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Buying Old and Grey

The older Japanese imports are now getting very cheap.

by Julian Edgar

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This article was first published in 2003.
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Despite AutoSpeed at one stage or another having covered pretty well every one of the Australian grey-market Japanese imports, we've never felt the desire to buy one for ourselves. (In fact one of our staffers - Nathan Huppatz - owned a R33 Skyline GTS25t that he imported himself, however it didn't turn out a delightful story - for more, go to "Guest Column". And anyway, Nathan bought the car before he came on staff!) The reasons for our lack of import buying has nothing to do with a dislike of the cars - machines like the Supra RZ we put up near the top of our best-cars list, while the Kei class of turbo machines can send us into raptures. But there have been a few really major stumbling blocks on a purchase commitment - when you're spending a fistful of dollars on an import, the problems of rapid depreciation, poor parts availability, and difficulty of insurance all add up quickly.

But the situation is different when the import costs, say $4000. "Four grand?!" you exclaim. Obviously those sorta dollars aren't going to get you into a late model, pristine import. But one that's been in Australia a while (and so suffered that depreciation!) or an older import can be down around that price. For example, some turbo Starlets, older Skylines and the like are already at those prices - or fast heading that way.

Insurance is less of a problem when it will probably be only third party property, while depreciation is much reduced in absolute dollars when the starting price is already so low. And parts? Yes, well they're still a problem - in fact, probably more so when the car is getting on in years. But that value for money equation looks very good when you see what you can get for the money...

However, without a doubt, it pays to check your older import purchase ultra carefully - the history will be definitely incomplete, there almost certainly won't be a warranty, and the car may well be unfamiliar to you. So what do you look for? Here's a quick guide.

Is it an Import?

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The first port of call should be under the bonnet. If the car has a plate that looks like this one then it has been imported as a grey market product. So what does that mean, then? What it shows is that the car was not sold new in Australia. And almost certainly, none of that make and model was sold new. The implications for this is that if you buy an import Nissan like this one, you won't be able to walk into your local Nissan dealer and expect to order parts as you would for a car sold new in Australia. Significantly, you also won't be able to call on a Nissan wrecker and expect them to have one of these in their yard - as you could be reasonably certain of if you bought a locally-delivered Bluebird, for example.

When inspecting the plate, be a bit wary of the model names and numbers - this one's dubbed a "Nissan Maximore Bluebird 1987" for example. There's never been such a model produced by Nissan - in fact, that's what the local importer and compliancer simply decided to call it on his papers. The 11/96 date shows when this car arrived in Australia, not the car's year of manufacture. (In fact this car was built in 1988.)

Compliancing - the act of modifying the car to meet local design regulations - is often done on the cheap, so the next step is to look at some of the areas that should have been changed.

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These include seatbelts (usually replaced with locally-made units)...

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...the fuel-filler neck (a small diameter unleaded neck is fitted)...

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...and child restraint anchorages (the mounting points are installed). There are other things that are changed as well (see "ADR'ing an Import" for a detailed coverage on the way it should have been done) but these three compliance modifications are important and readily checked. If these changes look really crappy (for example the seatbelts won't retract smoothly) then it might be a good idea taking a miss.

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A final giveaway that it's an import is the (narrow) width of the rear numberplate receptacle - even cars where it's hard to immediately pick the difference between locally available versions and the grey market imports can be sorted with a glance at the rear number plate.

The Body

Nearly all grey market imports have been crashed. Usually, the accident happened in Japan and so the importer was able to pick up the car very cheaply, ship it to Australia and have the body repairs done here. Obviously, the lower the price of the repairs, the better the overall profit. Imports are notorious for their bad body repairs. The horror stories - for example where two completely different cars have been stitched together - are much rarer than most would have us believe (if the car was that knackered then it's unlikely the overall project would have been profitable) but certainly nose and tail collisions, rear three-quarter and front three-quarter accidents have commonly been suffered.

So it makes sense to look very carefully over the body, looking especially for poor paint matching (eg the paint either side of a panel margin isn't the same) and file marks in filler under the paint. Given the pricing of the cars that we're considering, finding such defects doesn't invalidate the car - so long as they're not too extensive!

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Here damage to the rear pillar has been badly repaired. The rear glass has come out and when it was replaced, the rubber has been mangled.

