London ULEZ expansion: the threat to modern classic cars

| 21 Jun 2023
Classic & Sports Car – London ULEZ expansion: the threat to modern classic cars

The UK capital is preparing for the expansion of its Ultra Low Emission Zone to all of Greater London on 29 August – which will mean that non-compliant cars, including all of those aged 22-40 years old, are charged £12.50 a day to use the city’s roads.

The ULEZ was first introduced over Central London’s existing 8.1 square-mile Congestion Charge zone, in April 2019.

Unlike the Congestion Charge, the ULEZ is enforced 24 hours a day, seven days a week, on every day except Christmas.

Classic & Sports Car – London ULEZ expansion: the threat to modern classic cars

The wider public is protesting the extra cost of the expanded ULEZ © Getty

It was then expanded to ‘inner London’, a 236 square-mile area inside the North and South Circular ring-roads, in October 2021, following Mayor Sadiq Khan’s re-election in May 2021.

The upcoming expansion, first put forward for public consultation in March 2022, will grow the zone to cover the entire Greater London Authority, an area of more than 600 square miles, in which nine million people live.

The policy is poised to have a huge impact on the classic car world, with owners of modern classics subject to the charge.

Regardless of their emissions, cars aged 22-40 years old are considered non-compliant.

‘Historic’ cars, over 40 years old, are exempt, while almost all petrol cars with published NOx figures – ie those made after 2001 – will comply.

Classic & Sports Car – London ULEZ expansion: the threat to modern classic cars

The ULEZ will expand to the Greater London Authority boundary on 29 August 2023 © TfL

Rotherhithe-based enthusiast Aviv Screwvalla had to sell his ’96 Rover Mini after the ULEZ expanded to his area in 2021.

He says: “Mayoral myopia has led to the dramatic reduction of classic cars on London’s roads, a tragic loss of visual charm for which our beloved city is renowned.

“By not exempting the minuscule classic car population from all charges, Khan has cut off Greater London’s nose to spite his face.”

The London Mayor insists that the move is necessary to improve the city’s air quality.

“The triple challenges of tackling toxic air pollution, the climate emergency and traffic congestion mean we must go further to reduce emissions from vehicles in London,” he said in a foreword to the TfL consultation, which later found that 59% of respondents opposed the ULEZ expansion.

TfL claims that, without further action, Londoners can expect to lose 70,200 life years – or 40 mins per person – and 550,000 will develop diseases related to air pollution in the next 30 years.

Classic & Sports Car – London ULEZ expansion: the threat to modern classic cars

Aviv Screwvalla was forced to sell his ’96 Mini in the face of unaffordable fees

The Mayor has pointed to a 40% reduction in roadside NOx emissions in Central London from February 2017 to February 2020 as proof of the policy’s efficacy – although the ULEZ was only introduced towards the end of this period.

TfL itself reports that the policy will have a ‘minor’ to ‘negligible’ impact on improving NOx and particulate matter (PM), partly because only 15% of cars in the zone aren’t compliant.

TfL acknowledges that low-income motorists will suffer a ‘moderate negative impact’, despite a new scrappage scheme.

Critics point out that the £2000 is only offered on a very limited basis.

There have been protests by hundreds of opponents in the city; online anti-ULEZ groups number in their tens of thousands.

Many of the 2750 cameras that make up the new zone have also been vandalised.

Classic & Sports Car – London ULEZ expansion: the threat to modern classic cars

Central London is open to older classics, but younger machines such as this Mazda MX-5 will have to pay

Classic car fans are feeling almost as unsettled.

The market for cars of the 1980s, ’90s and 2000s is often where the cheapest classics are found, making the policy of particular concern to lower-income enthusiasts.

With few cars over 40 years old available for less than £5000 in working order, most entry-level classics fall foul of the ULEZ and their owners will also be unlikely to stomach a £12.50 charge for every day of use.

When approached for comment, a TfL spokesperson stated that an independently conducted Integrated Impact Assessment had considered social as well as environmental, economic and health impacts.

The importance of the modern classic market for the continuation of the hobby is well established.

In America, many young enthusiasts for modern, affordable muscle cars make their way back to the six-figure icons of the ’60s as they build their wealth and collections (The marketplace, October 2022).

Classic & Sports Car – London ULEZ expansion: the threat to modern classic cars

Pre-2001 modern classic cars are indiscriminately under threat from the ULEZ expansion

London-based dealer Graeme Hunt agrees: “Cars of the 1980s and ’90s are definitely becoming classics now, with a younger generation buying them, and after that first or second car they move back into the 1970s and ’60s.”

Undermining the young, low-income base of the classic market could have serious ramifications to the UK’s long-lived automotive industry.

Its global significance is widely recognised: a recent Statista study, which forecasts 2023’s $31.6bn global classic market to grow 9.6% annually until 2026, used the USA, Germany, Italy and the UK as its key points of reference.

The annual £18bn of revenue generated by the UK’s classic car industry could be even more important – compared to Italy’s £2bn.

From a huge variety of events and clubs to the range of independent traders and high-end specialists that are based here, Britain’s automotive legacy generates huge business, even from abroad.

Norwegian Gier Kongshaug is just one example: when he crashed his Caterham 1600 BDR in 2021, he shipped boxes of his dismembered car to no fewer than eight specialists in the UK.

Classic & Sports Car – London ULEZ expansion: the threat to modern classic cars

‘ULEZ promises an increasingly hostile environment for the many classic car businesses based in London’ © Getty

“It was because they are the best in their field worldwide,” says Gier. “Whether it’s brakes, suspension or gearbox, I would recommend them all.”

When the Mayor’s office was asked if it had considered this impact on the industry, its response was that the existing historic class exemption: “Strikes a balance between allowing rallies to continue and cleaning up London’s toxic air.”

