Cowland on Cars

Some of my classics are MOT exempt – this is why I’m still getting them tested

by Paul Cowland
5 April 2023 4 min read
Some of my classics are MOT exempt – this is why I’m still getting them tested
Paul, booking his next MOT with a smile (probably) Photo: Matt Howell

Driving a 40-plus year old classic? Treat it to a test anyway, says Paul Cowland, presenter of Salvage Hunters: Classic Cars and Motor Pickers

There’s a huge amount of chat about MoT testing at the moment. Ever since it was introduced, the ‘historic’ exemption for classic vehicles over 40 years old has been greeted with an equal mix of elation and scepticism. Those very much for the idea argue that these oft-cherished cars are maintained to a standard way in excess of an annual test anyway. And those that aren’t so keen point out that, when push comes to shove, how can you tell that’s the case? One owner’s idea of mechanical perfection may differ very much from another’s – and when safety and road legality is at stake, who should be the ultimate arbiter?

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For many classic car enthusiasts, the MoT test is a stomach-churning yearly nightmare that leads to cold sweats, sleepless nights and a genuine fear of imminent expenditure. I have plenty of car friends that take the entire day off work for theirs. Not just to aid the inevitable logistics that these things require, but to be able to mentally prepare themselves for a day of potential anguish and wallet-melting disclosures.

But might I suggest another way? A change of mindset that actually gets you looking forward to your MoT each year? A veritable red letter day in the calendar that ranks alongside ‘new wheel fitment’ in the diary, or the joy of visiting the trimmers to select a leather sample for a forthcoming interior upgrade. These kind of car upkeep visits have that essential ‘feelgood’ factor – the unalloyed joy that we’re spending money on our cars to make them better, more fun to drive, nicer to look at, easier to live with…

Mechanic working on classic MG
Plenty of classic owners work on their own cars, but with varied experience and attentiveness, an MOT is extra peace of mind for a classic’s roadworthiness. Photo: Peter Dazeley via Getty Images

But when you start to analyse it, why shouldn’t we consider the more mundane and workaday maintenance that goes into our machines in the exact same way? I’m sad enough to believe that, when I give one of my classics a thorough service, I’m doing my bit as the current custodian to ensure that the componentry, control surfaces and integrity of the vehicle are working at their absolute zenith. The car always drives and feels better as a result, and if I’m being brutally honest, the increased value of a flawlessly serviced car isn’t going to hurt any, either – when I (eventually) come to move it on. Although anyone who knows me well realises that those days are far, far down the road, in most cases…

When you peel and boil it, your annual MoT should give you the same joyous feeling of keeping your car at its very best. When you take a good, hard look at what’s happening, it’s basically a case of a highly trained automotive professional undertaking a thorough examination of your car, and helping you to identify and head off any potential problems or safety-related issues that might lie ahead. And for that invaluable service, in most garages I’ve ever been to, they’re going to charge you the princely sum of around £50. To my mind, that’s the bargain of the year. Have a ring round most decent garages and ask for a written report to do the same. Chances are you’ll pay double, at least.

It’s for these reasons, plus the wonderful paper trail and provenance that accompanies it, that I will forever continue to put all of my MoT-exempt vehicles through their test each year, whenever I’m using them on the road. Not only does it give me immense peace of mind that I’m driving a car in the safest possible condition, but I’ve also got a wonderful wedge of paper to compile in the car’s history file as it progresses through time. The one thing I’ve learned in my 30 years in the trade is that people love a story when they’re buying old cars, and if your bills, mileages and MoTs all tally in one cohesive narrative, leading to what us old lags call a ‘no questions’ car, the phone is going to ring. And frequently.

Mazda RX-7 restoration
How many cars, freed from the need for regular checks, will be running around with undersides that look like this? Photo: Wheels In Motion

But here’s the thing that no-one has talked about yet. Thankfully, and to the best of my knowledge, there hasn’t yet been a serious incident involving an MoT exempt and untested classic that’s caused serious damage – or worse – to another driver or pedestrian. While I’d love that to continue ad infinitum, there will sadly inevitably be a day when an unlucky owner somewhere needs to prove to their insurer – or local police force – that their car was very much in a roadworthy condition against a very serious claim. With a fresh MoT, it’s a simple mic drop moment. You’ve done all you can, and there’s a personage from the ministry that’s given you a piece of paper to prove it. So, unless you’ve been doing something really naughty, that’s a paid out claim and a happy officer. But without? The onus is on you to prove the weight of evidence. And then it boils down to who did the work, to what standard and when. It’s all going to get a little subjective.

Look upon the chance to MoT your exempt classic as an opportunity, my friends. A grand day out with a seasoned professional to get your car ship shape for the driving season ahead, a wonderful way of increasing its value – and potentially, a literal ‘get out of jail’ card should something heinous happen in your driving future. For far less than the cost of a tank of fuel, it’s going to be the very best money that you’ll ever spend.

Read more

Want release from your lease? Then buy a banger…
How to apply for road tax and MOT exemption for a historic classic car
Your safety matters – unless it costs too much

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  • Reddo says:

    Annual testing is too short. They need to consider the French system of every two years for all cars and 5 years for classics. It does of course consider the fact that rust is not such a big issue as cars in the UK. If MOT tests were were more sympathetic maybe but they are now just a process.

  • Bernie says:

    If you put your classic in for an MOT and it fails can you be prosecuted for driving a car in an unroadworthy condition?

  • Jeffrey Bridges says:

    I fully agree, I service my two classics myself and put them through the MOT every year. I’m lucky to have a sensible friendly family run local garage, they apply common sense when testing and give good advice and help if needed. They also look after my 20 year old everyday car, a Rover 75.

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