Exercise in Frustration

priusbackWell, you all know by now that I fell in love quite some time ago: to hybrid car technology, of course. In particular, I fell in love with a specific model: the Toyota Prius. I loved how small it was, I loved the way it could run (briefly) without any petrol at all and I loved the possibilities it promised for the future.

I diligently saved up a whole year to buy mine, so when I unexpectedly found myself in Texas I saw no reason why I shouldn’t continue my plan and just buy one there, so I did. This worked brilliantly and I have been more than overjoyed with the outcome. In every way, this car has exceeded my expectations. Still, all good things must come to an end, so about a month before I was due to leave the country I started trying to sell my car.

DSC_0277Strange as it may seem, Texans are not as keen on hybrid car technology as I am. I had paid $14k for it and, according to Kelly Blue Book, it was worth around $10k now in a private sale (more on the dealer’s floor). That seemed reasonable to me, so that’s what I aimed for. No bites. So I wrote a lower price and my phone number on it in big green letters. Apart from a few hang-ups I got no bites.

So, I resorted to the old stand-by: Car-Max. They proudly proclaim to offer the best deals in town, no haggling. I drove in, semi-desperate to sell and sat through the young man’s speech about how Car-Max offers the most fair, honest prices. When the price his assessors had arrived at appeared on the screen, I could see he was as surprised as I was: $4k. Now, I was willing to go down perhaps as far as $8k, but $4k? That was a kick in the teeth.

I walked straight out of there, dejected. No one seemed to want my beautiful car. I would rather have driven that fine piece of Japanese engineering into the lake rather than sell it for four thousand dollars, which is no more than a high-performance laptop. Slowly a dangerously rebellious thought started to take hold of me: screw them, I’ll just keep it.

DSC_0156I got a quote from a few shipping companies and found the cheapest, recommended to me by my work-mate, Sam. Ian (who is married to another ex-colleague) runs the company and he quoted me about US$3000 to ship the car, and then a little over around NZ$2000 for GST and the like. I did the maths. Even if I sold the car for $6k (something no one had offered just yet) I would still have to pay an additional $7k to get the equivalent car in New Zealand. If I sold it for a paltry $4k, I would need to make up a full $14k to get the equivalent model in New Zealand, simply untenable. In my head, I reckoned that if the cost to ship the car to New Zealand would total around $6k, I would be quite pleased.

So, after a restless weekend’s mulling it over, I called them up and told them to go for it. This is where the fun (or the heartache) began. We didn’t get off to a brilliant start. Monica (the administrative person in California) has a thick accent and between us we couldn’t make sense of any conversation. Through the garbled dialects I determined that she needed my original bill of sale and title, so I made copies and sent the originals via express courier (more about that later). I stuffed my boot and back seat with personal effects. Also, because friends were hankering after some American produce, I packed a box with Starbucks coffee, Almond Rocca and Cheetos in it.

DSC_0154The day before I flew out of the country (talk about cutting it fine) a nice guy called John came over to pick up my baby and transport her in his enormous car moving thing.
“So where are you taking the car?” he asked in what I presumed to be a thick Brooklyn accent (having only heard such a thing on TV).
“Home” I replied fondly
“Oh, and where’s that? California?”
“New Zealand” I beamed
“Oh, where is that, England?”
“No, other end of the world, actually, it’s down near Australia”
John looked at me with a big American grin on his face.
“Well, isn’t that a coincidence, I’m from Romania!”
No, it wasn’t sarcasm, Americans don’t do sarcasm.

So, John set off with my car in tow and I prayed that he knew which direction to go in.

Time passed and I tried to forget about it. I drove the horrid gas-guzzling rental for a week then arrived in New Zealand, bunny-hopping on the motorway, experiencing my first manual car in 10 years while driving on the wrong side of the road in peak hour traffic. In the following weeks I waited patiently for my pride and joy. The weeks turned into months.

DSC_0105Out of the blue I receive an email from Simone, the New Zealand contact, who said my car was about to arrive in the country and would I like to “clear customs”. I enthusiastically replied that I’d do anything to get my car back quickly, so she sent me some forms to fill out and asked for my original title.

This is when I started getting annoyed.

You see, I had given my original to Monica. Little inconsistencies in communication like that really get up my nose, especially when it’s only dumb luck and a little foresight on my part that ensured I had a copy of those important documents on me. I dutifully took time off work to trundle down to the customs house at 4:00pm with all my documentation sorted.

A man with only one eye greeted me at the counter. A lovely man to be sure, but I still couldn’t get past the fact that he only had one eye.
“Good afternoon” I tried. “I need to do this…” He cast his eye over the documents.
“Well, I can probably do this one for you now” he held up the application for client number “but it’s nearly closing time so you’ll have to come back tomorrow for the rest.

