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Texas DMV struggles to define a dune buggy, punts the task to the state’s legislature

Published in blog.hemmings.com

After tossing aside a proposed ruling that would definitively outlaw all but a minority of dune buggies in the state, the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles Board of Directors effectively left it to the state’s legislators to determine what constitutes a dune buggy and whether the state should allow them on the road.

“This is as far as we can go in interpreting the rule,” Jeremiah Kuntz, the director of vehicle titles and registration for the department, told the board at its quarterly meeting last week. Kuntz referred to a proposal his office put together that would have amended Texas Administrative Rule 217.3, the rule which Kuntz’s office has cited in revoking a number of Texas dune-buggy titles as far back as 2014.

The proposed amendments would have removed the blanket ban on dune buggies along with the overly broad definition of a dune buggy (any vehicle “designed or determined by the department to be a dune buggy”) and instead clarified the definition of an assembled vehicle — permitted under state law — as a vehicle with an original, modified, replica, or replacement body on an unmodified original chassis.

Given that the majority of Volkswagen-based dune buggies use pans shortened by 14 inches or so to fit Manx-style fiberglass bodies, Faron Smith, the founder of the Assembled Vehicle Coalition of Texas, said the proposed amendments would allow “less than 15 people to take advantage of the rules,” referring to the minority of dune-buggy owners who choose to build their vehicles on unshortened full-wheelbase Volkswagen pans.

“We’re definitely opposed to the rule,” he said in the quarterly meeting. “It’s absolutely ridiculous.”

In addition, as Kuntz pointed out, any vehicle using a custom frame can only be built and titled in the state by a licensed vehicle manufacturer — that is, one able to provide a manufacturer’s certificate of origin and conform to Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards. Under Texas state law, he said, no exemption exists for hobbyists or others not building vehicles for a commercial purpose; other states, such as Pennsylvania, do offer such an exemption.

Thus, anybody building a sand rail or a number of custom-chassis kit cars would technically have to be a licensed vehicle manufacturer and — again, under Texas law — would need to have in place a dealer network and provisions for crash testing to meet current federal safety standards.

That would perhaps explain why, despite Kuntz’s assurance that the DMV has stopped revoking dune-buggy titles back in December, it has continued to revoke titles for sand rails and certain kit cars in the months since.

Kuntz also said part of the problem with categorizing assembled vehicles arises from a lack of clarification on replicas. “Anything you make could be considered a replica,” he said. “Something that looks like Noah’s ark on a truck chassis could be considered a replica, and really that’s where we start having difficulties. A replica really must resemble something that’s been manufactured before.”

The proposed amendments ostensibly came out of a series of working group meetings the board of directors set up to address the concerns of dune-buggy and kit-car owners, but Smith said that none of the Assembled Vehicle Coalition’s suggestions were considered, and the resulting proposal from Kuntz’s office “is far more restrictive than what we had before.”

Any new exemptions or wholesale changes to the state’s current approach to titling assembled vehicles — beyond the amendments that Kuntz’s office proposed — would have to come from the Texas state legislature, Kuntz said. And toward the end of the board of directors meeting, the board appeared willing to just turn the whole issue of titling assembled vehicles over to the state legislature. Without objection, the board’s chairman, Raymond Palacios, who noted that the working groups have not come up with a solution acceptable to all parties, moved to table the proposed amendments.

Smith, after getting frustrated with the working groups earlier this year, has already started to work with a lobbyist to ask state lawmakers to draft a bill that would provide a means for dune buggies to be titled and registered in the state.

The next session of the Texas state legislature will begin in January 2019.