50 Shades of Grey? We look at automotive top-shelf material.
For years, those motoring enthusiasts in the UK who only read the home grown magazines might have been excused for thinking that the Japanese industry was quite cynical – ambitious only in so far as to see how many cars it could sell without changing a boring formula. The cars that came to the UK had always been well-equipped and reliable, slowly they became rustproof and then some of them became quite good to drive. However there was little spark of originality in what was offered – they were just sensible transport for the uninterested. But what we saw was the tip of the iceberg.
Misperceptions work both ways. Just as many in the West viewed the Japanese as being ultra conformist, so did the Japanese seem to view the West in much the same way. At least that is one explanation as to why a plethora of desirable and clever cars, fun in a way that Citroen’s CEO could only dream of, remained in the home market and never made their way to our shores.
Except they did. I first heard the term ‘grey import’ bandied about many years ago when I was looking for a camera. It had a certain ring to it, suggesting something that teetered on a knife-edge of legality and that, if it went wrong, would leave you high-and-dry with no recourse.
I remember the first time I saw (and heard) a Subaru Impreza WRX. It was driving around Trafalgar Square. I already knew about the car, and the sensible hatchback that formed its base actually was offered in the UK in modest 1.6 litre front-wheel-driven form. But, despite calls from admirers, Subaru seemed to have no desire to offer us its belching, farting, hilarious mutant cousin. So I knew that what I was looking at was a grey import.
As the blue Scooby flatulated its way up Pall Mall, I knew that I could never own one, but I did think that its more discreet, but still quite silly, cousin the Legacy GTB, might be a possibility. At the time, there was a grey importer in South West London and I remember diverting past there a few times when on my way to other locations.
Still, the concept of ‘greyness’ made me feel like I was circling the block, trying to pluck up enough courage to walk up and ask a local dealer of a different sort for some weed. Not that I was nervous about the idea of not having a dealer to back me up. I’ve met too many bad dealers for that but, in the end, for various other reasons I decided no, but the image of that forecourt full of Japanese oddballs still lingers.
A quick look at a few current importers sites in the UK shows us a Honda Element, Toyota Hilux Surf, Toyota FJ Cruiser, Nissan Skyline, Toyota Soarer, Honda Stepwagon, Nissan Elgrand Homy, Mazda Bongo Friendee, Toyota Isis, Toyota Sparky …. some of these seem worth considering for the name alone, especially the Suzuki Lapin Chocolat. Sadly, I didn’t turn up a Nissan President.
Now almost 25 years since the final model, the S-Cargo, ceased production, the Pike Factory cars are perennial favourites, especially the Figaro though, it must be said that, nicely detailed though they are, the Micra underpinnings were not really designed to last a quarter of a century.
Other grey imports I’ve spotted over the years are the scissor-doored Toyota Sera (though I’ve not seen the even crazier gullwing Suzuki/Mazda Autozam), the mini-Jag Mitsuoka Viewt, the Mitsubishi FTO (quite a decent sized cult going for this) as well as the usual smattering of Skyline GTRs and Toyota Supras.
Then of course there are the different specification versions of cars you can actually buy here, such as the Mazda Eunos Roadster, which we recognise as an MX5 and the Mitsubishi Pajero, which we recognise as a Shogun. Presumably the popularity of the latter as a grey import, is the schoolboy frisson of getting your hands on something that you’ve been told means ‘wanker’ in Spanish.
Also there is the large family workhorse, the Toyota Estima, a version of the clever Previa once sold in the UK, but with more fussy trim and the giveaway, clunky looking rear mounted external reversing mirror obligatory for such vehicles in Japan.
Sometimes manufacturers relent to the popularity of grey imports and make it official. Subaru did so with the WRX after a long wait, after which you got the idea that dealers were rather neglecting their previous bread-and-butter cars, so thrilled they were to get their hands on something sexy. Suzuki imported the Cappuccino for a while and, before that, the SC100 Whizzkid, beloved of LJK Setright – although this was actually changed structurally from the Japanese market Cervo and the previous slightly smaller Fronte on which it was based.
This underlines the fact that many of the tempting and attractive looking Kei cars are actually very small, and lanky European frames such as Setright’s can find them a squeeze. Nissan too noticed the popularity of the Z11 Cube as a grey import and decided to offer the next, Z12, version officially in Europe. It was not a great success. This brings up the question, is it the fact that it isn’t official that makes it fun? And has the Japanese industry calmed down leaving us with fewer grey possibilities?
Obviously the UK is an ideal country for grey importing from Japan, since we drive on the same side of the road and our legislation criteria have traditionally been quite lax. Needless to say, the market cuts both ways and, despite their stricter legislation, Japan has a penchant for certain grey imports including, ironically, the Toyota Aygo, which was never actually sold in Japan.