The History of the Federation of British Historic Vehicle Clubs 

Written by Jim Whyman, former Secretary, updated in December 2020 by Bob Owen, former Legislation Director.

The Federation of British Historic Vehicle Clubs (“The Federation”) was established at a public meeting held at the Royal Automobile Club in Pall Mall on 23 July 1988, but its roots go back to the time more than 30 years earlier when the concept of testing vehicles for roadworthiness was filtering into public consciousness and the need for a body to represent the interests of older vehicle owners became apparent.  In those days ‘older vehicles’ meant anything made before the Second World War (WW2). 

Testing had first been mooted in Parliament in the mid-1950s, and the first government testing station was opened at Hendon in October 1955 as an experiment to provide government with information and experience with a view to establishing a compulsory test at a later date.  Those first tests were free and voluntary.  Despite questions in Parliament on several occasions as well as press coverage little progress appears to have taken place until after the October 1959 general election when Harold Macmillan appointed Ernest Marples Minister of Transport. 

Within a year of his appointment, he had seen through a new Road Traffic Act, which called for annual testing of light vehicles over ten years old.  The Ministry of Transport Test had been born, although in this, its first manifestation, it was generally referred to as the ‘ten year test’ - a nomenclature that didn’t last long as within seven years the age at which vehicles first required testing had been progressively reduced to the current three years.  ‘MoT test’ soon became a part of the national vocabulary surviving attempts in the early 1970s to re-name it the ‘DoE Test’ after Edward Heath had combined the Ministry of Transport with other ministries to create the Department of the Environment.

Concern about testing, and the risk that test requirements would disadvantage historic vehicles, was what caused officers of prominent clubs catering for pre-WW2 vehicles to form the Historic Vehicle Clubs Joint Committee (HVCJC) in the early 1960s.  

HVCJC had no rules as such, the committee was appointed, not elected, and clubs catering for pre-1940 vehicles made modest financial contributions to cover costs according to their size.  HVCJC operated in an informal way, making considerable (and skilful) use of the old-boy network to resolve problems almost before they arose. 

Careful monitoring of government proposals and an early agreement to the general principle that no vehicle should be required to perform to a higher standard than that which applied when it was new ensured that owners of pre-1940 vehicles were not unfairly disadvantaged.  So effective was this approach that most enthusiasts remained blissfully unaware that people were working behind the scenes to protect their freedom to use their historic vehicles on the road without a need to bring them up to modern standards.

In the late 1950’s, moves were being made for national historic vehicle clubs to look at international cooperation. The Veteran Car Club of Great Britain, established in 1930, had a strong role, with their well-developed guidelines for vehicle standards and event management being adopted. However, for various reasons, two federations were established! But in the mid-1960’s, with the involvement of Edward, 3rd Baron Montagu of Beaulieu, common sense prevailed and a single body,  Fédération Internationale des Véhicules Anciens (FIVA), was formed at the end of 1966.  

Britain’s representation in FIVA was shared by the Veteran Car Club of GB and the Vintage Sports Car Club.  Though the prime focus was on international events, a Legal Committee was established to seek to ensure international and national legislation would not have an adverse impact on the use of historic vehicles.

In those days before British entry to the ‘common market’, there was not much concern about European legislation.  

However, HVCJC was extraordinarily fortunate in having some high-powered officers who would inhabit Savile Row pinstripes during the week but were to be found in greasy overalls most weekends.  By the early 1980s, the committee was meeting in a room at 36 Whitehall, perhaps more commonly known as the Parliamentary Counsel Office (PCO), right in the heart of government. 

To have a senior civil servant as honorary legal adviser to the committee was always going to be helpful, but for that civil servant to hold a sufficiently influential position in the PCO (where legislation is drafted) to enable him to use meeting rooms for private purposes was valuable almost beyond imagination.  The “I’ll talk to Henry in the morning” with which many a discussion concluded became a catch phrase amongst those attending: Henry always listened and it was very rare for legislation to progress beyond first draft with anything that would be detrimental to historic vehicle owners. 

The only lapse in attention that allowed a piece of what might be called retrospective legislation to be imposed on historic vehicle owners was the 1978 requirement that vehicles with fixed windscreens should be fitted with washers.  (The other two ‘retrospective’ Construction and Use requirements to affect historic vehicles – twin rear lights for all cars carrying lights and double dipping headlights for post 1930 vehicles – had been introduced before HCVJC was formed).

The word “Joint” was dropped from the title to shorten it to HVCC in the late 1970s at which time gross membership was probably not much more than 30,000 in around 50 clubs catering for pre-1945 vehicles.  Owners of 1950s and 1960s vehicles had no representative body until a group of clubs catering mainly for cars of that era joined forces to combat the government’s first (July 1980) attempt to require owners to pay vehicle excise duty on all vehicles in their possession whether in use or not.  The new organisation was called the Classic Vehicle Clubs Committee and its aims were very much in step with HVCC’s, so it was hardly surprising that the two organisations joined forces to ensure that Norman Fowler, the then Minister responsible, dropped his proposal. 

