David Sumner Smith was fed up with high car prices.
As a resident of the United Kingdom, he knew that automakers routinely charged more for vehicles sold there than in other markets.
So he went to Japan. He attended a Tokyo used-car auction and spent 7,400 pounds ($11,900) to purchase and ship a 1-year-old Honda Prelude.
A year later, the Prelude - equipped with leather seats, climate control and other options - is worth $21,829.
'I liked it so much that I set up a magazine to tell others about it,' the 41-year-old journalist said.
Last September, Sumner Smith launched a bi-monthly called the Car Import Guide. The publication offers advice to readers about the so-called gray market for vehicles.
The United Kingdom is flooded with up to 30,000 gray imports a year. Most of these cars come from Japan, which also has right-hand drive. They do not comply with European Community regulations, but they are allowed in as individual imports.
The biggest advantage - some would say only advantage - is the cash saving. More than half of all new cars sold in the United Kingdom are bought by businesses at discounts. The private buyer has to pay full price, indirectly subsidizing the business buyers. Consumers pay up to 30 percent more for new vehicles than in other European nations.
The gray market buyer gets a car that is subtly different than the official imports. The problems come with reselling the car - the value is likely to plunge once it is discovered that it is a gray import.
Other headaches include the high costs of spare parts and repair shops that are reluctant to service unfamiliar vehicles.
But the prospect of a lower purchase price has led to a spate of new companies specializing in what are euphemistically called 'personal imports.'
The most popular gray import is the Mazda Miata, also known as the MX-5 and the Eunos Roadster. Imports average 3,500 to 4,000 units a year.
Other popular cars are the Mitsubishi Pajero - known as the Shogun in the United Kingdom - the Honda Prelude and Mitsubishi FTO. Shogun imports total nearly 3,000 units a year, almost half of current Shogun sales.
'We used to sell 6,500 to 7,000 Shoguns a year; now that is down to 3,500 or so,' said Mitsubishi Motors U.K. spokesman David Miles. 'You can see what sort of impact that has had on us.'
The savings on gray market cars can be substantial.
'I was offered an MGF, British-made and sold in Japan and re-imported as a second-hand car, and I could have saved 3,500 pounds ($5,660),' Sumner Smith said.
The vast majority of gray imports are used cars, with many more than 3 years old. Gray importers prefer older cars because they face less stringent inspections.
Gray imports are not as big a problem as media reports might indicate, says Jeff Paterson, senior car editor at Glass's Guide, the United Kingdom's leading used-car price guide. But they can be a problem for owners who try to sell them.
'These gray imports are treated with great suspicion by the trade. Once the public realizes this, they won't touch them,' Paterson said. 'The problem is that dealers don't understand the car - it doesn't conform to what they are used to, so they don't like to handle them.'
Problems arise when the seller hides a car's gray status. A new owner may not discover the car's history until it is taken in for service, said Steve Kilmister, director of Experian Car Data Check in the United Kingdom.
'In some cases the differences are very minor, in some they are significant,' he said. 'These differences can cause difficulties with servicing and repairs, emission tests, warranties and insurance.'
Last year, Experian calculated that more than half of all privately imported Japanese cars had been manufactured before 1993 - and many do not conform to European Community specifications.
Yet the gray market has its defenders. The attraction to buyers goes beyond price, says Shehwad Ashraf, owner of Orient Vehicles near London.
'You have more of a choice, even with new cars,' he said.
Air conditioning, for example, is standard on almost every car sold in Japan. The only luxury absent from most unofficial imports from Japan is leather upholstery, which is unpopular with Japanese motorists.
Ashraf is encouraged by the experience in New Zealand - another right-hand drive market - where gray imports now are an established industry.
It's a view supported by Sumner Smith. 'There's a colossal trade in used Japanese cars in Australia and New Zealand.'
Gray parts providers
Gray imports from Japan usually are worth about 10 percent less than equivalent United Kingdom-supplied vehicles because of lingering doubts about difficulties with parts supply.
Cars that appear identical can differ in detail. Their bumpers usually are a different shape to accommodate the square license plates used by cars in Japan. The United Kingdom has rectangular plates.
Gear ratios also can be different, and replacement parts need to be specially imported.
However, specialist parts suppliers in the United Kingdom have seized the opportunity to stock Japanese parts at prices roughly equal to parts prices for official imports.
Says Sumner Smith: 'This reduction in value (of gray market cars) is diminishing as the market becomes more familiar with gray imports.'