I found another guy that had a lot or Porsches for sale. This guy had a bigger operation with a huge warehouse. I visited and was amazed by the size of his operation. I bought 2 or 3 and had them imported to the US, but the tide had already turned in the US and the Gray Market was already starting to slow down.
I made one last trip to Europe; problem was I only had a few thousand dollars for my own car. I called the Porsche guy, he said that I should come by, maybe he had something. I arrived late, at closing time and it was already early evening, the late sun slanting through the tiny windows in the warehouse, the rays making the dust in the air sparkle. He said to look out back; there was a very clean 914 that he could let go for $1400. It was almost pitch black as I peered through the dark to look at the car. $1400? I could afford that. I wanted to like it, no I wanted to love it and it looked great sitting there low and squat, its red paint fading in the gathering darkness. I bought it.
It arrived in the states a few weeks later and I went down to Houston to look at it. It was red, it was a 914, but man was it covered in rust. I went back to the Porsche guy to complain about it, but he was long gone. He took millions from his clients and skipped out to Brazil. At least I got the title before he disappeared. Klaus had warned me, but I did not listen. I ended up with a Porsche but it was not much of a Porsche. I wish my life with Porsches had started off to a better beginning, but I had only one direction to go…forward.
Until next time.