Unlike other counterfeit products, automotive components are hidden from view and, at least by the lay person, little understood. While the potential scale, scope and impact of the problem is vast, knowledge of this illicit trade is limited. In seeking to contribute to the existing literature on the counterfeiting of auto components, this article focuses on China, a major and growing economy with an expanding vehicle market, a ready internal market for counterfeits and a frequently identified source country of counterfeit goods. Rested upon empirical data from published court judgments in China and open source materials, this article critically explores the counterfeiting of motor vehicle parts inside the country, from manufacture to sale, including identifying the parties involved in the illegitimate business, the counterfeiting process and what motivates the players to engage in it, to gain insights into the social organisation of the illicit trade. Our findings suggest that the trade in counterfeit automotive components does not appear robust from an organisational viewpoint, which tends to be carried out by individuals on the basis of necessity and opportunity rather than authority and formal rationality. The article’s findings forge a link between counterfeiting and social inequality and help argue that given the current socio-economic settings and a booming market of used vehicles, the dirty economy is likely to persist. Furthermore, as the empirical data shows, currently, the nature of the trade in dangerous counterfeit goods is not duly recognised in law enforcement and legal practices.