Back in the nineties, the bikers of Britain were often found riding bikes made for the Japanese market. Exactly how did this happen, and what were the best bikes not officially sold here? Bikesure takes a freewheeling look at the world of grey imports.
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The golden age of grey imports
The reason so many 400cc motorcycles were transported from Japan to Europe in the 90s is partly due to Japan’s tough laws relating to road licensing and sales regulations. At the time, any motorcycle more powerful than 250cc had to take an MOT style test every two years that was so stringent it was almost impossible to pass.
Combining this with a virtually non-existent second-hand market made it economic to export the nearly new bikes abroad where they were eagerly snapped up. As the nineties progressed, Japan’s economy fell into recession, making bikes less profitable to export. This saw more people keeping their bikes for longer. The last global crash really put the final nail in the coffin. Now, the scene is only popular with collectors and track day enthusiasts who don’t mind extra maintenance and buying increasingly rare spare parts.
But while importing may not be the simplest way to get a powerful sports bike anymore, the legacy of that era makes it a relatively cheap place for people looking to begin a collection.
This was one of the first of the 400s to capture the imagination of European bikers. The ZXR is paradoxically one of the more sought-after grey import bikes and the easiest to find thanks to its long production history. It’s also pretty cheap, but any buyer should beware as the build quality of Kawasakis from the 1980s was somewhat lacking.
GSF 400 “Bandit”
This super naked bike is a torquey beast which gathered a lot of fans with its punchy, irrepressible driving style. Its successors remain popular with stunters, and you can usually find one of their 400 ancestors relatively cheaply. This is partly because they have components that are prone to breaking and increasingly difficult to replace, so be sure to give anything you’re thinking of buying a good check before you fork over the cash.
The GSX was originally launched in 1984. It was in production until 1996, albeit with a few revisions along the way. Sadly even at the time they had a reputation for unreliability, but the revision released in the early 90s managed to claw back some kudos. It’s also popular with custom garages, as it’s a great basis for any number of the popular custom models. Also look out for the Impulse, the naked style bike that was released throughout the 90s, if that’s more your speed.
The VFR400 NC30 was another scaled-down superbike that was actually officially sold in the UK! But in one of those quirks of international economics, it cost slightly more than its more powerful 750cc variants. As a result, this didn’t fly out of the dealerships, so once Honda gave up the official model as a bad idea, the grey market took over and was able to price them competitively. Despite their increasing age they’re still popular bikes for track days.
The RVF400 NC35 was, unsurprisingly enough, the NC30’s spiritual successor, and was on sale between 1994 and 1996. The main difference between the two machines? The RVF’s front forks were mounted upside down, which apparently made it handle pretty well. But now, with several decades of technological advancements since then, it’s probably not as impressive to anyone with any experience of modern motorcycles.
The CBR family is, if not the most popular motorcycle ever, then at the very least in the top five favourite motorcycles of all time. So it’s no surprise to see a 400cc capacity CBR here. Or indeed, several. For the racers, there’s the CBR400F/R/RR and for those who like their bikes naked, the CBR400FF. The CBR, which dates back to the 90s, was designed to look and behave like its 900cc sibling, the Fireblade.
If you like the aesthetic of 90s sports bikes, then you probably can’t get enough of those dual headlights. Like the VFR et al, it is another popular track bike. It is, however, also over 30 years old and likely to be knackered.
The SDR200 was only produced for a year and didn’t sell particularly well even in Japan, making it popular among collectors. Luckily it’s interesting and desirable for more reasons than just rarity. With its trellis frame and minimal styling, the design is remarkably non-eighties and modern looking. This is at least an interesting talking point to share with anyone you show your collection off to.
At Bikesure, we offer insurance for your imported scooter, motorbike or superbike. Whatever your motorbike of choice, give us a call on 0330 123 1028 for a cheap quote. What were your favourite grey imports? Sound off in the comments.Motorbikes