Saving the Arkansas Classic Car

Fighting Back for an Inclusive Collector Car Hobby

Jim Rowland
Mar 10 · 10 min read

There is an active attempt in the works by an Arkansas legislator to limit the classic car hobby. As a lifelong Arkansas resident and car enthusiast, I want to offer some perspective on why this is worthy of attention, and essential to fight.

The State of Things

Arkansas currently allows any 25+ year-old person to register their 25+ year-old car as an Antique Vehicle for a one-time $7 license plate fee, no further renewal requirement. The stipulation is that you must provide proof that another registered vehicle is your primary transportation. The benefit of once-and-done tagging is the low-headache government burden of owning a seldom-driven hobby vehicle. The license plate is also a badge of honor and sense of community for maintaining a pleasure vehicle for many years.

I have had my first car — a 1992 model — since 1998, and this was the happy day that I was able to register it as a official classic.

The Problem

http://www.arkleg.state.ar.us/assembly/2019/2019R/Pages/BillInformation.aspx?measureno=HB1496&fbclid=IwAR12ca-702VE4s1bmVL-x0rLPpSh7fb7KMSZi__2Hnv_OEO6mKj9AhtecCg

AN ACT TO AMEND THE LAW CONCERNING ANTIQUE MOTOR 10 VEHICLE SPECIAL LICENSE PLATES

http://www.arkleg.state.ar.us/assembly/2019/2019R/Bills/HB1496.pdf

State Representative Jack Fortner introduced an amendment that basically does two damaging things:

  • Increase the minimum age of the car being tagged to 45+ years
  • Increase minimum age of the person applying for the tag to 45+ years

This dramatically restricts the classic car hobby in an arbitrary manner, in a way that is dubiously ageist. Even more infuriating, he’s already tried and failed once before.

A History of Insincerity

In 2017, Jack Fortner introduced essentially the same bill, then withdrew it after public backlash.

My reason for pulling the bill was because the majority of the citizens of Arkansas who contacted me were opposed. I believe any bill, either mine or someone else’s, should not pass if the majority of the people express an opinion against it. I was asked to run the bill by a group of car enthusiasts and I personally believed it was a good bill. But regardless of my personal feelings, I must go with the will of the people. — Rep. Jack Fortner, KATV interview

If you can trust his word, it’s alarmingly hypocritical to reintroduce a bill that was widely panned by Arkansas residents on its first attempt. Calls were made and letters were sent. We started a Facebook group. SEMA, a trade association supporting car enthusiasts, issued alerts.

The sentiment hasn’t changed in the last two years.

Wrong Solution to a Trivial Problem

Arkansans believe in personal responsibility when it comes to tagging, insuring, and inspecting vehicles. We live in a mobile, car-centric state with relatively few living within walking distance to work or having access to public transport. Personal transportation is core to our lives at work and play. There is little stomach for bureaucratic load, and it shows in voting demographics and vehicle requirements. No front license plate, annual inspections, or emissions testing, yet we get along fine.

Why? It’s a self-correcting matter. The average age of household vehicles is 12 years, according to the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics. By 25 years of age, most vehicles are no longer a primary vehicle due to diminishing returns on service cost, not to mention desire to own a newer vehicle.

Most people discard vehicles once service bills mount or the creature comforts wear out. It takes dedication to keep an older vehicle from turning into scrap.

Those inclined to poorly maintain a vehicle will limit the years a vehicle will be on the road. You may see a fair number of junky vehicles aged in their teens, but they become less common in their twenties. If you treat a vehicle as disposable, you will have probably moved onto the next one before your current primary transportation enters antique status. Neglect is self-defeating, and it removes most problems with upkeep, emissions, and other areas of compliance.

Detractors claim that there are junky cars running around with Antique plates, and that some people may be lying about these cars as being secondary transportation. If that’s really the main gripe, just enforce the existing law. This is no different that failing to carry insurance on any street-driven vehicle, or driving with an expired driver’s license or registration. Those violations strike me as happening as a higher rate than infractions among the 66,000 Arkansas Antique Car owners. It’s an enforcement issue, not a driver or vehicle age issue. If you have proof, let’s have it.

Necessarily a Labor of Love

Maintaining an older vehicle takes dedication. By age 25, new manufacturer (OEM) parts are likely no longer in production, and aftermarket replacement parts may be scarce. For example, hubs are no longer made for a friend’s 1991 car, leaving the choice of questionable salvage yard replacements or adapting the knuckle assembly from a other car (a clever internet solution found on a model-specific forum). Most people don’t have the sleuthing skills or interest to deal with no-longer-available (NLA) parts scenarios, and have traded off their older car before that even becomes an issue.

The toll of miles and years also invites more serious failures as time goes on, and owners must consider the expense of preventative repair. Preservation drives many of us to pull a vehicle from daily driver status. If a vehicle is no longer a primary driver and it’s 25 years old, Arkansas mercifully grants a lower-headache tagging option. The miles driven are fractional of the state’s total vehicle population, and owners appreciate that the government is realistic about the impact of 25+ year-old vehicles.

There are newer, shinier, and more powerful cars out there, but we keep our older vehicles around because they bring us joy. When this Miata was new, there were 1960s MG roadsters not yet “antiques” under the 25+ year-old threshold!

What Constitutes a “Classic” or “Historic” Vehicle?

Per Arkansas law, an antique vehicle is “a motor vehicle of age which that is essentially unaltered from the original manufacturer’s specifications and which that, because of its significance, is being collected, preserved, restored, or maintained by a hobbyist as a leisure pursuit.” Basically, it’s old enough and the person enjoys it.