ULEZ promises an increasingly hostile environment for the many classic car businesses based in London.

Responses range from disquiet – “Most of our cars are old enough to be exempt, so we’re hardly affected by it,” says Gregor Fisken, the high-end dealer based in South Kensington – to total jeopardy.

“It threatens most of my business,” says Twickenham-based workshop owner Billy Allen.

“People with modern classics are having to sell cars they’ve had for years, cars that we’ve worked on for years. And some of these new cars can be more expensive to run.”

Classic & Sports Car – London ULEZ expansion: the threat to modern classic cars

Unlike the congestion charge, the ULEZ is enforced 24 hours a day

Graeme Hunt’s dealership in Battersea Park has clients of both modern and ‘historic’ classics, and is seeing a mixed response: “Many customers can afford it but feel it’s an unnecessary, unrestricted fine, and we do know people who have sold their cars because they’re not prepared to waste the money.”

There remains a determination from enthusiasts and businesses to stay in London.

“People could keep their cars outside of the zone, but the reality is that, if they’re too far away, they’ll not use them,” says Graeme.

“Not to mention the various classic car events held here.”

There’s value in a London premises, too, which is something that Gregor also stresses: “Clients like that we have a prime Central London location; they can visit while seeing a show, going for dinner, or dropping off their partner at Harrods.”

“Reducing pollution is a noble thing to work towards,” Gregor summarises, “but it has not been completely thought-out.”

Classic & Sports Car – London ULEZ expansion: the threat to modern classic cars

There’s a 40-year exemption for historic vehicles

Sir Greg Knight MP, chair of the All Party Parliamentary Historic Vehicles Group, backs the case for bringing historic classification forward to protect modern classics: “As most vehicles are designed to last for between eight and 12 years, it’s clear that 30-year-old cars still on the road are being cherished.

“If the misguided ULEZ expansion goes ahead, there is certainly a case for exempting all vehicles over 30 years of age.”

The Historic & Classic Vehicle Alliance, representing the UK’s classic car trade and industry, agrees, and has also explored finding a testing facility that can economically generate distinct NOx measurements for modern classics, which may be able to the meet ULEZ standard with little or no modification – though has yet to find success.

But the political situation is fraught with risk.

The Federation of British Historic Vehicle Clubs, which lobbied for the 40-year exemption when the ULEZ first appeared, warns of endangering what it has already achieved.

Classic & Sports Car – London ULEZ expansion: the threat to modern classic cars

Around nine million people live in the expanded ULEZ area

“While the 40-year definition is less generous,” says legislation director Lindsay Irvine, “it has the benefit of stability, recognition and fairly universal acceptance – even by those not disposed to being friendly to ICE vehicles.”

While a legal challenge from four London boroughs and Surrey County Council poses a final barrier, modern-classic car owners continue to hold out hope as a significant minority with a low-mileage impact in the city.

In inadvertently restricting the hobby of classic car ownership, the future of historic vehicles in the UK could be in jeopardy.

Words: Charlie Calderwood/Aaron McKay

Images: C&SC archives/Haymarket archives/Getty/TfL

Which cars are charged in the ULEZ?

Classic & Sports Car – London ULEZ expansion: the threat to modern classic cars

Popular ’90s classics such as the MGF will be subject to the daily £12.50 ULEZ charge

The ULEZ targets petrol cars that don’t meet Euro IV emissions regulations, which officially came into effect in 2005.

However, many petrols were already meeting these by 2001 and are therefore ULEZ-compliant.

The cut off for diesel engines is much more recent, at 2012’s stricter Euro VI standards.

Cars with a historic vehicle designation, available to those over 40 years old, are exempt from the charge.

NOx emissions were measured as a combined figure with hydrocarbons in Europe before 2001, so all cars older than that do not meet the standards, regardless of their actual NOx emissions, including those fitted with emissions-reducing lambda sensors and electronic engine management.

Classic & Sports Car – London ULEZ expansion: the threat to modern classic cars

Modern classic supercars such as the Ferrari Testarossa fall foul of the ULEZ

Transport for London does allow vehicles to escape the ULEZ charge if they can prove their NOx emissions (and particulate-matter emissions, in the case of diesels) meet the standards, which has been achieved in a limited number of cases, including enthusiasts sourcing NOx data retrospectively from manufacturers to obtain individual exemption from TfL.

While some motorcycles have been successfully retested for NOx, there are currently no publicly available facilities for cars.

A TfL spokesperson commented: “It is unlikely that a Euro II or earlier vehicle (pre-electronic engine management, with closed-loop control) would ever have met the required standard.” The Mayor’s office echoed this claim.

Electric vehicles are ULEZ-exempt, but electric-converted classics will have to re-register to be recognised by TfL.

The tool for checking if you need to pay the charge for your car can be found here.

What is happening in the rest of the UK?

Classic & Sports Car – London ULEZ expansion: the threat to modern classic cars

Electric vehicle conversions must be re-registered to be ULEZ compliant

Clean Air Zones (CAZs), as they are known outside of London within England, or Low Emission Zones (LEZs) in Scotland, that target private cars have already been established in a number of other UK cities.

These areas all follow the same emissions standards but, unlike the London ULEZ, the zones in Birmingham, Bristol, Oxford, Glasgow and – due to arrive in 2024 – Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Dundee, only cover a small central portion of the city.

Charges and conditions vary considerably, however, from an £8 fee in Birmingham to an outright ban in Scottish LEZs, with the penalty fines starting at £60 and increasing for repeat offenders.

While the English cities have mirrored London’s historic vehicles exemption for cars of over 40 years old, the Scottish system has set the historic exemption at more than 30 years old.

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