Rebuilds and the law
What you can and cannot do to an old Land Rover
Once upon a time, building a 'special' Land Rover was very simple. You took an old Range Rover chassis and running gear, shortened the chassis and welded a few bits onto it, dropped Series 2 or 3 bodywork on top and called the result a 'hybrid'. You used the chassis plate and registration number from the Series vehicle, logically so as the end result looked like a Series, not a Range Rover. Hybrids were hugely popular back in the days when Defenders were new and expensive, and rusty Range Rovers almost free.
But all good things must end, and the old system which allowed you to do pretty much anything to a Land Rover as long as the end result could pass an MoT, was brought to an end by two separate developments. The first was the introduction in 1995 of the tax exemption for historic vehicles, initially on a 25 year rolling basis and then capped at 31st December 1972 (thanks, Tony and Gordon). This meant that, for the first time, the identity of a vehicle could make a big difference to the amount of road tax paid. The second was the introduction in 1998 of the Single Vehicle Approval (SVA) test. Intended to regulate the kit-car industry, the new test resulted in a tightening of the definitions of what constituted a self-built, as opposed to rebuilt vehicle.
So the authorities published guidance to define the circumstances in which a rebuilt or modified vehicle could retain its original identity (and in the case of a pre-1973 vehicle, its tax-exempt status). The guidance distinguishes itself by being simple and hard to understand at the same time. The main problem is that it was not written with separate chassis, giant Meccano set Land Rovers in mind. So it can be hard to fit old Land Rovers into some of the definitions used in the guidance.
What does the guidance actually say? There are two separate sets of rules - one for 'rebuilt' and another for 'radically altered' vehicles. 'Radically altered' is defined as "vehicles which are substantially altered from their original specification, but which are not kit conversions". The two sets of rules are similar although not identical.
For rebuilt vehicles, the rules state that in order to retain the original registration mark (direct quotes from VOSA website are in italics):
Cars and car-derived vans (this includes Land Rovers) must use:
The original unmodified chassis or unaltered bodyshell (i.e. body and chassis as one unit - monocoque); or a new chassis or monocoque bodyshell of the same specification as the original supported by evidence from the dealer or manufacturer (e.g. receipt).
And two other major components from the original vehicle - ie suspension (front & back); steering assembly; axles (both); transmission or engine.
If a second-hand chassis or monocoque bodyshell is used a car must pass an Individual Vehicle Approval (IVA) and light goods vans must have a enhanced single vehicle approval (ESVA) or single vehicle approval (SVA) test after which a "Q" prefix registration number will be allocated.
For radically altered vehicles a points system is used. Vehicle must score eight or more points to retain the original identity and avoid the need for an SVA test. The following values are allocated to the major components used:
chassis or body shell (body and chassis as one unit - monocoque ie direct replacement from the manufacturer) (original or new) = 5 points
suspension = 2 points
axles = 2 points
transmission = 2 points
steering assembly = 2 points
engine = 1 point
VOSA (the vehicle licencing authority) generally allow 'like for like' replacements. So for example, a new set of leaf springs on a Series vehicle would keep the two points for suspension, provided they used the standard original mounting points. Likewise, a reconditioned 2.25 petrol engine replacing a worn out original would retain the 1 point for engine, but a TDi conversion in a Series vehicle would not.
For the Land Rover rebuilder the key issue here is likely to be the chassis. Enquiries to VOSA have confirmed that 'unmodified' and 'of the same specification as the original' mean exactly that. So: shortened or lengthened Discovery/Range Rover chassis are out. So are custom-built new coil spring chassis for Series vehicles. You can argue that even bobtail Rangies and Discoveries are technically illegal, as the chassis has to be shortened at the rear. Modifying Series chassis to take power steering boxes? Very, very dubious. It seems harsh that the reuse of good second hand chassis is in effect prohibited, but as I said earlier, the rules weren't written with Land Rovers in mind. For most cars the bodyshell is, in effect, the car. On a Land Rover the chassis is just another replaceable bit, although a large one. The legislation doesn't reflect this. The only Land Rovers on modified or second-hand chassis which you can be reasonably certain are legal, are those built before the SVA rules were introduced in 1998, or vehicles which have undergone an SVA test.
So what? The vehicle has passed an MOT, it's insured, so where is the problem? Most likely there will be no problem, provided the vehicle does not come to VOSA's attention. But if the vehicle is involved in a major accident (especially one caused by mechanical failure), or if a sharp-eyed MoT tester decides to report it, or even if it has an attractive registration which you want to transfer, requiring a VOSA inspection, then you could be in some trouble. At the very least the vehicle will be stripped of its identity and have to undergo an SVA test before it is allowed back on the road: and if you are using a tax-exempt identity, you could be pursued for back tax as well. And if your insurers discover that the vehicle should not be on the road, they will undoubtedly use this to try to wriggle out of paying up in the event of an accident.
''Modified/rebuilt' is also used as an explanation when people are selling stolen vehicles which have been given a new identity (a practice know as 'ringing'). Take a stolen Defender 300TDi, grind the chassis number off and fit the VIN plates from a tax-exempt Series 2A. Then tell the unsuspecting punter that it is an original 1966 vehicle that has been modified over the years with newer parts. Sounds unbelievable, but people fall for this line, then their new Landie gets taken away by the police and they are left out of pocket.
There are also plenty of people within the Land Rover movement who are fed up with the abuse of tax exemption and the scrapping of perfectly savable Series vehicles to provide tax-exempt identities to be transferred to newer Land Rovers. There is a small army out there of people who will routinely report dodgy vehicles to DVLA. If they go to a Land Rover show and see what looks like a Defender on a Series identity, they will report it. Whatever you think of that approach, it exists and if you are planning to do an identity swap to save a couple of hundred a year on road tax, you need to be aware that it could cost you your Land Rover.
So - before you start building up your dream Land Rover, make sure you know and understand the rules. If you are looking to buy a heavily modified vehicle, satisfy yourself that it meets the legal requirements. Be especially wary of tax-exempt vehicles on coil sprung chassis - there are no circumstances in which a coil-sprung Land Rover can be tax exempt unless (a) it has passed an SVA test or (b) it was built up before 1998.
One last point. If you are rebuilding a Land Rover onto a new (standard) galvanised chassis, some people will tell you that you need to inform DVLA. DO NOT TELL THEM! There is no legal requirement to do so, and it just confuses the junior clerk on whose desk your notification lands. Mention the words 'chassis swap' to DVLA and you will be buried in paperwork from now to eternity. All you need to do is make sure you keep the receipt for the new chassis, and dispose of the old one in such a way that it cannot be reused. That is as far as you need to go.
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