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Iconic, Street-Legal Cars In The US?
February 2, 2014 8:17 AM   Subscribe

An actual help-me-with-my-story question: I've got a group of characters who need to ride around in an eye catching, iconic vintage automobile. It was orginally going to be a VW bus for the Mystery Machine echos but it turns out that's not actually street legal in the US. So, what's an old-fashioned auto that seats four or more, can be driven on US roads, and is antique/unusual enough to attract attention from car people but not enough that it sticks out like a surreal visitation ( like say, a Model T would.)
posted by The Whelk to Grab Bag (54 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
 
Why isn't a VW bus street legal? I grew up with them.

Also, in Florida and many other states, any vehicle over 20/25 years old can get a "classic" or "antique" plate and be exempt from many motor vehicles safety rules and such.
posted by tilde at 8:20 AM on February 2 [6 favorites]


You couldn't build or import a new VW Bus into the US, because of emissions and crash safety issues, but you can absolutely drive them (at least in some states). I've seen them on the road here in Pennsylvania, though I don't know if they have "antique" or similar special plates.
posted by Tomorrowful at 8:22 AM on February 2 [1 favorite]


but it turns out that's not actually street legal in the US.

Can you give more information about this? There are plenty of VW Transporters driving around today, what is the non-street legal part of this? Most cars of any vintage can be made street legal enough to be driven on roads and highways, they just may not come that way stock. My suggestions

- an old fashioned Checker cab
- a custom AMC Gremlin
- Unimog (I saw some in NYC, they have a military feel to them)
- the older Toyota Hiace
posted by jessamyn at 8:22 AM on February 2 [2 favorites]


I was told they used be grandfathered in but did not meet modern safety requirements so couldn't be driven? ( it just now occurs to me the person telling me this was fucking with me cause ...how would I know?) This is mostly a result of my extreme and total ignorance of anything car-related so I appreciate being set straight.
posted by The Whelk at 8:27 AM on February 2


The classic VW bus is, indeed, street-legal. "Street legal" is determined by laws and regulations in-effect at the time of original production of the vehicle, not by current regulations. A 60's VW bus is completely legal to drive on the street. As would be a '69 Camaro, or a '57 Bel-Air.
posted by Thorzdad at 8:27 AM on February 2 [4 favorites]


Of course, "safe" is an entirely different matter.
posted by Thorzdad at 8:30 AM on February 2 [1 favorite]


I see old microbuses all the time. Old cars are not held to new-car safety standards.

Other cars that are iconic, vintage, and seat 4+ people.
- 1957 Chevy (any model)
- 1963 Cadillac deVille
- 1959 Cadillac Eldorado (very flamboyant, might stick out too much for your purposes)
- 1978 AMC Pacer (not many of these left)
- Citroen DS (uncommon in USA)
posted by adamrice at 8:31 AM on February 2 [3 favorites]


VW buses were sold in the US for many years and all of those are still legal to drive (or at least the ones that haven't caught on fire or crumpled up like tin cans in crashes). If you wanted to import a VW bus or another vehicle from another country, it's a difficult process unless the vehicle is more than 25 years old.
posted by Dip Flash at 8:38 AM on February 2 [1 favorite]


Street legal varies by state but it basically means your car is registered and inspectable and meets safety standards. You can Google "street legal" and your state to get more information on what that might specifically mean for your characters. VW Bugs, for example were, for a time, still sold in Mexico but they didn't have proper seatbelts so if you imported one into the US you'd have to install safer seatbelts to drive them legally in the US.

Other suggestions

- older Buicks: Opels or Special Estate wagons
- one of those old van/ambulances

In fact, you might just want to go through Hemmings Find of the Day archives til you fond something that suits you.
posted by jessamyn at 8:39 AM on February 2 [1 favorite]


Agreed with the confusion over the street legality; I know a number of people here in L.A. that have them.

If you're still having some issues with it story-wise maybe a VW Thing would do. (You'd have to double-check on the legality of driving it sans doors and windshield, though.)
posted by Room 641-A at 8:42 AM on February 2 [1 favorite]


An Austin FX4 can seat up to 7 and would be very head-turning in the US.
posted by Rock Steady at 8:42 AM on February 2 [4 favorites]


I was told they used be grandfathered in but did not meet modern safety requirements so couldn't be driven?

