Right-Hand-Drive Cars: Not Just for Mail Carriers

Right-Hand-Drive Cars: Not Just for Mail Carriers

Drive-throughs are difficult, and tollbooths are worse. But for people who own right-hand-drive cars in the United States, the infrequent headaches are the price they pay for a unique kind of fun.

They might not have the wow factor of a Lamborghini, but right-hand-drive cars (besides the mail carrier’s) elicit double-takes on North American roads just the same.

Roughly a third of the world’s nations drive on the left side of the road, and cars from Australia, Britain and Japan with the driver’s cockpit on the “shotgun” side are particularly desirable. By law, cars imported into the United States must pass a raft of federal safety and emission standards; cars at least 25 years old are exempted.

Jeff Zurschmeide of Portland, Ore., grew up in a family of automotive enthusiasts. His dad loved British sports cars and passed that appreciation onto him. So when he got the chance to own a right-hand-drive 1976 Austin Mini 1000, he jumped at the opportunity.

This British racer looks a little like a go-kart, and it’s crazy fun to drive, Mr. Zurschmeide said. “A friend owned this Mini, and she was moving away and couldn’t take it, so I bought it about eight years ago,” he said.

He made some performance enhancements, including better front brakes. (The originals could occasionally whiten a driver’s knuckles.) Mr. Zurschmeide, who is 6 feet tall, also replaced the original front seats with a more comfortable pair, from a Mazda Miata, that match the caramel-colored interior and rear bench seat.

Then it was time to trick out the interior. He put in a chunky, high-performance MOMO steering wheel and made a custom horn button from a coin commemorating Queen Elizabeth’s 50th year on the throne. The stick shift knob is a billiard ball.

“You might think that learning to shift with your left hand would be hard,” Mr. Zurschmeide said, “but it’s not. The hard thing to learn to do is to look up and left for the rearview mirror, instead of up and right.”

Phil Hansford’s right-hand-driving ways began in 2006. A teacher in Airdrie, Alberta, he spends as much time in nature as he can — mountain biking, camping, hiking — and a capable four-wheel-drive vehicle is essential to get him off the grid. He realized he could import vehicles he couldn’t get in North America — short-wheelbase diesel S.U.V.s, with manual transmissions, for example.

“I’ve lived in many parts of Canada, including Newfoundland, Prince Edward Island, British Columbia and Alberta,” Mr. Hansford said. “All these places have great outdoor areas, but accessing them means you need the right vehicle.”

His first import from Japan (known as Japanese domestic market or J.D.M. vehicles) brought a realization: These well-maintained cars often had lower miles and weren’t exposed to the same hostile temperatures, terrain and speed extremes they would have seen here.

“Not to mention the engine combinations that we didn’t get here, along with extra options,” Mr. Hansford said.

In North America, “aside from a rare few, pretty much every S.U.V. is a V6,” he added. “Our choice in diesels is limited to full-size pickups. Manual trans? Almost extinct in every vehicular application. To be able to buy a Japanese-engineered, short-wheelbase, manual diesel? Pretty much unicorn status.”

After his first Japanese car, “it was difficult to go back to North American market vehicles again,” Mr. Hansford said.

He and his wife currently own four right-hand-drive S.U.V.s: two 1999 Toyota Land Cruisers (one a diesel with a manual transmission); a two-door Mitsubishi Pajero; and their crown jewel, a 1997 Mitsubishi Pajero Evolution. Mr. Hansford said that this was a special model made for rally racing and that Mitsubishi had sold only 2,500 in Japan. His is No. 581.

The prices for these cars vary widely. The cost to import will include shipping, and a good starting price is a few thousand dollars. It’s worth seeking out an importer who can help with all of the arrangements, including customs.

This right-hand-drive world isn’t limited to sports cars and S.U.V.s. A case in point: my husband’s 1989 Mitsubishi Delica Star Wagon. This oddball is powered by a turbo diesel engine, with a manual transmission, and can be used as a cargo van or a passenger van for up to seven people, or sleeping quarters for two when camping. It has toured all over western North America, taking on dirt, gravel, sand dunes and snow.

The Delica gently dings at speeds above 100 kilometers an hour (62 m.p.h.), Japan’s top speed limit. This xylophone-like dinging sometimes misses a beat, or dings incessantly, but even though it’s an annoyance, other Delica owners say my husband should be happy his works, as the van is hardly a speed demon.

Life on the right side of the car has some quirks. “Drive-throughs are best done when you have a passenger,” Mr. Hansford said. “Additionally, tollbooths can be an exercise in calisthenics.” Consider E-Z Pass.

The Japanese gauges show kilometers, so smartphone apps that convert kilometers to miles will help owners go with the flow. Additionally, fender-mounted mirrors on the Japanese vehicles (for curbside parking in Japan) seem to throw people off.

Parts can be hard to get. Most right-hand-drive vehicles were not sold in North America. Online forums, international parts websites and social media groups can be great assets.

After eight years, Mr. Zurschmeide, who owns both left- and right-hand-drive Minis, still sometimes walks up to the wrong side of the car when wants to drive. That’s a theme for people who own both left- and right-driving flavors.

Mr. Hansford recounted his early right-hand-drive hiccups: “trying to shift the door handle as I attempted to turn off the wipers and indicate correctly at the same time.” In J.D.M. vehicles, the turn signal and wiper stalks are often opposite their North American counterparts.

“The expletives that came out of the old tire shop guy’s mouth when he had to drive my truck into the shop,” Mr. Hansford said, “I still laugh just thinking about it.”

Mr. Zurschmeide has fun with his Mini. “I bought a full-size plastic skeleton and sometimes belt it into the left-hand seat,” he said. “People see the Mini and they look at it before they know it’s a right-hander. They see the skeleton in the ‘driver’s seat’ and do a double-take.”

Any time Mr. Zurschmeide drives either Mini, he’s grinning. “I love running club rallies or driving in the hills with other British sports car owners,” he said. “My club is the Original Minis Group, or O.M.G.”

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