Breaking News

SEMA and California Agencies Solve Titling Dilemma for Hobbyist Vehicles

SEMA, working on behalf of California specialty-vehicle enthusiasts (street rods, custom vehicles, kit cars and replicas) and in cooperation with the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV), Bureau of Automotive Repair (BAR), Air Resources Board and Attorney General’s office, has resolved a complex and threatening issue to this market segment and the industry it serves.

“This breakthrough procedure allows owners of certain specially constructed vehicles (SCVs) to avoid the pitfalls of a previously muddy process for legally registering and titling such vehicles in California,” said Steve McDonald, SEMA vice president of government affairs. “Under this process, vehicle owners can avoid a situation that could have led to confiscated SCVs and law enforcement action. Further, the program now permits these vehicles to demonstrate state emissions-compliance requirements.”

Over the years, California’s complex vehicle registration laws have created confusion for hobbyists and the state employees who administer the regulations. Consequently, certain SCVs may be erroneously registered or titled. SEMA has worked with state agencies to address the interests of all parties, including enthusiasts in the SCV market, so that these vehicles can be properly registered and titled in the state.

“Given the looming threat of prosecution that owners of specially constructed vehicles were facing, SEMA’s charge was to find an equitable solution that provided these owners a reasonable period of time to voluntarily re-title their vehicles and pay any necessary back taxes and fees,” said SEMA General Counsel Russ Deane. “After five years of work on these issues, an innovative and ground-breaking solution has been created.”

Last year, SEMA helped enact into law a program whereby the DMV would develop and administer a vehicle registration amnesty program. The amnesty program will be in effect from January 1, 2010, to December 31, 2010, and will apply to vehicles that were previously registered or classified under erroneous or illegal circumstances. Under this new law, the DMV will grant amnesty from prosecution to a vehicle owner if certain conditions are met, including the owner filing a completed application with the department.

More recently, a process was established to allow specially constructed vehicle owners that have been granted amnesty to avail themselves of emissions requirements that recognize the unique nature of these vehicles. While there are still details to be concluded, SEMA has reached a tentative agreement with the state to provide for three methods to achieve compliance.

First, an owner can pay all back taxes and penalties and apply for one of 500 (per year) smog-check exemptions. Under California law, these 500 exemptions for specially-constructed vehicles are available each year on a first-come, first-served basis. For vehicles with an exemption, a smog-test referee compares the vehicle to production cars of the era that the specially-constructed vehicle most closely resembles to determine the model year.

The vehicle owner can then choose whether the inspector will certify the vehicle model year by body type or engine model year. Only those emissions controls applicable to the chosen model year are required. California law authorizes a $160 fee for each referee inspection.

Under a second option, SCV owners can pay all back taxes and penalties and then choose to install one of several OEM engines and related powertrain components (including specifications for the construction of a fuel tank and delivery system) that are intended to meet California emissions compliance requirements. General Motors is currently readying an engine package for this purpose.

“In fact, by using one of these engines, it is anticipated that owners of amnesty vehicles will be able to exchange their existing engines for a powertrain that represents the latest in GM’s emissions and performance-related technologies,” said SEMA Technical Consultant Jim McFarland.

McFarland indicated, however, that because certain variables are involved when configuring any engine or powertrain package for emissions purposes, some measure of compliance risk is involved when such components are installed in a range of vehicle types and conditions.

Finally, working under the banner of the “GreenRod Project" and recognizing that demand for the 500 exemptions greatly exceeds the supply, SEMA configured a kit of emissions-related aftermarket parts that met California smog-check standards during a series of tests on a project vehicle. An owner can pay all back taxes and penalties, and if the owner is not able to obtain one of the 500 available exemptions, a “retrofit kit” of parts can be installed.

Major components in the kit include an aftermarket electronic fuel injection (EFI) system, an EFI controller, exhaust headers, a camshaft, mufflers and catalytic converters. For the purposes of the GreenRod Project, the retrofit kit was installed on a high-mileage '80 El Camino fitted with a '86 carbureted, 5.7L engine. The 5.7 L/350 ci displacement small-block Chevrolet V8 engine is one of the most widely used engine platforms for all types of specially-constructed vehicles.

“While the engine SEMA used to develop the kit was considered a worst-case configuration, it still passed smog-check requirements," said McFarland. "Variables, such as engine condition, accumulated mileage and related factors affecting emissions from these parts may, in some cases, cause similar engines not to meet acceptable emissions levels. Nonetheless, transitioning from a carbureted environment to a fuel-injected environment, while utilizing the latest controller technology and emissions parts upgrades available from the specialty-equipment industry, resulted in dramatic and unprecedented reductions in tailpipe and evaporative emissions on the test vehicle."

