A deterrent to research

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NEVER has so much interest been evident in the older motor vehicles, and the motoring history attaching to them. Sc historians in this field are kept busy. Regrettably, there is a Government setback to such research, which seems inexcusable. When the DVLC at Swansea, with its exceedingly expensive computers, was formed, to centralise motor licensing data, it was understood that old records would be carefully maintained and that there would be benefits in baying this information immediately on hand when required. We all know how panic stations had to be manned by those who did not wish to see their original Log Books destroyed. We know how inaccurate some of the data transferred to the new Vehicle Registration Documents was, and how this flimsy sheet, poor substitute for the old Log Book, gives only the name and address of the existing “keeper” of a vehicle.

However, the old records are presumably still safely stored at Swansea and, in view of the immense cost to the taxpayer of the whole undertaking, one might hope that such data would be “on computer”, along with more recent records. The Police are, we understand, able to call the DVLC and obtain immediately the name of the owner of a vehicle for which they can quote the Reg. No., and presumably the make of the vehicle as well, to check on possible “swopped” number plates, etc. So it might be expected that some of this information could be made available to bona fide researchers and historians, as it was before the DVLC was heard of. Alas, no, in our recent experience.

We recognise that the DVLC is primarily intended to expedite the licensing and taxing of motor vehicles and to assist the Police in apprehending offenders in relation to this form of tax-collecting, and that historians have no first call on the centre. But in view of the value placed on things historical, by Government Departments and Tourist Organisations among others, and remembering what the Swansea operation has cost, and is costing, the country, one would hardly expect it to shut its doors firmly against genuine researchers into the motoring past.

Yet that has been our experience. It happens that, in trying accurately to uncover motoring history, the make of an unidentifiable vehicle whose photograph, perhaps, has come to hand, is essential information, or that who first owned such a car, and if possible the run of later owners, is invaluable. One might innocently imagine that the researcher could rely on Swansea in these cases. Not so!

In the pre-DVLC days the ploy was to ask the area licensing office to which a given Reg. No. was known to apply, stating a valid reason (like serious historical research) why the data was required, pay a fee of (5p) and in most cases the information was then made available.

But when the DVLC was asked recently by MOTOR SPORT to divulge the make of an ancient chain-driven racing car of which only a back-view picture was available but the Reg. No. clearly visible, we met with bureaucratic opposition. Information is available from the DVLC, for a fee of £2 per vehicle an increase of 195p. over that charged previously by local Motor Tax Offices) but only if this is essential, apparently, for the taxing of the vehicle. The reply to our request for historical data needed for an article we were researching was supplied to us with form VQ 302, on which are eight explanations why the DVLC refuses to help. These are provided with “boxes”, so that a clerk has only to tick the relevant box to dispose of the enquiry. In our case this was item d,” . . . The regulations require a person to give ‘reasonable cause’ for any enquiry, and I am afraid the reason for your enquiry is not one for which we can supply the information you require”. In other words, research by a writer associated with a magazine which has been in existence for 58 years counts for nothing within the DVLC. Naturally we were upset at having caused alarm to the person whose scribbled signature on VQ 302 is illegible (“I am afraid. . .”) but we cannot see any good reason why this Government institution, where motor records can presumably be found at the touch of a button, should withhold information from legitimate researchers. We appreciate that “the privacy of motorists”, as the DVLC expresses it, “must be protected”. But surely, that will not be endangered by disclosing simply the make of a vehicle related to a given Reg. No., nor, we would have thought, by revealing the first owner, even later users, of vehicles scrapped many years ago?

We are left with the thought that it would be all too easy for a DVLC clerk to tick one of the eight “boxes” on form VQ 302 and so easily get rid of an enquiry which may be of much importance to the person asking for help, at £2 ego, but a nuisance to the DVLC. If this sounds uncharitable, the fact remains that the DVLC at Swansea clearly isn’t anxious to be co-operative to historians and has provided itself with the means of administering an easy short, sharp reply to them.

The British section of the Society of Automotive Historians if there is such a body, might take this up at a high level, don’t you think? — W.B.