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Bill could launch new American classic car industry

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Superformance MKIII (Superformance)

There could be more classic cars hitting the road soon. Cars that look like classics, that is.

The Low Volume Motor Vehicle Manufacturers Act of 2015, introduced this month in the House of Representatives, would allow small companies to produce and sell ready-to-drive replicas of classic cars without subjecting them to the prohibitively expensive safety and emissions tests the major automakers’ vehicles must undergo.

Hobbyists build hundreds of Shelby Cobra, Ford “Deuce Coupes” and other vintage clones each year. State-by-state laws today allow the sale of component “kits” which must be assembled by the buyer or a third-party shop. Under the new rules, registered companies would be allowed to produce and sell up to 500 finished cars in the U.S. each year that would carry a federally issued Vehicle Identification Number.

The bill, H.R. 2675, co-sponsored by Reps. Mark Mullin (R-Okla.) and Gene Green (D-Texas), is supported by the Specialty Equipment Market Association (SEMA), which represents the kit car and aftermarket parts industry. It would require these cars to use modern engines that have already been certified by their suppliers to meet current emissions standards, but it would exempt them from the most stringent federal safety regulations.

Perhaps most importantly, the cars will have to be exact visual replicas of vehicles that are at least 25 years old, and their original manufacturers must license the designs. Stuart Gosswein, SEMA’s senior director of federal government affairs, said previous attempts to create this type of low volume classification were stymied in part by opposition from some major automakers. Allowing only classic, and not unique, designs should make it more palatable for the industry to accept, he said.

A spokesman for The Alliance for Automobile Manufacturers said the group was reviewing the legislation and had no comment at this time.

“The current law does not take into account the unique challenges that small auto manufacturers face when it comes to recreating historic cars,” Mullin said in a press release accompanying the bill’s introduction. “We can’t expect these companies to be able to comply with a law that was established in the 1960s for automakers that mass-produce millions of vehicles every year. We need to encourage growth in our manufacturing market, not create unnecessary barriers.”

Gosswein predicts the impact on the auto industry will be small, eventually accounting for only about 1,500 cars a year, but even that number could create hundreds or thousands of jobs nationwide.

Lance Stander, whose company, Superformance, sells Shelby Cobra, Ford GT40 and Chevrolet Corvette replicas without drivetrains, expects his business will expand within a year from 20 to 100 people if the bill passes, and that it will make it easier to export its California-assembled products. He said a business like his would have to invest over $100 million under the current regulations to become a fully-fledged manufacturer, even at the low volumes being targeted. He said he’s excited by the prospect of potentially dozens of companies building new cars, likening it to the pre-World War II automotive industry before it consolidated into the Big Three.

David Smith, owner of Massachusetts-based Factory Five Racing, the largest manufacturer of kits, said he will continue to focus on that end of the business, but he added that the law would open up new avenues of innovation by allowing small companies to develop cutting-edge automotive technologies by using these replica platforms.

Smith, who sells several products that feature modern, original designs, said he thinks the restriction to classics is unfortunate, but he added that they attract people to car shows and other events, so the more of them out there, the better.

H.R. 2675 has been referred to the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, where it awaits further action. To qualify, companies would have to sell fewer than 5,000 cars worldwide each year.