I ground my teeth. I had left work an hour early, half walked-half ran all the way to Anzac avenue and come to this building only to find that the staff weren’t too keen on doing paperwork too close to closing time or it may upset their dinner. Turns out that it didn’t matter either way because once I got back home I received another email from Ian telling me that Simone should be “clearing customs” for me since that’s what they charged me for in the first place. I shrugged and faxed through all my fully-completed paperwork and left it in their apparently capable hands.

A week later, on Friday, I received a few frantic emails from Simone. I needed to go down to customs and sign a DOU (Deed of Understanding) to assure customs I wouldn’t sell my car in 5 years. That way I didn’t need to pay any GST! So, the next Monday at lunch time, I was there at customs with half a day to burn, having begged very nicely for the time off.

“Hi, I am here to sign a deed of understanding, my reference number is…”
“No, no” the customs lady interjected impatiently “it’s a deed of undertaking and all I need is your name”
“My number is…”
“Your name?”
I gave her my name and she went off to go efficiently find something. A few minutes later she came back and asked for the number, then had a better look.

DSC_0107It turned out that Simone had been dealing with customs on the other side of town (almost an hour’s drive away) and they had sent back all my documentation to her, thinking I wasn’t going to be there to sign the document. I called Simone and asked her to send the documentation by fax. Simone was at lunch, so half an hour later she finally managed to send some documentation to us, but she only sent half of it, so I patiently asked her to send the rest as well. This went on for a few minutes till we had all the documentation in one place. The customs lady then busied herself with her bureaucratic machinations.

About half an hour later, the customs lady explained that everything was all wrong. I didn’t need to sign anything at all since I had only been in the US for 18 months and so would have to pay GST, but the silver lining was that the depreciation on my car had been calculated at 10% whereas it should have been 50%, saving me almost a thousand dollars in GST.

I must say I was really annoyed at this point. What was the point of paying people to “clear customs” for you if you have to do it all yourself and the bits that they did for you were completely and utterly bollocks wrong? I ground my teeth. Anyway, at the end of the day, customs (very apologetically) cleared my car and my stuff. I called Simone back and she sent me an invoice. Once I paid this last payment she said, I could have my car.

The price was wrong. She still hadn’t corrected for the depreciation. Another, slightly irritated call by me later and we had the correct price. The next day I took the afternoon off work again and headed out with Sarah to the shippers. The plan was to pick up the car, drive it to the VTNZ (Vehicle Testing New Zealand) get it tested, then fixed up if necessary and then registered. I paid the cost and even shook Simone’s hand, though I still think the whole thing actually took place in spite of her rather than because of her.

DSC_0108We hurried over to the yard where the car and my belongings were housed and I waited in line to hand over my documentation.
“It’s wrong” the woman behind the counter said simply
“What?” my voice rose in surprise and anger “It’s what?”
“It’s wrong” she repeated nonchalantly, “you’ll have to go back to customs and get this documentation corrected to say there were eight pieces, then come back here. Oh, and you owe us storage costs as well. $270″
Needless to say, I took her name and number and marched straight back into the shippers’ office.
From the look on Ian’s face he could tell what I was going to say before I even opened my mouth, but I did so just in case he missed the steam coming out of my ears”
“I am NOT happy” I said emphatically, trying hard to stop my hands quivering with rage. I explained the situation, ending it with “her name’s Dianne, could someone make a phone call and give someone a good kick in the nuts, thanks.”

One phone call and a good bollocking later, a much more contrite Dianne was explaining to her co-worker that I didn’t need to pay any storage and that those eight items were actually to be considered one item of personal effects to be stored in the car.

Finally, I was about to get my car, my keys were handed to me and Ross, the foreman walked over to me sheepishly.
“Heard you’ve been having a little trouble”
“Oh, it’s ok, I’m used to it by now” I retorted sardonically.
“You can take the car” he continued “but it doesn’t go”
My blood ran cold “What do you mean it doesn’t go?” I asked incredulously.
He backed off a little. “I don’t know, we tried the key earlier and it wouldn’t start, must be the battery, but it’s a petrol-electric so I wouldn’t touch it”
Battery? Those hybrid batteries are expensive. If it died in transit, I may as well have bought a new car.
I walked over to the car praying that it was what I thought it was.
The key turned over and the car made no sound. The display lit up however. I put her in reverse and drove away.

As I had thought, the guys at the shipyard expected my car to make a noise when they turned the key. Most people still aren’t quite used to that.

Now came the truly treacherous part of my car’s journey: drive half-way across town with an illegal, unregistered left-hand-drive Texas hybrid car with Texas plates and hope that the cops don’t catch you. I made it to the VTNZ in one piece and left the car with them overnight. They gave me a lot of confidence and I imagined I may even be able to drive the car legally the next day, but it was not to be.

As one of my colleagues had warned me, and as I knew in my heart of hearts, it wasn’t going to be that simple. My headlights pointed the wrong way. Now, that may sound absurd to you (and it is) but the idea is that for New Zealand roads, when they “dip” the headlights should dip away from oncoming traffic to the left, whereas American cars also dip away, but to the right. This subtle difference would mean I needed to replace both headlights. I had even planned for this and knew a Toyota dealership in the area. I drove up to the shop and after much confusion, they worked out which parts I would need.

