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Low-volume replica car builders get a boost in latest highway funding bill

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Superformance’s Corvette Grand Sport, photo courtesy Superformance.

Though it seemed like it was going nowhere fast since it first came to light over the summer, the federal legislation designed to ease restrictions on builders of replica cars leapfrogged into law this past weekend, opening the door to a wider variety of vehicles to hit the road.

“We’re excited about it,” said James Espey, vice president of the De Lorean Motor Company. “It’s going to do for the U.S. car hobby what the Europeans have enjoyed for decades. It’ll definitely change the way we do business.”

Introduced in Congress in June of this year, the Low Volume Motor Vehicle Manufacturers Act of 2015 proposed to exempt builders of replica vehicles from the same safety testing and other obligations that much larger carmakers are subject to. To get around those obligations, those smaller builders resorted to workarounds such as offering their vehicles in kit form or minus the engine and then requiring the customer to finish the car.

Those workarounds are no longer necessary now that the language of the stalled Low Volume Motor Vehicle Manufacturers Act has been incorporated into the $305 billion highway funding bill (H.R. 22, the Surface Transportation Reauthorization and Reform Act of 2015), which became law Friday evening. As SEMA Action Network summarized the new law, replica carbuilders (defined as those that build less than 5,000 cars globally per year) can sell as many as 325 turnkey cars using EPA or CARB-certified current model year engines starting in 2017. The law instructs the NHTSA and EPA to come up with guidelines between now and then.

“The language in the law is very prescriptive,” said Stu Gosswein, SEMA’s director of federal government affairs. “There’s really not much to do from a regulatory position – just figure out how to do the paperwork and what to do for penalties. In the coming months, we’re going to go into the agencies and work with them on that.”

SEMA President Chris Kersting hailed the new law as a boon to the car hobby. “With this new law, Congress has demonstrated that it understands the importance of enabling U.S. companies to produce classic-themed vehicles that are virtually impossible to build under the current one-size-fits-all regulatory framework,” he said in a press release. “This program will create auto sector jobs and meet consumer demand for cars that help preserve our American heritage.”


Factory Five 1933 Ford. Photo courtesy SEMA.

Other backers of the law note that it should also lead to more classic vehicle designs hitting the road.

“I think we will see a lot of interesting vehicles come out of this – there’s a whole lot of companies that have been really involved in this – 50 to 75, I’d say,” said Steve Contarino, who plans to revive the Checker as low-volume livery and light utility vehicles. “In fact, I feel it might make this class of vehicles safer – you won’t have as many people who don’t know what they’re doing putting in an engine if they can just buy a completed vehicle.”

While Contarino doesn’t plan to enter production for a few more years, Espey said that DeLorean is positioned well to take advantage of the new law as soon as possible.

“We literally have enough parts to build 500 cars,” Espey said. “Up until now, we’ve started with an old car, stripped it down and built it back up again, but this will allow us to build brand-new 2017 DeLoreans, assembled from the ground up, the way we wanted to do it from the beginning.”

Espey said DeLorean is currently in talks with two OEM engine builders, at least one of which can supply an EPA-certified 360-hp 3.7L V-6. “That’s the best of both worlds,” Espey said. “You get a modern powerplant that’s serviceable anywhere in the country without having to meet the onerous demands of testing the engine yourself.”

A “happy byproduct” of the law, Espey noted, is that carmakers such as DeLorean will most likely have to tool up to create currently unavailable parts for their replicas, something that should benefit owners and restorers of the cars the replicas are patterned after.

“We have a lot of dead inventory, and the only way to monetize that is to build a car,” he said. “That’s found money, and that’s more money that we can put into developing reproduction parts.”

The law, however, does not make room for low-volume builders of entirely new designs, something Espey believes will change provided the replica builders find success within this new framework.

“You might even see a brand-new DeLorean by 2020,” he said.

UPDATE (8.December 2015): Superformance jumped on the news right away with a press release announcing that it will offer turnkey versions of its Shelby Cobra, Shelby Cobra Daytona, Ford GT40, and Chevrolet Corvette Grand Sport replicas.