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“You don’t touch culture:” FIVA President Patrick Rollet on defining and protecting historic cars

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Patrick Rollet with his 1932 Lagonda 16/80 Semi Sports. Photo provided.

Our recent articles on the Charter of Turin Handbook and on what categories of vehicle the Fédération Internationale des Véhicules Anciens considers historic prompted a good deal of discussion, not just in our comments section, but also among FIVA leadership. Should FIVA–which aims to be a globally recognized authority on historic vehicles and an advocate of keeping them on the road–include modified cars in that definition? Should it even be making such distinctions? And how do questions like these influence the organization’s goals and activities across multiple continents with vastly different automotive cultures?

To answer these questions, we spoke with FIVA President Patrick Rollet, a British car enthusiast who lives in Paris and who has helmed the organization since 2013. The resulting interview below has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Hemmings Daily: Can you quickly tell us the history and mission of FIVA?

Patrick Rollet: We published a book of our history last year to celebrate the 50th anniverary of FIVA–it’s pretty heavy stuff.

It started in ’56–it was a sort of a European old gentleman affair started in a chateau in Switzerland with a few people from Germany, Belgium, Switzerland, and England, of course. We took two pre-federations and merged them to create FIVA.

Our first mission was, as they say in the Netherlands, to keep yesterday’s vehicles on tomorrow’s roads. So we were lobbying, later in Brussels, to make sure with all their clean environment and road safety rules that these cars have exemptions.

It really became a world organization in 2008 and then 2009 when the HVA and Canada joined in 2008 and then China and Russia in 2009. There are clubs in each of those countries, but China has a bigger problem in that their people are not allowed to own that type of car or bike, and there’s not much motoring culture in Russia.

The latest countries to join, Nepal and Bosnia-Herzegovina, came in last year. We only need three major places now–the Phillippines, Indonesia, South Korea–we know that very interesting things are happening in those places.

Right now we have 67 countries with 87 members. Normally it’s one country, one federation, one member, though in some places like Germany there are multiple federations. Those 87 federations and clubs represent about 1.5 million to 2 million enthusiasts.

Very early on we involved motorbikes and tractors.

Our mission has changed a little bit, and that’s partly Mark (Gessler)’s fault. Our first thing was lobbying, but then it started looking that we were a little more introverted when FIVA is involved in cultural recognition by governments, the EU, the U.S. government, and lately UNESCO.

So we felt we should move to something more ambitions–preserve, protect, and promote. Then we’re addressing everybody, showing these cars to the public and the cars are not staying between ourselves.

I do believe there’s not enough non-European representation in FIVA at the moment. We do have what we call, pompously, ambassadors: one for America, one for the Far East, one for Latin America, and one for the Middle East. The ambassadors make sure the communication between members and FIVA is good, they try to harmonize actions, and they represent their region’s members at the board.

Sometimes we have hot debates, such as on authenticity, which is an endless debate. We have the ayatollahs on one side and the ultra-liberals on the other side of what we consider historic.

HD: What role do you envision FIVA playing now and in the future?

PR: Try to anticipate what is going on politically and sociologically. For example, we are keeping an eye on the development of the automated vehicles, which may cause problems because historic vehicles may not be able to adapt the smart roads technology.

We fight–well, not fight–we try to keep historic vehicles in town centers. When many European cities have traffic reductions we demonstrate that because the owners of these cars don’t use the cars much, they should be exempt.

Sociologically, we’re looking at the lack of young people, at least in Europe, who are interested in historic vehicles. We do not have the renewal as we should. When I was in college, all we talked about were girls, motorbikes, and cars, and I fear my grandson now, as he enters college, will only talk about girls. The automobile’s status isn’t what it used to be.

Similarly, we’re looking at the preservation of our technology–the knowhow, the skills, and also the knowledge of the production processes, anything needed to keep the vehicle running. Very few countries have decent training programs to bring these skills. Perhaps in America it is different, because when you have a market, people rise to meet those needs.

HD: Does FIVA see one of its roles as an arbiter of what constitutes a historic vehicle, especially as it works with governments on exempting historic vehicles?

PR: At the moment we design and publish standards–there is no official political recognition to make them compulsory.

What we see in the Technical Code and the Charter of Turin are principles to suggest a way of doing things, whether that’s issuing an identification card for certain cars or how to preserve and restore a vehicle.

We certainly push these things; it is our job to promote them. We’ve endorsed the Charter of Turin, but it’s not law, not signed by a government representative. When we designed the Charter, we were not in our ivory tower–we sought input from all levels of restorers and preservation specialists, and its purpose is merely to suggest standards.

The definition of a historic vehicle might be the only exception to that. The definition of historic vehicle as adopted in the EU roadworthiness exemption was highly inspired by FIVA’s definition.

HD: What obstacles and challenges do you see standing in the way of FIVA’s mission?

PR: My two main concerns are the lack of youth and the loss of knowhow, training skills, plus adverse legislation.

What makes us more optimistic is the increased cultural recognition of historic vehicles. More and more people are considering historic vehicles a part of world heritage and that helps a lot.

