John Simister: Could your classic be MOT-exempt?

02nd January 2018
john_simister_singer_goodwood_12062017_04.jpg John Simister

Is your historic vehicle interesting? To you it is, obviously. But what if the very thing that makes it interesting to you renders it officially dull?


As was announced a few months ago to less than universal approval, from May 20th any car over 40 years old will be exempt from the MOT test. Central to this is the notion that the car in question actually is 40 or more years old, or is at least in the specification and configuration it was in 40 years ago. Only then is it considered to be a 'vehicle of historic interest', or VHI, and thus MOT-exempt. 

This seemingly understandable requirement, however, raised considerable disquiet once its potential implications sunk into our collective classic car community. What is 'original'? Are correct-design but new parts OK? What if manufacturer-original parts are unobtainable? Will aftermarket equivalents do? What if even those can't be found?

And, further: what about modifications, be they done 'in period' or more recently? Must they be in the spirit of the original? A notion took root, based on discussion proposals from the Department for Transport, that a car whose power-to-weight ratio has increased by more than 15 per cent from the factory spec (measured by whom, and how?) can no longer be a VHI and will therefore still require an MOT, although whatever was done to make its motor more muscular could well make it more, not less, interesting. The rider here was that if the modification had been made over 30 years ago, then it was acceptable. How might you prove that, though?

Anyway, after discussion between the Department for Transport and the Federation of British Historic Vehicle Clubs, the guidelines as to what is, and what is not, a VHI have been published. And it's nothing like as proscriptive as many had feared. 

However, before we look at the new official view of what makes an old car interesting, there are two important points to make.


First, we are talking here about the revised MOT rules. The guidelines for registering a historic vehicle, be it a new import, a protracted restoration with a lapsed number or even a barn find, are a separate universe.

Second, relief that the MOT-exemption criteria are so inclusive is based not on joy that so many classic cars will qualify – it still seems eminently sensible to get your classic MOT'd anyway, so that an independent pair of eyes can check that it's not going to kill someone – but on the fact that officialdom isn't seeking to make life harder for those whose cars aren't quite to original catalogue spec. It recognises that 'historic interest' is about more than just forensic correctness.

That said, paranoia-tinged fears that modified classics would be banned from the road were not entirely unfounded given the much tighter insistence on factory spec' practised in some other European countries. Anecdotal evidence from car-club forums suggests that some of our continental co-enthusiasts are amazed at the outcome, and quite jealous too.

Here, then, is the gist of what will apply from next May. A 40-plus-year-old car will, if its owner so desires, be considered a VHI if it hasn't undergone 'substantial change' during the previous 30 years. That means the chassis frame, subframes and/or bodyshell, as applicable, must be to the same pattern as the original (a Spyder chassis in a Lotus Elan, for example, could cause a problem here). Axles, suspension and steering must keep to the original type and method of operation, but substituting tired original dampers for new Konis, for example, is permissible. For engines, a different cubic capacity within the same basic engine type is fine, and alternative engines originally offered in a car's range are also fine.

So far, so good. So deliberately vague, too, and no mention is made of tuning parts such as different carburetors, hot camshafts, freer-flowing exhausts, different spring rates and ride heights and wider wheels.


The guidance also allows changes made to a vehicle in order to preserve it when original-type parts are no longer 'reasonably' available, changes made to the vehicle type while it was in production or within a decade of production's end, and – for 'axles and running gear' – changes made to improve efficiency, safety or environmental performance. So modern disc brakes on a classic car are fine, as would be conversion of a hydraulic power-steering system to a less energy-hungry electric one.

'Specials' or other cars given a new type of body more than 30 years ago are allowed VHI status, but re-bodying a classic car in modern times, even to a period pattern, is a VHI no-no. Failure to merit VHI status, on whatever grounds, doesn't prevent a car continuing with its zero-road-tax historic status, however, at least for the moment. It merely means that an MOT will be compulsory, not voluntary.

None of this will entail an official inspection. The VHI certification and consequent MOT exemption, both voluntary, rely solely on self-declaration by the owner when the 'tax' – if something of zero cost can be called a tax – is renewed. Clearly, there is scope for abuse of the system here, if people are hell-bent on not having to get their classic cars MOT'd, so we'll wait and see how well it works. In the meantime, spare a thought for classic-car fans in Germany. There, a car can be denied historic status, and the attendant tax advantage, if it so much as has a non-period radio fitted.

In the UK we still have a remarkable freedom to use our old cars whenever, and almost wherever, we want, and to treat them as more than just museum pieces. We are lucky that our government sees no reason to change that.

Photography by Tom Shaxson

  • John simister

  • MOT

  • john_simister_goodwood_mot_25092017_list_01.jpg

    John Simister

    John Simister: Should pre-1978 classics still get their MOTs?

  • john_simister_singer_goodwood_12062017_08.jpg

    John Simister

    John Simister: The Singer Le Mans is singing again

  • john_simister_land_rover_23101710.jpg

    John Simister

    John Simister: Which classic Land Rover is the best buy?