The first import vehicles that I remember appearing during the late 1950s were a few Toyota Land Cruisers and a trickling of split rear-window Volkswagen sedans. The engine in the Land Cruiser looked like an exact copy of Chevrolets popular Blue Flame six-cylinder engine. The Land Cruiser became well-known for its ruggedness and for the fact that it was much roomier and more powerful than the CJ-series Jeeps of the time. Although the 36-horsepower VW sedans of that day sipped gasoline by the drop rather than the gallon, they developed a dubious reputation for accumulating miles of traffic behind them as they crept up winding mountain highways.
The import car market in those days was fueled by the enthusiasm of returning military people who had driven the nimble, fuel-efficient imports while serving in overseas posts. Of course, it wasnt until the severe gasoline shortages of the early 1970s that foreign cars, as they were known then, became popular. Only when the urgency of squeezing mileage out of hard-to-find gasoline did the miserly virtues of the incredibly ugly-but-durable Asian imports and the agile-but-underpowered European or Euro vehicles become apparent.
As these vehicles came to need replacement parts, the foreign or as we call them now import parts industry began to take shape. After all, the mass market in those days consisted of nameplates such as Austin, Hillman, Morris, Fiat, Peugeot and Renault, to name a few. The expertise required to get the right part became considerable, because few jobbers really understood the import market. I remember, for example, not being able to get the correct rear axle bearing for a Toyota two-door sedan because my jobber and I didnt know that if the car had a chromed front bumper and wiper blade arms, it was a special sport model, and it was equipped with a heavy-duty rear axle!
Consequently, many expert import parts suppliers began assembling inventories of replacement parts from a variety of off-shore manufacturers. Some parts were high-quality and, in other cases, some parts were shoddy and poorly fitting. However, complete distribution systems were built around the principle of making import parts as available as parts for domestic vehicles.
This system worked well until, amazingly enough, import manufacturers began building auto manufacturing plants in the continental United States. The net effect was the major programmed parts distributors responding by integrating import vehicles into the same cataloging as domestic vehicles. In a single stroke, Honda, Toyota and many other import nameplates became as American as motherhood, apple pie and Chevrolet.
TODAYS IMPORT PARTS MARKET
Because most major import nameplates are now manufactured and assembled in the United States, parts availability has become much better. In many cases, domestic suppliers were called upon to make parts for the import manufacturers as well. Programmed distributors took advantage of this trend to routinely acquire and integrate import parts into their distribution systems.
Nevertheless, vestiges of the earlier import parts markets remain. Several major distribution systems remain dedicated to import parts, and many aftermarket manufacturers continue to focus on replacement or upgrade parts for import applications. Even as major distributors have integrated import names into their cataloging, import parts remains a market unto itself, especially when the specialized demands of the import market are taken into consideration.
IMPORT PERFORMANCE MARKETS
The most recent phenomenon in the import parts market is the so-called tuner market. If you can look 40 years into the past and recall how the boomer generation hopped up Detroit muscle cars, then you can better understand the tuner market.
Our current generation modifies light-weight Asian vehicles with high-output engines into drag strip monsters capable of whipping the pants off many of the old Detroit Iron muscle cars. They basically accomplish this by adding turbo charging and nitrous oxide injection to prompt the tough and reliable Asian engines into flexing their muscles.
Along with the engine build-ups, tuners also modify the chassis by lowering and adding custom wheels. Fancy paint jobs, mega-decibel sound systems, and all the other street trick gadgets round out the tuner market.
In the same sense, the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) sponsors rally racing events for import vehicles. Rally racing, which is one of the fastest growing participant motor sports, basically involves a driver and co-driver following a timed run on a predetermined road course. Portions of the rally may take place on dirt roads and some on pavement, but the end result is the adrenaline rush of fast driving and precision coordination between the driver and co-driver on following the written directions for completing the race.
These cars range from box-stock to highly modified, all-wheel-drive vehicles that accelerate like a rocket and corner like cold water racing through a garden hose. Although most tuner cars use specialized fuel injection, turbo charging and computer control systems, the basic chassis and power train is built from stock parts.
I mention the above markets to dispel the illusion that the import vehicle market has merged into the same mold as the dowdy, smooth-riding domestic car market. What the import performance market means to the jobber or counterperson is that there are recognizable purchasing preferences among import owners. As in the days of the domestic muscle car market, the import performance market is a youth market, an adrenaline-pumping performance market, and is at the leading edge of what we may see in future parts marketing activity.
THE ENTHUSIAST MARKET
At another level, the import enthusiast market consists of those who cherish the nameplate value of some imports and of those who cherish an import vehicle as the most stylish and prestigious way of traveling from point A to point B.
Enthusiasts range from sports car purists to those who adore specific nameplates, and most exhibit pride of ownership by taking meticulous care of their import vehicles.
Most import enthusiasts are very particular about the quality and origin of parts installed on their import vehicles. Although most prefer OE part replacements, many would consider installing an import aftermarket part if it exhibited improved performance and durability. The ride control and exhaust markets, for example, offer many products dedicated to the improved performance and image of import vehicles.
THE HIGH-END MARKET
In passing, Ill mention the high-end import market which usually consists of nameplates like Mercedes-Benz, BMW and Porsche. The high-end import shop is a rarity in most communities because they specialize in maintaining and repairing the most expensive European nameplates. Most cater to an exclusive clientele, and most use OE parts in servicing this particular class of vehicles.
Why not a high-end Asian imports market? In general, high-end nameplates like Infiniti, Lexus and Acura are built by Nissan, Toyota and Honda motor companies, respectively. Most independents service the Nissan/Infiniti, Toyota/Lexus or the Honda/Acura simply because the designs and technology are very similar between the companys base and luxury models. In contrast, Mercedes-Benz, BMW and Porsche are stand-alone nameplates requiring specialized equipment and expertise in order to maintain the original levels of performance and reliability.
THE TRADITIONAL IMPORT MARKET
Getting back to Ma and Pas grocery-getter import vehicle, keep in mind that most motorists want their vehicles maintained or repaired in accordance with original equipment standards. Of course, the low-end owner, who usually buys an entry-level Asian vehicle, may either neglect normal maintenance needs or may prefer the cheapest shortcuts whenever maintenance or repair is required.
FROM THE SHOP OWNERS POINT OF VIEW
Fortunately for the aftermarket, many import parts are now made by domestic parts manufacturers or reputable off-shore manufacturers. Just about any ride control or steering and suspension part is available for import nameplates. And the same can be said about expendable parts such as water pumps, fuel pumps, brake friction, belts, hoses, ignition and filters.
On the other hand, some parts (such as Honda distributor rotors) have critical design parameters that aftermarket-manufactured versions simply fail to provide. On the whole, however, instances like this are the exception more than the rule.
True, many specialist shops continue to source from OE suppliers simply because they envision themselves as the alternative to dealership service. As for the general repair shop, import parts have come a long way from the seedy-looking, white-boxed components of yesteryear. In most cases, import parts have become - you guessed it - as American as motherhood, apple pie and Chevrolet.