"The retrofit kit actually improved performance and drivability while not limiting power in a full acceleration mode, compared to a carbureted engine. It was perhaps the first time a package of specialty aftermarket parts has been assembled for the purpose of reducing tailpipe emissions which did not reduce power or performance.”

So Cal Speed Shop owner Pete Chapouris praised the solution: "Given the seriousness of the title and registration issue in California, SEMA’s work with the state agencies to create practical solutions for specialty-vehicle owners, both now and in the future, is an outstanding accomplishment."

Here we've addressed some of the more common concerns:

How do I know if I need to apply for amnesty?

If you have knowingly made any false statement or knowingly concealed any material fact in any document filed with the Department of Motor Vehicles or the California Highway Patrol, you will need to apply for amnesty. Examples of this would be failing to report the actual value of the vehicle and failure to pay the correct sales tax when the vehicle was first titled/registered in California, or incorrectly stating the actual age of the vehicle.

As a further example, a replica of a '32 Ford built in 2002 is not a '32 vehicle for the purposes of this California amnesty program. It is a '02 vehicle. In general, if you have reason to believe that there is erroneous information on your vehicle’s title, it should be corrected.

What are the consequences if I do not re-title my vehicle prior to the conclusion of the amnesty period?

If you understated the value of the vehicle to the extent that the state of California lost more than $1,000 in revenue, you could be charged with a felony. If the amount is less or you incorrectly stated the age of the vehicle, you could be charged with a variety of misdemeanors. Recent prosecutions for this type of offense required owners to pay back-taxes and fees averaging $4,000 per vehicle. In some cases, owners were forced to surrender the title to their car. To receive amnesty, any and all back-taxes must be paid in full and the vehicle’s title must be factually corrected.

What documentation should I take to the DMV office when applying for amnesty?

Applying for amnesty will re-start the titling and registration process for your specially constructed vehicle. You will need to submit a new DMV 343 Application for Title and Registration form. You will also be required to file a DMV 5063 Statement of Construction form, listing the origin of the vehicle’s parts and their purchase price. It would be helpful to have a bill of sale for the vehicle or any appropriate receipts for parts/labor that can be used to establish the actual value of the vehicle. If it is likely that your car had a fraudulent title and will need to pass a smog check, it is advisable to apply for one of the 500 smog-check exemptions granted per year by the DMV.

How much should I expect to pay for the “retrofit” kit? How much should I expect to pay for the GM engine and powertrain?

The retrofit kit is a collection of emissions-related parts with specifications developed by SEMA for which a variety of aftermarket manufacturers will be able to supply components. On average, the kit should cost approximately $6,000. The labor to install the package will likely cost an additional $5,000. If you choose to use a new engine and powertrain package from GM, the current LS3 package will retail at an estimated $7,900. GM will also offer a number of other emissions-approved engine packages with a variety of performance options and price levels. Estimated installation cost for the GM system is approximately $6,000.

If I use a GM engine, how will I know if I’ve used the correct parts and properly installed them?

GM will include comprehensive instructions that leave little room for error. If you feel that you do not have the mechanical experience to install the package, there are local hot rod shops, independent repair facilities and dealerships capable of installing the parts. Even when parts are correctly installed, there are variables involved when attempting to meet certain compliance requirements, such as engine condition, other modifications and related factors that can affect emissions.

If I choose to retrofit my current engine, how will I know that the parts kit will actually enable my car to pass the smog test?

The retrofit kit that SEMA developed consists of emissions-related parts intended for a range of engine displacements. It was designed to work with engines typically used in specially-constructed vehicles. In general, these would be carbureted V8 engines manufactured by GM, Ford and Chrysler. Although these parts enabled SEMA’s project engine to meet emissions requirements, there is no guarantee that they will allow any engine to meet smog-check requirements, depending upon variables that include, but are not limited to the following: mechanical compression ratio limits, improperly installed catalytic converters, excessive wear (valve guides, piston rings and cylinder bores), piston displacement limits and a malfunctioning EGR system.

Is there a way I can get a pre-certification test check to see if my vehicle will pass the smog test?

Yes. California law allows any licensed smog-check station to conduct a pre-test on your vehicle to determine whether it can pass a loaded mode smog test before you submit the car for inspection at a BAR Referee station. The average price for a pre-certification smog test in California is approximately $49. If your vehicle fails the pre-certification smog check, it may be possible to make adjustments that will bring it into compliance. As with any vehicle maintenance, it’s best to use a mechanic you know and trust.

What if I have questions about technical aspects of this program?

SEMA and GM will be available to provide some immediate technical assistance for enthusiasts who apply for amnesty to help them navigate through the process. SEMA has begun communicating with builders of SCVs and engines, enabling them to respond to the most common questions from enthusiasts. SEMA will also compile additional guidance information. These approaches will help expedite solutions to SCV owners seeking to meet California smog-check requirements.