What defines a "new car" from both legal and philosophical perspectives?
December 2, 2017 2:33 PM   Subscribe

I was daydreaming about car restoration and got to thinking about when a car becomes a different, new car. Think Theseus' Ship. At what point would/could you get a new VIN or set the odometer to zero?

Consider this hypothetical situation: You are gifted a run-down classic car. Let's say it's a 1967 Mustang fastback, since it has a large catalogue of brand new parts available. Month one, you decide to replace its sketchy 289 engine with a brand new 302, freshly manufactured, and all the accompanying doodads in the engine well. Month two, you don't like how rusty the body is and have every single panel and (what the heck) the entire interior replaced with brand new parts. Month three, you decide the frame is a little torqued and have a brand new one fabricated and have everything transferred to it. Hell, might as well replace the suspension and all the remaining parts too.

So you end up with a car that has had every single part replaced. It is in no way the same car it was a month ago. My question is this: At what point in the process (if any) would you apply for a new VIN/title or roll the odometer to zero? Or is there even a legal mechanism for this? What about if you just started from parts and built it from the ground up?

Note: This is completely out of curiosity. I'm not planning to do any sort of car restoration, much less replace every single part of a car. I'm not looking to get a new VIN or set an odometer to zero at any point in my future.
posted by FakeFreyja to Grab Bag (17 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
It would seem to me that there's still "continuity" since not every piece of the car was replaced at the same time (e.g. the car wasn't simply replaced with a different car). Analogous to how the human body is constantly regenerating, and over a period of seven years or so every cell in our body has been replaced, but we're still the same age and have the same SSN.
posted by borsboom at 3:15 PM on December 2, 2017

I think the philosophical question is both fun and unanswerable. "This hammer is 150 years old! Only had two repairs: Grandpa replaced the handle, and Dad replaced the head."

I have no idea about the legal question.
posted by clawsoon at 3:31 PM on December 2, 2017 [3 favorites]

Just to add a wrinkle to the hypothetical:

You also made sure to keep every single old part you replaced. At the end you took all the old parts and put them back together. What you have there is the original car you started with.

Are they legally the same car?
posted by FakeFreyja at 3:41 PM on December 2, 2017 [2 favorites]

You could, in theory, apply to have any car registered as a one-off with a special VIN, but...why would you want to? You can't apply for a different Ford-issued VIN. What you're proposing is deliberately breaking the chain of provenance.
posted by notsnot at 3:45 PM on December 2, 2017

There's a legal dimension to this question. In the USA, state laws will define in what part of the car the VIN inheres. I was under the impression it was the chassis, but doing a little reading just now, it seems that in at least some states, it's the engine. With modern unibody cars, the matter of where the chassis ends and the rest of the car begins gets a little fuzzy. And in an edge case like the Tesla Model S, which in some cases has two motors, which would carry the VIN?

There have been cases in the past of one extremely desirable and rare car being split into engine and chassis, and two new cars being built around the remains, both being claimed to be "original." This seems to be especially the case with the AC Cobra (which predates VIN numbers)—here's a story of one guy who had nothing more than two wheels and a bill of sale from the original car on which to base his rebuild's authenticity.
posted by adamrice at 3:47 PM on December 2, 2017 [1 favorite]

...as to your wrinkle: There's only one VIN plate. Which ever car incorporates that plate, is considered the car that has continuity since 1967.

The other car is nothing, legally.
posted by notsnot at 3:47 PM on December 2, 2017

...as to your wrinkle: There's only one VIN plate. Which ever car incorporates that plate, is considered the car that has continuity since 1967.

Except if the VIN plate was on the engine on one car and on the chassis on the other, you might still end up with a car that has two VIN plates on it.
posted by lollusc at 4:49 PM on December 2, 2017 [1 favorite]

Pragmatically, roll the odometer with a new engine. In my limited experience, car guys and mechanics and govt types seem to want the odometer to give something close to the miles on the engine. If you don’t flip it at that stage, you certainly should at the end. It would be stupid to have a frame, body, transmission and engine that collectively total 100 miles, but insist the odometer say 300k or whatever.

Philosophy aside, your state DMV or analogous will have guidelines on when to issue a new vin to built cars, as will insurance agencies.
If you can’t find them, tell us your jurisdiction we can probably help get you the right documents.
posted by SaltySalticid at 5:27 PM on December 2, 2017

My experience is with old cars in California. As they used to say, your mileage may vary...

At what point in the process (if any) would you apply for a new VIN/title or roll the odometer to zero? Or is there even a legal mechanism for this?
There are mechanisms for retitling a car with a lost/missing title but the new title would still use the original VIN/serial number. If the car has an existing VIN/serial number, this would always the the number that would be on the title. As far as the odometer, in California, you just have to note when you sell the car that the odometer reading doesn't match the reported mileage. This isn't uncommon if, say, you've replaced the gauge cluster with a new one or one from another car.

What about if you just started from parts and built it from the ground up? Some states allow vehicles built completely from parts to be titled as "Special Construction". The emissions and safety requirements vary from state to state. It may just need to meet the standards of the year it most resembles. Or it may need to meet the standards of the year of the engine used. Or, it may need to meet the standards of the year it was actually built. So, depending on the vehicle and jurisdiction, you could potentially end up with a car that's legal in your state but couldn't be registered in another state. It's also worth pointing out that registering a car like this may require that you provide receipts or documentation for all parts used to ensure that no stolen parts were used.
posted by zombiedance at 7:04 PM on December 2, 2017

Its never new. Note that this happens with airframes. Eventually every part gets swapped out except for the spars and frames.
posted by Ironmouth at 8:12 PM on December 2, 2017

"What about if you just started from parts and built it from the ground up?"

