Opinion: Come on Boris, help the classic car community tear up GDPR red tape

by John Simister
22 January 2021 3 min read
Opinion: Come on Boris, help the classic car community tear up GDPR red tape
Photo: James Mills

History. Classic cars are all about enjoying the past in the present. What they are now stems directly from what they have been between the day they were made and the present time, and the more we know about the ‘between’, the more intriguing a classic car can be.

More than that, history and provenance can play a huge part in a classic car’s covetability. A full file of bills and a full list of past owners is a valuable commodity, but very often they are not present.

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Not so long ago, you could send £5 and a V888 form to the DVLA and receive a list of all your car’s past owners on the DVLA database. Armed with that, you could conceivably contact some of them to find out some of your car’s history. A past owner might regard this as an outrageous intrusion, in which case you apologised politely and let it drop. Another might be delighted to help, and could even dig out documents sich as photographs, old bills not transferred with the car, even an original sales receipt from when the car was bought. Your car might even have been owned by an aristocrat, a celebrity, someone on the same street as your parents… the possibilities are endless.

You never knew what might turn up, but when I have contacted past owners the helpful ones far outnumbered the grumpy ones. But even if every contact had drawn a blank, at least there were names, addresses and dates to bring your car’s past whereabouts to life and plant a possible life history in your head. You could imagine its proud first owner, family aboard, setting off from home in Hertfordshire to a holiday in Hastings, or a fast-moving company executive enjoying the status of his new company car.

Since 2017, though, this has no longer been possible. GDPR, the General Data Protection Regulation, is why. The DVLA still has the information, but it is now released only to people or bodies with a pressing and proven need to have it, such as the police pursuing a criminal investigation or a car-vetting organisation checking for mileage fraud. Or, more likely than not, parking enforcement companies.

A classic-car owner’s curiosity doesn’t count, and indeed the DVLA would prefer that we didn’t even keep the details of the last person who owned the car. This used to appear on the V5C registration document, but hasn’t done since 2018.

When you buy a car, the person you buy the car from is supposed to enter your name in the V5C’s ‘new keeper’ section and send it back to the DVLA, complete with those printed details of the owner previous to him/her if they are present. Of course, wanting to grasp what morsels of history we can, we photograph it for posterity before it disappears into the DVLA abyss. However, if we’ve been modern and have notified the DVLA of the change of ownership online at the time of sale, then the seller passes the old V5C to us to add to the history file. Strictly speaking, that shouldn’t happen. But where’s the harm?

Is all this hiding of harmless history what GDPR intended? Wouldn’t it be better if we could discover who used to own our cars as we were once able to do? After all, it doesn’t seem to be illegal to sell a classic car with a full history if it does have one, so why not make it possible once again for us to fill in the gaps where the history is missing? We can search public records for our ancestors, we can read past news stories about identified individuals, we can even see the electoral roll or read a telephone directory. Discovering who used to own our cars is hardly going to result in any criminal activity or identity theft; we’re just owners of funny old cars who want to know more about something that is ours.

The GDPR legislation is an EU-wide scheme, to which the UK was bound. I think Brexit was a disastrous idea in the greater scheme of things, an extraordinary act of national self-harm whose ramifications are becoming clear in unexpected ways as well as expected ones, but you may well not agree with me. Brexit does, however, give the UK the ability to rethink many rules and regulations. One tiny glint of goodness in post-Brexit Britain could just be a unilateral tweak of GDPR to allow us, once again, to learn about our cars’ pasts.

Could it happen, once our government’s more pressing problems have abated? Our prime minister is, or at least was, a bit of a petrolhead; he used to be GQ magazine’s motoring correspondent. So, Boris, how about it?

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  • Peter Crouch says:

    Back in 2000 I purchased a series 3 Lotus Elan coupe which had spent 13 years in a garden. After a challenging restoration I obtained the list of previous owners from the DVLA. From the letters sent to all of these, I was lucky enough to make contact with the first owner from 1966 who was very pleased to know that his then pride and joy had been resurrected. In return for a photo of the car and a small consideration, he sent me the genuine Lotus Workshop Manual and some other papers which now form part of the car’s history. I would love to be able to do the same for my “two previous owner” 1966 Honda CB77 restored during 2020.

    • James Mills says:

      How heart-warming. This is what our community is all about, Peter. Hopefully the DVLA can be persuaded to help enthusiasts once again trace the history of their car or bike.

  • Mick Rayner says:

    I found out all the previous owners of a 1970s Range Rover I was rebuilding. Directory enquires back in the day gave the phone number of anyone still at the same address, there were two. One was surprised itbwas still around as he sold it in the late 80s due to rot. The other was an earlier owner who was very happy to tell me about it and the stories of where he went in it and when he pulled a police car out if a snow drift, he was chuffed to bits itbwas being rebuilt decades later.

  • Paul French says:

    I had a CB72 (then dropped the 305cc motor in) I rode it from Cheshire to the 1972 Motorcycle Show in London; never missed a beat. I sold it & bought a Norton Commando Fastback. Happy days.

  • Reg Barton says:

    I agree completely with John Simister. I have taken this same issue up myself with the DVLA, Quentin Wilson and Sir Greg Knight, chair of the parliamentary all party historic vehicle group. We need to give the DVLA a way to climb down without losing face – I propose that they could reinstate the v888 service to authorised clubs, similar to the way that clubs act as agents for recovery of lost registrations etc.

