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February 11, 2011

News & Features

Special delivery: Buying a car abroad offers memories and savings

New York Times News Service


Stephen Williams first seeing his new 2011 BMW 128i in Munich, above, and picking it up at the dealership in Huntington, N.Y. with salesman Howard Schulman (below at right). (New York Times News Service)


The easy way to take delivery of my 2011 BMW 128i would have been to make a 45-minute train ride from my home in Queens, N.Y., to the dealership in Huntington, on Long Island. I chose the not-so-easy way: Queens to Huntington via Munich, Germany.

In the end, picking up my BMW twice -- first at the company's cavernous delivery center in Munich, and again five weeks later at the showroom where I had made the actual purchase -- let me experience the emotional kicks of BMW's European delivery program.

When I began shopping for a new car early in 2010, a European delivery was not in consideration. But during a visit to Habberstad BMW in Huntington, my salesman made the suggestion.

We went to the calculator, and these cold, hard facts emerged:
• Sticker price of the car, shipped to the Huntington dealership, including the destination fee: $35,250.
• Price as negotiated with the dealership, delivered directly: $33,700.
• European delivery price, including registration and insurance to drive in most European countries for 14 days, and shipping to the Huntington dealership: $31,695.

The savings shrink when a round-trip airline ticket to Germany (about $850) is added; hotels, the occasional schnitzel and cafe mit schlag also make a dent. No matter which course I took, New York state sales tax would apply.


The writer picked up his car at the BMW Welt, a corporate fantasyland in Munich, Germany. (BMW)

"They'll give you a free keychain," my salesman Howard Schulman said, sweetening the pot.

So here was an excuse to travel, and it would be nifty to take possession of a new German car in its homeland, before it had been soiled by seawater and touched by strangers' hands at the port in Newark, N.J. Visions of autobahn motoring danced in my head.

As I learned, a major selling point for European deliveries is not so much the lower price; it's the money saved by vacationers who drive their own car rather than paying for a rental. For example, renting an Audi A3 for a month in August from AutoEurope in Munich, including full insurance and unlimited mileage, is typically more than $1,800.

Most Americans use their new vehicles for touring the Continent. "Many of our customers are travel-savvy," says Simone Zaccardi of BMW North America, who works with American customers on European sales.

History of overseas buying
  • • American GIs in postwar Europe may have been the first to take advantage of European deliveries, even before carmakers had official programs. Servicemen who fell in love with the cars they drove overseas had them shipped home when their duty tours were completed.
  • • In the 1960s, some Continental carmakers began to see the marketing benefits of offering tourist delivery to vacationing Americans. And buyers in the early years often found an advantage in the dollar's strength against European currencies.
  • • Mercedes-Benz and BMW were joined along the way by Porsche, Saab, Volkswagen, Volvo and Audi. Other companies, including Ferrari, will deliver a car in Europe but have no formal plan.

With a $1,000 deposit, I made the order for my 128i in early May. Two weeks later, an e-mail confirmed the date and time for pickup -- June 29 at 2:20 p.m. at BMW Welt (German for world), the corporate fantasyland-theme park that doubles as a delivery center. From 70 to 160 cars are delivered there each day, about 10 percent to Americans.

When I arrived at the Welt, my personal assistant, Bernhard Hausmaninger, greeted me with a wide smile, as though I'd traveled across the ocean just to meet him.

"I see people at their best," he said. Hausmaninger said he derived a good deal of satisfaction introducing people to their new BMWs.

Which is what he did with me. We spent about half an hour in a driving simulator, where I checked out the car's operational features and drove on virtual ice to try out the traction control. We walked down a flight of stairs to my white coupe spinning on a turntable.

A couple of days later I dropped off the car and it began its lonely voyage, sans owner, to Newark.

A month later, the coupe arrived at the dealer. Pickup day in the U.S. was like most others for new-car buyers. The salesman handed over a white 1 Series coupe with a full tank of gas -- and, yes, another keychain.


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