Buying a 'grey' import can offer an exciting choice but beware

Fancy driving a supercar few others have in Britain? Take a look at the high-class new wave of individual imports
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Japanese cars are a familiar sight on our roads. Since the early 1970s they have been going about their business being utterly reliable, initially rusting furiously, but mostly offering great value for money.

Japanese cars are a familiar sight on our roads. Since the early 1970s they have been going about their business being utterly reliable, initially rusting furiously, but mostly offering great value for money.

Now there has been a second wave of four-wheeled Japanese invaders, the so-called grey imports. These unofficially imported cars offer buyers the chance to experience unusual, exciting and innovative vehicles never intended to make it to the UK. For the petrolhead, the appeal is that the specifications are comprehensive and engines sometimes more powerful.

Surely there must be a catch? Official importers and manufacturers of Japanese cars did not like greys, claiming Japanese-market cars were unsuited to life on the Queen's highway and just too different to survive. The BBC's consumer programme Watchdog even suggested the country was being overrun with stolen imported cars.

The TV and radio presenter Jonathan Ross, joked on his Radio 2 show that he was stopped in London driving his Mazda Eunos Roadster. The policeman says: "These imports are all stolen, you know." Ross's wasn't, his was a birthday present from his wife.

Of course, there are differences between UK and Japanese specifications that can run deeper than a badge change. But there is not much that cannot be fixed to make these cars UK-compliant. All speedos are in Km/h, which is illegal on UK roads. New gauge faces are available and the importer will have sorted this out before sale.

Standard radios have a different range of frequencies making it impossible to pick up some UK stations. Conversion parts are available. Most cars come with no service history or verification of the mileage, which can make it difficult to know whether the car has been well looked after. Some dealers offer their own warranty.

The window glass may be thinner than that fitted to UK cars. Replacements may require new beading and frames. The engine control unit may be different from UK cars and dealers may not be able to read the information for diagnostic purposes. Tyres may be branded as UK rubber, but they may have a harder compound. Underseal is not so extensively applied to Japanese cars, so on the salty UK this is something that needs to be attended to.

Japanese imported cars are and should be part of the mainstream. Simon Lerner, the proprietor of Hendon-based Intercar, says: "I have been in business for 22 years so I would say we are well established. In fact I was talking to my supplier the other day and he said to me, 'You do realise we started all this grey market, don't you'?" So does Mr Lerner feel proud? "Only that we were the first to import Japanese cars; otherwise this situation is exactly what I didn't want. It is now far too complicated with loads of paperwork. Originally, I was just an enthusiast supplying other enthusiasts and that worked very well."

At the well-established Supra Centre, you can buy one of the most exciting Japanese supercars, the Toyota Supra, available in specifications never offered in the UK. If you want a Mazda MX5 or Eunos in Japan, TW White have a massive selection of this popular convertible. What has improved the quality of imports is the enhanced single-vehicle approval scheme, which came into operation in 2001. This effectively subjects imports to a super MOT to ensure they comply with UK standards. Although this has meant some interesting vehicles can no longer be imported it has weeded out the more suspect examples.

The British Independent Motor Trade Association (Bimta) is now issuing certificates of authenticity for grey imports. This will give the buyer an underwritten guarantee that a vehicle has not been stolen or on finance, before its export from Japan. So if the vehicle later proves to be stolen, Bimta will refund the market value.

Mitsubishi brings in the legendary Lancer Evolution as a stock model and will also warrant imports its dealers sell through their Red Zebra used-car scheme. They also supply parts and are happy to service any "grey" Mitsubishi. Indeed, buying an import without establishing there is some sort of service back up is unwise. You will need to do some research and I would highly recommend joining an owners' club. They can plug you into a network of parts suppliers and specialists that makes owning a grey a pleasure.

Surf the web, or buy a copy of Japanese Performance magazine, which has contacts for clubs and enthuses about all the best fast cars from Japan. One area of grey ownership that can cause a problem is insurance. The Association of British Insurers says some models are always going to cost more because of specialist parts supply and the truly exotic will get only fire and theft cover. Otherwise, imports are categorised as code Gs and in the majority of cases there will always be a specialist broker who can secure cover.

Some finance houses still need some convincing to loan money for an imported car. If there is anything to learn it is that shopping for a grey import is like buying any other used car. So it pays to be careful. Established dealers with full service facilities and a good reputation at the owners' club are likely to be good bets.

But a private owner with loads of paperwork and a pampered car in the garage is going to be the ideal seller. Certainly Bimta's initiatives, the existence of specialist insurers and the growing number of clubs are all contribuing to a grey-friendly environment. So just as you would with any used car, check the history,if any and use your common sense. If it looks like a reasonable buy, pay for a professional engineer to check it. When in doubt, walk away.

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