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Historic Vehicle Registration Laws

Not all vehicles belong on the road. Some automobiles are artifacts of history. Others may be sentimental family heirlooms. Still, these vehicles must follow legal requirements.

State governments recognize that antique motor vehicles are unique. They typically offer an alternative to regular vehicle registration and license plate rules. Each state sets different criteria for registering a vintage car.

Historic vehicles are subject to limitations. You usually can't drive a collector's car on public roads like a regular one, but you can lower your ownership costs and still bring your vehicle to car shows and special events.

As the vehicle owner, you must comply with your state's traffic laws. Before registering a historical vehicle or collector's item, learn how this unique status works.

What Is a Historical Vehicle?

Every state has specific requirements for antique vehicle registration. Some rules are fairly similar nationwide. Insurance companies may also define historical cars differently from state law.

Your vehicle must typically fit the following qualities to get a historic designation:

  • The model year of the vehicle is older than the state's cutoff year, which is usually between 20 and 30 years ago.
  • You will only drive the vehicle for automobile exhibitions, parades, club activities, or maintenance purposes.
  • You will not use the vehicle for general transportation.

Because specific regulations vary from state to state, checking your local laws is worthwhile. Your state may limit your vehicle's eligibility based on other specifications, such as the engine type. For instance, Virginia requires proof of a second vehicle to ensure you won't drive the antique car as your primary vehicle.

Common Types of Collector's Vehicles

Vehicles that often gain historic or special interest status include:

  • Classic cars from periods like the 1950s
  • Horseless carriages
  • Vintage motorcycles
  • Early American motorized buggies
  • Retired agricultural, military, or transport vehicles
  • Imported vehicles that meet the federal Show or Display rule

These vehicles may display antique license plates. For example, a Year of Manufacture (YOM) plate or sticker matches the car's model year and adds an authentic style to its appearance. Decorative vehicle license plates must have state approval.

Benefits of Historic Vehicle Registration

Your state's benefits of antique or collector's vehicle registration could include:

  • One-time registration for the life of the vehicle
  • Significantly lower registration fees
  • Reduced insurance costs
  • Exemptions from state vehicle standards and emissions inspections
  • The opportunity to get special license plates

Registering a vehicle as a collector's item can be more cost-effective than treating it like a regular one. However, the specific benefits depend on your vehicle and local laws. For example, California's Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) shows that some collector's cars built after 1975 still need to pass a smog test.

Driving a Historic Vehicle Illegally

Any vehicle you own must have state registration, even if you rarely drive it. Driving an antique car without proper registration can lead to serious legal trouble. The use of antique vehicles for daily transportation can also break the law.

Law enforcement may be more likely to notice your vehicle if it stands out. The officer might even enjoy its unusual style, but amusement won't stop them from writing a ticket.

Violating state laws with an antique or collector's vehicle is typically a misdemeanor traffic offense. Your driver's license could be at risk of suspension or revocation, depending on your record. You could also lose your vehicle's special status.

Ticketed for a Classic Car Violation?

Vehicle laws regarding classic cars are unique. Consider the penalties carefully if you get a ticket or a fine while driving a historic vehicle. Contacting a traffic law attorney familiar with your state's vehicle laws may be helpful.

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