I expect that the worst case is that you couldn't manufacture and sell new exact copies of 1960s/70s microbuses.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 8:51 AM on February 2


I love Jessamyn's suggestion of the AMC Gremlin. My mom had a brown Gremlin X.

But, for old-school road-tripping, you can't do much better than an Oldmobile Vista Cruiser. You can raise a family inside one of those things.
posted by Thorzdad at 8:55 AM on February 2 [1 favorite]


An excellent resource for browsing iconic vehicles is the archives of Bring a Trailer. You can look just at specific categories, or just browse back and see what car people find intriguing.
posted by Dip Flash at 9:08 AM on February 2


The Mystery Machine owes far more to the first gen Econoline, the Dodge A100, and the Corvair Greenbriar than it does to the sad, unjustly beloved VW Type II.

If you want to be wry, get a Subaru 360 Van (known as the Sambar elsewhere), which was sold in the US, is simultaneously as sad as a Microbus and smaller than a Beetle.

Take an alternate route with a Renault 8/10. The Renault 8/10 are strangely plain, but anyone who pays attention to cars will notice that they're different right away.

If you're feeling flamboyant, an upgraded NSU RO80 will do the trick. It's something modern folks just vaguely note as "vintage," but gearheads will freak.

You can hardly beat the Volvo 122 for longevity and reliability with a visual flair.

A late Plymouth Valiant has an appeal if you're keen on Americana.

Of course, the best iconic Q cars that get little attention from the masses, but which are rolling spaceships and the third most comfortable car ever built, would be the Citroën CX. They were sold here in the eighties, under the brand CXA, and lots of people use them as everyday cars even now.
posted by sonascope at 9:09 AM on February 2 [4 favorites]


Kit cars
posted by tilde at 9:11 AM on February 2


Faster than a contemporary Corvette: a late 80s Buick Grand National. Also for outlandish cars and good bits of car lore: the 24 hours of LeMons.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 9:12 AM on February 2


Maybe you can try your luck with the car of all cars?
posted by keep it tight at 9:14 AM on February 2


a Jeep Wagoneer, a first gen Chevy Blazer or a first gen Ford Bronco.
posted by mullacc at 9:21 AM on February 2


Ice cream truck.
posted by ColdChef at 9:26 AM on February 2 [1 favorite]


I'm a Corvair afficianado.

Sure, they're unsafe at any speed, but my Mom had a few of them (and BOY do they spin when you're hit broadside) and I just think they're the bees knees.

And we did bump around the countryside in a 1964 VW Bus, and if we still had it, we could still bump around in it. I have a friend who refurbished one as a camper and he takes it to Bonaroo with his family.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 9:27 AM on February 2 [1 favorite]


Any vintage car must meet the US safety standards of the year it was made. For vintage vehicles with a frame, it is the frame's provenance used for the date (which allows body repair and engine/transmission/suspension replacement without invalidating the vehicle's legality.) So not only can you drive a vintage transporter, but you could also import nearly-new replacement parts -- including the entire visible body and interior of a nearly new transporter from Brazil -- and put them on your legal US frame. The engine you'd buy locally; replacement engines and other running gear are readily available.

Having said that: a Corvair van of the time is more interesting, perhaps, than defaulting to the standard VW. American-made, rear-engined, cab-over, and relatively rare compared to transporters and econolines. Here's one.
posted by davejay at 9:28 AM on February 2 [2 favorites]


We drive a Citroen S-M around every now and then. It's the coolest.
posted by Ideefixe at 9:31 AM on February 2 [2 favorites]


Yeah, the Citroen sedans are the coolest! In American films they are often driven by the bad guys, I'm thinking of 'Real Genius' or 'Escape from Witch Mountain', and there's a whole list on IMDB's car-filter if you are curious. Of course in French films you see them a lot.