Having worked together effectively on that critical issue, those running the two organisations recognised the synergy and representatives of CVCC were soon attending HVCC meetings on a regular basis for mutual benefit.

Things had to change when that honorary legal adviser was promoted to the Top Job at PCO.  He had to relinquish all links that might have created a conflict of interest.  Meetings moved from Whitehall to the HQ of English Heritage in Fortress House, Savile Row. 

At the same time, the overall political and legislative scene was changing.  Ten years after UK had joined the common market European legislation was beginning to make itself felt.  By the time the UK government came to transpose a particular directive into UK law, it was effectively too late to have much influence on the outcome.  It was becoming clear that the historic vehicle movement needed representation in Europe as well as Westminster. 

It was also becoming obvious that the day of the behind-the-scenes-let’s-talk-over-lunch-at-Simpson’s-in-the-Strand method of operating was over: the world was moving on, old-boy networks had had their day and even if they hadn’t, they would never be capable of exerting much influence in Europe.  It was also obvious that any informal organisation representing a one-nation minority interest was never going to be taken seriously in Brussels where international representation, large numbers and formal structure is the only formula for being taken seriously.  

A plan was hatched.  The HVCC and CVCC would join forces within a formal structure, as many clubs catering for vehicles over 20 years old as possible would be encouraged to join, the new organisation would take over UK representation in FIVA and FIVA would be changed from an organisation interested in little more than rallies to a truly representative organisation.  It took nearly three years of careful diplomacy to bring this to fruition – the UK angle was straightforward, but persuading FIVA to change its focus was not helped by a general lack of funds.  HVCC and CVCC both had modest bank balances, only just in four figures.  FIVA was better off, but not much.

In the end a combination of individual generosity and pure luck ensured success. FIVA had no experience of lobbying or monitoring legislation.  Understandably, it was reluctant to make a commitment it was not sure it could fulfil.  It agreed only when HVCC undertook on behalf of the proposed new organisation to fund a professional lobbyist to do the work for as long as it took for FIVA to raise a levy on its European membership to pay for the service.  HVCC was only able to make this undertaking through the generosity of one person who promised to raise the funds or pick up the bill personally if he was unsuccessful.  In the event, he had little difficulty.

Once the various ducks had been aligned, a public meeting was set for 23 July 1988.  Although HVCC and CVCC were carrying most of their member clubs with them, this only amounted to a membership of not much more than 50,000.  The proposed rules of an unincorporated body to be known as the Federation of British Historic Vehicle Clubs were drafted and flyers inviting interested parties to attend the meeting were sent far and wide in the hope of encouraging stronger support. 

The flyer contained a spoof cutting of the front page of The Times showing the headline and first paragraph of a mock article describing how vehicles over 20 years old were soon to be outlawed.  The first line of text below the ‘cutting’ explained that the article was a spoof.  The luck came in when a harassed Fleet Street motoring correspondent (to whom the flyer had been sent) with quarter of a page to fill treated the mock cutting as if it was gospel … and support for that meeting on 23 July doubled more or less overnight with the result that four months later, the secretary could report a membership of 100,000.

And so, it came to pass that on that day in 1988, HVCC formally joined forces with CVCC to create the Federation, which immediately became the UK representative in FIVA.  A professional lobbyist was appointed and the task of monitoring European legislation had begun.  Within four years, FIVA had persuaded other EU countries of the benefit of this work.

At its inception, the primary objective of the Federation was to uphold the freedom to use historic vehicles on the road.  Although FBHVC has over the years expanded its activities to encompass general support for historic vehicles that aim remained at the core of FBHVC. 

At the time of writing, the Federation represents over 500 clubs with about 250,000 enthusiasts participating. They have been joined as members by transport museums, individual and trade supporters who benefit from the aims of the Federation.

In addition, the Federation has acquired a small number of highly valued commercial partners, who significantly increased its reach and capacity. Safe exercise of the right of historic vehicles to be used on the road was addressed early in the  existence of the Federation by the Guide for Users of Historic Vehicles  that the Federation  produced in conjunction with FIVA.  The Federation was a major contributor to its successor, the Guide to Responsible Use of Vehicles on Today’s Roads published in 2019 and gradually rolled out across the World in several languages.

In the first decade of the Federation, work concentrated almost entirely on vehicle related legislation and regulation until there was a general acceptance both in Westminster and Brussels that retrospective requirements should be avoided.  

The Federation gradually dispensed with outside assistance and pursued its activities through the use of suitably qualified and experienced volunteers. The Federation established a close relationship with the All-Party Parliamentary Historic Vehicles Group and worked with that Group to ensure that increased standardisation in the processes of registration and monitoring of vehicles in the United Kingdom did not work to the disadvantage of historic vehicles.

The Federation also established a position where both the Department for Transport and the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency came to recognise the truly pre-eminent position which the Federation holds in the British historic vehicle movement and consequently are happy to consult with it on relevant questions.

Latterly the greatest legislative change has been the development of general roadworthiness requirements as they apply to historic vehicles. 

