MOT Workshop 35 – Classic Cars MOT

Back to the future

– classic car Testing

MOT Testing Magazine Editor Jim Punter, an ardent classic car enthusiast, has a look at the problems and pitfalls of MOT Testing Classic cars.

Every MOT Testing Station will, sooner or later, have to Test a classic vehicle and it could be anything from a veteran car of the 1890s to a 1980s supercar. And you must Test it, there’s no choice. If it’s within the class of Test for which the VTS is approved, then it must be Tested. The only allowable exception is, if due to the size of the vehicle, it would be dangerous or impossible to examine it using the facilities and equipment available. So what do you do when a classic vintage Bugatti, say, worth over a million pounds turns up, or maybe an 1898 steam car with its boiler stoked up ready to go?


Classics… and classics…

Railton opt

Most vehicles manufactured in the 1930s like this Railton Sports car (pictured at the Shuttleworth Trust’s Old Warden airfield) are relatively straightforward to Test, but could have rod, cable or hydraulically operated brakes. They would invariably have semaphore indicators – and if fitted with an opening screen, quite fashionable at the time, would not require washers.

Classic cars cover a wide range of vehicles. Some old, some quite modern, but still classic in the sense of technical sophistication, value and rarity – a McLaren F1, for example, a very ‘classic’, classic car worth hundreds of thousands of pounds, would have to be road tested to check the brakes. As an AE how would you feel if your Tester took it out on the road, a vehicle worth over £1M, with 627 bhp, 0 – 60 in 3.2 seconds and a top speed of 240 mph… it would certainly make me nervous!

At the other extreme you could face an 1899 De Dion-Bouton with tiller steering, hardly any brakes… and you could be forgiven for not realising which end is the front when first sighting the vehicle! A road test here is practically ‘mission impossible’ for the average Tester who would probably struggle to even start the engine.

In both cases, of course, the vehicle presenter would normally do the driving, as well as assisting with the Test. On the other hand some owners of such vehicles could be very wealthy and busy people – and simply want to have the vehicle ‘dropped off’ from a transporter for Test – then what do you do?

In theory you have no choice but to carry out a Test – there’s nothing in the list of ‘reasons to refuse a test’ about the nature of the vehicle’s design, its age or its high value. Perhaps it’s worth giving your insurance broker a call first as well!

In practice, of course, you would try to avoid the problem in the first place by ensuring that the owner of the vehicle either attends the test with the vehicle, or at least sends somebody with it who is familiar with the controls and covered for ‘road risk’ insurance to drive it.

In strict application of the rules, however, this is not allowable with, for example, the McLaren F1 as the controls are pretty conventional and the Manual states:

“Note: With a veteran car or a vehicle with special controls the driver should be allowed to drive during the test, if he/she wishes.”

It’s unlikely, however, that VOSA would take action against a VTS where they had either arranged for the presenter to drive the vehicle, or where they had requested that the Test be deferred until they had made appropriate arrangements with the owner/presenter.

A tarnished ‘golden rule’…

For years I had assumed that a ‘golden rule’ when it came to MOT Testing classic cars was that if the vehicle was equipped as it was when it left the factory, and all the systems were acceptable for MOT purposes, then it could be given an MOT pass.

Recently, however, as a result of a reader’s letter we published in our August/October issue last year, we found that this is not the case. The car in question was a 1950 Jaguar XK120 with no windscreen washers, or indicators, which was how it left the Jaguar factory. Although the whole windscreen assembly was designed for ease of removal, it could not be said to be an “opening” screen, so should theoretically fail the MOT Test. In the end the car was presented for Test with the lights taped up, and a jury-rigged ‘squeezy’ bottle windscreen washer system enabling it to comply.

By and large though, the rule applies. So, for instance, a 1919 Lagonda Tested at our garage every year (my own vehicle- Ed) has no brakes on the front wheels, and the footbrake is a contracting band operating on the outside of a cylinder connected to the prop-shaft. Its rear brakes operate by a ‘fly-off’ handbrake – but with metal brake shoes working directly onto metal brake drums; their original function was only as a parking brake. Yet the vehicle’s braking performance is normally good enough for MOT purposes because of the rule in the Manual that for:

“Vehicles first used before 1 January 1968 which do NOT have one means of control operating on at least 4 wheels (or 3 for three wheeled vehicle) and which have one brake system with two means of control or two brake systems with separate means of control.”

Followed by a table indicating a minimum efficiency requirements of:

“30% from first means of control”, and “25% from second means of control”.

While the rear drum brakes aren’t really intended for operation whilst driving, for a single application they will be up to 50% efficient, as will the prop-shaft brake, so the vehicle usually passes the Test.

Date breaks and ‘refusal to Test’…

With classic cars the date of first use or manufacture is often important. For example, some, but not all, pre 1906 vehicles need not have a parking brake. To apply this rule, the London Science Museum must have certified that the vehicle was designed before 1st January 1905 and constructed before 31st December 1905.

