Classic Bike Guide
Grey imports – the perfect storm
Cometh the turn of the Nineties, cometh the grey imports. Here in the UK, biking was sexy sportsbikes all the way until you were old – Harleys kept themselves to themselves, the old bike world rode in the week when everyone else was working or were stuck in the workshop, and adventure bikes weren’t born yet.
The cyclic nature of motorcycling meant that young ’uns were coming into motorcycling again, pushed in part by World Superbikes and Grand
Prix being televised, as well as a fairly buoyant economy. Unfortunately, insurance prices were also buoyant, meaning your average late teen or early 20-something couldn’t afford to insure the 600cc sportsbike they could afford to buy thanks to finance and the Supersport bikes that were imported – Kawasaki ZXR400 and KR1 250, Honda’s VFR400 NC30, Suzuki’s RGV250 and
Yamaha’s FZR400 were too expensive and just for racers. All that was left was Superdreams and bikes that, to said young ’uns, were as exciting as nanny’s knickers.
Meanwhile, over in Japan, the biking scene was different. Most riders wanted sportsbikes. And they wanted beautiful sportsbikes with the latest innovations, like aluminium race-styled frames, upside-down forks and huge brakes. But thanks to a strict government they were limited by law, keeping them to under 400cc and under 60bhp. And, most bizarrely, the fashion for these machines also went as far as their age – so if yours was more than a couple of years old, you were no one. The Yen was also weak compared to the Sterling.
This mattered to a young Japanese rider. So much so that there was no domestic market for these machines to the extent that they were deemed almost worthless and sometimes just left outside the dealers with the keys in. Fashion: an astonishingly powerful and sometimes dangerous power.
So, entrepreneurial Japanese dealers and auctioneers got together with equally wise UK dealers... and the UK market was suddenly awash with sea containers full of miniature exotica. As young ’uns, we snatched the dealers’ hands off to get a slice of these amazing-looking, ultra-high revving machines. We looked the absolute whatsits.
Over time, the market flooded and the Yen recovered, making the grey imports less appealing. And strangely, the same never took off in mainland Europe. More recently the manufacturers have started making 250-400cc bikes for younger riders – 25 years too late – but they look what they are: cheaply made, poor copies of bigger models. Those grey imports from the ‘90s were real, exotic bikes that we could afford. And they still, rightly, have many fans.