You know trouble is ahead when you see zip ties behind the grille during the inspection of a car that you are thinking of buying. Several months ago, I found a 1998 Toyota Tacoma regular-cab four-wheel-drive with a four-cylinder and five-speed stick. Not exotic, not collectible, but compact in the way trucks aren’t compact anymore, and ridiculously useful. There was other evidence of crash damage, but the repairs were good, the frame welds all looked factory, and the price was skinny enough. So I handed the guy a stack of hundreds and drove off, trying to ignore the faint waft of antifreeze coming from the vents.
At the DMV, they informed me that the truck’s apparently clean title was in fact earmarked in the computer as “bound over for salvage.” Meaning that an insurance company had totaled out the truck but the state had yet to reissue a new salvage title. Gah! Salvage! The mark of Cain! Your first salvage title is like your first tumble down a stairway. It’s not something to look forward to. I fired off a nasty text to the seller about karma. Then, as I rather liked the little truck, I decided not to report him for not disclosing it as required by law. Then I looked over the checklist of to-dos the DMV had furnished me.
To retitle a salvage vehicle in California, you must: complete an application, obtain a California Salvage Title Certificate, get it weighed by a certified public weighmaster if it’s a pickup truck, smog it, obtain official Brake and Light Adjustment certificates from an approved shop (which are not everywhere, I discovered), have it inspected by the DMV or the Highway Patrol, and pay a long list of fees. All up, just around a thousand bucks in fees to Sacramento and payola to various shops, including the Brake and Lamp guys who actually put measuring calipers on my front rotors and—shockingly—deemed them to be out of state spec.
Judging from a scan of the internet, many of you reading this have also had to show your car to a government employee with a clipboard at some point. Only ten states have no inspections whatsoever, while a few require a quick VIN inspection only if bringing the car in from out of state. Antique vehicles are often exempt, though that wasn’t the case when I lived in Virginia in the 1990s. Every year, my friend and I used to go in together bearing cool hats and other schwag collected on automaker press trips. Thus, the inspector always found a reason why he didn’t have to wrench off the knockoffs of my 1966 MG Midget, or slither under my pal’s ’64 Jaguar E-Type to check the pad thickness of the inboard rear discs.
Apparently, New York has an inspection regime that is the most like Europe’s, where the German TÜV and British MOT are dreaded. No doubt, if you live there, you have “a guy” who gets it done every year without having to check if the acetylene headlights of your 1909 Kissel are in full working order. Even California doesn’t have a safety inspection, though it does require smog testing of all cars built in 1976 or later. That was a battle that classic car owners lost in 2004, when then-governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a bill ending what had been a rolling 30-year exemption. The office of the state legislator who proposed the bill received death threats, no doubt from Ferrari 308 owners who had long ago tossed their smog pumps. Oregon and Montana license plates started popping up in California like mushrooms, and lately have proliferated. The clipboard empire struck back when California recently deemed any post-1967 car (when the state adopted its first emissions controls) that wasn’t actually sold new with California-legal smog gear to be unworthy of a California title and license plate.
The little Toyota survived its encounter with the clipboards, but it sure cost. If you’re about to go in for an inspection, you have my sympathies. But take some comfort from the fact that passing is the best way to stick it to The Man, who clearly doesn’t love old cars the way you do.
The article first appeared in Hagerty Drivers Club magazine. Click here to subscribe to our magazine and join the club.