A vehicle’s “historic merit” is entirely subjective, and constantly changing. Total production numbers are sometimes trotted out, but be wary of that measure. Many popular post-war classic cars seen at car shows were not rare or expensive when relatively new. For example, the 1955–1957 Chevrolet Bel Air is a beloved and iconic classic car, yet hundreds of thousands were produced and sold at a reasonable price to American families. Few would have remained in household service even 15 years after being built, and most people would have considered them old, unremarkable used car at that point. Assuredly, most ’57 Chevys were unceremoniously crushed for scrap before age 25, tail fins and all. Still, enough “Shoebox Chevys” survived that average car enthusiasts could actually hope to own one.

Most of today’s cherished historic vehicles were once just ordinary, high-volume cars that reached the end of their useful life. This will continue to hold true.

The lesson: please don’t equate your disinterest in a car today with its future value. A plentiful, ordinary vehicle now will be someone’s treasure tomorrow. The notion of a classic car changes when viewed through the lens of time, condition, generational connection, and scarcity.

“There are no historic cars from the 90s”

Direct quote from Representative Fortner. He is of a certain age, and holds a certain belief of what qualifies as historic. That’s hurtful to everyone else. There is over a century of historic vehicles out there, and no one should be allowed to legally narrow the hobby to their own favorite era.

I visited Henry Ford’s Piquette Avenue plant museum in Detroit last year, and loved it. The focus of the collection is on pre-Model-A Fords, but there are also examples of their cars dating to today. Automotive history is a broad spectrum, and every era has merit and value.

Vehicle technology and style are not stagnant, and it’s extremely narrow-minded to shun a generation of cars, especially from a supposed car hobbyist. In the late 1980s and 1990s, important technologies hitting their stride: airbags, advanced fuel injection, four-wheel-steering, digital dashboards, on-board standardized diagnostics, variable valve timing, forced induction, and more. Horsepower, handling, comfort, reliability, and safety made noticeable advances during this time.

The same period of time also saw a wild direction change in style, from the boxy 1980s to the swoopy and aerodynamic flavor of the 1990s. Some cars were wild, some were beautiful, and some were both.

The historic value of 1990s cars is beginning to manifest in desirability and price. On the affordable end of the spectrum, prices for a 1995–1997 Acura Integra Type-R are already stratospheric, doubling their modest low-$20k sticker price in under two decades. On the higher end, try a 1995 McLaren F1 supercar for north of $15 million. Make a thorough review of prices on auction sites such as bringatrailer.com, and you’ll see this financial appreciation on numerous makes and models from the last 20 to 30 years.

History Doesn’t Stop for Anyone

Here’s a case study: a photo of 1994 Atlanta gridlock from 25 years ago. This could easily be downtown Little Rock on a bad day.

Police directing Atlanta traffic, via @OldGeorgiaPics.

If you’re of a certain age, the scene doesn’t seem that vintage at first glance. Then you start looking for specific makes and models. When was the last time you saw a Plymouth Acclaim, Mercury Topaz, or Subaru Loyale? You realize the vehicles pictured now average 30+ years of age, and most are long retired or scrapped.

Then you keep looking, and spot a Nissan Pulsar NX, which had pop-up headlights and an optional interchangeable hatchback/wagon back. Properly unique stuff. Other interesting cars pop up in this dull vignette of Atlanta traffic include an early Miata, a mid-engined (yet unimaginatively named) Toyota Van, and an E30 BMW 3-Series. There are multiple colorful Geo Trackers, the imported soft-top 4x4 Jeeplets that used to be so hip. In our current era of wildly popular grande-sized trucks and crossovers, a street scene full of actual cars is starting to seem quaint. You know, as if looking back at history.

Look at any street scene from 25 years past, and it won’t be jarring to someone who already lived it. However, the hardware never stopped aging, and it takes real effort to preserve even the more plebeian examples of 25-year-old automobiles, let alone the treasures. Without encouraging that effort, these vehicles will not be around in 45 years at all.

Nostalgia for 25-year-old cars is strong and evident

Around the same time that Jack Fortner reintroduced his crippling bill, I attended a new car show series called RADwood. It’s a celebration of vehicles from the 1980s and 1990s, complete with period correct dress. At the Austin show on February 23, it took several hours to get the three-wide line of cars into the venue. Even the organizers underestimated the popularity.

A rare Callaway Corvette and Ford Escort Cosworth won trophies at RADwood a few weeks ago, but so did relatively pedestrian a Dodge Neon ACR and Ford Ranger 4x4. Each one sparked interest in the massive crowd on hand because someone made the effort to preserve a piece of an admired time.

A film crew from Japan interviewed me about my 1992 Sentra SE-R. If that seems strange, consider how the classic car hobby will be ever-evolving.

I love cars from the late 1980s and early 1990s the most. I don’t view this era as exclusively historic, though. It’s just the period that I came of age, and what filled the car magazine at a formative time in my life. When I become Jack Fortner’s age, it would be foolish of me to tell a younger car hobbyist that nothing “historic” was made since my favorite moment in automobilia. No, history is constantly being made and reset. There are significant vehicles yet unmade, beloved by owners yet to be conceived. Limiting the hobby is not the place of anyone.

There will always be dedicated car enthusiasts investing considerable time and money into vehicles that have meaning to their generation. I reject that the hobby that is only permitted for those aged 45+ years, and for cars aged 45+ years. Fortner says he “intends honor the intent of the original bill, which he said was to honor the car collector and hobbyist.” Clearly, he has no concept of the current state of the hobby, or is too crass to care.

    Jim Rowland

    Written by

    Lifelong automotive enthusiast, Sports Car Club of America volunteer, RallyCrosser, autocrosser, road racer, track lapper, Arkansas native.

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