For example, the city of Paris recently issued a decree on the municipal level–though it has a great impact because of the city’s size–that said all cars pre-1987 were not allowed on the street during weekdays. The discussion from the French federation, with FIVA behind it, pushed for an exemption for cars with a Carte Gris de Collection. Our only argument is, roughly speaking, you don’t touch culture and these cars are recognized as cultural goods.

HD: How do the European and American car scenes differ?

PR: I think in America the movement is very active, but it is also different. You have in your culture cars like the Gypsy Rose Chevrolet and the Meyers dune buggy–that’s a definite part of your country. Some European ayatollah might not be pleased, but this is your world, and we have to respect it.

The work by HVA is just fantastic, with Cars at the Capitol and the displays of historic vehicles exposed to literally millions. That is absolutely spot on to our new vision to promote historic vehicles to the people. It’s a very best practice.

HD: What was the purpose of the Charter of Turin?

PR: It totally originated within FIVA and was a very long and tedious affair. It started with Thomas Kohler, an architect who was very familiar with the Charter of Venice (historical buildings), and the Charter of Riga (railroads and boats). He was also the chair of FIVA’s Cultural Commission, and to put it bluntly, he said we should have a charter for historic vehicles. We see many parallels between cars and bikes and historic buildings.

We had to fight through very many negative comments, but it was endorsed by FIVA, and we are pushing it through UNESCO now. UNESCO is a bizarre venture, a frightfully complex organization, and very bureaucratic, but we think we have very good access, and what we have now is a permanent partnership agreement with them. Those other charters are endorsed by the UN, and I believe that if UNESCO endorses the Charter of Turin, then by de facto the UN will endorse it.

The purpose of the Charter is to establish principles regarding preservation and restoration of motor vehicles. Under it, a vehicle can change if it respects the spirit of what it was when it left the factory. The Handbook, which we released last year, is designed to give advice on how to preserve and restore.

HD: So do you consider the Charter of Turin all-inclusive? Does it apply to modified and customized vehicles?

PR: The Charter wouldn’t go into that detail. Not only the Charter but also the Technical Code. In it, we have a definition of historic vehicles. But the more precise it is, the worse it gets. It makes us stuck.

We kept it open to interpretation. For three days at a summit we talked about authenticity, and at the end of that meeting, nobody was sure what that meant. So we try to stick to principles which are wide and open to interpretation based on culture.

For example, when I wrote that old cars were not historic cars, I said that historic cars are those generally not used for daily transportation. I got an immediate reaction, particularly from British old car owners who responded and said “So I can’t use my Triumph to take my kids to school?” But that’s not the point. Maybe that Triumph was heavily modified to be in modern London traffic, but if that’s a matter of safety and doesn’t change the nature of the car, then that’s still a historic car.

There are ayatollahs who wouldn’t have an MGB with chrome wire wheels as a historic vehicle. One time when I was in England I saw a prewar Riley with a Rover V-8 on top of it. To me, it’s weird, but if you interpret the FIVA rules in a certain way, I would consider it historic if it was done over 30 years ago. That is considered in the spirit of the Charter.

HD: But there’s language in the Charter that says “historic vehicles should not be modified more than necessary.” How do you reconcile that with what you just said?

PR: Look at the dune buggy, especially at the origin of them, when people considered them heavily modified VWs. But they became historic vehicles of their own over time. Or in Argentina, where Pur Sang is replicating Bugattis; in 30 years time, those Pur Sangs will be considered historic.

HD: Okay, here in America, a lot of people–in the present day–build restomods, Pro Touring cars, whatever, to satisfy their desire for a more powerful car or a more comfortable car or just to alter it at their whims. What is FIVA’s approach to those cars?

PR: From the day that they’re made, they are future classics. It really depends on the amount of modifications. If the engine is totally different, say it’s a hot rod based on a Model A Ford, then we would like to see documentation of the changes so that it gradually becomes a classic.

But on the day it’s done, we haven’t got the right to say yes or no, good or bad, make a judgement call. It’s just far away from what’s in the FIVA spirit.

HD: So would restomods have the same protections afforded to historic vehicles, as defined by FIVA?

PR: I’m not sure. If that’s ever discussed you’d have to use the cultural argument for arguing for an exemption.

If, in approaching the EU, we were defending cars far away from their original state, we’d have problems. That’s not to say we wouldn’t succeed, but it would be difficult.

Here in France, you see a lot of Renault Clios with diesel engines that are smoking like hell and rusty all over, usually owned by young men who cannot afford to fix them. But you could also see the same year Clio lovingly kept and preserved by its family. These two cars are not the same to a politician, who would keep one from city streets and see the other as perfectly fine. But if this horrible Clio is put back to right order, there is still possibility for it.

Or, one sentiment we have here is tuning, where generally young people take a mundane popular car, and then they make it bright and shiny, looking very smart. Some ayatollahs in FIVA don’t like it, but we don’t mind as long as it’s still correct on the safety side. These young people are writing the history of their car, and it’s a different history.