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Report: DVLA tightening up historic registrations

Should you worried? The full story on why the DVLA is cracking down on certain cars with historic registration

The UK’s Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency has started sending out letters to owners of certain historic-registered vehicles, asking them to prove their vehicle’s history or risk losing their registration. At present the letters are being targeted at owners of vintage Bugattis but there are fears the investigation could widen to include other vintage cars, and in particular the ‘specials’ that have been such a characterful part of the UK motoring scene since the 1920s.

Among other things, the DVLA letter states: ‘Initial investigations have confirmed that some historic vehicles have been built using replica/replacement parts or a mixture of period and new components and have therefore been incorrectly registered. A period manufacture date has been recorded in error and a registration number allocated based on this date.’

It goes on to say: ‘In some cases, Individual Vehicle Approval may be required and/or a Q registration may be appropriate. Please be aware that while these investigations are ongoing, applications to notify a change of vehicle keeper will not be processed.’

The prevailing uncertainty about how far the DVLA intends to cast its net has already had a marked effect on the values of some vintage cars being offered for auction. Examples of desirable cars such as chain-gang Frazer Nashes and 1920s Bentleys that have been built up from parts – with no attempt made to disguise the fact – have either failed to sell or sold for reduced prices as a result of buyer anxiety, and some owners of otherwise superb cars that have little provenance have been selling them and purchasing instead examples in poorer condition but with better history.

So why has the DVLA suddenly targeted the classic market? Rumours abound, but what is certain is that they decided to focus on vintage Bugattis for two reasons: because of the high proportion that have been built up from parts, and because a handful of Argentinean ‘new build’ Type 35B replicas were being allocated historic registrations. The DVLA makes the valid point that classic vehicles are exempt from paying road tax and, if pre-1960, from the annual MoT test: privileges that do not extend to new-builds.

The second reason is inarguable. The first is not so straightforward. It seems likely that the DVLA is not interested in penalising owners of cars which are essentially genuine; their target is the cars that are new in all but name. But this throws up a key question: how original must a car be to qualify for a historic registration?

The fact is that many famous vintage cars – most notably, Bentley Speed Six ‘Old Number One’ – now exist in a form quite different from the way they were first constructed. Old Number One is particularly relevant because it established the principle of ‘continuous history’ when it was the subject of a 1990 case in the High Court. The judge concluded that, while the vehicle then was radically different from how it had been constructed in 1929, ‘the entity which started life as a racing car never actually disappeared’ and therefore it was the ‘authentic’ Old Number One.

What’s more, luxury marques such as Rolls-Royce often supplied only a rolling chassis to the customer, who would then commission their preferred coachbuilder to construct a body. That body – particularly if fabric-covered – might only last a few years and could be replaced quite early in the vehicle’s life with something entirely different. If the rebodied car then survives a further 80 years or so unaltered, can it still be regarded as ‘unoriginal’ because it’s not as it was first built?

Further confusion surrounds the rules governing the allocation of an age-related registration to a historic vehicle that has been built up from parts. The DVLA does actually allow this and states, under its rules for ‘Reconstructed Classic Vehicles’, that the vehicle must be:

• ‘built from genuine period components from more than one vehicle, all over 25 years old and of the same specification as the original vehicle’, and

• ‘a true reflection of the marque’.

Leaving aside how you define what is ‘a true reflection of the marque’, the DVLA’s regulations contain a further sting in the tail: ‘Your vehicle won’t get an age-related registration number if it includes new or replica parts,’ it says.

But, before a vehicle can be registered, it should meet basic roadworthiness conditions – so tough luck if you have a totally original vehicle with a cracked cylinder block or rotten chassis. The DVLA has confirmed to that, as the rules stand, you’re not allowed to replace these unless you have a spare, original block or chassis to use.

This directly contradicts the situation with vehicles that are already in use, where the like-for-like replacement of faulty components for reasons of safety or mechanical failure is regarded as perfectly acceptable.

If your reconstructed vehicle incorporates any new parts, the regulations continue: ‘DVLA will give your vehicle a “Q” prefix registration number. Your vehicle must pass the relevant type approval test to get a “Q” prefix registration number.’

And here’s the rub: type approval, in this case, means Individual Vehicle Approval (IVA), a stringent – and expensive, at £450 – test that has been drawn up with modern vehicles in mind. No vintage car, or indeed any car built during the classic era, will pass IVA in its original form.

This illustrates the gulf the problems that today’s lawmakers face in reconciling classic vehicles with a world that is totally different from the one in which they were constructed. In seeking to resolve a problem that few were aware even existed, the DVLA’s investigators have opened up a can of worms that is potentially much, much larger than they could ever have envisaged.

Among the influential lobby groups who are monitoring the situation are the Federation of British Historical Vehicle Clubs (FBHVC) and the All-Parliamentary Group for Historic Vehicles (APGHV). Chairman of the latter is Conservative MP the Rt Hon Sir Greg Knight, who told Octane Magazine:

‘Clearly, we don’t want a heavy-handed approach here; it’s a question of degree. The APGHV is keen to discuss the issue with Ministers when the House of Commons resumes, and I have an appointment to see the Transport Minister in October.

‘Personally, I believe that owners should be allowed to modify their cars to a reasonable degree, and that rebodied but mechanically standard vehicles should be treated with a light touch. What’s more, if a vehicle was modified 40 years or more ago [there is a rolling 40-year cut-off date for exemption from road tax], I think it should qualify as a historic vehicle in its own right.

‘It could also be argued that certain changes, such as fitting hydraulic rather than cable-operated brakes, or an overdrive to raise cruising speeds, should be regarded as improvements rather than detractions. What you shouldn’t be able to do, however, is to insert a completely new powertrain that’s not in the spirit of the original, and then retain the original registration.

‘At the moment, the DVLA only seems to be investigating specific examples of cars that are new-builds or haven’t been rebuilt as original, and we’re not aware of any “fishing” expeditions among innocent owners – but we’d be very interested to hear from readers who have received such a letter.’

For its part, the Bugatti Owners Club, which has been at the heart of the DVLA’s questioning, sent out letters of its own in June to Club members, advising them that: ‘The Club’s Directors have decided that, while we are deeply concerned as to the potential impact this action may have on many of our members, we have little choice but to respond to the Agency, when requested, to verify the provenance of individual vehicles.’

The DVLA has called a meeting with representatives of selected classic vehicle clubs on 23 September, where concerns can be raised and discussed. The following statement from John Vale, team leader for DVLA vehicle registration policy, has been issued on the subject:

‘This is not a crackdown and DVLA does not intend to call into question the authenticity of all classic vehicles, potentially withdrawing their historic status. This exercise is intended to establish the authenticity of a small group of vehicles.’

The statement goes on to say: ‘We appreciate the uncertainty felt by the classic car owners; however, the number potentially affected is very small. Where investigations establish that the original registration was incorrect, these vehicles will require re-registration under an alternative registration.

‘I can confirm this exercise is in no way linked to the introduction of any EU Directive.’

These statements would seem to reinforce the belief widely held in the vintage car scene that the issue with Bugattis has arisen because of the actions of one or two individuals: the suspicion is that the DVLA is taking action because it feels obliged to be seen to do so, rather than because it wants to undertake a hugely expensive and pointless witch-hunt.

Even if its enquiries go no further than this particular niche, however, the renewed focus on originality is likely to impact negatively on would-be builders of vintage specials, period hot rods, replicas of classic sports cars made using period donor vehicles – in short, anything that does not fit the bureaucrats’ definition of what a roadgoing vehicle should be.

Words: Mark Dixon/Octane Magazine

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