Just like in the '70s, the Corvette-and the Corvette hobby-are under attack. On one side: the Feds, with tougher Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards and emission limits for new cars and light trucks. At the state level, proposed state laws, regulations, and rules would seek to force collector Corvettes to undergo the same emissions testing as current-model daily driven cars and trucks.
But it doesn't mean the end of the Corvette, or the Corvette hobby.
Federal Regulation: Stricter Standards = A Stronger Corvette?
Think back to 1975, when Federal emissions standards kicked in that led to the use of catalytic converters. Those highly expensive devices-which helped boost the '75 Corvette's base sticker price by $800 over the '74's MSRP-were said to help performance by taking the burden of nearly a mile of vacuum lines and other emissions-control hardware off the engine. They "helped performance" by doing that, while clogging the exhaust system with a single-unit, two-way catalyst that turned unburned hydrocarbons and carbon monoxide into CO2 and water vapor. The single-unit cats led to major inefficiencies in exhaust-system design, which limited horsepower and torque while getting emissions down to the new Federal limits.
That's something that more than a few '75-'82 C3 Vette owners have discovered-especially the ones who've removed their cats for an exhaust that's up to track-day duty, or replaced the OEM two-way cats with current-technology three-way cats (which add the transformation of nitrogen oxides to nitrogen and oxygen to the two-way cats' functions).
All the while during the late '70s, the engineers who worked on Corvette's powertrains were doing the best they could (under the circumstances) to find at least as much power in the venerable Chevy small-block V-8 as it had produced during the '60s. The real breakthrough came with the development of microprocessors to control engine functions that were up to the job of operating in the hostile environment of an engine bay. Add in improvements like roller rocker arms, improved cylinder-head and exhaust-system designs, and electronic fuel injection, and the "old" engine eventually cranked out the power like it had before-but this time, with fewer emissions per mile.
In the early '90s, The General's powertrain engineers (who'd been merged, realigned, and otherwise moved from their previous divisional engine shops) were challenged to design and engineer a new V-8 that would exceed the previous GM V-8s' performance numbers, while meeting ever-stricter Federal emission and CAFE standards. The result was the LS-series of engines, whose performance you know well by now-and whose fuel economy, especially at highway speeds, you're also well aware of.
But now, stricter CAFE and emission standards loom on the horizon. Per Federal regulations enacted in 2009, manufacturers must meet a fleet average of 35.5 miles per gallon for all the cars and light trucks they sell by the year 2016, up from the current 27.5 mpg required fleet average. Those vehicles not meeting the standard will be subject to a "gas guzzler tax" added to the sticker price. What we've heard is that the next-generation Corvette engine, while still a V-8, might only displace 5.5 liters (around 330 cubic inches).
If there's one thing the Corvette team has done in recent years, it's been to use cutting-edge technology to meet the Feds' fuel-economy and emissions standards while delivering the level of performance expected of a Corvette powerplant. Whether they can continue to do that in the face of ever-tightening economy and emissions standards, however, remains to be seen.
State-Lawmakers + Grassroots Influence = State Laws We Can Live With
State-level threats to the Corvette hobby come in many forms, from legislation aimed at cracking down on perceived problems, to rulemaking that results in added hassles for Corvette enthusiasts (and other collector-car owners), to local ordinances aimed at eliminating "eyesores."
This year, California state lawmakers tried again to do away with the exemption from the state's Smog Check emission-inspection program that vintage, classic, and collector vehicles built before 1976 currently enjoy. (Colorado tried to do the same this year, too.) Fortunately, the move didn't succeed.
Also unsuccessful at the state level: a Hawaii bill to allow civil lawsuits for the "nuisance" caused by inoperable vehicles on someone else's property; Michigan's bid to turn its one-time $35 registration fee for "historic" vehicles and its every-10-years $30 "year of manufacture" license plate fee into a pair of $30 annual fees; a proposed Nebraska law to expand the definition of "abandoned motor vehicle" to include cars and trucks left unattended for only six hours on private property without valid plates or title; New York bills to permit higher registration fees and bridge/Thruway tolls based on vehicle weight, and a measure to keep hobbyists from buying "professional use only" refinishing products (i.e., paint); bills in Virginia and West Virginia that would have banned aftermarket exhaust systems that produced "excessive noise" without objective definitions of just what "excessive noise" is; and a "clunker bill" in Washington State that would have mandated scrapping-regardless of historic/collector interest-any 15-plus-year-old vehicle traded in under that program.
Fortunately, two pieces of state legislation favorable to Corvette owners, collectors, and restorers were passed and signed into law this past year. Vermont's Senate Bill 237 included a definition of an "automobile hobbyist" as a person not primarily engaged in the sale of vehicles and parts or dismantling junk vehicles. It also included a provision stipulating that car and truck hobbyists are not to be confused with the owners of "automobile graveyards," and it excluded from the definition of such graveyards areas used by an automobile hobbyist for storage and restoration purposes. This bill was approved by both chambers of the Vermont legislature, and was signed into law on May 10.
Also signed into law this past spring: Louisiana's House Bill 118, extending that state's emissions and required-equipment inspection exemptions from vehicles 40-plus years old to all antique vehicles, now defined as cars and trucks that are at least 25 years old. This bill passed both chambers unanimously, and was signed into law (as Louisiana Act 229) on June 17.
