I recently bought a right-hand drive car, to drive around here in Finland, where people drive on the left side of the car, as is proper. My justification for this wasn’t exactly the same as with most people who end up with the steering wheel in an unexpected location.
I did it because I’m extremely cheap, not because these cars didn’t come with any other configuration, as is often the case with JDM goodness. But really, how difficult can it be to get used to almost everything being mirrored?
My car of choice is an old UK-spec Volvo XC70, which I need for my hour-long commute through Finnish woods and fields where there are antlered things just waiting to take a nap on your windshield. A turbodiesel Volvo wagon is probably one of the safest budget choices, and I wanted one for far less than half what these factory-lifted, plastic-clad wagons usually go for around here. And XC70s are really popular in this region. Sometimes it feels like every other car on these roads is an XC70, recently imported judging from the newish plates, and import tax valuation documents freely available on the Finnish customs website shows used diesel Volvo wagons are pouring in by the ferryload. At least parts will be plentiful on nearby junkyards.
After a friend of mine drove the Volvo all the way to Finland from the UK (cheers), I sourced mandatory LHD headlights and paid a bit of import tax to be able to slap Finnish plates on it. Since then, I have been racking up the miles to my office job and back with no complaints, in full leather atmosphere and Dolby stereo comfort. Used British cars are famously cheap, as proved earlier by my brother and his Lexus IS Sportcross purchase, and the Volvo was no exception.
With my use case, there’s little RHD-specific to be annoyed about. The stalks on the steering column are the same way around as on LHD variants, so I haven’t been accidentally turning on the wipers when I’ve wanted to indicate. If memory serves, this is something that’s different on JDM cars and also the X300-body Daimler Six we bought cheaply with a couple of friends – but that car’s spent years in a garage, so I haven’t been driving it recently and can thus be wrong. However, the Daimler is automatic, so there’s one less hurdle to get used to: the Volvo has a six-speed stick, and reaching far left for first gear and right by your thigh for sixth and reverse feels very strange at first. But it’s second nature now, as is getting out and about and into traffic while sitting on the other side of the car as usually.
Still, you have to be very much aware of what’s happening on the left side of the car, which is now the side that’s further away from you. Somehow it takes more effort to turn your head and double-check for blind spots on that side, while positioning yourself right next to the hard shoulder line. I don’t have to deal with parking garage ticket machines or reaching out the passenger window, which most people could easily find irritating. Speaking of irritating things, some RHD configuration interior plastics have been broken, which means I either have to find replacement ones on eBay UK or hope that some junkyard has imported British cars to be broken for parts, which sometimes does happen.
Of course there’s the matter of overtaking, which is a bit of a hassle as you can’t read gaps in oncoming traffic as well as if you were sitting on the left seat. But as I’ve figured out on my commute, overtaking would only mean you got to work earlier. What’s the point in that?
For more insight into RHD driving where most other cars are LHD, I reached out to Myron Vernis, car collector, enthusiast and friend of Jalopnik. Myron’s a familiar person to readers of this site, as many of his weirder purchases have been featured here. He also dailies a white, JDM-spec Toyota Mark II year round and says it’s been smooth cruising.
“70,000 km in just over three years”, says Myron. “After about six months of using it as a daily, I pretty much forgot that it’s RHD. Every once in a while, I’ll see someone in a car next to me looking and it reminds me that the car is different. Sometimes I’ll turn on the side window wipers just to give them a little surprise”, he chuckles.
But the Mark II’s all about convenience. Myron has quirkier RHD vehicles in his use, in the States and in Crete where he also spends time. “Driving a RHD car with stick is a bit more of a challenge, especially if it’s three-on-the-tree like my ’73 Crown. Driving the Autozam in Crete (yes, he has an Autozam AZ-1) has the added challenge of being aware of lane-splitting scooters and motorcycles on the left, as visibility isn’t great and motorcycle axles are at your eye level. That wakes you up.”
I commented how reversing the RHD XC70 into a parking spot is something I’ve had to get used to. Myron agreed, saying that it was an early challenge, but that he now has to re-orient himself on the rare occasion he drives LHD.
If there’s one thing I can pick up from shifting to the right, it’s that the idea of a Japanese market import feels far less strange to me now. For the longest time, I’ve been a fan of reasonably rare Japanese metal, but them being right-hand-drive has always had me thinking whether it would end up being an annoyance. But now the Volvo feels perfectly natural, and so would a weirder JDM car.
“Natural is the word”, Myron pointed out. “It’s the reason most early cars were that configuration.” And it’s perfectly justifiable to drive a Volvo from the “gutter side”, as Swedes used to drive LHD cars on the left side of the road before switching over in the ‘60s.