DSC_0556“$1200 for the left and $2100 for the right” the guy at the computer suggested gingerly “plus GST”.
“Like I said… a ridiculous price” he offered apologetically “but the price is set by head office.”
I immediately called head office who claimed the price was set by the dealership and they had nothing to do with it.

“Look, ” the service manager said diplomatically “we’ve never imported a part like this before, they’ve never been in the country before, it’s going to cost a lot, you see. It’s Toyota New Zealand.. er.. Japan that sets that price”
“So, you think over two thousand dollars is reasonable for a bit of glass and plastic then? You’re saying I should buy a second hand Prius and scrap it for the headlights then?”
He shrugged “some cost even more”

I turned away. I wanted to cry. They knew I had no choice. I either had to pay this or lose my whole car. All my calculations were out the window now. The cost of the headlights was so high that I wasn’t even sure if I wanted to see this debacle through to the end.

Defeated and dejected I drove home in my wonderful little (still illegal) car, more than a little regretful. On the way home I picked up a piece of dowel and some blue-tack from Bunning’s Warehouse (more about that later). I managed to dodge the cops all the way into town then came across a familiar sight: the clean green car company. My friend Kelley had bought two Priuses from those guys and she’d introduced me to them, maybe they had some wisdom to share.

Stephen, one of the owners shook his head. “It’s disgusting, isn’t it? We’ll sort it out”

He immediately called someone up on his phone, the conversation ended: “Look mate, I have someone here who wants them right away, so you go away for a while and think of a better price, OK?” He put the phone down. The price was less than half what the other place quoted and these parts would be just as new.

“You won’t want to know who I just called” he said.
“I know.”

I drove a few blocks to my car park and wound down the passenger window. I stuck the blue-tack to the end of the dowel and my swipe card to the end of the blue-tack. I stuck my make-shift reaching device out of the window and beeped myself through. At least one thing worked as planned.

DSC_0550In the end, Stephen talked Toyota down to a total of $1200 (that included a 10% mark-up for himself). Even with added GST, both headlights cost about the same price as the cheapest one from the dealership. I was grateful but still angry. When the parts arrived the next Monday, I picked them up (manually) and walked them back to my apartment (I live very close to the company). That Wednesday I had an appointment with an auto mechanic to install the new headlights and replace the tyres, which he did pretty efficiently.

So, finally, on Thursday morning (off work with the flu and slightly delirious), I triumphantly (though groggily) drove my illegal car into VTNZ for its final test, which it passed with flying colours. I was overjoyed till the final hurdle hit me square in the face. The VIN wasn’t “decoding”.

They had mentioned it a week previously and said that the LTNZ (Land Transit New Zealand) were looking into it. Only now, at 1pm on the last Thursday before Christmas did they decide to tell me that I was responsible for getting Toyota to describe the full details of how the VIN was to be decoded.

So I drove to the Toyota dealership who gave me a photocopy from a page in their book, which I dutifully handed over to VTNZ who faxed it to LTNZ. After phoning the LTNZ for the second time, it transpired that the guy was on is break.

Having worked in a bureaucratic organisation I knew the best way to get a rise out of a middle management drone. I got his number and called every 15 minutes (I only had to do it twice). When I got hold of him it turned out that he needed my specific VIN decoded. So, I called Toyota New Zealand. After 10 minutes and three phone calls they told me I had to submit my request in writing. It was now getting down to the wire: a quarter to 5. I would need to hurry to get this done in time. I scribbled down my fax and bullied a VTNZ staff member to send it. Toyota responded with a fax basically telling me they couldn’t help me at all and I should contact Toyota in the US.

So, that night, at 3am, I called Toyota in the US, who promptly told me to get lost, hiding behind the fact that that information was “confidential”. I called the original dealer who sold the car (John Eagle Sports City Toyota, Dallas) but they barely knew what “VIN” meant. Finally, I decoded the VIN myself through the old standby: Wikipedia:

DSC_0280J – Japan
T – Toyota
2 – Passenger Vehicle
B – 2 wheel drive 4 door sedan
K – Engine: 1NZ-FXE
1 – Series: 1
2 – Manual seatbelts, 2 airbags
U – Model: Prius
9 – Check digit 2 – Year: 2002
0 – Assembly plant
06398 – Sequence Number

The next morning (last working Friday of the year) I bullied a Toyota dealer into putting his business card on it, then faxed it to the LTNZ from the VTNZ. Finally! All done. I waited expectantly for the call.. it never came.

The call finally came the next Monday, on Christmas Eve: the VIN was now decoded and I could register my car whenever I liked. Which is really convenient seeing as I am in Hamilton for Christmas. I sure am looking forward to the new year.

Merry Christmas everyone. Yes, even to you, Bruce, the pedantic LTNZ clerk.