Fear of failure

OF THE MILLIONS of car spare parts sold in Britain each year, it is believed more than 10 per cent are counterfeit. These fakes are apparently on the increase, despite stringent measures by anti-counterfeiting organisations, trading standards officers and the original equipment manufacturers, to stamp out the illicit trade. In Hong Kong, the trade is less developed, but fake parts are finding their way into our cars, sometimes without the owners being aware of the safety and reliability implications.

The Auto Parts Management Association (APMA) maintains that its members only use genuine parts, obtained from their respective vehicle manufacturers. But in the back streets of Mongkok or Wan Chai, it may be a different story. Chairman of the APMA, David Lam, says it is not yet a serious problem, as Hong Kong Customs and Excise is stringent in its checks. Most counterfeit parts are from the mainland, Malaysia and Taiwan, and they mainly target Japanese brands.

Lam adds, however, that franchised dealers face a great deal of competition from parallel importers, which source parts from other countries for import into Hong Kong. The Japanese motor manufacturers have, he says, formed an association to try to stamp out the practice of these so-called grey imports.

Managing director of Commercial Trademark Services, Tony Gurka, a specialist in intellectual-property protection, has been involved in counterfeit investigations since the early 1970s. Gurka maintains that virtually every successful product will have been counterfeited at some point. Car parts and aircraft spares have traditionally been produced by counterfeiters in Taiwan, South Korea and the Philippines. In the early 1990s, the price of genuine parts for European brands was so high it encouraged counterfeiting. It is not so prevalent now, as the price of genuine parts has dropped dramatically, all but eliminating the profit margins for counterfeiters.

However, the output of these spares from the mainland has increased dramatically in recent years. Although it used to be focused on local car parts, fakers over the border are starting to aim at international brands. Brake components, pistons, valves and alloy wheels are all common components likely to be produced by non-approved manufacturers. Wheels, says Gurka, may appear identical to the original, but can often fail, causing an accident. Even tyres have been known to be produced by non-approved manufacturers.

One trick often used is to combine genuine spares with the fakes. In the case of brake pads, says Gurka, the wholesaler may mix genuine boxes with counterfeit items. In most cases, the garage or repairer may not know and low-quality plastics or metal alloys are used in the manufacturing process. Often, holes caused by casting defects can weaken the component, while in the case of brake materials, they are often of a sub-standard material which is likely to fail as brake temperatures rise.

The Taiwan and South Korean component manufacturers refer to their products as 'compatible with' or 'can be used for' Toyota or Mercedes-Benz or whatever vehicle. They do not make any reference to fakes, according to Gurka.

For the European market, while India and eastern Europe are major suppliers of counterfeit components, Turkey is considered the counterfeiting capital of the world, producing wheels, brake pads and even steering racks. Favourite target brands are BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Volkswagen and Audi.

General Motors' parts division ACDelco issues advice on how to spot counterfeit parts. The company's Web site ( says: 'If you are not installing the part yourself, ask the garage to see the part and the package. Inspect the packaging. If it appears flimsy, lacks the brand name or logo, or has graphics or a name that is similar to, but not quite the same as those you're used to seeing, it could be counterfeit.' But as ACDelco admits, really good counterfeit parts are hard to spot.

The most commonly counterfeited parts are maintenance and high-volume items, such as oil and air filters, shock absorbers, alternator belts, brake pads and linings, air-conditioning compressors, starter motors and spark plugs. Transmission and power-steering fluids, as well as engine coolant are also produced by non-original manufacturers. While many of these items will not directly affect the safety or reliability of the vehicle, they could shorten its useful life. And in the case of brake components, they could feasibly shorten yours.

The answer appears to be to buy only from an authorised dealer and to insist on genuine parts.

To save money in the short term could ultimately be false economy.