  • Col says:

    Why not start a petition? Enough votes and it has to be debated I believe?

  • David William Scothorn says:

    maybe because it’s a government agency, Dvla appears not to be business oriented.
    The charge of £5 cannot reflect the actual cost of searching their database, and could easily charge £50 for this. And, for the issue of trade plates, they still only accept cheques or postal orders.

  • Darren Capehorn says:

    A slight side issue, but perhaps more of a danger than access to the data – is that this data does not actually shown Previous OWNERS, but rather previous KEEPERS. For items which are often more valuable than houses, it seems ridiculous that there is no register of who has the legal right to sell a car. I wasted a lot of time and money when some ‘chancer’ decided to claim ownership of a 1962 car I had purchased and the law was absolutely useless to help in my defence.

  • Gerry Summerfield says:

    I bought a TR4 from Canada and their licencing system appears to follow something like the old green log book so I have been able to contact all the previous owners, gold dust. Also, and I don’t know if this could help in getting information, the data protection laws don’t apply to dead people.

  • Christopher Baston says:

    How about starting a petition to get the Government to change things. Passing it to all in the classic car movement should gain many thousands of signatories

  • Alan Smith says:

    In the past I have occasionally requested a copy of the vehicle history, and contacted previous owners. Not all respond, but some do and I see no harm asking.

  • Anthony Saunders says:

    It has been said that Boris’s interest in motoring or anything else extends no further than it helps with his career path.
    If Hagerty can link up with the FBHVC and push for this much needed change on the basis of the number of votes he would loose from the Classic car users if he does not enact this change, that might work!

  • A. Muse says:

    Quote’ Our prime minister is, or at least was, a bit of a petrolhead; he used to be GQ magazine’s motoring correspondent. So, Boris, how about it? ‘ Unquote

    Interesting article in the January 2021 edition of ‘The Automobile’ (Page9), maybe not so much of a pertrol head as you may like to think.

  • Mr R J Owen says:

    When you buy a house, the history is revealed there through Solicitors searches and also neighbours through estate agents history is revealed. The same should be with any 2nd hand car purchase, total paper-work and history and owners revealed. I feel very strongly about it as there are so many bodge it garages about and amateurs mucking around with cars. I speak with experience.

  • John Morrill says:

    An interesting article until it got politicalised…………some people just have to keep on and on about Brexit at every possible opportunity.

  • Ray Pearson says:

    Classic car owners are responsible people with a fascination for their cars history and would only use this information to enhance what they have already gleaned about their car history and build on it. Even if the cost of V888 information was increased or an age limit placed on these vehicles the take up would stll be massive and could help the country’s dwindling finances. Data protection is fine for sensitive issues but who previously owned your car is hardly a matter of national security. So come on Boris, time to revoke this bit of legislation now we are no longer bound by it

  • Paul Yates says:

    I own a 1933 Morris Ten that started life in Bristol went to Hastings perhaps during the war, had a student owner in London in the 70s and ended up with me in Rochdale in 1986 as a wreck 5 1/2 years later back to glory in it’s original state but how nice to be able to fill in all the gaps in between it would be! Paul.

  • Terry Ingles says:

    Isn’t there some mechanism in the UK which allows for a petition on a subject to be examined by government if it collects more than a stated number of signatures? Maybe the Federation of British Historic Vehicle Clubs could be persuaded to initiate such a petition following its recent survey into ownership of historic vehicles?

  • Bill Cameron says:

    And would give you the opportunity to check the truth or otherwise any “fairy stories” you may have been told regarding its history.

  • Adam French says:

    What a great idea.
    My 1953 MG (purchased in 1966) is now in its fourth home and I’d like to know its provenance when it was with its previous households.
    True to fashion , when contacted, DVLA were singularly unhelpful. But at least I finally received a formal reply to my enquiry after many, many months delay.
    I’ve had a number of “collectible” cars in the past and wouldn’t have any hesitation in passing on my memories. Surely, that’s what being an enthusiast is all about.

  • Aaron Walsh says:

    The government are more than happy to sell your name and address to unscrupulous private car parking firms so I think there is a strong case for the government to provide a similar service to the many genuine classic cars owners and dealers.

  • Peter Smith says:

    I fully agree with the sentiment of this article, was enjoying it up until the “whinging remoaner” comments on about what a disaster Brexit was – totally unneccessary for personal political opinions to be expressed in a motoring article! GDPR is a gret example of onerous EU “sledge hammer to crack a nut” legislation which we’re much better off without. Hopefully from now on we’ll have to suffer much less of such nonsense!

  • Paul Jackson says:

    Yes, I agree. It would be very useful and rewarding if the DVLA would once again allow us to trace our motors’ history.

  • Dave Emerson says:

    I don’t see how any commercial operation has any more legitimate justification than the current owner of a vehicle, to access that vehicles ownership history.

    As long as you can prove that you are the current owner, and not some random tyre-kicker, then what’s the problem?

    Where do I sign the petition?

  • Jem Bowkett says:

    Let’s get a petition going

  • Ian says:

    GDPR applies to living individuals. It does not apply to deceased persons or companies. Insist that DVLA supply copies of the old logbooks/V5 documents with only the names of living persons redacted. The address itself is not subject to GDPR.

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