Unfortunately, other bills that would have benefited Corvette owners, restorers, and collectors died at the end of the various state legislative sessions, or have not seen any action, as some state legislatures have not adjourned as of this writing (late July).
The car-hobbyist-favorable initiatives that did not advance in 2010 included two in California bills that would have removed the 500-vehicle-per-year vehicle limit on "specially constructed" vehicles (i.e., kit cars); bills in Michigan and Washington State that would have prohibited cities and towns from enforcing any restrictions preventing car hobbyists from pursuing their hobby (and instead requiring that project/parts cars merely be screened from public view); four West Virginia bills that would have cut the taxes and fees that hobbyists and collectors there pay; proposed measures in Idaho and Maryland to exempt some vehicles from their emission-inspection programs; and an Iowa bill creating a "limited-use" classification for antique motor vehicles driven up to 1,000 miles a year.
Still pending as of press time were bills in four states (Ohio, New York, New Jersey, and Massachusetts) that would use the Specialty Equipment Market Association's (SEMA, www.sema.org) model street rod and custom bill to create registration and titling classifications for these vehicles, including kit cars and replicas, and provide for special license plates.
Get Involved...It's Your Hobby!
The best way to make sure you're not "blindsided" by state or Federal action is to join an organization like the SEMA Action Network, either as an individual or in concert with your local Corvette club.
We contacted SEMA for this article, and the organization provided us with a 10-point list of tips on how to successfully lobby your elected representatives. Here's the list (courtesy of SEMA's Driving Force newsletter), with some points emphasized by this author.
Develop and maintain relationships with your legislators and their staffs. Make contact and develop productive relationships with individual legislators; it's the most important form of grassroots lobbying. It's also important to develop a rapport with staff members (especially the chief of staff), who monitor ongoing legislative and community initiatives.
Educate legislators about our hobby and our issues. Provide your legislators with more information about our hobby, and emphasize the positive impact it has on the community.
Maintain a positive attitude. It's critical that you develop a positive relationship with your legislator. The next time an enthusiast-related issue comes up, that same legislator may be needed to support your cause.
Stay informed. Keep up-to-date on SEMA Action Network Action Alerts, newspaper articles, and hearing notices. Share this information with fellow enthusiasts. (The sooner, the better!)
Get involved in the community. Join with other community groups to build positive exposure. Holding charity runs and fundraisers provides a great opportunity to show local residents and politicians that auto clubs are a positive community force.
Build relationships with the local media. Contact local newspapers and radio/TV stations to publicize car shows, charity events, and so on. Radio and TV news organizations are always looking for stories to prepare ahead of time for their weekend broadcasts.
Invite officials to participate in your events. Give legislators a platform to reach an audience of constituents.
Build an automotive coalition. Create coalitions to add strength in numbers and ensure that the rights of all vehicle enthusiasts are represented. Actively participating in regional and statewide councils will develop a unified message to lawmakers. These types of pro-hobbyist groups can be an influential political force.
Spread the word. Take this article to your next club meeting or cruise night, or post it on your online forum. Share this information with other enthusiasts who are willing to help lobby for the hobby.
Register to vote. Exercise your right to support pro-hobby candidates. Constituents are an elected official's number-one priority. Without you and your vote of support, they would not be in office, so make sure you're registered, then get out and vote.
One organization of hobbyists that has enjoyed a lot of success at the state level is the Minnesota Street Rod Association (MSRA). The MSRA's Legislative Committee is made up of dedicated club members who keep an eye out for pending legislation that affects car hobbyists, whether good or bad. They it spreads the word through the club's website (www.msra.com), and its monthly magazine, the LineChaser. It also put together a "Run to the Hill" day in the early spring-before final House and Senate committee deadlines-when MSRA members go to the State Capitol in St. Paul to lobby their state representatives and senators in person regarding pending legislating that affects them. As a part of the Run, there's special parking made available in front of the Capitol for photo ops with some MSRA members' cars.
This writer was a member of MSRA during the mid-'90s, at a time when the state of Minnesota was trying to force all gas stations statewide to carry only ethanol-blended gasolines (at the behest of the agriculture industry and at least one huge, out-of-state conglomerate). MSRA members, through the Legislative Committee, were able to lobby the Minnesota Legislature successfully, and the ethanol mandate was amended to allow for stations to carry one storage tank filled with non-ethanol-blended premium. (A list of those stations in Minnesota is available on the MSRA website; look for "non-oxygenated fuels.")
Conclusion: We Can Shape the Future
If we sit around and do nothing, we shouldn't be surprised if the Corvette-and the rest of the auto industry-witnesses a return to the dark days of the '70s, when engine output plunged and high-performance vehicles virtually vanished from the landscape. But if automotive enthusiasts come together and present a unified front, then the tide of anti-car-enthusiast legislation can be stopped in its tracks, and bills favoring Corvette and other special-interest vehicles will ensure that the hobby flourishes for years to come.
Take the first step by joining the SEMA Action Network (SAN). With no costs to get involved, the SAN is a partnership between enthusiasts, vehicle clubs, and members of the specialty automotive parts industry in the United States and Canada who have joined forces to promote hobby-friendly legislation and oppose unfair laws. With nearly 40,000 members, 3 million contacts, and an ability to reach 30 million enthusiasts through print and press, the SAN is the premier organization defending the rights of the vehicle hobbyist. Enlist now in this fellowship of auto enthusiasts-join the SAN at www.semasan.com.