Newer Citroens are not very common in the USA because of restrictions on importing vehicles with fancy Hydropneumatic suspension systems, but that's another story.
posted by ovvl at 9:53 AM on February 2


I was told they used be grandfathered in but did not meet modern safety requirements so couldn't be driven?

All cars ever sold in the US are still legal to drive, as long as they were legal to drive when sold and have been well-maintained. The notion that they were "grandfathered in" isn't exactly wrong, but *every* existing car is "grandfathered in". They changed the rules for cars in 1998 to require dual-airbags in all new cars but this didn't mean all 1997 and older cars were now illegal to drive because they were lacking the new safety feature.

In fact, you can still drive a Model T if you happen to have one. It's not illegal to operate old cars, you just can't manufacture them for sale.
posted by tylerkaraszewski at 10:07 AM on February 2


How about a vintage hearse?
posted by Slinga at 10:17 AM on February 2


You characters should drive a mid-1970s Mercedes-Benz 450SEL 6.9 in Tobacco Brown.
posted by lstanley at 10:23 AM on February 2


1st generation Honda Civic. Due to rust issues, they're basically nonexistent now (at least on the East Coast US, perhaps they fared better in California, The Land That Rust Forgot). I've only ever seen one in person, owned by a guy I met who discovered it in a barn, restored it and now races it.

Renault Le Car. I've only seen one in person in a museum.

Citroen GS. OK, technically not street legal as the wiki article notes that it was never officially imported to the US, but one of the few surviving examples with their rotary engine would be pretty exotic.
posted by indubitable at 10:27 AM on February 2 [1 favorite]


Just a heads-up: "Street legal" can vary from state to state. For example, in California cars have to pass a smog test. Michigan used to have a similar emissions testing law in place, but no longer. And when that law was in place, if your car was 25 years old or more, it was exempt from the law. Old cars are for the most part usually street legal; it's vehicles like dune buggies and mini-bikes and things like that that don't pass muster.
posted by Oriole Adams at 10:47 AM on February 2


How about a vintage hearse?

Ghostbusters did it. Also Six Feet Under.
Similarly Breaking Bad has claimed the Aztek forever.

1st generation Honda Civic. Due to rust issues, they're basically nonexistent now (at least on the East Coast US, perhaps they fared better in California, The Land That Rust Forgot)

Californian here, and I was going to say that I see them fairly often, but looking at the Wikipedia page I think I am mostly seeing 3rd-gen Civics. Cash For Clunkers took a lot of the really old beaters off the road.

I was thinking of the Fiat Multipla but I don't think it made it to the US.
posted by We had a deal, Kyle at 10:49 AM on February 2


Studebaker Avanti. I actually saw one of these driving around the other day.
posted by bricoleur at 11:02 AM on February 2 [1 favorite]


1948 Tucker
posted by Rob Rockets at 11:10 AM on February 2


The Mystery Machine isn't a VW bus anyway.
posted by stormyteal at 11:25 AM on February 2


The Chevy/Corvair Greenbriar would fit the bill, but it was the most dangerous car I ever drove. It would swerve all over the road under heavy acceleration.

I'd give the hippie treatment to a short school bus.
posted by SemiSalt at 11:51 AM on February 2


Renault Le Car. I've only seen one in person in a museum.
There were a few of them in Canada, particularly Québec, in the late '70s.

It's too bad the Chevrolet El Camino SS seats only two people. (The mullet of cars! Business in the front, and party in the rear!)
A Woody station wagon? Several manufacturers made them.
A Chevrolet Vega Kammback Wagon? (They are hard to find any more because the aluminum-block engine tended to melt down before the 50,000 mile mark.
Every vehicle in the film 'Drowning Mona' (except the trucks and police cars) is a Yugo.
Plymouth Voyager minivan?

The Internet Movie Cars Database is a useful resource for finding out which vehicles appear in which movies.
posted by Multicellular Exothermic at 12:16 PM on February 2


Eagle wagon. First cross over SUV and they had true four wheel drive systems.
posted by Mitheral at 12:31 PM on February 2 [1 favorite]


The Subaru Brat seats four. So long as you got the bed-mounted, rear-facing seats.
posted by Thorzdad at 12:31 PM on February 2


The Checker Marathon, the non-taxi version of the Checker cab.

