Why Can’t We Buy Grey Vehicles in South Africa?

  Leo Kok


 23 Apr, 2020

Import Used Cars South Africa

Cars are expensive, and while South Africans are spoiled for choice, there are still some cars we cannot get here. So why can’t we import used cars?

Importing and selling used vehicles, so-called grey vehicles, are illegal for the most part in South Africa. Across the border and in most countries on the continent, it is perfectly legal. Indeed, so pervasive is the practice of importing and selling used vehicles in Africa, that many new car retailers will have a sales lot filled with directly imported used vehicles to bolster their sales.

The subject of grey vehicles was once again thrust into the limelight two months ago, when the European New Car Assessment Programme (NCAP) tested a brand-new African-made Nissan Hardbody against a used European Nissan Navara.

Predictably, the Navara, with its more modern design and technology, fared a lot better than the Hardbody, which in effect is an older design retained and built to offer an affordable workhorse to African markets. The dramatic video of the two pick-ups crashing ended with the Euro NCAP stating that it would be better, and safer, for Africans to buy a used European pick up.

Predictably, the Navara, with its more modern design and technology, fares a lot better than the Hardbody

Viewed from the point of view of a private buyer, this makes sense. Why opt for a brand-new model, when you can buy a used one with European, Asian or US specs for a quarter of the price? Even more so, it seems, when these vehicles are safer than their built-for-Africa counterparts.

The answer may be less black-and-white than it seems at first. For one, these imported vehicles are never adapted for their new home. This process, called tropicalisation, includes tests on local soil to adapt the vehicle to run on the local fuel and make sure that its suspension and the safety technology are adapted to local road conditions.

The lack of tropicalisation is best seen in the emissions of these imported vehicles. In most cases, a local mechanic will simply remove the catalytic converters, circumvent the emissions sensors and flush the system to enable the engine to run rich. This allows the vehicle, often built to Euro 5 standards, to run on sub-standard fuel and emit more smoke and poisonous gasses than a Euro 5 vehicle.

Aside from the poor environmental performance, these grey vehicles disappear off a manufacturer’s radar forever, which makes it impossible for them to affect the usual technical and safety recalls that are part of every new vehicle. Many manufacturers have complained that they are unable to contact thousands of vehicle owners who are driving around with life-threatening airbags that would have been replaced for free as part of the global Takata recall.

Since grey vehicles are imported indiscriminately from across the globe, it is also impossible for the local brand representative to keep parts and to service these grey vehicles. This leads to a booming backyard industry, where grey vehicles are repaired or serviced, often with ill-fitting or fake parts. This has a marked impact on the vehicle’s environmental performance, there is no tracking of the safe disposal of used parts and oil and it dramatically shortens the lifespan of these vehicles.

Manufacturers can add several reasons why grey vehicles should not be allowed. Returning to tropicalisation, the vehicles would most often have been prepared for their original destination and will not perform very well in their new home. For instance, with reference to the Nissan Hardbody and Navara – the African-made vehicles will no-doubt be a lot hardier to handle the local roads and the practice of heavy loading, while the European model would have been engineered to offer a more compliant, comfort-oreientated ride. A grey imported model will possibly see its suspension sagging after a short while, or the engine will start giving trouble, owing to the poor fuel and the roundabout way that it was made to work. The unsuspecting owner blames the brand for its poor quality, while the made-for-Africa model would no doubt perform perfectly for many years.

On a higher level, vehicle manufacturers rightly claim that grey imports decimate the local market and make it impossible for them to invest in factories in African markets. Countries such as Kenya, Ghana, Nigeria, among others, have been baying for local car factories, but it is not financially viable if you are going to build new cars that cost up to four times more than the same model imported as a grey vehicle from elsewhere.

While all the aforementioned countries have since opened manufacturing plants, they simply assemble pre-made kits sourced from South Africa and elsewhere. It is unlikely that these factories will develop into full-scale manufacturing concerns, with the large-scale investment and the many supporting parts manufacturers would bring, without a ban or limit on the grey vehicle market.

African governments are wising up to the negative impact of grey vehicles and have started putting limits on the age and range of vehicles that can be imported. They realise that they often lose out on the tax that they charge on new vehicles, while these grey products also do not comply with the labelling and homologation standards developed for their market.

These arguments against grey vehicles sound very dry when viewed in light of the opportunity of importing a Ford F150 Raptor or a Tesla, which are not available at all from official channels. But history has shown that the unrestricted practice of importing and selling grey vehicles can decimate the local new vehicle market, and the negative impact on the vehicle brand will ultimately affect the end-user as well.

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