Understanding the FIA’s new authenticity rules, which will allow replicas to race with period cars but aim for transparency
In historic motorsport nothing is so contentious as the matter of fake cars. Of course there are honest replicas which don’t pretend to be anything they aren’t and thus have an intrinsic charm of their own. Then there are dubious cars which everybody knows are not quite what their owner stoutly maintains (and often genuinely believes) they are. And there is the occasional clever fake which, if supported by equally clever faked paperwork, can remain undiscovered even by the experts.
The motivation here is usually greed, especially now that some old cars have attained the status of fine works of art. If a genuine period sports-racing car with real history and drama under its wheels is worth, say, £2million, a flawlessly-built replica of it, put together at great expense five years ago and identical down to the last rivet, may be worth one tenth of that sum. There are wealthy punters who have been duped into paying real car money for a replica, or at least one with dodgy history. Eventually another car pops up somewhere in the world with the same identity, and that’s when the arguing starts.
Two factors complicate the issue. One is that most (not all) historic race organisers only accept original cars in their events. A car you can race is always going to be worth more than one you can’t. The other is that most old racing cars will have had many parts replaced down the years. After a bad crash a bent chassis may have been replaced, only for that bent chassis to be straightened later and form the basis of a second car claiming the same identity as the first.
The test here is continuous history. Washington’s apocryphal axe can claim to be the original, even though it has had three new handles and two new blades, because despite those replacements it has always been an entity: it has always occupied a given cube of space. A car which has always existed as an entity, even while being rebuilt with new parts after an accident, can demonstrate continuous history. A car made up from parts gathered from different originals that have been dismantled at different times cannot show continuous history.
When a historic racing car comes up for sale, the advertisement will often mention ‘FIA papers’. This indicates that there is an official FIA Historic Vehicle Identity Form (HVIF) for the car which has been mandatory for any international historic event. An HVIF includes identifying photos, chassis and engine numbers and crucial details of the car’s history, and is granted following an inspection by an accredited FIA historian.
Not surprisingly, FIA papers can make a substantial difference to the value of a car. But they are not infallible. FIA inspectors in different countries have not always exercised the same rigorous criteria and there have been cases when the inspectors have been misled. But now, at the behest of FIA president Max Mosley, the existing system is being swept away to be replaced with a new form which makes no distinction between real cars and fakes.
At first sight this seems to be an act of insanity. But the new Historic Technical Passport (HTP) is intended only to establish whether the car is to the correct technical specification for racing in a given class. It will not differentiate, for example, between a Cobra built by the AC factory in 1964 and one built by a replica merchant in 2004— provided the replica follows the original’s specification in every detail. So, if a race organiser is keen to ensure that all the cars in his race are genuine period pieces, he or she will not be able to rely on the HTP: it will be necessary to ask each entrant for proof of provenance.
However, there is now to be a new and much more rigorous test of a car’s authenticity: the Heritage Certificate. Unlike the HTP this is purely optional and will not be mandatory for competitors in an international historic race, unless an organiser chooses to make it so. The Heritage Certificate is simply intended to demonstrate that a car really is what its owner says it is. It will require a provable, uninterrupted history from the day it was built. If changes to the specification have been made at any time these will be carefully recorded, but will not in themselves disqualify the car from having a certificate. The key is continuous history.
Inevitably the new system has met with a mixed reception, especially since the Heritage Certificate requires a payment to the FIA of €1500 as well as paying an inspector to come and look at the car. The FIA says its fees will fund a new and sophisticated worldwide database of all historic car specifications.
Of course the certificates and the database will only be as good as the knowledge of those charged with inspecting cars and defining correct specifications. But there seems to be a real will on behalf of those involved, led by Jeremy Hall, to make the new system work. And they are determined to make the whole thing totally transparent. All applications and all reasons for granting or denying a Heritage Certificate will be shown on the website and full details will remain on-line for anyone to access.
And that’s the key. Whatever system is in force, the aim must be to make it harder for people to tell lies. There is enough living knowledge around at the moment for most of the lies to be found out: but in 50 years’ time, when the people who knew the cars in period are no longer around, it may be a different story. The FIAs new database could be a real weapon for truth.