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The bodgy repair continues down to the base of the pillar, and while they cannot be seen here, other lighting shows file marks beneath the paint. Other indicators of bad repairs can sometimes be seen by looking inside the boot (eg behind readily removable trim panels) and by looking at the (mis)alignment of the panels.

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In addition to accident damage, it pays to carefully check these older imports for rust. Look inside all of the opening panels (eg inside the visible parts of the doors, the bonnet and the bootlid) and inspect the lower panels (eg sills, bottom of doors) for bubbles or other external indicators of rust. Remember that in some States rust may prevent the car from being registered, not to mention that severely rusted bodies are of course weaker. Any rust that has perforated the body should make you very hesitant to buy - those replacement repair panels are likely to simply not be available...

The Interior

How well cared for a car is - not to mention the kilometres it has travelled - is often best indicated by the interior. A pristine interior shows more frequent cleaning (dirt tends to be abrasive) and less distance travelled. Any grey import being bought long after the original importation won't have an odometer reading that is believable, so it makes sense to look carefully at areas which get worn in high kilometre cars - and then make a judgement for yourself.

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For example, the driver's footwell carpet will often show by wear that the car has done lots of kilometres, as will the pedal rubbers. Sure some of the owners might have had mats fitted, but if the carpet, pedal rubbers, dash and seat upholstery are all in excellent condition, it's simply more likely that the car has been well looked after and hasn't done an outrageous distance.

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Another reason for looking around at the interior closely is - you guessed it - the lack of parts availability. Many Japanese imports are very well equipped - climate control air is common, and all-electrics de rigeur. However, that makes it even more important to check that everything - everything! - electric actually does work. Front and rear glass, mirrors, air-con, the radio (more on this in a moment), the interior lights, all the instruments - you get the picture. It's good to make a list and systematically tick them off as you check each one. The radio is most likely to have been changed over the years, but if it is a Japanese unit you need to be aware that the FM radio won't receive all the local stations - not without a frequency converter anyway. However, these are now available cheaply so it's not the big deal it once was. The problems are huge though if the import has a TV and you'd like to use it to pick up local stations - the converters are available, but they're much more expensive. (But not too many TV-equipped imports are available down the bottom end of the market - yet...)

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In this car the original radio was still fitted, with a frequency converter also provided. However the switch to alter frequencies was just taped to the underside of the dash, with the tape peeling away. It worked fine (although the electric aerial was broken - another thing to check!) but the ugliness of the dangling switch made for a good bargaining tool.

The Mechanicals

You check the mechanicals of an old grey import as would any secondhand car - just a bit more carefully, that's all! Inspections include:

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  • The level and condition of the coolant (is it a brown sludge or a healthy-looking green or red?)...
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  • The radiator and hoses (any signs of corrosion, and are the hoses in good condition - here an all-purpose wrinkly has been fitted, probably because a factory hose wasn't available in Australia to replace the original)...
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  • The engine oil level and condition (At the right mark? Black and thick?)
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  • The auto trans fluid level and condition (At the right mark? Smelling burnt?)
  • The level of the fluid in the brake mast cylinder reservoir.
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  • Whether there's any 'mayonnaise' on the bottom of the oil filler lid (indicative of an internal coolant leak).

...and so on. Have the owner start the engine and look for tailpipe smoke and listen for engine clatters. Make sure that the wiring loom isn't starting to go 'crackly' (where all the insulation becomes heat-brittled) and carry out a good underbonnet and undercar inspection. The tyres, the suspension (the old bounce-the-car trick still works), the condition of the airfilter. Do the lot - even if it takes some time.

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The final step is to test drive. If you don't know how the car is supposed to drive it's often hard to pick the differences between what they're all like and what this one is like. Of course, any fault that you find will always be greeted with a shrug so it's best to concentrate on obvious problems. Brakes that pull to one side, exhaust smoke, a lack of power, strange noises, steering with a lot of slackness, auto boxes that are slow to change gear - all of these are likely to be indicative of problems.


Buying a secondhand car is always - to a greater or lesser degree - a lucky dip. Buying a secondhand used Japanese grey market import can only be characterised as an even bigger risk! But you can lean the odds your way by some careful inspection before purchasing - and the reward can be a much better car for the money than you will be able to get elsewhere.

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