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U.K. sets official cutoff age for classic cars at 40 years with new MOT exemption

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1971 Austin Sprite. Photo by David LaChance.

Even though the United Kingdom’s Department for Transport rejects the term “classic car,” it set a de facto 40-year cutoff age defining them this month as it decided which historical vehicles should be exempt from annual roadworthiness testing and which should not.

Expected to grant MOT roadworthiness testing exemptions to 293,000 more vehicles, the DfT decision, released nearly a year after a public consultation on the topic, applies strictly to unmodified non-commercial “vehicles of historic interest” 40 years or older with a rolling cutoff date.

Under current U.K. law, only vehicles prior to 1960 do not have to go through roadworthiness testing every year, and no rolling cutoff is in place. About 197,000 vehicles currently qualify for that exemption.

The DfT issued last year’s consultation on roadworthiness exemptions in response to the European Union’s own roadworthiness directive, which it issued in 2014 and allows member states to exempt any unmodified vehicle 30 years or older from testing.

While DfT officials considered several alternative approaches to exempting older cars, they ultimately made their decision based on crash rates. According to the data cited in the recent announcement, twice as many fatal crashes involved vehicles built from 1978 to 1987 versus vehicles built from 1961 to 1977; indeed, “the rate of death and injury in vehicles from 1978-’87, unlike the older vehicles, is comparable to that of the general vehicle fleet.”

For that reason alone, the DfT decided against setting the rolling cutoff at 30 years to match the EU’s cutoff.

“There could be a small negative effect on road safety (by establishing the 40-year cutoff for exemptions)… however there is no specific evidence that not testing vehicles of historic interest will lead to a safety risk materialising,” the DfT wrote in the announcement. “Per vehicle, the risks in the status quo of not testing vehicles until they are three years old and of not testing the general fleet every six months as opposed to the current annual frequency are likely to be higher.”

In addition, the agency pointed out that vehicles 40 years and older are rarely used and typically make short trips; that the modern MOT “was no longer relevant” to cars of that age, leaving garages ill-equipped to test them; and that a 40-year cutoff for roadworthiness testing exemptions would correspond with the 40-year rolling exemption for classic cars from annual excise taxes, instituted in 2014.

“Some vehicle owners may not keep on top of basic maintenance requirements if they do not have the deadline of the MOT to influence them,” the DfT wrote. “They will still, like all vehicle owners, need to ensure that they meet the legal requirement of keeping their vehicle in a roadworthy condition at all time.”

In addition to the 30-year cutoff, the DfT also considered and rejected the concepts of a basic roadworthiness test rather than the comprehensive MOT test for classic cars, biennial testing for classic cars, and a mileage limit for exempted vehicles.

Regardless of age, all modified vehicles will still have to undergo annual roadworthiness testing, as stipulated by the EU roadworthiness directive, as will vehicles designed for heavy hauling and for public transport. The Department for Transport classifies as modified vehicles any kit car, Q-prefix vehicle, or any vehicle with a power-to-weight ratio at least 15 percent greater than its original specifications.

While more respondents to last year’s consultation opposed the 40-year cutoff than supported it, “the chief argument against the exemption was that all vehicles travelling on the highway should have an annual test for safety reasons.”

While 40-year-old vehicles may seek exemptions from roadworthiness testing, the owners of the vehicles may also volunteer to have their vehicles tested. About six percent of pre-1960 vehicle owners currently choose to do so.

According to the DfT, the 40-year rolling cutoff for MOT exemptions is expected to become official in May of next year.