In general this is legal but in practice it will give your local DMV fits and you will spend like three months just getting them to follow your state's licensing procedure, because they don't deal with hand-built, street-legal cars that often. Like, once every decade for a biggish urban office.

Similarly, if you swap out every part of the car, and build a new car with the old parts, and take them both to the DMV, they are going to freak out, spend twelve weeks bickering about it, and eventually issue you two licenses which may or may not be issued the same way the next time if you did it again.

(I have a friend who scratch-builds vehicles. The DMV never gets used to it.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 9:43 PM on December 2, 2017

The opposite happens. The more true to life version of your question is “how much of the original car has to remain to be considered “original”. According to the California DMV at least , the answer is: 0%.

Someone buys a ‘47 Ford that has sat behind a barn for 60+ years, they throw away the car because it’s just a pile a rust, and build a new car. And now, then they have a 1947 Ford that is literally a brand new car.

My grandfather had a Foose ‘37, and I believe the only part less than a few years old were the headlights, and those came off a ‘38. But, the pink slip said “1937 Ford”.

It’s a lot easier to buy an old car and use the pink slip than it is jump through the hoops of registered s scratch built car.

On preview: like Eyebrows McGee said, better to not try to deal with DMV and pretend your car is old.
posted by sideshow at 9:48 PM on December 2, 2017

I have this vague recollection that on the TV show Graveyard Carz on Velocity that they were discussing this subject. How far gone can the car be before it goes from a restoration to a something more than that. The owner guy, a purist, thought that it depended on the number of body panels being replaced including the floor and I think he thinks the VIN on the engine should match the VIN on the frame.
posted by AugustWest at 11:54 PM on December 2, 2017

This reminds me of the story of A.N.L. Munby and the Bugatti, as told in his essay 'Book Collecting in the 1930s':
I bought two medieval manuscripts and sold them a year later to acquire a half share in a 1925 type 40 Bugatti, which was regularly taken to pieces by the roadside. Its mechanical eccentricities involved me in a small piece of vandalism which I recall with shame. One of its gaskets, which kept blowing, was finally found to be responsive to vellum, and a thick leaf from a water-stained and ruined Antiphonal was cut up for the purpose; and this, when enthusiasts asked the Bugatti's age, enabled one to indulge in a little piece of lifemanship and reply nonchalantly: 'Parts of it date back to the fifteenth century.'
posted by verstegan at 2:08 AM on December 3, 2017 [1 favorite]

There have certainly been several court cases here in the UK over such questions. Hubbard v Middlebridge Scimitar Ltd was about whether a famous racing Bentley, 'Old Number One', could realistically be described as the car that raced at Le Mans in 1929. The judgment explains the repeated rebuilding (both in the course of experimental development, and after a fatal crash) that led to the question, but in the end Mr Justice Otton held that although the car in dispute could not be described as "original" it was "authentic":

"Here the entity which started life as a racing car never actually disappeared, so that the results of all the labors can justifiably be described as "authentic". At any one stage in its evolution it had indubitably retained its characteristics. Any new parts were assimilated into the whole at such a rate and over such a period of time that they never caused the car to lose its identity which included the fact that it won the Le Mans race in two successive years. It had an unbroken period of four seasons in top-class racing. There is no other Bentley either extinct or extant which could legitimately lay claim to the title of Old Number One or its reputation. It was this history and reputation, as well as its metal, which was for sale on 7th April 1990."

In another case, Brewer v Mann, the car in question (another Bentley) had been so extensively restored that all that remained of the original was part of the front chassis. The subsequent legal dispute was over whether the seller had misdescribed the car; the High Court thought he had, but the Court of Appeal disagreed.

It's not just old cars. I've dined aboard HMS Victory, Nelson's flagship at Trafalgar. From what I've been told, perhaps 10-15% of her timber (and hardly anything of her fittings) date back to that time. I understand that about the same can be said for the USS Constitution.
posted by Major Clanger at 2:56 AM on December 3, 2017 [1 favorite]

What you are talking about is the philosophical problem best posed by Otto Neurath, known as "Neurath's boat". There you will find your answer, or at least a thorough discussion into your inquiry.
The powerful image conjured up by Neurath, in his Anti-Spengler (1921), whereby the body of knowledge is compared to a boat that must be repaired at sea: ‘we are like sailors who on the open sea must reconstruct their ship but are never able to start afresh from the bottom…’. Any part can be replaced, provided there is enough of the rest on which to stand. The image opposes that according to which knowledge must rest upon foundations, thought of as themselves immune from criticism, and transmitting their immunity to other propositions by a kind of laying-on of hands.
posted by standardasparagus at 1:44 PM on December 3, 2017

A girlfriend's car was stolen in Manchester, UK. It was the top-of-the-line model of a crappy popular car, and according to local police, thieves like to steal one of those and move all the obvious premium bits (seats, badges) to a base model donor car they bought legally, then sell that. They appear to be running a legit business and the stolen car basically vanishes.
posted by w0mbat at 3:43 PM on December 3, 2017

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