08/07/2009 01:21 | By James Ruppert, contributor

Buying an imported car

Mazda MX-5 (© Image © Mazda)

Imported cars are nothing new, but the marketplace for these has grown massively in the last decade and the Bangernomics student cannot afford to ignore them, especially as they can represent such great value for money.

Japanese Imports, aka Grey Imports
Japanese cars are a familiar site on our roads. Since the early 70s they have been going about their business being utterly reliable, initially rusting furiously, but mostly offering great value for money.

There has been a second wave of four-wheeled Japanese invasion, the so-called grey imports. These unofficially imported cars have offered buyers the chance to experience unusual, exciting and innovative vehicles that were never intended to make it to the UK.

For the car enthusiast in particular the appeal is that the specifications are comprehensive, engines sometimes more powerful and, most importantly, the vast majority of Japanese owners are fanatical when it comes to looking after their vehicles. For the rest of us they are simply better equipped and cheaper than equivalent UK models. So surely there must be a catch?

Official importers and manufacturers of Japanese cars did not like greys at all, claiming that Japanese market cars were wholly unsuited to life on the Queen's highway and just too different to survive. There are differences between UK and Japanese specifications that can run deeper than a badge change. Nevertheless there isn't much that can't be fixed to make these cars UK compliant. So what are the major differences?

A. All speedometers are in Km/h, which is illegal for use on UK roads. New faces for the speedometer are available and an importer will have sorted this out before sale.
B. Standard radios have a different range of frequencies making it impossible to pick up some UK stations. Conversion parts are available.
C. 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, however, do offer their own warranty.
D. The window glass may be thinner than that fitted to UK cars. Replacements may require new beading and frames.
E. Engine Control Unit may be different from UK cars and dealers may not be able to read the information for diagnostic purposes
F. Tyres may be branded as UK rubber, but they may have a harder compound.
G. Underseal is not so extensively applied to Japanese cars, so on the salty UK roads this is something that needs to be attended to.

Checking a Japanese Import
What has improved the quality of imports is the Enhanced Single Vehicle Approval (ESVA) scheme, which came into operation during 2001. This effectively subjects imports to a super MOT to ensure they comply with UK standards. Although this has meant that some interesting vehicles can no longer be imported, it has weeded out the more suspect examples.

Not only that, the British Independent Motor Trade Association (01892 515425) 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, prior to its export from Japan. So if the vehicle later proves to be stolen BIMTA will refund the current market value. BIMTA checks the make, model and date of first registration in Japan and the VIN number against lists of stolen cars in the Far East before issuing that certificate.

Each document is individually numbered, with the same number appearing on a decal that is attached to the windscreen, which will disintegrate if tampered with. BIMTA has recently gone even further and also answered accusations that cars arriving in the UK have in fact much higher mileages than that shown on the odometer. The association can now check the mileage of cars sold at auctions at the time they go under the hammer in Japan.

The truth is that there are plenty of grey imports already in circulation over here, which may not have been subject to the ESVA, and be on its third or fourth not-very-caring owner. Because the documentation is in a foreign language it doesn't tell you anything. Modifications carried out in Japan can cause all sorts of problems when it comes to parts and servicing. Also, some cars have not been adapted for use in the UK with the wrong size number plates, no rear foglamps, incorrect headlamps, radios that don't work in the UK and speedometers reading in kilometres.

Servicing a Japanese Import
Buying an import without establishing that there is some sort of service back up has to be regarded as unwise. You will need to do some research and I would highly recommend joining an owner's 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 a specialist Japanese car magazine, which has contacts for clubs and enthuses about all the best fast cars from Japan.

Insuring/Financing a Japanese Import
One area of grey ownership that can cause a problem is insurance. The Association of British Insurers confirms that some models are always going to cost more because of specialist parts supply and the truly exotic will only get 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 though still need some convincing to loan money to buy an imported car.

