The Two Millennials Behind Dutch Safari Company Are Changing The US Import Game
Photography by Will Mederski
As a part of the new Petrolicious Marketplace, we’ll be interviewing sellers, dealers, and collectors to give our audience an inside look at some of the key figures in classic car sales, and to introduce you to some of the people behind the cars you’ll see listed on Petrolicious. We’ll also be discussing the classic car market, potential investments, and getting their take on current trends.
We are always on the lookout for young-timers making a splash in the classic car world, so we recently synced-up with the duo of mid-20-year-olds behind the Austin, Texas based Dutch Safari Co. This is a story of how humble beginnings importing undiscovered Land Rovers to the US turned into a steady business that’s now growing into other niche categories. Here’s how it happened.
OUR FIRST DUTCH SAFARI
Shayan Bokaie: Two young people in Texas specializing in importing unique, affordable cars from Europe—how’d this come to be?
Erica Plumlee: First of all, Nick and I go back. Our families have always been friends, so Nick and I have been friends since we were little kids, and now we’ve become step cousins later on in life. We’ve got both a friend and a family bond.
Nick van den Akker: We first got into Land Rovers because I’d bought a 1972 Land Rover Series III, and we tried to make it a point to adventure in it every day we could.
SB: Adventures you say?
EP: Yeah, we decided that we never wanted to get real jobs and we just wanted to drive around in Land Rovers for the rest of our lives. We planned this huge expedition from Alaska down to Patagonia, and we—
NV: We planned out everything. It was all ready to go, but we started realizing that a Series III would be a very uncomfortable car to be in for a long time, so we decided that a Defender 90 would work just as well. We started trying to figure out how importation works and then from there, how to turn that into a business.
SB: Interesting start to a company. Did you guys end up doing the trip?
EP: No, because we went over to Holland instead, and once there we just drove around and picked up a couple of cars to ship and import. Once we figured out all of the red tape around the importation and customs hurdles, we realized that there was a market for offering that to people who wanted their own grey market cars. The long trip has been put on hold for now—it’s going to happen eventually—but we still get to drive around in Land Rovers a lot, so it worked out pretty well as far as we’re concerned.
SB: That doesn’t sound bad at all. Can you tell me about the first car you imported?
EP: It was crazy; we were having our family vacation in Holland, driving around this tiny little country looking for Defenders, and we saw about a billion of them but could not find the right one that was rust-free and original enough. It got to be the very end of the trip, and we were about to go home empty-handed, and we were freaking out. On the second-to-last night Nick—
NV: This is at like 4 AM.
EP: Nick is on this tiny little corner of the internet and he finds an advertisement on the equivalent of Polish Craigslist for a Defender 110 in Warsaw.
We were like, “Fuck it,” we’re either going home empty-handed or we’re going to Poland. So we get on a flight to Poland the next morning and we’re allegedly meeting some dude named Hans in the city center. We’re waiting there for him, and then we see this huge, orange Defender coming around the city’s circle. He picks us up and looks back at us and says, “Welcome to Poland. The rules are: there are no rules.” He immediately starts overlanding through the city, going on the sidewalks to show us the capabilities of the car.
NV: We obviously fell in love with the car, we bought it, and then we drove it for 22 hours straight across the Autobahn taking turns sleeping in the back. We didn’t stop at all, except for gas every 20 minutes! We dropped it off at the port and immediately went to the airport and got on our plane.
SB: Leave it to Hans…
EP: Yeah, so that was our first, what we call our “Dutch Safari.”
SB: That sounds like an amazing car-buying experience, so I have to ask: why Land Rover?
NV: Well, we had been adventuring around in this 1956 Jeep that my uncle gave me, and man, it was a pile. It had so many rust holes you could see the road while you were driving and it would very often leave us stranded. All sorts of things went wrong so I wanted to buy a different car and stumbled into what I now know to be an abomination of a Land Rovers Series III with the fender flares on it, and it was polished aluminum with every trim piece done in purple. I spent the entire summer, and probably another $8,000 just trying to get everything working properly on that one. Then as soon as it got going it was adventure mode from there on out.
EP: It was pretty cool because at the same time that Nick bought it, I was in Africa going on an actual safari, so we both discovered safaris at exactly the same time, and then we came back and we knew that’s all we wanted to do.
SB: So you discovered Land Rover in Africa and you discovered it right at home.
SB: You said the first buying experience was in Holland, and you’ve got the name of the business too of course: why the Dutch focus?
EP: Our family is Dutch, and Holland is super business-friendly—and pretty much everybody speaks English—the business customs are very familiar to Americans, so it was easier for us to enter the market.
SB: There are a lot of players in the Land Rover space so you two are going up against some heavyweights. What have you guys seen working for you in terms of differentiating and finding some success?
NV: A lot, actually. As you said, everybody was in this market when we got into it, but the majority were mostly baby boomers and middle-aged guys who have an established way of doing things. People our age, millennials, don’t accept the way the classic car market is according to those terms.
EP: We try to really differentiate ourselves because the classic car market can be so full of ambiguity. People aren’t transparent and if you come into doing a deal with a classic car you almost expect to get screwed-over in some way, whether they’re lying about something or whatever it may be. We try to be completely transparent, and when a car comes to our shop it doesn’t leave until every single mechanical and electrical issue has been addressed, because 30-year-olds don’t want a classic car that needs five or six things done to it in order to drive every day, they want something that works every time; turnkey, ready to go.
