Not so many years ago, the world of unofficially imported cars was as cloudy as the term ‘grey imports’ suggests. The scene, particularly for Japanese domestic market (JDM) models, was familiar only to hardcore enthusiasts with a love for obscure machinery.
Today, the world is a smaller place and the grey import market is thriving. There are specialists across the UK who either stock or will source any JDM car you care to think of, but the internet has made the DIY import route a much more accessible option. Scour the UK-orientated Japanese classifieds websites for go-to favourites such as the Subaru Impreza, Toyota Supra and Nissan Skyline GT-R and you’ll find strong prices that might have you baulking at the protracted admin work of importing one yourself. But there are some outstanding bargains tucked away if your tastes are a little more obscure.
One such niche fetishist is Jason Critchell, a man who has a penchant for lavishly equipped, low-priced MPVs such as the Nissan Elgrand and Honda Stepwagon on his drive. Jason is a photographer (if you’ve read any motorcycle magazines over the past two decades, you’ve probably seen his work), so he needs roomy, reliable transport that can double as mobile office space and sometimes somewhere to sleep.
His first taste of the Elgrand came in 2009, with an example sourced here in the UK, but when that had served its time, he decided to import another one himself.
“The first one was an E50,” says Jason. “This time, I fancied the later E51. Some of the guys on the Elgrand forum had explained how they had imported their own, and looking at the prices, it was a no-brainer. An Elgrand to the spec I wanted would have cost £8500 to £10,000 here in the UK, but I could get one from Japan for around £5000 all in.”
He ended up with a 50,000-mile 2004 Elgrand, with a 240bhp 3.6-litre V6, for just £5400 door to door. That was back in 2016; in the meantime, Jason has added the 2006 Stepwagon to his stable. It’s full of kit, has a familiar 2.0-litre VTEC engine and was advertised for – wait for it – just £360. Before you get too excited, you need to factor in shipping costs and taxes – 10% import tax and 20% VAT on the combined vehicle and shipping costs – and a few other expenses. But in total, it cost £2323 – well under half what you’d pay for a similar car already in the UK.
Jason sources his motors from TCV (tc-v.com), which probably needs an ‘NSFW’ warning, given the time you’re about to waste on there. TCV connects UK buyers with Japanese dealers; it lets you refine your search to the nth degree and its adverts contain dozens of detail pictures and comprehensive spec lists. You’ll see the FOB price (for ‘freight on board’) but, crucially, you pick your shipping option up front; this immediately bumps the price up by £1500 or so (all of TCV’s prices are in US dollars).
You can negotiate with the seller; they make a margin on shipping costs as well as the vehicle price, so there’s wiggle room. “The haggling is easy,” says Jason. “The sellers get back to you very quickly.”