It is important, then, that the presenter can provide proof of the date of first use or manufacture. If this isn’t available it is probably better to refuse to Test the vehicle from the outset than to wait until half way through the inspection before finding that the Test criteria and/or method of inspection depend on the vehicle’s age.

On the other hand some old vehicles may not have any evidence of a VIN/Chassis No./Frame No. – perhaps the vehicle is presented without a registration mark either. In such cases it is also quite legitimate to refuse to Test the vehicle. Remember too that some older vehicles may have very smoky engines, because that is how the engines were when first built. If the smoke is unavoidable – that can’t be used as a reason to refuse to Test the vehicle, which only applies if the “substantial quantities” of smoke are “avoidable”.


I sometimes wonder how often valuable classic cars are MOT Tested each year, but do not have sufficient insurance cover in the event of either a road accident on road Test, or an incident at the Testing Station. Every motor trader’s insurance will provide adequate cover for third party ‘road risks’ when road testing vehicles, but what about the value of the customer’s vehicle? Most motor trade insurance policies will have a ‘capped value’ for the total risk to all vehicles being serviced, repaired or MOT Tested. So if a classic were written off, perhaps in a fire in your workshop, and due to its value the insurance company decided you were underinsured, you could end up putting hand in your pocket! This is especially pertinent to the MOT Test as VOSA consider that whatever happens during an MOT Test AEs and NTs cannot get customers to sign an indemnity releasing the business from blame – and responsibility – if damage is done to the vehicle whilst conducting a Test.

It should also be noted regarding road risks that should the vehicle presenter insist on driving the vehicle on a road test, that the situation regarding both comprehensive and ‘road risks’ cover for the test should be clarified first – if his or her insurance doesn’t cover the road Test, does your motor trade policy apply if he or she does the driving?

Understand the engineering…

Older classic car cans have some quirky design features. Pre-war Rolls Royces, for example could have a mechanical servo system driven from the prop-shaft which boosts braking. Tiller steering on vehicles manufactured around the late 1800s will be much the same as any other steering system, but with an unusual configuration of joints.

The key issue here is to understand how the engineering works. Whilst most older cars had simple rigid front and rear axles, when independent front suspension began to be used during the 1930s, a range of different approaches proliferated, from the classic double wishbone layout to complex trailing link designs. Here is perhaps the biggest potential pitfall when MOT Testing older cars. Take time to examine the suspension and work out how the loads apply – otherwise you could be jacking it up incorrectly and unable to properly examine the suspension joints for wear.

If in doubt about the action of the system, discuss it with the vehicle presenter first. By and large they will be keen DIY mechanics and likely to be familiar with the vehicle’s technology.

The braking system design can also vary from vehicle to vehicle, although most early pre-war systems were mechanical and operated either by Bowden cables or rods. Yet by the end of the 1930s, just before the Second World War, both hydraulic brakes, and a very efficient mechanical braking system operated by rods using a ‘wedge and roller’ activating system in the brake back-plates were introduced. It is important to realise that whilst that highly valuable, and seemingly complex classic 1930 Bentley you are about to MOT Test seems daunting, by and large fairly simple engineering was used in its construction – and will almost certainly be less sophisticated than the average modern car.

Only Test what you can see… make lots of notes!

Lagonda dash optThis 1919 Lagonda belongs to MOT Testing Magazine’s editor – its only instrument is an ammeter, the clutch pedal is on the left, the throttle in the middle and brake on the right – best to get the presenter to drive it on the road to test the brakes – essential for this vehicle with the primary brake operating on the prop-shaft!

Here is one of VOSA’s unwavering golden rules – you can only Test what you can see. You can’t pull it apart to have a look inside to find out what is going on. For old Classic and Vintage cars this is rarely a problem – generally you can see everything! For more modern classic cars, however, with closing plates and plastic covers, much of the engineering may be hidden from view.

This applies to, for example, the McLaren F1 we talked about earlier. It has a full under-tray so that the inner suspension joints, and some of the steering joints are at least partially enclosed – which could be problematic, but if you can’t see it, you can’t check it.

Do not be afraid of adding copious advisory notes – especially if you are uncertain of how much wear is ‘excessive’ in joints with which you are unfamiliar on a vehicle the like of which you have never seen before! In such cases, the VOSA ‘pass and advise’ policy applies.

And finally…

Classic jag opt

Cars like this classic Jaguar sports car from 1955 are normally little different from modern cars to Test – vehicles from the late 40s and early 50s, however may not have appropriate provision for either indicators or washers – and may have to be modified to pass the MOT.

MOT Testing old and classic cars can be both interesting and fun – phut-phutting along the road in an ‘old crock’ on a bright summer’s day can be a memorable experience. But you do have to keep your wits about you, and make sure that should a road test be required, that all the i’s are dotted and the t’s are crossed when it comes to the insurance, and who does the driving.

On a final note, during his recent interview with our sister publication MOT Testing Magazine, Mike Penning, the Minister at the DfT responsible for the MOT signalled that in future some classic cars may be exempted from the MOT Scheme.*

*This has now been confirmed and will take effect from November 2012.

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