Grey-import motorcycles offer riders a relatively cheap entry to the superbike market, yet they carry a stigma of being difficult to work on and find parts for. CARtoday.com explores the arguments for and against the grey-bike sector.

by Patrick van Sleight

Until just more than a decade ago, the 400cc capacity market was very small, and comprised mainly of bikes like the Yamaha XS400 and the Suzuki GS and GSX400. Today there are swarms of 400's to be found everywhere, and have become synonymous with the term "grey-import".

Grey-imports are relatively cheap and have become an accessible and popular means of entry into the superbike market. Though they have been slated as being "only 400cc" as opposed to the big-bore, open-class beasts ridden by "real bikers", it does have some merits.

Its light weight and manoeuvrability are some traits that make the 400's very practical for everyday use. Besides, how many people with 1300cc's beneath them ever get to exploit the limits of their machines?

However, the troublesome nature of owning a grey-import should not be ignored. Difficulty finding parts and being tougher to work on are some points counting against the purchase of grey-imports.

Recently it was reported that a court ruled in favour of a bike owner who claimed for damages after realising that the bike he had bought from a recognised dealer was in fact an unofficial import. This had not been pointed out to him when concluding the sale.

After experiencing mechanical trouble and an official dealership refused to work on his bike, it emerged that it was indeed an unofficial import.

This highlights the sensitive and controversial nature of unofficial-, and in particular grey-imports. Whether a bike is a grey-import or not is important because, since its not supposed to be in the country in the first place, official dealerships cannot (and often will not) find parts.

Dealers have a list of parts with corresponding numbers for each officially imported model, and that is how they order the correct specification part. A grey-bike, however, will not appear on this list, and without a part number you cannot be helped.

Because all bikes are imported, you can expect to pay roughly the same price for a bike at any dealer in the country. Official imports come with warrantees and parts are plentiful.

Now take the popular Honda, the CBR400RR NC29, affectionately called the Babyblade. Because of the arrangement Honda South Africa has with the Japanese parent company, they cannot officially import the CBR400RR. And even if they could, it would cost as much as - or even more than - a new Honda CBR600F. The 400's high specification and cost of overheads would probably be included in the final asking price and besides, our market is probably not ready to pay so much money for a 400 anyway.

Yet average people are able to set up a company and import the CBR400 with minimal restrictions. As a small company overheads are generally low and the used bikes can be imported from Japan. Since Honda SA has no choice but to purchase them new, this is actually what is happening.

Under these very same conditions, some companies are importing bigger bikes as well, that are already available officially, like the Honda Fireblade. The bikes are bought second-hand overseas and sold locally at a cheaper rate.

Some importers are even able buy them new in Europe, and by cutting out the middle-man are able to sell them for up to 30 per cent less than an official import. These bikes are termed "parallel imports", but are commonly and erroneously referred to as grey imports too.

Since our new democracy the protective import legislation and high import taxes have been relaxed somewhat. Combined with the favourable Rand - Yen exchange, these unofficial imports are less expensive and increasingly common. Its success is also fuelled by the high demand for cheaper, high-quality bikes, like 400s.

Stringent Japanese law explains the occurrence of 400cc bikes in Japan and hardly anywhere else. And because the bikes are usually built to high quality standards and there is a high level of turnover in the market, with people seldom keeping their bikes for longer than three years, imported bikes usually have low mileages and are in excellent condition.

But it also means that there is virtually no second-hand bike market in Japan. So you can just imagine garages and warehouses full of low-mileage, good condition, little 250cc and 400cc bikes all over the country. These bikes then get auctioned off and, regardless of the ratings, exporters buy bikes and ship them to overseas markets, like South Africa, regularly.

A very small number of companies have exploited this business opportunity and grown into South Africa's premier unofficial (grey- and parallel) bike specialists. They come with a servicing and parts infrastructure, so should something go wrong with your bike, it can be fixed.

Trouble is, a grey-bike importer can buy a bike in the lowest category condition (with damaged engine and body-work, for instance), and pass it on to the end-buyer just like that. And this is all legal, leaving fertile ground to make a quick buck.

The main advantage unofficial imports have is low purchase cost, and usually, lower running costs as well. Buying a grey-import can be a good buy, provided you are aware of the risks (which will be covered in detail in an upcoming buyer's guide). A basic rule of thumb is to stick to popular models. It may be difficult to find certain parts for certain bikes, and mechanics have some difficulty working on unfamiliar models, resulting in huge labour costs.

In the case of 400s, they are fast without being intimidating and known to out-handle bigger and faster bikes. They are perfect to hone your riding skills and these little bikes have gained a lot of street credibility in recent years.

Besides, what could be more fun than embarrassing a "real biker" through the twisties on a machine with less than half its capacity!