Theme : Japan – Where The Grass Is Always …. Greyer

50 Shades of Grey?  We look at automotive top-shelf material.

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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.

33 thoughts on “Theme : Japan – Where The Grass Is Always …. Greyer”

  1. This exposes a gap in the printed world of automotive reporting. How hard could it be to write up five of these cars every now and again?
    The economics of these cars might not stack up as the market for Japanese-market cars is likely to be small but intense. However, just as McDonald’s often have a sandwich of the month, the Japanese brands could make a tidy extra money on “specials”. Are they worried about image, perhaps? Most customers are uninterested in such matters and it’s not as if the roads would be over-run with official greys.

  2. Here is one I spotted a couple of years ago on my street – never seen one before or since, but it sure doesn’t look out of place:

    1. Possibly. 2,430 mm (95.7 in) according to the good people at Wikipedia.

  3. Sam: that’s a pretty neatly designed and useful-looking car. It’s something like an estate styled like an off-roader but not in Audi Allroad manner. It’s hard to see what might be off-putting about it, at least to a few hundred buyers annually.

    1. I’d say it’s rather in a Matra Rancho manner. I’ve never seen this before. What’s it called?

    2. It’s nice isn’t it? The only thing letting this one down are the wind deflectors, the silly big rims and low profile tyres, but everything else is very likeable.

  4. This is one of my all-time favourites.

    I particularly like the flip-up rear windows, the exposed door hinges and simple bumpers. I’d have one ahead of a Figaro or a Cube.

  5. For some absurd reason – for this is a conservative borough indeed -, vintage Japanese grey imports have begun to pop up in my neighbourhood. There’s a young lady driving about in a Figaro, and the JDM Eunos Roadster and Skyline saloon are owned by (I presume) the same chap. Until a year ago, there was also a succession of GT-Rs and some other rowdy Japanese performance kit parked nearby, all with English number plates, but that Anglo-Japanese sports driver seems to have moved on to pastures new.

    Come to think of it, there was also a Toyota Crown Century making the odd appearance on the streets of Hamburg a couple of years ago. I’ve tried time and again to spot it with its owner, but failed. I certainly would’ve loved to hear the story behind his (or even her?) ownership of that particular car.

    1. Bloody hipsters. You can’t see the road ahead around my neighbourhood for all the Cubes blocking your way…

    2. Any time you feel like meeting over a Peppermint Latte after a visit to the barbers to get the beard trimmed and pommaded, I can discuss your problem with you, Laurent.

    3. Very kind of you but since I developed a taste for craft beer and pulled pork I can’t get into my drainpipe jeans anymore, so I’d be feeling too out of place.

  6. Super article.

    I would posit that the early Gran Turismo games had a huge effect on igniting the UK JDM import market. The early stages of the game are a Pokemon-like collection of esoteric JDM cars, from the Toyota AE86 (one of the earliest half decent cars you could buy), the Mazda Eunos Cosmo (cheap and easily tuneable), through to turbo-nutter beasts like the Nissan Skyline. Certainly few of my generation knew of the Skyline before the game came out, but the inclusion of a number of generations at various price points made it a consistent touchstone, although personally I preferred the Mitsubishi 3000GT.

    I really should write an article about this.

  7. Excellent article.

    The Nissan Pao is also one of my favourites – japanese retro-design is not so sternly as european retro-styling. Maybe because they did not want to sell millions of each retro-car.
    The FJ Cruiser is another good interpretation of a more relaxed retro-style.

    What about the Toyota Origin – for me it seems to be built for movies about the russian Secret service in the sixties (just remove the Toyota badge).

    PS: Richard. i would like to see a Nissan President HG50 in metal too. I want to know if it still will be a Jaguar look-a-like…

    1. I saw a President on the M25 some time towards the end of the last century. I recall making some odd lane changes to take a proper look. I remember thinking this was very much the sort of car Jaguar should have been making, rather than the recently introduced S-Type, which didn’t please me.

