Mitsubishi Motors Corp. has lost 50,000 cars - and it needs to find them to make sure they are free from technical faults identified under the massive recall program recently announced in Japan.
Altogether, Mitsubishi is recalling 620,000 vehicles, mainly in its domestic Japanese market, following customer complaints over a number of years. But many of those cars have found their way out of Japan as part of the gray-import market.
The biggest problem is in the UK, where 50,000 right-hand-drive vehicles have been imported via the gray market over the past five years.
Although they were ordered from dealers in Japan, many arrived through import companies that no longer exist.
David Miles, spokesman for the Colt Car Company, the official UK Mitsubishi importer, said: 'We have been telling the factory for years to clamp down on dealers in Japan sending cars through the gray market. Now the problem has come back to haunt us.
'We could ignore the problem because these vehicles were not official imports, but that would not do Colt or Mitsubishi Motors Corp. any good in terms of image,' he said. 'Instead we have to look at it as an opportunity to get these people into our showrooms and build a relationship with them.'
A number of faults have been found on different Mitsubishi models in Japan that are specific to the domestic market. Although both Japan and the UK are right-hand-drive markets, homologation rules differ.
Tracing the missing 50,000 cars will not be a simple task. The British vehicle licensing authority is not allowed to give out names under the country's data protection act, and even if it did it could only provide the name of the person who first registered the vehicle.
Miles said: 'Many of these vehicles will have changed hands on the used-car market and so we are considering media advertisements to try and track some of the vehicles down.'
Not all of the vehicles will need to be recalled, however. Miles said that once chassis numbers had been checked, Mitsubishi would then be able to identify the vehicles that required checks.
'It is difficult to put a cost on this until we know the numbers involved,' said Miles. 'But Colt already stocks a number of Japanese-specification parts because of the number of gray market cars we know to be on the road.'
Mitsubishi and Colt are asking owners of the gray market vehicles to take them to Mitsubishi dealerships, and those that require work will have the cost of labor and parts covered by the automaker.
Miles added: 'We are taking a long-term view of this as we believe we should try and keep these people as customers.
'But there are other long-term problems with gray market vehicles,' he said. 'The main one is the catalytic converter that is made for use with higher-grade gasoline in Japan. The converter can be quickly destroyed by European-grade fuel, so vehicles will fail emissions tests. The customer will have to pay to resolve that particular problem.'