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Concern for Classics

Concern for Classics

THERE’S INCREASING CONCERN about the status of classic cars within the EU. Press reports, a few years ago, suggested that classics were going to be threatened by European proposals regarding vehicle originality.

It was alleged that the vehicle manufacturers, using the vague pretext of copyright protection, wanted to enforce strict rules about replacement parts. All vehicles would have to conform to the factory specification, and this would be checked during roadworthiness tests. With original parts no longer available, questions were raised about classics. It was suggested that they could be exempted from this draconian policy - but there was a Catch 22. It seemed that only vehicles in original condition would qualify… So a classic with any non-original parts would have to be tested, and those same parts would then cause it to fail!

The European Commission moved to quash what it called “incorrect statements in the press”. However, in doing so, it actually confirmed that some of the speculation had been true. The Europa website, which is an official EU communication channel, published a blog on this subject, and answered follow up queries. It specifically denied that the EU intended to outlaw all vehicle modifications or wanted to ban classics unless they remained in original condition. But it confirmed that the draft proposals for changes to roadworthiness tests did contain the following ‘Qualifications for a Vehicle of Historic Interest’:

  • It was manufactured at least 30 years ago.
  • It is maintained by use of replacement parts which reproduce the historic components of the vehicle.
  • It has not sustained any change in the technical characteristics of its major components such as engine, brakes, steering or suspension.
  • It has not been changed in appearance.

Europa insisted that the EU Commission’s proposals would exempt classics from testing if they matched the qualifications… and provided, furthermore, they were not used “day to day on the roads.” Older vehicles that didn’t meet the requirements would be subject to the normal test regime. In fact, the final version, enshrined in the Roadworthiness Directive 2014, is very similar - including the requirement that historic vehicles will be “never or hardly ever used on public roads”. And it is upon that flimsy plank that our own government’s decision, to exempt pre-1960 vehicles from MoT testing, currently rests.

Clearly; the ‘copyright principle’ could never have been applied to older vehicles - few makers have survived and original specifications don’t exist. Even for more recent models, creating suitable databases, retrospectively, would be both difficult and expensive. But that’s not to say that it couldn’t happen in the future - it’s easy to imagine every detail of a new car’s construction being logged on a computer as it passes down the line.

Nevertheless, we are still left with a definition of ‘historic interest’ that’s directly linked to originality and to usage patterns. No 1950’s specials would qualify - and neither would a vintage tourer that started life as a saloon. What about XK120s with disc brake conversions? And even if the vehicle qualifies, there’s the “never or rarely ever used on public roads” condition. Would regular weekend use be acceptable, or is it just one day a year? Does this imply a mileage check, perhaps? Who on earth decides?

Well… the Federation Internationale des Vehicules Anciens (FIVA) evidently thinks that it has the right to decide. It wants a legally binding definition of ‘historic vehicle’ that will be used in all relevant EU legislation (not just the Roadworthiness Directive), and across all member states.

You might expect that an organisation set up to protect old vehicle interests would be on our side, yet the FIVA is asking for an even stricter definition - one that would identify a classic as being more than merely ‘an old car’. As well as age, originality and limited use, it says that a historic vehicle must be “part of our technical and cultural heritage” - whatever that means.

The Federation of British Historic Vehicle Clubs is furious, and has asked the FIVA to withdraw its statement, to give time for further consideration and for consultation with national federations. The FIVA issued its original press release in connection with Low Emission Zones (LEZs), and the rights of historic vehicles to enter them - and has been rapidly backpedalling ever since. It now says it accepts that a small minority of older vehicles are used on a regular basis, or are not “as they were when made”, but that this doesn’t stop them being historic. Also, the FIVA is not arguing for harmonisation in the form of a European Directive on LEZs, but just wants to provide guidance so that LEZ restrictions can be more consistent. [I think the French term is volte face.]

The serious issue here is that, once the EU comes up with an all-embracing definition of ‘historic vehicle’, it can be neatly slotted into all manner of legislation. And remember that EU law trumps national law. At the moment, our UK-based classics are defined in two areas. The first, VED exemption (which is now back on a rolling basis, incidentally), is a purely fiscal matter and, therefore, entirely under national control. Whereas the MoT exemption comes under EU legislation that allows member states to exempt from normal testing any vehicle meeting the EU’s ‘historic interest’ qualifications. As yet, those qualifications only apply to the Roadworthiness Directive.

As it happens, I personally don’t like the idea of fast ‘50’s sports cars being on the road without so much as a simple safety test. I would have preferred our government to have limited the exemption to much older vehicles that only come out for, say, the VCC’s London-Brighton. (Which, of course, is what’s implied by “never or hardly ever used”.) It would be hugely different, though - and far more dangerous for the hobby - if our cars were to be officially labelled as different from other cars. No weekday use… no motorway use… special permits…

Don’t laugh. The freedoms we enjoy here aren’t universal and we may have to fight to retain them.

David Landers - lobby@classicmotor.co.uk

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Landers Lobby from p. 10 of issue May 2016
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