Hello. I’m Stephen and this is my wife Chantal, we’re the proud new owners of a 1980 Checker Marathon. Vince, the previous owner named him “Chunky”. This is our story of buying Chunky in Maryland to take back with us to the UK.
I had been looking for a Checker for several years and nearly bought one or two before eventually agreeing to buy Chunky from Maryland. It just happened to coincide nicely with a planned holiday we had already booked in New York City (We usually visit the USA once or twice a year). We only had a long weekend in NYC before our flight to California and I managed to arrange the hire of a U-Haul truck whilst in the UK to make sure the purchase went smoothly and then sheepishly told Chantal about my plans. Well, it’s nice to come home with a souvenir from your vacation, isn’t it….. And what better a souvenir than a Checker?
Now, the long journey from Maryland to London, England.
- Choosing the shipping company: Firstly you have a choice of roll-on-roll-off or containerised shipping. Not all ports will offer both, but most will have roll-on-roll-off. Roll-on-roll-off means that the cars are loaded like a ferry into a hold, they must start, drive and stop under their own power. The car must be empty of belongings too. I have heard stories of items such as trim and license plates disappearing before the car arrives in the UK. Containerised shipping is more secure, the car will be put in to a locked container (probably with 1 or 2 other cars) and sealed being loaded onto the ship. In theory the container will still be sealed on its arrival at the destination. Your regular car insurance will most likely not cover you while it is being shipped and you will can take out “marine insurance” which is about 1.5% of the car value. As I was buying my car from near Baltimore, the nearest port I could use that offered containerised shipping was New Jersey and I was quoted around $950. I believe ports in Texas and California (which I have also shipped from) are about $1000 and $1300 respectively, although all these prices fluctuate often depending on traffic and schedules. The shipping company I used was called CFR Rinkens, who are based in Long Beach, California. I have also previously used Horizon Auto Shipping based out of Galveston, Texas. I would recommend these two companies. New Jersey suited me as I was coincidently visiting New York as part of a planned holiday a couple of weeks after I had agreed to buy the Checker. There is an additional shipping cost on the receiving end which I will explain later.
- Transporting to the port I had to find a way to transport my car from Baltimore to New Jersey. I have previously used Patriot Auto Carriers to ship a truck from Southern California to Houston, Texas which cost $850 a couple of years back, this was on an open trailer. I called the same company and was quoted $400 for the journey from Baltimore to New Jersey. I was very happy with their service previously and they are happy to work with people both ends to make the transportation convenient as best they can. However, as I wanted to add some more items into the car from New York before shipping and also to see/drive the car before finalizing my purchase my timings were very tight and Patriot couldn’t guarantee to meet my rather exact time schedule. I decided to hire a car from JFK for 3 days ($100) and drive down to see the car. I then hired a U-Haul truck and trailer one way from Baltimore to New Jersey at a cost of just over $300. This worked well, We loaded the Checker onto the trailer and drove the U-Haul truck back to NJ whilst my wife drove the hire car back.
- At the USA port
I dropped the Checker off at the bonded warehouse in NJ, there is a small amount of paperwork to do. You have to leave your original title with them for passing through US customs, I always take a copy of this. I would also suggest taking an inventory and a few photos of the car although I have never experienced any issues to date.
Although the Checker is a huge car, I managed to almost completely fill the entire vehicle with parts. Most of the parts in the boot are spares and paperwork that Vince included in the sale. The NOS rear fenders and old grille are wrapped in bubble-wrap over the front seat. I also took advantage of the available space and bought a few other bits such as a car cover (the weather isn’t so great over here), a couple of new tyres for my 1980 GMC Van (A-Team Van) and a few extra parts for the Checker which I shall show you later.
You will leave the car, title and keys with the shipping company. You should receive notification of shipping which will include container number, ship details and estimated arrival date. It would usually be 1 or 2 weeks before the shipment leaves the USA and then a further 9 days on the water from NJ. Obviously other locations will be different.
- At the UK port
You will have chosen a port for receiving the container. There will be an agent dealing with your container for that port/shipping company and you will have no choice. They will contact you 1 or 2 days before the anticipated arrival. You will pay this company the processing fees such as unloading the container, submitting paperwork and taxes etc. Then you will have a few days to collect your car from the warehouse. Fees are currently under £400. Normal UK Tax on a regular vehicle is currently calculated as 10% duty of the car value and shipping cost, then a further 20% VAT on the total car value, shipping cost and duty. For commercial vehicles the tax is higher and there is a lower tax (total tax of 5%) for classic private cars in their original specification. To qualify for this, they should be in good condition, in its original colour and original motor with only repairs (no modifications) and can be used for occasional driving and shows only. When you turn up to collect your vehicle, you will need to walk around and make an inspection before taking the vehicle, either on a transporter (or company on your behalf) or, if road worthy you can drive the car away. If you wish to drive the car, it will need to be insured using the VIN number (as it will not have a UK registration yet)
5. Modifications Most cars will need a few modifications to register them. These can vary with each vehicle and year of manufacture. Generally any car after 1965 will require amber indicators both front and rear. Many US cars will have red indicators (turn signals), so you will need to find a way to change this. Cars built after April 1980 will also need a fog light added to the rear. Another common change will be the direction of the headlight beam and the addition of sidelights. If the car is under 10 years oldit will need to pass an IVA (Individual Vehicle Approval) test to check it’s compliance with UK/European rules. This will done at a local DVLA test centre and is in addition to the MOT which would also be needed should the car be over 3 years old. If the car is over 10 years oldit will not need to go through an IVA test, instead you will just need to put the car through the MOT. I would suggest for a first time import, it might be best to put the car through an MOT test and then see what the failure items are to give you an idea of where to focus your efforts.
