WHEN was the last time you saw an American car in this country? Unless you drive around Lower Sloane Square or near a US air force base,it was probably months or even years ago. And when you did, its driver sat, inconveniently, beside the footpath: until recently, American-made cars with steering wheels on the right, where British motorists prefer them, have been unavailable.

And then in April last year, the first American right-hand-drive cars at last went on sale in Britain. They were made in Ohio - by Honda.

The Japanese company's decision to supply the UK market from its US plant helped to stir America's dozy car makers. If Honda could export right-hand- drives from the Midwest, so could they. Each of America's 'big three' car makers now says it intends to make future models with right-hand drive, although the degree of commitment varies. US- made Chryslers will go on sale in Britain next January; Ford will import American-made Probe coupes to this country in early 1994; General Motors, meanwhile, talks more vaguely about 'the future' for right-hand-drive exports from America.

The developments represent a change of direction for Detroit. The policy was always to build cars in the area in which they are sold, and Ford and GM's European organisations, Vauxhall and Opel, bear long-standing testimony to this approach.

But Honda's example was not the only factor which altered attitudes. With American car sales in the doldrums, Detroit has far more manufacturing capacity than it needs.

The situation was exacerbated as Japanese companies helped themselves to a larger slice of the smaller cake. The result was an American litany of woe: financial losses, closed factories, redundancies, lay-offs, smaller market shares, and an enormous trade deficit in cars and components.

Belatedly, Detroit has recognised that selling more cars overseas is one way to cut the deficit and crank up idle production lines.

The problem, as every out-of- work American car worker knows, is that the bulk of the industry's trade deficit is with Japan. And the Japanese drive on the left, like us. Switching steering wheels, pedals and controls is a costly business, but American companies seem to have accepted the necessity of selling on the Japanese market - and that means making right-hand-drive cars.

Britain will be a beneficiary, as will other countries that cling to right-hand drive, such as Australia and New Zealand.

The export effort to Britain got under way in late spring last year, when Honda's Accord Aerodeck estate car went on sale. It was joined three months ago by another American-made model, the two-door Accord coupe.

Next week Toyota starts bringing in a US-made model, the Camry Estate, and it is unlikely to be the last Japanese company to do so. Already Mitsubishi is exporting left-hand-drives from Illinois to mainland Europe. Other companies seem certain to follow, now that every Japanese car maker except Daihatsu produces vehicles in North America. They include the Toyota Corolla and Camry, Nissan Sentra and Altima, Mitsubishi Eclipse and Mirage, Honda Civic and Accord, Mazda 626 and MX6 and Subaru Legacy.

Indeed, the Probe which Ford will sell here is made in Michigan by Mazda, a company in which Ford owns a 24 per cent share. Based on the MX6, the V6-powered Probe will be a spiritual successor to the Capri, and a Ford alternative to the Vauxhall Calibra, Toyota Celica and Volkswagen Corrado.

If Mazda can make right-hand- drive Probes, there is little to stop it supplying 626 saloons and MX6 coupes to Britain from the same factory, rather than from Japan. Three factors may persuade it to do so: there are still quotas on Japanese-made cars in Britain; alone among Japan's big car makers, Mazda has made no commitment to manufacture in Europe and thus bypasses those quotas; and production costs in America are slightly lower than in Japan.

The big push is coming from Chrysler. Its vehicles are already available in mainland Europe (where last year they outsold the American-made models of GM and Ford by three to one) and will be exhibited at this October's Birmingham motor show before a British sales launch early next year. With its British partner, TKM Automotive, the company is initially concentrating on a couple of right-hand-drive Jeeps and the outrageous Viper roadster.

The Viper, a 400bhp two- seater, is a limited-volume model which will be available only in left- hand drive. But even at pounds 50,000 each, TKM reckons it will be able to sell 50 a year.

The Jeeps will be the Cherokee, a five-door which will compete with the Land-Rover Discovery and Mitsubishi Shogun, and the Wrangler, a two-door with styling more like that of the original Jeeps.

They will be followed in 1994 by the Grand Cherokee, which has just been introduced in the US as a competitor to the Range Rover.

However, there is no prospect of Chrysler offering its best-selling Voyager in Britain in its present form. The Voyager is a seven-passenger, van-like people carrier which has been an unqualified success in America and is now being built in Austria for other European countries.

The problem is that its single sliding passenger door is on the right, handily placed for children to step into the middle of a British road. Chrysler will not sell the vehicle here until it has been redesigned with a left-side door, and that will not happen until the third-generation Voyager is ready in 1994.

Neither is TKM presently interested in any of the new saloon cars which Chrysler is preparing. These include the LH, a Granada- size model which was the hit of the Detroit motor show earlier this year, the Sierra-class PL and Escort-category JA, both of which are due in 1994.

Philip Benton, Ford's president, has said that the next Taurus saloon, also Granada-sized, will be built with right-hand drive.

Similarly, 'Skip' LeFauve, president of GM's new Saturn corporation, says the company has every intention of making right- hand-drives, but will give no clue over timing. Japan is the primary target, but Britain could also benefit.

However, one attractive American feature unlikely to be exported to this country is the pricing. All US imports will be priced here in accordance with the high British levels. That is in spite of the fact that a top Chevrolet Caprice or Ford Crown Victoria - V8 power, automatic gearbox, air- conditioning, cruise control and so on - can be bought in America for the price of a mid-level Astra or Escort in Britain.

(Photograph omitted)

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