If money were no object, a 1960s Bristol. So terribly low-key, yet more refined in many ways than a Rolls Royce.

Everything that sonascope suggested, of course. Plus a Facel Vega.
posted by scruss at 12:39 PM on February 2 [1 favorite]


1975 Chevy Caprice Classic convertible, it's a coupe, it's a boat (bench seats front and back), you can fit 3 people in the trunk. Small block V-8, dual carb. Hilarious oil crisis "efficiency" non-solutions, A bonafide sleepah.
posted by Divine_Wino at 1:05 PM on February 2


Cadillacs! These might be good makes* to Google image search:

Eldorado
Coup Deville

*I don't know if you'd prefer to have the choices narrowed down to a particular era or not? For what it's worth, my favorites are from the 70s and 80s (and they're amazing to drive, it's like steering a yacht).

If you want to go in a less macho direction:

Ford Festiva (I think the 1989 is the most iconic). (A fair number of these cars are still on the road in West VA, but for some reason, I barely ever see them anyplace else).

Ford Grenada Station Wagon

Maybe any station wagon would work, honestly.

Actually that blog, Old Parked Cars might come in handy altogether.

I was told they used be grandfathered in but did not meet modern safety requirements so couldn't be driven?

In case you fall in love with a car and want to use it but aren't sure it could be street legal: even if the car is less than 25 years old, in my experience the car can usually still squeak by in the inspection as long as it can literally be driven. Mechanics would probably know better what the exact requirements are, but I know we've had cars that have passed with the windows taped to hold them up, missing door handles, electrical systems too shot to play the radio, clutches that jump gears, and no/broken/recalled rear seatbelts. It's a very bare minimum. By the time a car gets that old/run-down, the problems come with literally keeping it running (because of the expense of replacing parts, etc), not keeping it registered/legal to drive.
posted by rue72 at 3:13 PM on February 2


How about a VW Thing?
posted by Confess, Fletch at 3:44 PM on February 2 [1 favorite]


Oriole Adams: "For example, in California cars have to pass a smog test."

Only vehicles manufactured in 1976 or later.
posted by Lexica at 4:04 PM on February 2


I find the whole "street legal" thing weird. In Maryland, anything's street legal if it passes inspection. If it's 20 years or older, and you're just using it occasionally, with historic tags, you don't even need an inspection, and there are no emissions, ever. My 1990 Miata, amusingly, was tagged this way, and after the fuckload of misery that came from trying to get my Chevrolet Metro through emissions (thank you, fucking computers), I was so very very happy to be able to say "screw you" to the emissions stations. Of course, in CA, they smog way back because cars survive there. There are Datsuns in Los Angeles, twenty years after they disappeared from Maryland roads.

Regarding the Citroën GS, I drove an '83 GSA for a few years, but it was an illegal diplomatic importation that I got away with because the MVA thought it was a Chevy, though I still had the original French plates with a super-desirable 75 tag, and I kept my Maryland plates on hooks so that, when I drove to DC, I could flip them into the car, drive like a maniac, and park anywhere, because you can't put a boot on (or tow, without a special rollback) a hydropneumatic Citroën when it's sitting on its bump stops. Phenomenally good ride, better than the DS, even, and cornered in the best, weirdest way. The very very very best thing, though, was that I got rear-ended in front of the French embassy BY ANOTHER CITROËN, which was so statistically unlikely that I think I'm now possibly immune to death. Customs eventually caught up with me, alas, and there really are less then twenty in the country, so it's an awkward thing.