Japanese Import Conclusion
If there is anything to learn it is that shopping for a grey import is really just like buying any other banger. So it pays to be careful. Established dealers with full service facilities and a good reputation at the owner's club are likely to be good bets. Likewise a private owner with loads of paperwork and a pampered car in the garage that know loads about what they actually own is going to be the ideal seller.

Certainly BIMTA's initiatives, the existence of specialist insurers and the growing number of clubs are all contributing to a grey friendly environment. So just as you would with any used car, check the history if any and generally use your common-sense. And if it looks like a reasonable buy then pay for a professional engineer to check it out. When in doubt, walk away.

The UK’s favourite import the Eunos Roadster a.k.a. Mazda MX5
Single-handedly the MX5 has sparked the sports car market in the 90s. It combined the looks of a 1960s Lotus with the reliability of their dull 323, the perfect combination.

Rear-wheel drive and with just enough power from it's small 1.6 engine to make driving interesting, this Roadster that was styled in California went on to become the world's favourite sports car. In the UK it barely depreciated and remained a costly buy.

Specialist car dealers realised that the Japanese market version, already right-hand drive, could be bought cheaply and came highly equipped. CD players, air conditioning and sometimes an automatic gearbox, which was never an option on the UK market, made a familiar car even more appealing. The MX5 had never looked better value and the Eunos Roadster remains a safe buy today. MSN Cars boss Tom Evans ran one for several years and loved it - especially the stereo speakers in the headrests which made driving at night feel like a computer game.Reliable, distinctive and yours from just a few thousand. Why tolerate a rusty old MG when you can a modern Bangernomically perfect classic like this?

Display used Eunos Roadsters from £1,000
Our Mazda MX-5 used car buying guide

European used cars
Unless you desperately want to sit on the left when you drive, there might be few reasons to consider buying a car in Europe or that was originally registered in Europe. However, like the Japanese import vehicles, there are models which appeal directly to motoring enthusiast simply because they were never imported to the UK.

There are also people who travel in Europe a lot and prefer to be on the correct side of the cockpit which makes dealing with road tolls a whole lot easier. Not only that there are also people who don't mind having a left-hand drive to use in town because when you park you step out onto the pavement. Perfect. Cars can be better looked after, especially in Germany.

Potential Euro Problems
European specifications are often lower and you may not have electric windows, central locking, alloy wheels and air conditioning for instance. Security levels are lower and even if there is an alarm or security device then it may not be Thatcham approved.

Just as in the UK, a used car can be stolen, a write off and had the mileage altered. It certainly helps if you can speak the language of the European country you are in. There are bandit areas of Europe where it is inadvisable to go wandering with lots of cash and the intention to buy a car. You won't end up with the car or keep the cash. There are some specialists who can help you avoid the pitfalls and import the car for you. However, less scrupulous importers immediately register the cars in the UK to lose the overseas documentation.

DIY Import procedure
The rules for each country vary, but you will need to arrange insurance and have the registration documents to hand at the very least. What I can be sure of is the procedure once you are in the UK.

If the car is over three years old all you need is to get a MOT test done and then register the car at your local Vehicle Registration Office. As it is a car from Europe all you will probably need to do is change the headlamps so that they dip to the left and also get a new speedometer if there are no mph markings on it. For a car which is newer than three years it will need a Certificate of Conformity which can be sourced from the manufacturer direct. You then take that to the Vehicle Registration Office when you register the car.

Whatever the age of the car you have to prove that it is a personal import. To do this you need the foreign registration document in your name, insurance cover and proof of how you and the car arrived in the car. Indeed, some people even take pictures of themselves and the car on the continen, plus keep the fuel and accommodation receipts. If you want more information go to www.dvla.gov.uk/vehicles.

Bangers from Abroad – Coursework
There seems to be an endless supply of Japanese sourced cars and make sure that you research exactly what you can get for your money compared to similar UK specification models. Don't just buy a Euro import unless you are comfortable and happy with driving from the passenger seat. Go and drive some to find out.

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