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Rolling Loopholes



Annual inspections are a good feature of our automotive landscape. When I lived in Indiana in the '80s, the Hoosier State had no vehicle inspections. It was common to see cars so badly rusted that they'd flex like accordions when hitting bumps. We called them "saggers," and my grad-school buddies had running bets on which of the local rust-piles would break apart in springtime, after a year of heavy snows and salty roads.

Currently, some early weekday mornings find me at the Hopkins Road transfer station, counting our state's saggers from the driver's seat of my none-too-gently used '95 Ford pickup. I've learned that by putting an "antique vehicle" plate on a rusted-out but running hulk, it is possible to avoid state inspections and endanger others.

One day, as I waited my turn to dump my debris, I spotted a familiar sight: a stake-sided 1970s Ford truck behind me, piled high with garbage and sporting antique plates. An even older Chevy pulled in behind, and it set me off: I was fuming. The Chevy was about the age of my wife's antique pickup, but unlike her old C-10, this one had never been restored. It never would be.

When it dies, it will go to the junkyard still wearing license plates intended for collectible cars that are not daily drivers, let alone daily beaters.

Alert motorists will quickly notice cars 25 years or older with these tags. That '82 Escort that barely got you through college? Congratulations, if it is still rotting away somewhere on your property; it's an antique.

The DMV Web site informs drivers that the plates are for pleasure driving, for using at car-club meets and parades, and for testing and driving to the shop. The DMV also warns, "You may not, however, use your vehicle for general, daily transportation. This includes, but is not limited to, driving to and from work."

Yet I do not think for a second that some of the vehicles I see at the dump, or parked along the streets oxidizing and sporting duct-tape repairs, are in any way going to a parade, a car show or a restorer's shop.  I may be wrong, but when I last checked, there is no hot market for 1980 Chevettes.

There is only one reason some drivers buy antique plates: to avoid mandatory inspections. Property taxes are not behind the abuse of license laws, because taxes are laughably low on really old vehicles.  My '74 Buick's last bill, in 1989, came to $12 and change. Even the '95 Ford costs me less than $100 annually. Insurance is also not the issue, because antique vehicles must be insured in Virginia. Insurance for restored vehicles is tough to get, by the way; we had to submit a dozen photos of our '68 Chevy and can have the policy revoked for hauling anything in it except ourselves.

Virginia's inspections can reveal fundamental safety concerns in older vehicles, such as rust-through on frames, failed brake lights (and brakes!) or, as once happened to my Buick, a missing hood spring, which could have led to me or a mechanic being decapitated during an oil change. I just hadn't gotten around to replacing it . . . that 2x4 was working just fine. Suddenly I was forced to do the safe thing.

Now, with the police and DMV apparently too busy to check, I've spotted ever more corroded clunkers, battered beaters, salty saggers, rolling wrecks, hellish heaps, buckets of bolts and piles of parts, all proudly listed as "antique vehicles" because they wear a state-sanctioned tag and can shudder past the inspection station instead of being pulled off the road until they are safe.

Certainly, it is time to tighten rules for antique vehicles to privilege those who actually restore and enjoy them, not those who want an easy way to avoid repairs. There is much at stake for collectors here. Haggerty, an insurance company that many collectors use for their vehicles, has tracked and fought state laws elsewhere that are overly restrictive. Some laws threaten to keep many classics off the streets because of concerns about emissions and safety. If the General Assembly acts soon, it would be possible to find a working compromise, such as a prelicensing inspection by the DMV or a qualified shop. This would enable collectors to drive their favorite vehicles to events or for pleasure while keeping "antique" bombs off our roads. I fear that a fatal accident involving one of these unsafe vehicles will lead to an overreaction in our state.

When collectors take well-restored classics for a ride, they are used to smiles and thumbs-up from other drivers. Our own antique is no exception. I've come a long way since my wooden hood-prop days, and I use common sense and good parts to keep all our vehicles in the best mechanical condition I can. I don't think that the collectors I know would be angry at me for advising other motorists to be on the lookout for some types of "classic" cars and trucks. My advice: Whenever you see a rusted-out "antique vehicle" driving near you, give it wide berth. You, and the state, have no way of knowing if it has working brakes. S

Joe Essid teaches English at the University of Richmond. He most recently installed a heater core in the Ford and new taillights on the '68 Chevy. No 2x4s or other lumber was harmed in making these repairs.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.

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