AUTOWEEK Article - October 2, 2017

Duncan Imports deals classic Japanese cars on an unimaginable scale

How (and why) 700-plus JDM vehicles ended up in a quiet corner of Virginia almost overnight

October 11, 2017

 

The whole scene would almost make more sense if Gary Duncan were certifiably nuts. How else do you explain the sudden accumulation, in an industrial park on the fringes of Christiansburg, Virginia, of 700 or so vintage Japanese-market vehicles? And not just the ones you'd expect-the coveted Nissan Skylines, Honda Beat convertibles and the like. No, we're talking everything: minitrucks and firetrucks, space-age four-wheel-drive vans and sport coupes, convertibles and dignified luxury sedans, even a handful of incredible hearses-intricately carved gilded pagodas plopped on the back of somber black Toyotas …

Add a few cop cars into the mix, and Duncan would be able singlehandedly to meet the personal, commercial, municipal and mortuary vehicular needs of a small Japanese town. But Duncan isn't crazy, and he isn't a hoarder. He's an established, second-generation new-car dealer who has assembled one of the largest and most eclectic collections of Japanese domestic market (JDM) vehicles in once place anywhere on the planet. In under two years.

"I believe in divine intervention," Duncan proclaims, not a few minutes after we've met. We're sitting in his office; collector-car magazines, price guides and free-for-the-taking Christian literature surround us. "Trust me-I'm not this good."

Call it what you will, but something did seem to guide him down this path.

A super-clean (American-market) Acura NSX behind two ornate Japanese hearses, one built on a Toyota,
the other on a Mercedes-Benz. Photo by Graham Kozak

In December 2015, Duncan visited a local man selling older Hondas-Del Sols, S2000s, Preludes. They couldn't agree on price. "We're getting ready to leave and he says: 'By the way, 
I have another garage. It's on your way; would you like to stop by?' So we go by there and he's got a little red Japanese firetruck and a Nissan S-Cargo (an adorable, snail-shaped delivery van). 
I thought, I've got to have them. So I buy them from him."

Within weeks, he'd bought 10 firetrucks from that man's contact in Washington. Momentum built quickly from there. "Every night, we start looking for what's for sale in Japan, and we started buying cars. My first Japanese purchase landed in Newport News (Virginia) in April of 2016."

Since then, Duncan has bought an astounding 700-plus vehicles and counting. Before all this, he says: "If you'd have told me I'd have bought a right-hand-drive car, I'd have told you you were out of your mind-especially that I was going to buy 700 of them. Again, 
I don't know if it's divine intervention, but I do feel God has 
a hand in it."

So in one sense, everything here is the overnight result of some mysterious purpose. But in another, it's been a long time coming. And it started with what has become the closest thing Duncan Imports has to a signature vehicle: the almost unbearably cute, retro-styled 1991 Nissan Figaro.

"I saw them the first time at the Tokyo Motor Show in 1989," says Duncan of the pint-size cabriolets; his stature as a Honda dealer scored him the trip to Japan. "I knew they were going to be a hit, and I wanted them as soon as I could buy them, and I wanted to buy as many as I could. They only made 20,000 of them; when they're gone, they're gone."

Those buildings? All jam-packed with JDM cars.PHOTO BY DON PETERSEN

United States law permits the importation of vehicles not originally certified for sale here once those vehicles reach 
25 years of age. For the Figaro, which rolled out in 1991 and was instantly snapped up by Japanese buyers, that moment came last year. Duncan jumped; he now has roughly 100 of the highly sought cars, including what may be the nicest two examples 
in private ownership. "There's one out there with 700 (kilometers), and one with 4,000 kilometers … they've got to be the best in the world." They're stored under plastic.

He's in no hurry to sell these two. But a look at the whole Figaro inventory, with prices starting at under $6,000 and topping $30,000, gives a good indication of what he's been going for: a wide range of offerings, honestly presented and offered at attainable prices. If he finds a model he likes, one his experience and intuition tell him has collectible potential, he'll buy as many as he can and sell them with minimal markup.

"Our philosophy has been to bring them in, check the fluids and wash them," Duncan says. "Keep them as pure as we bought 'em." He means it: Popping open a hatch on one of his firetrucks reveals, along with first-aid supplies, some Japanese first responder's empty plastic bottle of Ito En-brand green tea.

This approach sets him apart from other JDM dealers, who tend to focus on one particular niche, like sports cars, and then recondition or even restore their offerings before listing them for sale. "That's not me-I don't want to be that. I want to be a little bit of everything," he says.

Duncan's inventory is predominantly Japanese, but he also has plenty of American offerings -- including this 1949 Mercury Eight station wagon once owned by Barry Goldwater Photo by Graham Kozak

His something-for-everyone approach applies to buyers. Cars seem to be very generational, observes Duncan. Prewar cars are falling out of favor, as are the hot-rodded Fords popular in the Virginia moonshine country of Duncan's youth. "You've got a younger crowd who knows exactly what Japanese cars are. Now, the Nissan Skyline GT-Rs-'Fast & Furious' put those on the map. If I had a dollar for everyone who wanted to drive one … but it's the uniqueness," at the end of the day, that brings folks of all ages and interests onto his lot.

There are some unexpected developments, too. "Another thing that's evolving, that we're real excited about, is rural mail carriers. They're coming out of the woodwork," Duncan explains, to buy right-hand-drive vans and SUVs. Minitrucks go to college campuses and farms. ("One guy up in Pennsylvania's got a winery; he bought six of 'em.") The firetrucks? A hit with grandparents looking for a fun toy.

It's after the awe wears off that you really start to appreciate how singular the enterprise is. If you'd expect this sort of thing to happen at all, you'd imagine it on the West Coast-a place with stronger ties to Japan, in an industrial zone a few miles from a big port like Long Beach. "We're not at the most ideal location," Duncan admits. "You've got to want to come see us."

And you'd expect it to be run by 20- or 30-somethings, guys who grew up watching "Tokyo Drift" and counting down the days until the Skyline GT-Rs they grew acquainted with in video games became legally importable. That's not Duncan Imports at all. But it might just be that Duncan's distance from the heart of tuner culture is what makes his operation possible. It's his willingness to take a big risk and his playful but voracious appetite for the unusual ("You see the Mighty Boys? You know what a Mighty Boy is? I call it the Japanese El Camino - I think they're pretty cool," he says, as we stroll by a few Suzuki trucklets) that, combined, make Duncan Imports a bona fide roadside wonder.

The man with the plan and a whole lot of Japanese cars: Gary Duncan.

Photo by Don Peterson

"People ask, 'What are you going to do with all those things? What if you can't sell them? I say, 'Well, I collect cars, too!'" 
Duncan says. "This is my hobby-I say hobby because I'll be 65 and I'm still trying to figure out what I want to be when I grow up-but I've got some great managers at my dealerships, and 
I'm starting to try to figure out what retirement looks like.

"But this is right back to where I started from: buying and selling used cars." The Lord, Duncan wouldn't hesitate to tell you, works in some mighty mysterious ways, indeed. 


Graham Kozak - Graham Kozak drove a 1951 Packard 200 sedan in high school because he wanted something that would be easy to find in a parking lot. He thinks all the things they're doing with fuel injection and seatbelts these days are pretty nifty too.