Saturday, 25 June 2016

Loose Lines: The wacky world of Japanese imports and the possibilities hidden in their home market [Nov-Dec 1991]

How much do you think the lightest Japanese 250 across the frame water-cooled four weighs? 306lbs dry. That impressive statistic belongs to the Suzuki Cobra, an aluminium framed. mono—shocked road bike that were it not for a huge radiator scoop, so ugly it could only have been designed by the same person who added the useless Ram-Air covers to Suzuki’s mid seventies two stroke twins and triples, it would pass, these days, for a moderately styled road bike.

Interestingly, the same 45hp at 14500rpm engine is used in the Suzuki Across which looks remarkably like a miniature Honda CB600F1, uses the same tubular frame as the 400 Bandit, and has the added advantage of a fake petrol tank which opens up to reveal a space large enough to park your full face helmet.

Powerful, stylish 250s and 400s are particularly popular in the Japanese market because driving licences are difficult to obtain for bigger machines, a strategy creating much doom and despair in the UK industry as certain cretinous elements of our EEC bureaucracy would like to imitate it — so strange that you hear little about the UK adopting the common Continental practice of allowing fourteen year olds to roar about on restricted mopeds!

Given the sudden manifestation of many UK companies importing used bikes from Japan into the UK. although my own research reveals there are actually only a few companies doing the actually importing and then selling on to UK motorcycle dealers, it is only a matter of time before we all have the chance to buy any number of interesting motorcycles that the Big Four have denied us the chance to purchase.

No sooner had a mass of machines been advertised for sale, than industry spokesmen started leaping up and down. The fear of seeing their already diminished market further curtailed had them quoting the possible horrors of lack of spare parts availability (so what's new?), the lack of proper warranties (most people who buy discounted bikes expect little after the first free service) and in a final fling of desperation. warning that things like headlamps (luckily. the Japs drive on the same side of the road as us, so no dip beam problems) and indicators would not have the correct BSI identification mark (who gives a shit?).

The fact of the matter is that there is no type approval for motorcycles in the UK. As long as you have the correct paperwork which shows the bike is legally yours and you've paid the appropriate custom taxes, all you have to do to get it on the road is obtain an MOT certificate. In theory, minor discrepancies might make this difficult, but the plentitude of backstreet MOT testing stations mitigates any such worries.

If this unofficial importation of Japanese motorcycles takes off to any great extent it will only be a matter of time before the Japanese Big Four importers start howling at the government that it was about time type approval was introduced for motorcycles, just like in that nice, sensible Germany. rather than getting off their asses for once and offering some good deals by way of commercial retaliation.

If type approval does come into existence, the ability to import motorcycles will be strictly limited to personal imports, just like in the car world you can pop abroad buy a car, claim it for personal use and as long as it is road worthy get in on the street legally without having to undergo some rigorous type approval test. The merging of EEC trade will, anyway, make it ridiculous that motorcycles in Germany are strictly tested, whilst those in the UK are not, because the freedom to buy a bike in any EEC state will, with any luck, become much easier than it is currently.

The Japanese market has always been one fed on a diet of new machines, the next model always having more power, less weight or more flash, to ensure that the punter dumps last year's model as quickly as possible The result is a plentitude of cheap. low mileage tackle in good condition.

The downside for any potential importer is the paucity of machinery above 400cc; thus it is not so surprising that the UK classifieds are full of the more outlandish race replicas such as the GSXR400R, CBR400R. VFR400R, ZXR400 and FZR400RR, along with all those nasty but ever so gutsy 250 strokers.

The problem with Japan is that it's a long way to ship motorcycles; to justify paying two to three hundred quid shipping and packaging charges per bike the end price has to be in the thousands rather than hundreds for the relatively low quantity of machines that are being shipped. However, the problem with all these race replicas is that the market is severely limited, most of the poseurs who could once upon a happy time actually afford to run them being in severe financial difficulties as the recession bites.

That leaves a market for more useable secondhand motorcycles — the Japanese still churn out basic commuters; a brand new stepthru going for between £500 and £600, one with a few miles and years on it going for less than half that. These bikes are light and small, shipping charges around £150 each to get them to the UK, so even after stumping up 38% in taxes there’s stili a small profit margin there if you import them in enough quantity.

Welcome back the BLOOP? Do you recall these Suzuki commuters, originally introduced as the B100P, soon upgraded to 120cc, Suzuki still make a 125cc commuter (the K125) that if in detail it is entirely different in concept is virtually identical, everything that can be made out of cheapo pressed steel.

Honda, of course, make the CD125 Benly and Yamaha have a commuter 125 based on their 125cc SOHC single, all of a piece in the commuter game. Depreciation is not so great as the race replicas, but an on the road price in the UK of well under a grand for a nearly new one seems possible.

I mean, these commuters are boring as hell, but at least they are cheap to um and work after a fashion... the huge market for in DR machine alone would justify mass importation of one of the more basic, nearly new commuters without any need to change the single seat, huge rack, massive mudguards and full chain enclosure that the Japs provide as basic necessities to the legions of business users who find they are the only way to get around congested city centres.

Rather more interesting, both Honda and Yamaha make 250cc DOHC singles, the (CB250 Clubman being a conservative dresser but sharing the excellent 30hp engine of the old CBX250, whilst the Yamaha SRX250 looks similar to its 600cc brother but only manages to knock out 28hp. Both machines weigh in at less than 280lb dry, a not particularly impressive piece of information given the mass of the Suzuki Cobra mentioned at the beginning of this article.

The interesting thing about the used Japanese market is that you can have it any way you want it (save for the very big stuff which is expensive). Each manufacturer has hidden in his model catalogue a sensible range of motorcycles, a bunch of commuters or you can go gung-ho with the race replicas. Weird variations such as the VT250 Spada (a 40hp, 285lb version of the VT250 with aluminium frame and Ducati styling) only add to the possibilities of added variation in the UK secondhand market.

Yes, some of the rarer bikes will prove difficult to repair, but any modern Japanese engine has to be regarded as a sealed unit to which only oil and the occasional skilled bit of spanner work are applied; once they go wrong they are dead meat.

Used Japanese imports are in the early days, right now, who’s to say that the next stage won't be piles of good used engines coming in by the container load? Once the companies importing used bikes from Japan become confident of the profit possibilities there is little to stop them expanding their actions to buy bikes from, say, Taiwan, where many Japanese models are made under licence and sold much cheaper than in Japan.

It will be amusing to see what develops, and anything that upsets the Big Four importers has to be a good thing.

Bill Fowler

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