Alas, you can never use the DS in anything anymore because it's been discovered and ruined by fawning late-is-better-than-never love. These days, I'd be happy to find a good Renault 7, but I've fallen from solvency to poverty and now must content myself with embittered memories.
posted by sonascope at 5:26 PM on February 2 [6 favorites]


Regarding the Citroën GS, I drove an '83 GSA for a few years, but it was an illegal diplomatic importation that I got away with because the MVA thought it was a Chevy, though I still had the original French plates with a super-desirable 75 tag, and I kept my Maryland plates on hooks so that, when I drove to DC, I could flip them into the car, drive like a maniac, and park anywhere, because you can't put a boot on (or tow, without a special rollback) a hydropneumatic Citroën when it's sitting on its bump stops.

sonascope did you write up this episode or its Paris equivalent as a back-pager in I think Smithsonian in maybe the '80s some time? And did the police officer scold you about your parking, or your chicken-wire stuck-on bumper, or something, "Ça constitue une infraccion"? And did you just shrug sheepishly and point to the Dip plates?
posted by toodleydoodley at 6:03 PM on February 2


Fortunately, the damage in the rear-ending was minor scuffing, the po-po were not involved, and the driver of the lovely XM was so flabbergasted and then delighted that a non-French person so adored Citroëns and all French cars (and could gossip endlessly about same) that it all ended in pastry and the kind of interminable car talk that makes me feel warm and cozy in my role as a human being.

Things are different these days, but before TSA/Homeland America, regular Euro tags in DC were regarded as a subset of normal diplomatic plates (i.e. staffers and diplomats who'd brought in their cars on temporary assignments). Wouldn't fly these days. The parking was great, though. Was late for a rehearsal at the Kennedy Center once and I just dumped the GSA on the sidewalk in front of the Watergate, kicked the suspension all the way down, and ran for my opera. There were two notes on it when I got back, one of which said "Your tag number has been reported to your embassy" and the other said "I would like to buy this car."

Jeeesh. I miss cars.
posted by sonascope at 6:21 PM on February 2 [5 favorites]


Rats, Room 641-A and Confess, Fletch beat me to the VW Thing. So, yeah, nthing.
posted by mon-ma-tron at 8:50 PM on February 2


Ooo oh, a suggestion: late 60s Oldsmobile Toronado. Built on the same platform as a Cadillac, front wheel drive which allowed for a flat floor and no center console (so seats six, in a pinch) and definitely would be noticed by car guys without drawing undue attention. The closest thing to a Citroen SM America ever built. I can't provide a direct link, but visit ateupwithmotor.com and read about the 1966-1970 Toronado...and if that doesn't work for you, just about every car written about at that site is iconic in some way, so lots to choose from.
posted by davejay at 3:18 AM on February 3 [1 favorite]


The Toronado is floppily gorgeous in gargantuan way, but the second you go 'round a corner in one, you'll be disabused of the comparison to a Citroën SM.
posted by sonascope at 6:06 AM on February 3 [1 favorite]


I will add, since I've already recommended the Volvo 122 (particularly the wagon), that the last Volvo 240 rolled off the assembly line twenty-one years ago, and while they are still common enough to be everyday sights, they're iconic, durable, beautifully designed, and cheap enough that normal people can buy them as classics without the idiocy of "classic car" prices. A road trip in a 240 wagon is the essence of friendly adventure and there's a mountain of space in the back for all your shit.

Are they a "classic" in the public eye? Not yet, which makes them all the better.
posted by sonascope at 6:18 AM on February 3 [1 favorite]


GMC Carryall, mostly due to how its name would look in print.
posted by notyou at 7:27 AM on February 3


Even cooler might be an International Harvester Travelall.
posted by notyou at 9:04 AM on February 3


antique/unusual enough to attract attention from car people

Depending on how unusual and attention getting you want, a VW bus might not be nearly unusual enough.

They're around. If you want to have "car people" in the US walk around the car exclaiming how they've never seen one before, that would be absurd.

I have seen the rare newer water cooled bus with Mexico plates on US roads. One of those, that would be very unusual and attract a lot of curiosity from people in the know. They look pretty similar to an older bus to most people, but if you are more familiar with them it really stands out that there is a radiator built into the front, and it's quite surprising and remarkable.
posted by yohko at 11:36 AM on February 3


By the way, I'm rereading some Westlake and he has a bunch of car references; references green Hornets a few times ... also has a green Gremlin in Smoke.
posted by tilde at 3:23 PM on February 12


The mid-1970s Dodge Dart. They were standard-issue driver's education cars in my high school district because they were so bland and characterless.
posted by Multicellular Exothermic at 8:21 PM on February 22


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