Classic car identity crisis: the DVLA under scrutiny

| 13 Oct 2023
Classic & Sports Car – Classic car identity crisis: the DVLA under scrutiny

New Vehicle Identification Numbers, Q-plates and even demands for historic cars to pass Vehicle Approval anew have long been demanded by the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency.

Recently, however, its reach has stretched beyond even imported and highly modified cars, and increasing numbers of enthusiasts are finding themselves powerless against its unilateral decisions.

Classic & Sports Car – Classic car identity crisis: the DVLA under scrutiny

While trying to comply, some classic car owners have found themselves at the mercy of muddled DVLA policy © Getty

Often, it begins with a letter that reads something like this: I am writing to inform you that your historic vehicle must be re-registered with a new Vehicle Identification Number stamped into it, Individual Vehicle Approval and a ‘Q’ registration number.

The vehicle record has been voided and you are not to use the vehicle on the road until re-registration takes place.

We have come to this decision because the vehicle no longer retains the original component where the manufacturer’s stamped-in number was found.

This component has been replaced at some point in the history of your vehicle.

As this original stamped identification number is no longer present, there is significant doubt over the vehicle’s identity.

The refitting of the original component to your vehicle will not change this decision.

This kind of communication can be prompted by a new drivetrain component or even a minor change to the body, and once a decision has been made, with the DVLA in possession of the V5, there is often little for owners to do but accept re-registering or sell the car for parts.

‘Long-standing policy’ is usually cited by the DVLA as the reason, but not disclosed in detail – including applicable legislation or case law.

Three senior judges of the Court of Appeal recently described the DVLA as having no particular skill or knowledge, with a role limited to collecting tax to raise revenue for the government and ensuring that vehicles operating on the roads in the UK are registered.

In that same case, it was also found that the commercial interests of car buyers form no part of the regime underlying the DVLA’s role, and that Q-plates exist only to enable registration where the age or identity of a vehicle is unknown.

But the DVLA declares the opposite to be its justification, saying that once it has any reason to doubt the legitimacy or integrity of a historic vehicle, then it has a duty to require its re-registration, often with a Q-plate.

Classic & Sports Car – Classic car identity crisis: the DVLA under scrutiny

Ed Keane’s electrified classic Mini was inspected by the DVLA

Classic enthusiast Ed Keane found himself tangled up in DVLA policy when he applied for the electric conversion of his restored 1960 Mini to be recognised on the car’s V5: “I was sent a questionnaire of around 40 pages with a huge number of irrelevant boxes, not least asking the engine capacity.

“When I wrote back to explain my situation, they sent out an inspector.”

The friendly and knowledgeable inspector loved the car and assured Ed that it would be fine, including an enlarged hole in the battery box – “It was about 15mm, and not at all structural,” Ed adds.

However, the DVLA swiftly declared the monocoque to be compromised and that the car would require Individual Vehicle Approval before being registered with a new Vehicle Identification Number and Q-plate.

The decision was irrevocable, the complaints process – with the same agent as had issued the initial decision – onerous, delayed and seemingly impervious.

Ed has since scrapped the Mini, having been unable to retrieve the original V5.

It is not only those who apply who suffer this kind of jeopardy: the DVLA’s enforcement function may come calling.

Reports suggest markers concerning certain marques, models and businesses, although, as with the policies themselves, the DVLA’s processes and means of enforcement remain shrouded in a lack of transparent detail.

Like Ed’s, most appeals to the DVLA’s internal processes fall flat.

Those venturing further along the road to redress have arrived at the office of the DfT’s Independent Complaints Assessor.

The ICA does find against the DVLA in relation to historic vehicles, but the DVLA is not obliged to accept these decisions – and the evidence is that the DVLA does not.

Classic & Sports Car – Classic car identity crisis: the DVLA under scrutiny

A 15mm hole in the Mini’s battery box led to the DVLA voiding the V5 – Ed had to scrap the car

The next step is to go to the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman, which is subject to the support of a Member of Parliament to initiate the process.

But the PHSO appears to see its role as that of mediator, and unless the DVLA is prepared to accept the PHSO’s findings there seems to be no means of implementing them.

Andrew Waterston is one of those to pursue the PHSO route: “My Alfa Romeo was imported from South Africa and is certified as an original car, but the DVLA refuses to register it as anything other than a Q-plate vehicle of unknown type and age.

“The DfT-appointed ICA and the PHSO have upheld my complaints, but the DVLA refuses to change its view.”

One step could be reference to the Minister for Transport, but this tends to elicit a polite notice of unavailability and a sympathetic letter.

Another is to the courts, and judicial review of the DVLA’s decision, but this must be brought within three months or earlier, which will be long gone for those who have pursued the prescribed processes of appeal or challenge.

In response to the gathering disquiet within the industry, in 2021 a Transport Select Committee required the DVLA’s CEO, Julie Lennard, to act.

That autumn, the DVLA introduced a quarterly consultation with a Historic Vehicle User Group including representatives drawn from the Federation of British Historic Vehicle Clubs, the Historic & Classic Vehicles Alliance and the Royal Automobile Club.

After more than a year, the DVLA announced two initiatives.

“The first was a stated aim to clarify existing policy in the short term,” explains Ian Edmunds, the FBHVC’s DVLA liaison manager.

“The second was to undertake a total review of policy over a longer period.”

Classic & Sports Car – Classic car identity crisis: the DVLA under scrutiny

Andrew Waterston’s Alfa Romeo won’t be issued with an age-related numberplate

Many months later, however, the liaisons had received no further updates.

Having been provided with a draft of this article, the DVLA responded: ‘Applications relating to historic vehicles are considered on a case-by-case basis, based on the evidence provided.

‘DVLA has taken positive steps to engage directly with clubs and trade associations representing the interests of historic vehicle enthusiasts and the industry itself, with a Historic Vehicle User Group meeting on a quarterly basis and providing a forum to discuss the particular issues and concerns of Group members.

‘The last meeting of the Group was… a productive meeting where agreement was reached on a number of points and we will continue to work closely with the HVUG on these and other important issues.’

The DVLA is an agency of the Department for Transport, governed under the DVLA Framework Agreement, which provides for the Secretary of State for Transport, Mark Harper MP, to have responsibility for its policy.

At a meeting of the Transport Select Committee in April 2023, Greg Smith MP specifically asked Mr Harper if the DVLA was working in the interests of the historic and classic vehicle sector, and supporting it.

Mr Harper’s response was that he had not seen anything to make him think that the DVLA was not, or that there was an issue.

At a meeting of the House of Commons Transport Committee in July 2023, the DVLA recognised that the HVUG had not produced anything concrete and continued to assert that there was already a published policy in place.

However, on 25 July 2023 the Government announced an independent review of the DVLA to be led by Janette Beinart, a former Shell International executive and now a non-executive director of the Cabinet Office.

The review is to assess the DVLA’s efficiency, efficacy, accountability and governance, including its mandate and capabilities, as well as the extent to which it acts on customer feedback.

The review’s terms suggest that it will consult wider stakeholders and even include some of them in a ‘challenge panel’.

It will surely be lacking if it does not lean on the evidence of the HCVA, the FBHVC and the RAC – indeed, all three are now pursuing formal stakeholder status with the review – and learn from the experiences of the many historic owners and businesses left sullied by their dealings with the DVLA in recent years.

The review’s findings and recommendations are due to be published in early 2024.

Images: Getty/owners

Lawyer Paul Griffin is the author of The Past And The Spurious – The Case of Legitimacy in Historic Cars

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