Sales middlemen and body shops get creative in a country with no car manufacturing
May 23, 2013 4:00 AM
Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times/MCT
Architect Mohammad Azizi, left, bought a used Toyota Corolla that came from Canada five months ago in Kabul, Afghanistan. Cars from the U.S., Canada and Europe are at a premium in Afghanistan, even ones termed a "total loss" by U.S. insurance companies are desired.
By Mark Magnier Los Angeles Times
HERAT, Afghanistan -- They sit in the sun harboring their lost histories, their forgotten dreams, their traces of funerals, graduations and stolen kisses. On dusty windshields, insurance stickers from Travelers and State Farm bear witness to wrecks in "Metro DC," "Hardin, Texas," and "North Hollywood," some with bright orange "total loss" decals.
For their former owners, that was it, nothing left but a story to recount of a corner rounded too quickly, a red light run, one too many drinks for the road.
But here on the highway to Iran, thousands of used cars from America and Western Europe begin a second life.
Afghanistan doesn't manufacture its own cars, or much else, so most vehicles sold here are "pre-owned" (and many pre-crashed -- but with barely a dent, thanks to deft repair work by local body shops).
Most begin their journey by ship to a new world of unpaved roads, kidnappers and Islamist militants after being auctioned to middlemen by U.S. or European insurers. The vehicles land in Dubai or other ports and are then transferred onto other ships bound for Pakistan or -- after being resold to circumvent U.S. and European sanctions -- Iran.
The final leg of their trip to this "graveyard of empires" (and Toyota Corollas) is via transport truck.
American brands don't sell as well as Japanese and are hard to find parts for, said Abdullah, a salesman with Herat's Tamin Ansar Autos who, like many Afghans, uses only one name. "I know one guy who sells Fords," he said. "He sold them very cheap. They use too much gas."
Musty interiors reveal vestiges of former lives, from sweat-stained lumbar supports and air-freshener strips to coffee-stained upholstery and shag carpeting.
Dealers in this Muslim country are careful to remove such potentially offensive hitchhikers as liquor bottles and pork-sandwich wrappers. "No one worries if 'infidels' drove them, as long as they're cleaned," said lot owner Abdul Aziz, 35.
Some lots sport frayed colored flags and one has a rusting model airplane out front, but there isn't much devoted to marketing, as evidenced by dealers who apparently see insurance "collision" stickers as a point of pride.
Prices range from $15,000 for late-model used Toyotas to $2,500 for aging wrecks. Unlike their American cousins, most northern European cars here aren't accident victims and thus command higher prices.
"I think Germans and Swiss must be better drivers, neater, more law-abiding," Mr. Aziz said. "Americans have that cowboy history."
Used-car importing became a lucrative business after Taliban rule ended in late 2001. But uncertainty tied to the departure of foreign combat troops in 2014 is now hurting the Afghan economy.
On a recent Friday, normally the week's busiest day, a handful of shoppers browsed the half-mile strip of 30 or so used-car lots lining both sides of the road a few miles west of Herat.
"We have nothing but time," said Mr. Aziz, watching as his 3-year-old son, Omar, and friend Kaihan, 8, took one of his cars for a spin. Kaihan sat atop a booster on the driver's seat. Sure, he said, the kids are too young for driver's licenses, but they stay inside the lot and have never had an accident.
Three years ago, customers snapped up two or three of the road warriors a day, dealers say. Now two weeks can pass without a sale.
Despite the economic turndown, traffic jams in Kabul and Herat have become world-class. The rare traffic signals are all but ignored in a driving culture that dictates going as fast as possible, zigzagging in and out of oncoming traffic and beeping the horn incessantly while ignoring demoralized traffic policemen in ill-fitting uniforms.
But it will be a while before Afghans catch up to Americans in terms of numbers: At last check in 2010, there were 20 cars per 1,000 people, the World Bank reported. That compares with 797 cars per 1,000 Americans.