Ever since the Republic Act which banned the operation of right-hand drive vehicles on the roads of the Philippines, Cebu has gained the infamy of becoming a center for the conversion of vehicles from right-hand drive (RHD) to left-hand drive (LHD).
Old and battered Japanese vehicles - euphemistically referred to as surplus vehicles - are chopped up, stuffed into shipping containers, declared as car parts - which are taxed far less than complete vehicles - and brought over by the thousands. Scores of small shops all over the city weld the chopped up vehicles back together, do the mechanical work for the conversion, and improve the appearance with new plastic upholstery and a few coats of paint.
In some cases, the last step is skipped; there are plenty of vehicles on the road in Cebu with, for example, the name of a Japanese flower shop still intact on the side, replete with address and phone number.
Conversion is a messy business. The conversion can be expertly done using original parts, or jury-rigged using welded bits of metal. A good conversion - using original parts such as the rack and pinion, air condition, dashboard, side mirrors, etc. - will cost PhP 120,000 (US$2,400) or more. A quickie conversion done on the cheap can be had for less than PhP 10,000 (US$200).
The former is used for "luxury" vehicles such as the Isuzu Trooper (called Big Horn in Japan), Mitsubishi Pajero, Toyota 4-Runner (Surf Hi-Lux in Japan), Toyota Landcruiser, or Nissan Pathfinder (Terrano in Japan), while the latter is for multicabs. A converted multicab in running condition can be had for as little as PhP 50,000.
All of the two-door Pajeros and a good number of the larger Pajeros on the road in Cebu are converted. Often, a used-car dealer will boast about the fact that the converted car has an original dashboard - i.e. a dashboard designed for a LHD vehicle was used, as opposed to the old RHD dashboard, cut up and welded together in awkward fashion. This is proof yet again of the Cebuanos obsession with looks; as long as the car interior looks good, most Cebuanos will be happy, even though the converted car may be serious health hazard, having a completely modified crumple zone and precariously assembled bits of iron and wire under the hood that may fall apart without warning.
While the importation of RHD vehicles used to be legal as long as accompanied by a "conversion kit," lately the Philippine government has started cracking down on the importation of RHD passenger vehicles, due to pressure from the Manila-based assemblers of Japanese cars such as Mitsubishi, Toyota, and Nissan. The importation of RHD off-road vehicles, which used to come in by the hundreds, has died down to a trickle of smuggled vehicles. But multicabs and Isuzu Elfs continue to stream in.
The interesting thing about conversions is that the truck or car may have been manufactured in Japan in the 1980's, but will be sold and registered here according to the date of conversion. And the engine may have a hundred thousand miles on it, but the odometer will have been rewound to zero. Amazingly, the multicabs continue to put on many more thousands of miles, surviving floods and abusive handling by stressed-out PUJ drivers.