We’re trying to set these concrete standards so that young people aren’t afraid to come in and buy a classic car because they know exactly what they’re getting from us. They’re going to have a support network with us.
SB: What would you say your focus is going forward?
NV: We’re just trying to create a cool feel of classic cars for people our age, and the other generations—not collector cars. Daily drivers, cars that make you feel good when you get out in the world with them.
EP: We’ve certainly found our niche with the Range Rover Classics. When we were on a buying trip about two years ago we found one of those in Poland, and it wasn’t a car that had an established fair market value in the States, but I wanted it, so we brought it in, and the car got a lot of attention. I would say that we’re probably the people with the biggest collection of these Range Rovers in the States, so we’ve just become the go-to people for it. We love them and we’ve learned a lot about them and we definitely plan to keep going with them.
SB: Let’s transition to the market. The commentary on the state of it is quite varied: some people say it’s as strong as ever, others are saying it’s getting soft. In terms of what you deal in, what do you guys see for the coming year in terms of marketability for these cars?
NV: I think it’s more so going to be about what the next generation of people are going to be nostalgic about. My generation, and a little bit above, we are stoked about the JDM cars like Supras and Skylines, the Lancia Delta, those sorts of things. I think that it’s going to be a lot less focused on the Porsches, the BMWs, and all those cars that everyone is so obsessed with right now.
EV: I think there will be a lot more focus on cars that you can actually drive. People who are coming to us and looking for something, they’re not asking for matching numbers, COA, to see all the service records. They’re not interested in something that’s going to sit in the garage and collect value, and that you only drive one sunny weekend per month.
SB: Interesting perspective. What’s the most interesting car that you guys have had so far?
NV: Oh, man.
EP: Actually, just for a little side note, we’re sitting in, right now, a 1976 Chevy Blazer Chalet, if you know what that is. It’s totally not in line with our overall collection, obviously, but we found it for sale and we couldn’t help ourselves. I started talking to the guy who owned it a while ago, and I had to talk to him every single day for a month and a half to finally close the sale. We just got it we think it’s amazing so far.
SB: You’re doing the interview sitting inside of a car?
EP: I’ll send you a picture, I’ll take one of us so you can see.
SB: The first car you’re listing with us this Bertone Freeclimber—a car I didn’t know existed until I met you guys. What’s the story with it?
NV: This car was exclusively for the Spanish and Italian markets. I did some research on them and I found that you have that whole mix of German engine, Italian interior, and then a Japanese body which is the best combination of everything in my opinion. Then I found that there’s about 2,700 of them in existence, so that perked up my ear as a collector, it has this whole “this is cool, this is weird” vibe.
EP: I was totally opposed to it. He kept showing me pictures and I was like, “This thing is weird. This is not going to fit in, nobody is going to want this,” but once I drove it I fell in love. What’s so awesome about it is when you drive it around everybody loves it for a different reason. If they know what it is they freak out because they never thought that they would see one in their entire lives. If they don’t know what it is, which is 95% of people, they are so curious about it.
SB: Okay, future plans. If someone comes and talks to you in two years, what is your operation going to be looking like?
NV: We believe in reliability over collectability. I think what you’re going to see in the next two years from us is creating reliable versions of these classic cars that aren’t reliable to start with. Turnkey cars that aren’t 100% Land Rover, or 100% Toyota, or whatever they are. Just the components that work, that’s it.
SB: From your perspective in the Land Rover niche then, what’s a good buy right now for someone entering the hobby that’s enjoyable, has some appreciation quality, but is at an affordable price point?
EP: The ’86 to ’89 Range Rovers are a perfect example for that, because what you have is a lot of people who would maybe be interested in a Defender, but they’re not ready to shell out $50,000. These Range Rovers are really, really up and coming and they’re still totally affordable, and they’re going to have value, not only just as classic 4x4s, but especially as grey market cars which adds another layer of value. They’re perfect and they’re totally usable for everyday driving. You can do your overlanding, you can commute back and forth from work, they do it all.
SB: Cool. What do those go for, relatively? For a good one?
EP: If you want a sorted one, totally sorted, you’re looking between $15,000 and $18,000.
SB: That’s not that bad.
EP: No, it isn’t. We get a lot of pushback from the American Land Rover community because they see the prices of the American-spec ones, and the thing is with classic cars you either spend it now or you spend it later, and you end up spending more later and you’re angry about it. If you think you’re coming in super cheap, it’s likely you’re going to be cleaning up somebody else’s mistakes and doing a lot of deferred maintenance. That’s why we like to address all of that, so if this is somebody’s first classic car they’re not going to have a bad taste in their mouth. They’re going to get in, turn the key, drive away, and be super happy and not have to do anything except an oil change in six months.
SB: How do you inspire confidence for sight-unseen purchases of cars that have been imported? I’m sure buyers naturally have their doubts.
EP: A couple of things: one, we obviously do a lot of due diligence. We have experience in all of these different countries, we understand the differences in business customs and negotiation tactics, and also people in different countries tend to exaggerate about different things so we know all the right questions to ask. The second and main part is that if we mess up and you think you’re getting a car that’s in this specific shape and it comes to us and it’s not in that shape, we pay to fix it because that’s our mistake, not yours. You get what you think you’re getting no matter what, even if that means us eating money.
SB: That’s very honorable. We wish you guys the best of luck!