Defining classic cars and who deserves the plates

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Can you define what a classic car is? Is it just any old car out there or is it a vintage car that is well-taken care of? Confused? I know, I am. How do you put a label on it?

Well, the Department of Motor Vehicles in almost every state seems to agree that, “…to obtain a Classic Vehicle plate, the vehicle must be twenty years old (model year) or older and currently registered…” in the corresponding state. So, in general every car can be considered a classic, as long as it is at least 20 years old. However, the DMV in California thinks differently – according to them a legacy plate can be issued for any vehicle, regardless of the year of manufacture and it does not replace the Year Of Manufacture (YOM) license plates.

This means that any car can enjoy the luxury of having a Legacy plate; however, it does not entitle the owner to the benefits of it, if it does not correspond to the YOM plates. The YOM license plate rules out any auto, trailer and motorcycle, manufactured after 1969, and 1972 for commercial vehicles. In essence, what this means is that if your “Classic Car” is 20 years old it can qualify for a Classic Plate and all the perks that come with it in some states, but not in others – California being one of them.

What you get with YOM license plate is simply the right to operate in full capacity without being restricted to participation in historical vehicle activities, which would be the case for instance, for Specially Constructed Vehicles (SPCNS) of vintage cars – replicas or any homemade vehicle, i.e. not produced by a licensed manufacturer or re-manufacturer.

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So what else do you get by having a Classic Plate on your car and why everyone is trying to get one?

Well, the big downside of classic / old cars is the amount of smog that they produce. Additionally, if you want to have one with full operating privileges, you have to make sure it passes the Smart Test; this is where the legacy plate comes in, it allows you to skip the emission test and head for the streets.

As convenient as it might be for or the owner, do we want that?

Imagine this – you have a restored vintage car, well taken care of and with all the new parts it can handle, a car like one of these for example, no breaking issues nor broken lights, only the need to fill up that huge and demanding tank.

Now imagine this, your neighbor next door has an old Chevrolet Chevelle from the late 70s – with some rust on it and peeled off paint, the lights are dimmer than they used to be, but it drives…..ok, it drives, but does this mean that it should be skipping the smart checks and have the same privileges that other classic cars have?

Photo credit to

Photo credit to

I will leave this to your judgment, but think of this – a well-treated, invested in and appreciated classic car should simply be able to distinguish itself in front of the law from the other unmaintained and barely functioning cars out there.

Even if it sounds cruel, we have to acknowledge and appreciate the time, money and effort that were put into the restoration process of a vintage car. When it comes to the rest – do we really want to allow cars, which have not been inspected and in that matter – taken care of – for years, on the road? Would you feel safe?

The real deal is that people are exploiting a program that was created mainly for classic car collectors, so that they can appreciate their investment on the road, without any restrictions. What it was NOT created for is people with old cars that can’t pass the test in general, not only the emissions regulation, but the lights, the breaks, the body, etc.

As I mentioned, the purpose of a classic plate is to allow a classic car that is not up to the current environmental and/or safety regulations to be on the road with all of the rights and privileges. Now, how about this – classic or simply old, renovated or beaten up, if they don’t have the ability to limit their carbon dioxide emissions, should they still be operating? The carbon dioxide emissions are already hitting the roof with 82% of the green gas emissions resulting from human activities in the USA alone, according to an EPA report in 2012, 32% of the emissions are a result of the transportation sector. And, yes a big part of it is due to the trucking industry, but still cars are the next big contributor.

So what happens to all of our efforts to preserve the environment and improve the air quality by using electric and/or hybrid vehicles, when a “classic car” with a classic plate on it can swipe that off in seconds?

How much of a difference does a fuel efficient vehicle make? – A lot.

A fuel efficient vehicle is a vehicle that needs less gas to go a given distance, and it has determined how clean the output is going to be. In most cases, s classic car needs twice the fuel compared to some fuel efficient vehicles on the market today, and the thing is that they simply lack the catalytic converter to process the fuel in an environmentally friendly way.

We all know that classic cars and especially American classic cars, as lovely as they are, do not bother to be concerned about the amount of fuel they’ll need to go a certain distance; hence they are not concerned about the level of CO2 emissions being produced.

Let me put it this way, it will cost you and the society MORE to keep a vintage car on the road than to purchase a new, fuel efficient one.

What do I mean by that? Most people tend to think that to have an old car is cheaper to buy, but many times this is not the case. Very often a classic / old car will actually cost you more to purchase, renovate and maintain than to actually get a new one. Not to mention the long term costs of having an old car – greater pollution, greater negative health impact, greater chances of the car breaking and if you fail to get a classic car plate – greater fees when it comes to passing those smart tests.

And yet, many people choose to have a classic car, they don’t see it as an obligation or a burden, but are simply satisfied by the fact that it is theirs to have. This is what a definition of a classic car is for me – the pleasure of having a car that has been through time and managed to stay relevant and desired. A car that – by looking at it – takes you back to an era where things were simpler and you could slow down – something that so few things can do today. Anything else that is considered a burden by their owners, no matter how old, should not be considered a classic car.

But times change and mindsets shift, especially in America. Some even think that soon we will see the end of the car culture in America. Nevertheless, sometimes the best thing you can do is sit back and watch.


About the Author:

Teodora Georgieva - a business and economics graduate with a curious glitch. Don't be fooled! As boring and ordinary the disciplines she studied may look, she is anything but. Born curious and creative, she always thought that there is more to life than what convention demands, which is why she started pursuing photography (in and out of her studies), food-ism and naturalism, yoga and the best of all - writing. Writing can elevate you and it can also bring you down, just like life does, which is why she enjoys it - it's real. You can follow her on her life's endeavors on her instagram profile or her flickr page.

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