By Geoff Seddon
Car Customizing in Australia
Laws and Regulations
Australia has a vibrant modified-car culture comprising three broad groups: pre-’49 street rods; post-’48 street machines, customs and musclecars up to the late ’70s.
Australia has a vibrant modified-car culture comprising three broad groups: pre-’49 street rods; post-’48 street machines, customs and musclecars up to the late ’70s; and later-model vehicles. The distinctions are important. Generally, the older the car, the more modifications are allowed. The culture is similar to that found in the United States, although the range and extent of modifications permitted is much more regulated and limited. And, of course, Australians drive on the other side of the road!
Australia is a federation of six states and two territories, each of which has responsibility for its own roads and vehicle licensing—the practical effect of which is that modified cars legal in one state are sometimes illegal in another. Some administrations are openly antipathetic to modified cars and wish they’d go away. Others are more sympathetic, albeit always with the proviso that the safety of occupants and other road users is not compromised.
Meanwhile, the federal government in Canberra has responsibility for new-vehicle standards (known as Australian Design Rules or ADRs) and imports. In response to enthusiast pressure, the federal government has also chaired committees of the states to come up with national guidelines for modifications to street rods and other light vehicles. These are now in place but are not legally binding; each state is open to interpret or otherwise implement them as they see fit, so inconsistencies remain.
Pre-’49 Street Rods
The street-rod community in Australia is well organized along club lines, with long-established avenues of communication with licensing authorities. “Guidelines for the Construction and Modification of Street Rods in Australia” was first published in 2003 and updated in 2013. Commonly referred to as the National Street Rod Guidelines (NSRG), they apply exclusively to original pre-’49 cars modified as street rods or vehicles constructed from new parts as replicas of such. Detailed sections cover all facets of building a road-legal street rod, including maximum engine capacity, brakes, wheels, chassis, steering, suspension and all the rest. Each build is monitored by accredited examiners or engineers to ensure compliance and quality of construction.
Street rods that do not meet the requirements of the NSRG may qualify for conditional registration administered by the Australian Street Rod Federation, with road use strictly limited to events organized by ASRF-affiliated clubs.
Post-’48 Modified Cars
The street-rod community in Australia is well organized along club lines, with long-established avenues of communication with licensing authorities.
Post-’48 cars are covered by the National Code of Practice for Light Vehicle Construction and Modification (NCOP), also know as Vehicle Standards Bulletin 14 (VSB14), initially agreed in 2006 and updated in 2011. It covers all modified vehicles up to 4.5 tons and includes four-wheel drives, motorcycles and trikes.
The year 1948 carries added significance in Australia because it was the year General Motors first released the midsize Holden. Heavily protected by tariffs, it immediately became Australia’s most popular car, prompting Ford to manufacture a local edition of the Falcon in 1960 and Chrysler a rebadged Plymouth from 1962. Initially powered by straight sixes and later small-block V8s, these early models became the core of the nation’s local modified car scene. In more recent years, restrictions on left-hand-drive vehicles have been lifted for cars more than 30 years old, which has led to an influx of classic musclecars and other iconic U.S. models. Late-model Japanese tuner cars and LS-powered Holdens are also popular.
Like the NSRG for street rods, the NCOP lists all allowable modifications for all post-’48 light vehicles, with an additional guide as to which mods can be owner-certified and which require engineering certification (with the latter possibly incurring significant additional costs). Using engine capacity as just one example, a typical ’70s Falcon could be fitted with a normally aspirated small-block Ford V8 up to 421ci without engineering approval. To switch to another engine family or go any larger would require inspection and certification, with a recommended absolute limit of 474 ci. Going larger again is theoretically possible, but few engineers are willing to exceed the recommended limits in practice. This applies equally to other mods, including wheel width and ride height.
An overriding provision of the NCOP is that modified cars continue to meet all ADRs applicable when the car was new. Early ADRs were few and covered mostly safety items such as seat belts and brakes, but they increasingly targeted environmental issues from the late ’70s onward. So in terms of engine modifications especially, there’s more leeway to be found in the earlier cars. Hence the distinction.
A brand-new car can still be modified under the NCOP but must continue to meet modern pollution and noise standards. Fitting a performance camshaft to a new Mustang, for example, would require certification that carbon emissions levels were unaffected.
Individually Constructed Vehicles
The final group to look at is individually constructed vehicles (ICVs), which typically cover owner-built specials, replica kit cars and, in some jurisdictions, modified production cars that fall outside the NCOP guidelines. ICV guidelines are also contained within NCOP/VSB14, although once again, interpretation varies between the states to the extent that it cannot be assumed an ICV legal in one state would always be legal in another.
Crucially, all ICVs must meet Australian Design Rules applicable at the time of their manufacture, even if the vehicles are exact replicas of earlier models. For example, a ’66 Shelby Cobra replica (whether built from a kit or not) would have to meet the safety and environmental ADRs that apply today, not those of 50 years ago.
Each ICV must be constructed by or for an individual owner and be assessed by an accredited certifying engineer to ensure that all applicable ADRs have been met. It must then be presented to state licensing authorities, who are responsible for allocating vehicle identification numbers, sometimes presenting another level of bureaucracy to be overcome. That said, ICVs are being built and licensed for general road use in all states.
While replica street rods are specifically exempt under the NSRG, silhouette-style street rods built on non-standard chassis, such as those from Factory Five are regarded as ICVs in all jurisdictions.
If Australia sounds like an over-regulated nightmare, it sometimes is, but there are generally few problems getting street rods and modified cars licensed for road use, provided builders stay within clear guidelines.
U.S. firms seeking to sell to the Australian market can access the NSRG and NCOP at the links below. Because many modifications require individual engineering certification, U.S. firms should also be mindful that evidence of their products meeting existing U.S., European or other standards would likely be beneficial.
Explore the Australia market with SEMA on the second annual SEMA Australia trip, taking place May 23–27, 2017. Slots are limited. For more information, visit www.sema.org/australia or contact Linda Spencer at email@example.com.
Geoff Seddon, a freelance writer and true gearhead, is a former editor at Bauer Media and ACP magazines. He resides in New South Wales, Australia.