Like a swell that builds until it's a full-fledged tsunami, car culture seems to incubate in California until it builds into a wave that crashes inland from the Pacific Ocean and rolls across the country toward the nation's eastern shore.
For classic car collectors, the newest wave building in California is something called the GreenRod Project - and that's green in more than one of its definitions because it's going to cost you money while it cleans up your classic vehicle's emissions.
But it could have been much worse. It could have taken away the keys to your cherished collector car.
"This has been brewing for about five years," said Steve McDonald, vice president of government affairs for the Specialty Equipment Market Association (SEMA), the trade association for automotive aftermarket product manufacturers. "It originated because the attorney general's office in California was going after illegally titled and registered specialty construction vehicles (SCV)."
SCVs include kit cars, hot rods, replicas and vehicles such as the so-called restomods that have been restored to other than factory specification.
A big part of the problem was collector vehicle owners' tendency toward titling and registration that may be, well, let's just say it can be less than truthful. For example, you buy a brand new kit to build what looks like a genuine 1932 Ford-based hot rod but you register the vehicle as a '32, thus understating its true value and avoiding the state's strict emission regulations for late-model vehicles.
According to McDonald, the California AG's office estimates there are 70,000 such vehicles in that state.
The AG's office also was ready to set up traps at car shows and other classic car gatherings, confiscating vehicles and charging their owners with felonies.
As it did when it took action to prevent the recent Cash-for-Clunkers program from crushing classic collectible vehicles, SEMA became involved. Legislation was crafted in Sacramento that instructed the California Dept. of Motor Vehicles had to develop a program to deal with the situation. That program, the GreenRod Program, provides amnesty throughout 2010 if owners of SCVs report the vehicle's true value and age, pay any back taxes and penalties, and make sure the vehicle passes the appropriate emissions test.
The program includes emission exemptions for 500 vehicles under a first-come, first-served basis. If a car owner does not get one of the exemptions, the alternative can be expensive. It could mean installing an emission-compliant engine or a SEMA-engineered "retrofit kit" that includes an electronic fuel-injection system, controller, exhaust headers, camshaft, mufflers and catalytic converter.
Based on what it cost some car owners who were prosecuted, those fines and taxes figure to average around $4,000 per vehicle, says SEMA.
At the moment, only General Motors produces a fully California emission-certified crate engine. That LS3 V8 will cost around $7,900, plus nearly that much more if you have to hire someone to do the installation. The cost of the SEMA-engineered retrofit kit is less, around $6,000, but that figure nearly doubles if you need to hire someone to do the mechanical work.
Jim McFarland, a Tennessee-based technical consultant who worked up the retrofit kit for SEMA, said switching from carburetors to fuel injection provides benefits beyond emissions. "For the emissions level we were trying to -- and did achieve -- switching from carburetors to electronic fuel injection was almost a foregone conclusion," he explained. Not only were those emission levels achieved, he said, but there are other "significant benefits." Such as? "There are power gains and better fuel economy, too," said McFarland.
McFarland added that while only GM makes a compliant crate engine (the E-Rod powerplant it unveiled late last year at the SEMA Show), Ford, Chrysler (Mopar), Honda and Roush Performance have had discussions with SEMA about producing such engines.
"It's wonderful to know that SEMA is out there attempting to fix something that allows these cars to live and to be enjoyed on the roadways, and allows the owners to be free from this cross they bear every time they take this car out," said Steve Davis, a long-time California classic car collector, dealer and activist who also is president of the Barrett-Jackson collector car auction company.
Davis has personal experience dealing with California's legal system. Several years ago, he led the grassroots drive - collecting 50,000 signatures on petitions and arguing in the state legislature - against an emissions proposal that threatened to destroy the collector car hobby in the state.
Davis says classic car owners in the other 49 states need to pay attention to what's happening in California.
"It's going to increase awareness in other states," he said. "Each state is different in how they look at these cars, but historically, what happens in California does ripple across the nation."
SEMA members can learn more about the program at www.sema.org/greenrod.
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