      I was driving a Rover 416 of the HH-R variety, which pleased me even less.

  8. Toyota Isis? I know their pick ups are popular with Middle Eastern terrorists, but I didn’t realise they were now making models specifically for them.

    1. It’s ok, the issue has already been addressed by Wikipedia quite authoritatively:

      “The name has nothing to do with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).”

      Case closed.

    2. And with ‘Morris Garages’ now proudly owned by the Chinese, this could have far-reaching repercussions.

  9. ‘Bongo Friendee’ was my favourite japanese car name until now, but ‘Lapin Chocolat’ really takes the biscuit…

    1. Indeed Laurent, it is a truly fine name, for a rather endearing vehicle. Should I ever tire of my Cube, this would seem just the right replacement in which to prowl the mean streets of South-West London. N’est-ce pas?

  10. We’ve been awash in the wonders of Japanese market only cars here in NZ for the best part of 3 decades, ever since the car market was opened up. Some truly strange offerings, but also some quite clever thinking (even though they’re never really that adventurous under the skin).

    Some of the model names really are curious (!), but they used to go beyond that with some truly bizarre and incomprehensible graphics plastered on various body parts.

    1. I must take a look at the used car market in NZ. Is it different from that found in Australia? Ireland has had some Japanese models that were not sold in the UK and a small but resilient market for grey imports. Mainstream models such as the Camry were a mainstay and I think that if the UK had not abandoned the Camry it would still have a sizeable customer base, if Toyota´s general popularity is anything to go by.

  11. The NZ market is different to that in AU, partly because of geography, but mainly due to the impact in AU of Australian Design Rules. These can make importing an Australian designed and built car sold new in NZ challenging to import back into its land of origin! The main function of ADRs was to protect the local AU manufacturing operations.

    In the ’80s when the NZ market was de-regulated, the remaining local assemblers closed, and the market was flooded with used imports from Japan. In more recent years, the imports have started to also come from Singapore, HK and some premium models being imported used from the UK. The number of used imports being sold had an effect of depressing the sales of new cars.

    Whereas once upon a time, new cars were mainly British or Australian, from the ’70s the Japanese quickly dominated the small to medium sized sectors, with the Aussies hanging on to the large car segment. The Koreans have since been making inroads, and now there are one or two Chinese brands starting to make a few sales. Along side that, the German makers seem to have been having a fair amount of success, whilst the French and Italians have not been having the quite the same degree of success.

    Some of the challenges for new (Euro) car dealers here is where the cars are sourced from. Sometimes we end up with whatever the Australian distributors want, other times seem to get our own choice. The European makes and the Koreans have done well in recent years with diesels (which seem lest popular across the ditch). The pump price for diesel is a lot lower than petrol, but that is because diesel is not taxed at the pump here – it’s an additional per KM charge for vehicles under 3.5t (IIRC, 6c per KM at present, bought in advance), which complicates direct running cost comparisons.

    The Corolla was the best selling car here for ages, but that crown is now challenged by the current breed of “Utes” – things like the Ford Ranger, Toyota Hilux, VW Amarok.

  12. I found this crazy car : The 1999 Subaru Casablanca, 5000 pieces were built.

    I don´t know what drugs are sold in Japan twenty years ago, but the late 90ies seem to be a time, where japanese car design was a funny job.

    1. Super stuff. That’s quite a find. I have never heard of this and it’s great to learn about it now.
      The day’s chocolate medal goes to Markus.

  13. What were they thinking? It’s like a Lancia Lybra copy by a backwoods Chinese car manufacturer. Toilet seat Impreza, all is forgiven…

    Did Subaru really sell 5000? That’s close to half the 10,346 production of the rather more rational 9-2X ‘Saabaru’,

  14. Markus. That is … I’m speechless. It’s almost are if Subaru are saying ‘any more snide remarks about our styling direction for the 21st Century and we’ll show you just how bad it could have been’.

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