Whilst waiting for the planned modifications, I took Chunky to the seaside – It’s about 75 miles each way and the car didn’t miss a beat. It was a thoroughly enjoyable drive and turned many heads. Everyone thinks it is a 50’s/60’s Chevy or something like that! On the way back, we stopped by the famous “Ace Cafe” and were asked to park right outside so that everyone could see the car. We stayed a couple of hours.
In the UK we don’t have temporary license plates, so until it is registered, the car will only have the license plates that were on the car (if any). I have driven imported cars in the UK with California plates, Texas plates and, in one case no license plates at all! Strictly speaking the car shouldn’t be driven until it is registered. However, provided the car is insured (using the VIN as it obviously doesn’t have license plates) you are permitted to drive it to a mechanic to be modified (in order to pass the MOT) and to/from the MOT test itself. I am just taking rather long journeys to my mechanic, such as via the seaside. MY MODIFICATION PLANS
It is actually booked in to have the modifications on Wednesday so I am taking it there tomorrow afternoon and I am expecting to have it back by the end of the week. Annoyingly, when a previous owner (not Vince) installed the LED rear lights (which I actually quite like) he/she cut the bulb holders from the rear light surround which means that my mechanic will have to fit new bulb holders to the surround.
I have booked my car in with a local mechanic on Tuesday to get the lights modifications made so that I can get the car registered. These are the modifications I am having made. 1. Front Driving light (we call it a side light), moved from showing in the turn signal lens to showing in the headlamp lens with addition of a new bulb. 2. Front turn signal bulbs replaced with amber bulbs as lens has faded and lamp not amber enough. 3. New lenses added at rear to replace red led ones. One will be red and one will be clear. 4. Rear lights and brake lights will be on the red (uppermost) lens as a double filament bulb. 5. Rear turn signal (we call indicator) will be on the clear lens using an amber bulb. 6. There is no requirement for a back-up light and as I like the look of the car without them (Vince removed them a couple of years back) I will not have back-up lights for this vehicle. 7. Cars registered after April 1980 must have a rear fog light. This is a problem as I want to keep the car as original as possible and these lights, mounted under the rear bumper are ugly and would require an additional illuminated switch and wiring to the headlights. As the car build sheet I obtained shows the order was in Feb 1980, I will try to use this to argue that it doesn’t need it. Annoyingly, if successful it means I will have to argue my case every year as we have to have the MOT (road worthiness) test annually after a car is 3 years old 8. I will have the mechanic change the headlight beam so that it shows correctly for driving on the left. My mechanic expects the work to be done within 2-3 days and I should then be able to send the papers off to the DVLA (our version of the DMV) and get the UK registation plates.
Shortly after taking the car in, my mechanic called with a problem. I need to install a “side light” which is a kind of running light, a dim bulb facing forwards. It needs to be clear. My intention was to have an additional bulb added to the headlamp unit. However my mechanic has said that the units are gas filled and he is unable to do this as it will cause additional problems. We ended up finding some UK headlamps which are the same size and style as the originals, in fact my mechanic said the reflective part of the headlamps were deteriorating on the originals so this option made even more sense. The replacement lights have the required “side/driving light” within the unit, so although it will look the same and the headlamps/full beam will still function as before, I have an additional bulb in the unit to satisfy UK regulations. They have re-coloured the front indicator lenses so that they look better and are more amber when lit. On the rear, because of the way the light surrounds had been cut to accommodate the LED lights, it was going to be difficult to fix to go back to the regular lights and lenses. Apparently the metal is too thin to take a weld. Luckily, I had the spare set of surrounds, so they cleaned these up and used these in conjunction with the lenses. They have wired the lamps to show brake/rear on the red lens and the amber turn signal through the clear lens. It should be ready for our MOT test. After it passes, I can send all the paperwork to the DVLA to get it registered. It doesn’t usually take this long to get all this done, I have been dragging my heels slightly to restock my wallet before the next round of bills!