As the requirements for general vehicle testing evolved to deal with the manifest changes in the design and operation of more recent vehicles, the Federation worked to persuade the Government that historic vehicles could not be expected to comply with these newer requirements and that their safety record justified a level of exemption. 

This was largely driven up to 2020 by the rules of the European Union, which the Federation played a significant part within FIVA in influencing. 

One of its primary results was that for the first time a definition of what constitutes a “Vehicle of Historic Interest” is now set out in EU law. A version of that definition was imported into British laws. This was not something the Federation truly welcomed as historic vehicles had in the UK been defined purely by age.

However the Federation was invited by the Department for Transport to play a major part in agreeing with them the practical basis upon which this new definition would be applied so as not unfairly to exclude vehicles which had always been seen as historic in the UK. 

The roadworthiness regime consequently established for the UK generally works well, though there will always be areas where the Federation would like to see improvements.

While the UK has left the EU, the fact that a definition has already been incorporated into UK laws means it can be used for domestic vehicle related legislation and the Federation remains alert to that possibility and its potential consequences.

Environmental considerations, initially relating to climate change in general and then additionally to the effect on health of emissions from motor vehicles now occupy centre stage both in the UK and world-wide.  

The effects of climate change are now seen to impinge on the whole of our lives and transport forms a major part of what needs to change. And the replacement of internal combustion engines with electrical power started happening much faster than might have anticipated a few years earlier. While it remains unclear at what speed overall replacement of most internal combustion engines will proceed, and how the electricity to power it will be generated, it must assuredly happen.

Existing historic vehicles will then increasingly become reminders of the past, as historical and heritage artefacts. There will be an increasing need to justify our activity together with the direct interest which can be generated among both participants and the general public in the historic and cultural aspects of the historic vehicle movement. 

It will be an increasingly important purpose of the Federation to make sure that this mobile heritage legacy is not only preserved but enabled to continue to operate and be seen in its original working environment, on the highways of the U K. The Federation has thus expanded its engagement with The Heritage Alliance. This body had previously represented mainly the built environment but has come, with the very active encouragement and involvement of the Federation, to be a strong advocate of the place of mobile heritage in the whole UK heritage movement.

In a connected world and given that it is to be expected that many governments will follow increasingly similar approaches to the future of motor vehicles, no doubt the Federation will work energetically within FIVA to create a common international approach to the preservation of mobile heritage. 

It was with the thought of being prepared to advance this agenda that in 1997, the Federation started to survey the historic vehicle movement.  It showed the value of the historic vehicle movement to the national economy was then in excess of £1.6 billion.  More importantly, it also showed that average use of historic vehicles was low. 

Today’s most recent survey, conducted in 2020, but using 2019 data because of the Covid19 pandemic which afflicted the world in 2020, showed that the figure of economic benefit has now reached £7.2Bn, that while there were around 1.5M historic vehicles, their individual usage remained low, and that some 21 million people saw historic vehicles as part of the national heritage of the UK.

FIVA had also been persuaded in 1997 of the need to collect such data on a pan-European basis the European Commission’s Environment Directorate, which said it could not work to protect the interests of historic vehicles if there was no solid quantitative data to support it. 

As the world-wide historic vehicle movement needs likewise to be able to respond and justify itself, FIVA is progressively widening its surveys and has an ambition to expand the scope further in future years.

The Federation has played and will continue to play an ongoing part in progressing engagement on environmental matters.

As the years have passed, the Federation has vastly expanded its remit beyond the original legislative based objects. 

Probably of the greatest importance has been its encouragement of the education of the future experts who will be required to keep historic vehicles on the road. This has taken two related paths.

The Federation was to some extent the originator and been a very active player in establishing a suitable syllabus to cover heritage skills in the mobile sector within the demanding overall apprenticeship regime set up by Government. 

And in a practical sense the Federation was, in association with Bicester Heritage, instrumental in acquiring the facilities and infrastructure required to set the Heritage Skills Academy on the road to its current pre-eminent place in actually providing the necessary training required to enable heritage engineering apprentices to qualify.

This article has deliberately avoided mentioning names, so many people have been involved over the years that it is impossible to name them all, yet to name some and not others is invidious but we must mention our Presidents. 

The first, longstanding President was Edward, Lord Montagu. People tend to make easy assumptions about the famous: it’s one of the burdens of fame.  One common assumption is that accepting office as President or Patron of an organisation like the Federation is a purely nominal matter.  Edward Montagu turned that assumption on its head.  He made an enormous personal contribution till shortly before he died by not only attending routine committee meetings in the formative years, but also hosting them in his office when he was Chairman of English Heritage.  He guided and advised successive chairmen, all of whom were appreciative of his wisdom, experience and backing.  He opened innumerable doors in the corridors of power.  He used his seat in the House of Lords as a launch pad to bring matters of concern to the historic vehicle movement into public debate.  

Particularly in the political arena  Lord Montagu was most ably followed by Lord Steel of Aikwood, The Federation has benefitted greatly from his knowledge of the political system to further the Federation’s aims to protect the historic vehicle movement and to keep the Federation visible to our national leaders. 

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