The riding season is upon us, and many are considering taking the plunge and buying a grey import. Our motorcycle correspondent, Patrick van Sleight, introduces a new series of features on buying tips, maintenance and what’s on offer out there.

The riding season is upon us, and many are considering taking the plunge and buying a grey import. Motorcycle correspondent Patrick van Sleight introduces a new series of features on buying tips, maintenance and what’s on offer out there.


'Grey' bikes’ combination of value, performance, style and technology easily beats anything else in the under-R30 000 bracket (delivery bikes, scooters or 20-year-old rust buckets, etc).


They do not have the horsepower and top speed of their larger siblings, but you know that the thrill in riding a pocket-rocket lies in its cornering performance. Its low centre of gravity and low weight makes negotiating a bend an exercise in precision and speed. The steering is quick, you hardly touch the brakes, and you can power out of corners very early.


And, unlike a big bike, all that hard riding is possibly more gentle on the tyres, chain, sprockets and brakes. Some people argue that because components are placed under comparatively little stress it will be good news for your wallet and nerves.


But where do you start looking? Showrooms are full of grey bikes, but what do you know about them? Where do you go for information on a specific grey bike model that interests you? Last season, CARtoday.com provided a background and overview of the greybike market, and brief profiles of the most common models. In a series of upcoming articles detailing what is on offer, CARtoday.com continues to shed some light on a popular segment of the motorcycling market that enjoys very little publicity.


Because of the affordability factor, grey bikes presumably make up a decent slice of the bike market, but no official sales records exist. But perhaps as an indication of the volumes involved, trade and retail values of the popular bikes are appearing in the annual Motorcycle Dealer’s Guide, published by Mead & McGrouther. This is also good news if resale value is a consideration, and bikes like the Honda VFR400 and CBR400 keep their value.


Before we get into the detail of specific models (in the next feature); a few general guidelines by way of introduction:


First thing to remember is that most – but not all – grey bikes are second hand. So approach a prospect with the same care and suspicion as you would any other second-hand bike. Or second-car, for that matter - the same principles apply. If you have never bought a second-hand bike before, ask someone who knows the business, or is at least cynical, to accompany you. There is no reason to believe that Japanese don’t neglect and abuse their bikes too - so check for crash damage, the condition of the tyres, brakes, chain and sprockets, etc.


What can you afford? Banks and other financial institutions treat grey bikes just like any other bike, so getting finance is usually no problem. As is the case for insurance. But be careful not to pay too much for what might essentially be an old bike. It is common for dealers to sell bikes based on first year of South African registration, instead of year of manufacture (model year). For example; a dealer in Cape Town has offered a Kawasaki GPZ400 (circa late 80s and going for R10 000 – R12 000 on average) for R22 000, based on the fact that it had just landed in the country and was therefore “new”. Even very clean with low mileage, the bike was still not worth that much.


Grey bikes seem to be synonymous with the 400cc capacity market, and to a lesser extent, 250cc. It is therefore easy to assume bigger bikes won’t be grey imports, but although fewer in numbers, the Honda CBR750 and Suzuki Bandit 750 are popular grey bikes


At the point of sale/auction in Japan, grey bikes are categorized into one of three classes based on condition: A – engine and body/chassis in good condition, B – engine good, but body/chassis isn’t, C – both engine and body/chassis in bad condition. After a valet service, a category C bike might look rather attractive, and a dealer might “neglect” to mention its problems.


Even if the dealer is honest, remember that if the dealer could fix the bike cost-effectively, he probably would have done so. So you won’t be able to. Walk away.


Some dealers sell category C a bike straight out of the crate without even dusting it off. Not only might it not be roadworthy, but also it may need a service before you ride it. It does not matter how cheap the bike seems, remember, it first stood for a while (years perhaps) in a warehouse in Japan, so the petrol in the tank has probably crystallised, the carburettors seized, tyres perished, the battery will be flat. Then it spent weeks at sea in transportation; the sea-air having corroded a few bits, like fasteners and brake disks. Damages to fairings, mirrors and indicators during transit is also common.


On the subject of dealers, some have been around for a while, and have gained reputations – not all of which are good. Ask around and get references.


Stick with popular models. Parts availability is a nightmare on unknown bikes.


If affordability is a serious consideration, will you be able to do you own maintenance? Some bikes have service manuals, some not. Check. Bikes officially imported into the UK will have English manuals available, such as the VFR 400, ZXR400, etc.


Grey bikes are known for their soft suspensions. Therefore the bikes feel soggy if you are a little heavy of build, but rest assured, this is normal. The cheapest way to deal with that is to wind the suspension settings to maximum, but ideally you want to install stiffer springs with the damping adjusted to suit.


According to law, all vehicles in Japan are restricted to a top speed of 180 km/h. There are various ways of de-restriction depending on the bike, some labour-intensive and costly. Ask yourself if the de-restriction is worth the effort. How often will you go beyond 180 km/h? And where?


:: Look out for more guidelines based on specific models in the series of upcoming grey bike features. ::