I have some photos of my modified lights. I had to take the photos at night to make them easier to see. Without the lights on, there is no difference to the look of the car except I now have the older style red and clear lenses on the back cluster. At night there are a few subtle differences in the lights to conform to UK laws. I am taking the car for its first proper UK test tomorrow – the MOT. I’m expecting it to pass but you never know.
THE MOT TEST
Chunky went for the MOT test on Saturday and…. failed. This means that I am not able to register the car in the UK yet. A few of the items are easy fixes such as the parking brake needs adjustment. Then there is the chassis and floor. It looks like in a previous life it has had a lot of repairs underneath. There are a few areas which have sheets of fibreglass – it’s anybody’s guess what this might be hiding! The passenger side footwell floor has completely gone, you can actually stick your hand through the bottom of the car. And there are a few other parts of the floor which need some sheet metal and welding work. There are also a few parts of the chassis which need repairs. My mechanic cannot get to do this fairly major work until August, so it is booked in with him for then. I may not have many updates until such time.
While waiting for my mechanic to get around to repairing Chunky, we took him and my NYPD car to a large American car show in Northampton. I put the TAXI sign on the top of the car for the show and it got a lot of interest being the only Checker there.
FLOOR REPLACEMENT It was the day before my mechanic was due to get the floor fixed on Chunky so I spent a couple of hours with my wife removing the carpet from the front and the bench seat to reduce the amount of time and cost to fix the pretty severe holes in the passenger floor that I mentioned before. I took it to my mechanic’s workshop to get the passenger side floor cut out and replaced. He will be working all day, most of the night and all day tomorrow to get the car ready for an MOT test (required in UK to drive car on roads). He is also an MOT tester, so he will take it for the MOT test on Saturday. Assuming it passes this time, I will send the documents (Maryland Title, customs clearance etc) and fresh MOT certificate to the DVLA office so that they can issue a registration (which can take up to 2 weeks). Meanwhile, I have had some interest in hiring Chunky as a NY cab for weddings and events. I have been thinking a great deal about this and whether or not to respray the car yellow to take advantage of this. I really like the colour scheme that Vince (the previous owner) chose for Chunky. I have finally decided that I shall wrap the car in yellow vinyl wrap and see what happens over the next year or two. If it becomes popular I might look at buying another Checker for the sole purpose of turning into a NYC cab, I can then remove the vinyl from Chunky and keep it as is, although it will probably need a bit of paint and bodywork doing.
THE MOT TEST….. AGAIN!
I finally have an MOT certificate for the car. My mechanic repaired the car after working long hours over the weekend and got the certificate on Saturday. Now I have this, I have posted the certificate along with other documents (application form, US title, ID and of course a cheque) to the DVLA for them to issue me a registration certificate and license plates. This final process will take around 1-2 weeks..
- Registration Once you have the MOT/IVA pass certificate (which will be issued on the VIN number as the car will not have a UK registration at this point), the original title and import documents (which will be posted from the shipping company) you will be able to apply to the DVLA for registration. I’ve always visited my local DVLA office, but since my last import these local offices have all closed. I understand you can post the items to the DVLA office and receive details of the car registration from them. At this point, you will be able to get number plates made for the vehicle. American cars can often have smaller number plates as the standard UK ones will generally not fit in the recess. So I registered my car and now have my UK license plates. The front one is white and rear is yellow in the UK and they have to follow a certain format, for my car it would be the following sequence, 3 letters followed by 1-3 numbers and then a final letter. It would be nice to choose a good combination for my plates, but it’s quite hard to find something great that isn’t already taken. Earlier in the year, I got a lot of interest to hire my car out for weddings and events as a New York taxi and I took the decision to wrap my car in vinyl. However, after a little research I decided on a slightly different approach. There is a product called Plasti-Dip (I think other brands are available) which is a newish type of wrapping using latex. It is applied in layers using a applicator in a similar way to paint. It is apparently quite durable, lasts around 5 years (or more) if looked after and can be simply peeled off when you finish, returning the car to its original colour. This process cost around the same price as vinyl wrapping. I added the taxi checker stripes, Checker logo and tariffs myself. I think the result is quite reasonable, it doesn’t look as shiny and immaculate as a paint job, but I like the “used taxi” look. Here are a couple of photos. I obtained the taxi rooftop sign (which is magnetic) and an ad carrier (also magnetic) from Taxi Depot in New York earlier in the year.
Chunky doesn’t qualify as cars have to be pre-1905. We got amazing cheers and attention during the run.
In November we decided to drive down to Brighton on the day of the famous London to Brighton veteran car run – we drove the 2nd half of the route and got an overwhelming amount of attention, photos and general cheering!
Chunky didn’t qualify for the run as vehicles have to be pre-1905 but we could still drive the route. In Brighton I managed to get into the paddock and met Edd China from the Discovery Channel (in UK) show “Wheeler Dealers” who was competing in the run. He commented on Chunky and noticed us pass him just before arriving in Brighton. We chatted for a while and he signed the glovebox lid.