Want to buy a bargain American-spec car in UAE? Think again

For example, one garage here could be seen selling a destroyed one-year-old 4x4 for $27,000 after extensive repairs

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Every once in a while, in the news you read about yet another car that went up in flames in the UAE for no apparent reason. It seems to be becoming a common occurrence, and is simply being blamed on heat and poor maintenance.

While some cases have been due to age or bad stereo installations, others can simply be attributed to the source of the cars, such as the used examples coming from the United States.

American-spec used cars are widely available at used car dealerships in Dubai or Sharjah. Individuals in the UAE are also involved in this business unofficially, but recent changes in rules have limited the number of cars they can import per year unless they set up as a business.

Similar dealerships can be found in Saudi Arabia and Oman as well, with their own sets of rules on the age of the cars.

There is nothing inherently wrong in buying an American-spec import.

Except for the gauges in “mph” instead of “kph,” most of the mechanicals are usually the same nowadays, and there are many people who are happy with their “grey” imports here. The used car dealers are happy too, since resale values in the United States are comparatively much lower for most cars there (except for some sought-after rarities), so they buy low there and sell high here.

The problem comes with the used car dealers who get greedy and try to make even more money. It is a given that there will be no service history with these imports. Even more disturbing is that many dealers are buying up cancelled cars from the US at auctions.

These cars were either in major accidents, hurricane-season floods or even fires. The state of some of these scrap cars could lead one to think that people had died in them, considering how badly they were crushed, and sometimes with bloodstains still visible.

Repaired from the dead

There are garages dotted around Dubai and the neighboring city of Sharjah that are openly repairing these cars using cheap Asian labour, effectively building these cars up again from scratch. For the accident-damaged cars, they weld hooks onto the chassis and pull them straight enough to pass annual police inspections.

Then they cut off these welds, beat the dented body panels flat, slap on some body-filler to smoothen out the body, replace the rubber and glass, and add a thin layer of new paint that will probably fade in a year or two.

The flood-damaged cars are in visually-better shape, since they were only dunked in salt water for a few weeks rather than suffering a crash. Of course, half the electronics have fried by then and there is probably rust forming in unseen parts of the car. Electrical problems will only make themselves known randomly, while new paint will hide the rust underneath.

The worst part is they sell these fixed-up cars at regular used-car rates. For example, one garage here could be seen selling a destroyed one-year-old 4x4 for $27,000 after extensive repairs, while a new one costs $31,000.

It may seem hopeless now for those looking into imports, as there are no laws barring the import of crashed cars. Fortunately, there is an online service in the States called CarFax, where one can enter a VIN number for any American-market car and come up with its full history, provided you don’t cheap out on the small fee, payable by credit card.

However, it has come to light that even CarFax is not fully reliable, as some details go unreported by garages that voluntarily update repair records for cars.

Indeed, it is not that hard to buy a “good” import. Japanese used-car auctions are generally more strict when it comes to providing condition reports, so they are a good bet. The trick is to know how to spot a “good” import, but that is a lesson for another day.

As for why the “bad” imports catch fire? All it takes is a loose fuel line and some static-electricity sparks among badly-placed components in a botched repair. Or the owner just drove it until it overheated, aided by a poorly-repaired cooling system. A car is a complicated piece of machinery, and when you put it back together using ultra-cheap labour, the results are not a surprise.