“This is a dream come true, if you love cars,” Gary Duncan said of his career. At 70 years old, Gary has spent the last 50 years of his life building an enterprise out of a passion. A key component of that passion is his affinity for Japanese cars and culture. “If you love Japanese cars, you’ll love the people.” A multi-day visit to Japan in 2017 was the last time he traveled there, but Gary is planning on returning this fall for the Tokyo Motor Show.
I caught up with Gary, who pioneered Duncan Imports & Classics, for a Q&A session recently.
Why Japanese Cars?
Japanese cars are gaining in collectability, especially examples from the 1980s and 1990s. And now, thanks to the 25-year import rule in the United States, vehicles that were originally sold in the Japanese Domestic Market (JDM) can now lawfully be imported stateside and registered for highway use.
What is the appeal of a JDM car over one that was sold in the United States Domestic Market (USDM)? That depends on the make and model in question, but some vehicles were simply never sold in the U.S. at all, and others came to North America with revised equipment. One key difference is that many Japanese-market cars are right-hand drive. For example, the popular two-seat Honda Beat roadster is a three-cylinder “Kei” car that can now be registered and driven in the states but was never available here when new.
Staying in the Honda realm, consider the recently-featured 1996 Honda Odyssey from a Pick of the Day. This Odyssey originated in the Japanese market and featured all-wheel drive, which was a feature that first-generation Odysseys in the United States did not receive. Above all else, the exclusivity of having a rare imported car is icing on the cake when you show up at an event in a vehicle that nobody else drives.
Gary added to that, “You go to cars & coffee, and everyone’s already seen the ’55 Chevys. When you roll in with a Nissan Figaro, they have to know what it is. You better take plenty of time, because you’re going to answer a lot of questions.” JDM cars are rare, affordable, and an investment – as well as being easy conversation-starters. The Japanese Classic Car Show and other events provide a clear indication that this movement is here to stay.
Automotive history runs deep in Gary’s family. His father owned dealerships, which explains why Gary likes to tell people he has a Ph.D – which stands for “Papa had a dealership.” Or, in this case, multiple dealerships. Gary first got connected to the business when he was 19 and ran a Triumph franchise. Later, he started working with MG, Fiat, and Lincoln-Mercury. Things evolved from there when he took on a Honda dealership in the late 1970s.
Of all the cars that Gary has driven and owned during his lifetime, there are a few that stand out as most meaningful. One is a green 1974 Karmann Ghia with just 25 miles on the odometer that was purchased from a Volkswagen dealership in the 1980s. Gary said he is also fond of his yellow Acura NSX, and he mused about a 1987 Porsche 911 that he’s purchased three separate times: He first got the keys in 1988 and later sold it to a friend. He bought it back from the friend, later sold it at auction, and eventually bought it again a third time. This time it’s here to stay. The “boomerang” Porsche shows only 32,000 miles on the odometer after all these years.
Recently, Gary decided to narrow his focus a little. Last September, it was announced that he would be selling his Acura, Audi, and BMW dealerships in Roanoke, Virginia. These strategic moves will allow him to focus more on developing the Duncan Imports lines of business. Let’s look at what that business involves.
Duncan Imports Background
One of the first Japanese cars that caught Gary’s eye was the 1991 Nissan Figaro. In 2016, that vehicle hit 25 years old and became legal for import to the United States. Duncan Imports took root at that time, and Gary has spent the last seven years amassing large collections of vehicles housed in two different facilities: One is in located Christiansburg, Virginia and another in Nashville, Tennessee. Between the two, there are about 1,200 vehicles. Add to that the vehicles that are in transit or still in Japan, and the total Duncan inventory is about 1,400 vehicles.
Gary has a network of trusted buyers in Japan who have a firsthand pulse on the market there. They buy cars every day of the week except Sunday and Monday. The process is multi-faceted, but in a simplified form, it starts with an auction where his buyers scope out vehicles and capture details on video. After purchase, the cars make their way to a port in Baltimore, and upon arrival stateside, they are titled in Tennessee and made available for resale.
The logistics involved in managing this work sound staggering, but incredibly, Gary makes do with just 17 full-time employees spread across the two facilities. Their work is challenging, and even though the team has gone through the importation process hundreds of times, there are always curve balls to navigate thanks to Customs, motor vehicle departments, and shipping carriers. Gary laughed when I asked him if he has this down to a science.
Duncan’s philosophy is unlike most used-car dealerships: Instead of spending a lot of effort to recondition each vehicle for resale, the team markets them to the customers in exactly the same condition they arrive stateside. “I want you to see the car in the condition that I bought it in,” Gary said. “And we recommend the customer hire their own technician before they spend a dime.” To that end, Gary’s standards are high: Japanese cars are rated on a scale of roughly 1 through 9. Gary’s buyers will not look at most cars that are not above a 3.5 or a 4.
Clearly, building relationships in this industry is critical, and Gary said that having the right people in place is the key. The manager of his Tennessee facility previously held a role as a General Manager of one of Gary’s Acura and Audi dealerships for ten years. “I don’t have to worry because I can trust him,” Gary said.
To anyone wishing to get an inside look at either the Virginia or the Tennessee facility, there is no charge to go in and have a look around. Donations are accepted which go toward a charity supporting children with cerebral palsy. Gary and his family are believers in good karma, and that is clear in how he operates his business. He also keeps a keen eye on his Google reviews and strives for customer satisfaction.
Future Collectible Picks
I asked Gary to think of a few Japanese cars that he feels are positioned for continued upward collectability.
- Autozam AZ-1: This mid-engined kei-class car was manufactured by Mazda between 1992 and 1994
- Honda S2000 and Civic Si: Ever popular are Honda’s high-revving sports cars
- Lexus SC430: This luxo-roadster combines a 4.3-liter V8 engine with a retractable hardtop
- Suzuki Cappuccino: Available from 1991 to 1998, this two-seater has a removable hardtop
- Suzuki Samurai: Arriving stateside in 1986, this four-cylinder SUV has a strong off-enthusiast base
- Toyota FJ Cruiser: This capable midsize 4×4 SUV was sold between 2007 and 2014 in North America
As a certified Acura nut, one of the cars I geek out on most from Gary’s collection is his Championship White Acura Integra Type R with only 1,100 miles on the odometer. What I would give to put a mile or two on that!
The popularity of Japanese cars from the neo-classic era between 1980 and the early 2000s is on the rise, and this might be the perfect time to add a special car to your garage. Our staff would like to plan a visit to Duncan’s Virginia facility. Which vehicles would you most like to see us feature up close and personal? Share it with us in the comments.
If you are considering joining the community of JDM vehicle owners yourself, check out the Duncan Imports inventory, and as always, keep an eye on the listings at ClassicCars.com.
Wow! Those are fun JDM offerings. Wishing I were nearer to go and see them in person!
Purchased a 1986 Toyota Century from Duncan in TN.Ifvyou go there you’ll spend hrs looking at the cars.Alotvof amazing eye candy.