If Congress Can’t Fend off the Classic-Car Lobby…

Who can it fend off? The LAT on a Cash for Clunkers loophole

The Los Angeles Times has an interesting—if a bit late—piece of reporting on the Cash for Clunkers program, which has spurred car sales while getting inefficient gas guzzlers off the roads.

But the program could have been better. The LAT reports that the classic-car lobby, of all things, blocked the elimination of some of the worst cars on the road—those more than twenty-five years old. Why? To preserve car parts.

This is not a joke.

So you can trade in your heavy-polluting heap of a 1984 F-150 pickup and get the $4,500 credit, but not your 1981 truck—or your 1983 one for that matter.

The Times reports that this means the five million oldest cars on the road aren’t eligible for the program. All to increase the odds that some dude can find a replacement steering wheel for his ‘73 Impala.


It would have been nice if this story had come out before it was too late, as in before the legislation passed, but it’s still a necessary story showing how the sausage gets made. If the classic freakin’ car lobby can flex its muscles like this, imagine what, say, Wall Street or the military-industrial complex can do.

Of course, the silly rule just hurts people who could have really used the $4,500 trade-in:

Many Americans don’t have the money to buy a new car, said Dan Baker, a part-time handyman and gardener in Greenville, S.C., who said he wished he could have gotten a rebate to upgrade to a better used vehicle.

“I’m the kind of person this program could have helped,” he said.

Baker is trying to sell a brown 1980 Oldsmobile Cutlass SS with a broken air conditioner and rusty fenders for $1,200.

“It’s just an old car with 101,000 miles on it,” said Baker, who hopes to join the ministry in the near future. “It is not a classic.”

The piece allows the classic-car lobby to spin that collectors don’t really drive their cars that much, so they’re not really polluting a whole lot, and anyway, they only account for 2 percent of the cars on the road. But it seems to me the vast majority of the five million pre-1984 cars out there aren’t the spit-shined ones you see at the car shows. They’re being driven to, you know, get around. They put the clunk in clunker.

But the LAT does follow the spin pretty quickly with this excellent information:

For example, a 1965 Chevrolet Malibu, when new, produced 400 times the smog-forming pollutants that a new 2010 Malibu produces, said John Swanton, an air pollution specialist with the board. Thus, an old Malibu driven only 1,000 miles per year produces as much pollution as a new Malibu would in 400,000 miles.

A major reason is that cars made before the mid-1970s lacked catalytic converters. Yet many states, including California, exempt those very vehicles from smog control laws. Those loopholes are also the product of lobbying by the classic car industry.

Seems like there’s more of a story here than just the cash-for-clunkers thing: Would love to see a profile looking at the outsize clout of the classic-car collectors.

Who knew?

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at rc2538@columbia.edu. Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.