Are Kit Cars Street Legal? Rules Explained (With Examples)

Do you have a passion for kit cars and have the engineering skills to build one?

Before you decide to order one, check whether the car you are trying to build is street legal.

So are kit cars street legal?
Kit cars are not street legal by default. You will have to fill out documents about the tax value of the vehicle and the emission levels. The rules vary per state in the U.S.

In this article, we look at the legal issues with kit cars and how to get them on the road in the USA.

Regardless of the difficulty facing kit car enthusiasts, there is often a way around the bureaucratic bottleneck.

This article will show you how.

Some states have stringent rules regarding the use of these vehicles largely because of safety and pollution concerns.

Thankfully, even states with a Draconian perception of kit cars provide loopholes in their vehicle classification rules that allow you to register and use your beloved automobile.

Before We Start: What Exactly Is a Kit Car?

A kit car is an automobile that is assembled by the owner rather than a manufacturer.

Many auto manufacturers sell parts of their products that individuals can buy to build a car of their own.

A kit car owner sources the engine, transmission, brakes, chassis, seats and other parts of the vehicle from vendors, donors and spare parts dealers of the original manufacturer.

Kit cars are fun, but they face a lot of problems with DMVs in many states.

You have to grapple with a lot of paperwork, half knowledgeable officers, and they may even ask you to prove there are no stolen parts in your dream car.

And there is the issue of crash tests.

A lot of things can go wrong when trying to make your kit car street legal.

But it’s worth it because you wouldn’t want to keep the vehicle in your garage after spending time, money and a lot of effort to make it the gorgeous beauty that it is.

Are Kit Cars Legal in California?

Kit cars are street legal in California but achieving that status is a time-consuming adventure.

As you know, California has some of the strictest laws regarding emission standards, noise pollution, and transportation regulations.

But thankfully, the process is pretty straightforward.

Get ready for many visits to the DMVs office to complete several forms. It helps if you have the forms ready to save time.

You will complete the Application for Original Registration, a self-explanatory document that allows you to register the vehicle in the books of the state DMV.

You also have to complete the Statement of Construction which allows the department to determine the value of your kit car for tax.

And there is Verification of Vehicle form and many others.

You also need to get California Vehicle Identification Number among other documentation. Plus, the vehicle must pass emission tests and the brake and lights must be certified by a qualified workshop.

There is a lot to do before you California will allow your kit car to share its roads with other road users.

But with the right information, patience, and some luck, everything will fall into place.

What Are the Requirements for a Car to Be Street Legal?

So what does it mean for a car to be street legal and what are the requirements?

A street-legal car is that which has all the features and equipment required under law for it to be used legally with no restrictions or special permits on public roads.

The Department of Motor Vehicles in each state determines the street-legal standards for vehicles operating in its territory.

This is why it can be extremely difficult for kit car drivers to attain street-legal status in places like California, New York, and New Jersey because of their strict emission standards while places like Florida are more forgiving.

However, there are universal requirements that all vehicles in the USA must meet to be street legal. They include:

Bumpers

One of the most important safety features in vehicles is the bumper.

To use any automobile on public roads, it must have functional bumpers in the front and rear and they must meet DOT specifications regarding material and ground clearance.

Brakes

Obviously, a vehicle needs functioning brakes to be road legal. States also mandate vehicles to have reliable and easily accessible emergency brakes.

Emission Control Systems

To reduce the pollution produced by the transportation industry, many states followed the lead of California to mandate the use of emission control systems as a prerequisite before vehicles can become street legal.

There are also restrictions on their installation to avoid injury to passengers.

Engine Hood

In every state, it is mandatory for every vehicle to carry an engine hood to be road legal. Some states also specify the position of the air intakes relative to the ground.

Horn

Your vehicle must carry a horn that is audible for a minimum of 200 feet to be street legal. Some states have minimum volume requirements and restrict the use of horns in certain areas.

Ground Clearance

Street legal vehicles must have a certain amount of ground clearance. You must not be too high like those crazy retrofitted trucks with elongated suspension and lifts or too low like Formula 1 cars.

Lights

The DOT requires all vehicles to have headlights, brake lights, taillights and turn signals.

Lights must use approved bulbs and be housed in specific covers.

There are provisions for the ground clearance of headlights, the colors and their use.

Besides lights, states require vehicles to have side and rear reflectors of the right colors for easy identification of vehicles when the lights are turned off.

License Plate

To be street legal, your vehicle must carry a license plate on an illuminated area of the automobile so it is visible from a distance of 100 feet.

However, some states require only the rear plate.

Mirrors

Road legal vehicles require a minimum of two mirrors. Depending on the vehicle design and size, you may need more mirrors, especially for trucks because they have more blind spots.

Seat Belt

For your safety, you must have functional seat belts to drive your car on public roads.

Steering Wheels

This law is not really about steering wheels but the type you can use.

A road-legal vehicle must have regular, round steering. Rectangular, butterfly, and joy-stick style steering wheels are not allowed.

Tires

To be street legal, a vehicle should meet tire size requirements and must have mud flaps or fenders covering the top half of the rear tires to deflect debris away from vehicles in the rear.

Windshield

Windshields deflect the wind and debris from a vehicle’s occupants.

However, there are restrictions on tinted windshields. Road legal cars must have windshield wipers for driving in adverse weather.

How Can You MAKE Your Kit Car Street Legal?

The process for making your kit car road legal depends on the requirements in your state of residence.

The car you want to make street legal is vital.

Most states are lenient if you are registering a kit car based on the chassis of old vehicles such as those before the 1950s. The reason is that vehicles from that time are still allowed to ply the roads with little scrutiny.

So if you can get an old pre-50s cowl or frame for your dream car, you may skip rigorous inspections. The process becomes more arduous and lengthy if you are using a new chassis or the car is a recent model from a major manufacturer.

You may be subject to stringent emission standards, crash tests, and several other energy-sapping formalities.

Depending on your state, making your kit car legal will look like this:

  • Contact the DMV office for forms and other documentation. In California, this includes the Application for Title or Registration, Statement of Construction and other such forms.
  • Insure the car
  • Take the vehicle to the Highway Patrol office for verification. The highway patrol office will inspect, identify and verify the car after which it will issue you a Vehicle Identification Number (VIN).
  • Get the vehicle a Brake and Light Certification from a repair shop.
  • Get a weight certificate.
  • If you are registering a recent model, you may have to do an emission control inspection.
  • Get your official license plates.
  • You also need to provide proof of ownership of all the parts used to build the vehicle. Keep all receipts handy and make sure the number of the engine and other major parts tally with the records on receipts.

If your state’s requirements are too unfriendly, you can register the car in another state with more favorable laws. Hopefully, the reciprocity of laws will allow you to use the car on public roads in your state of residence.

How Much Does It Cost To Make Your Kit Car Street Legal?

There is no definitive cost because of variations across states.

Your DMV is in the best position to answer this question. But for a rough estimate, check out the cost of getting a weight certificate, emission test, brake and light certificate, VIN, insurance and the paperwork.

Can You Legally Build Your Own Car?

Yes, there are no legal restrictions stopping you from building your own car. But you need to have the space, time, money, technical knowhow and patience to pull it off.

You also need to think of the official red tape that comes with making the car street legal. But the obstacles are surmountable.

Final Words

Despite the joy that comes with conceptualizing your dream car and making it a reality, many kit car enthusiasts face Himalayan hurdles to get their prizes on the streets. But it is possible to make a special construction car road legal, even in states with the most stringent vehicle rules.

It’s crucial to know your state’s views on these cars before investing your time, money and efforts into building one.

We hope this article will help you get that dream car on the streets in record time!

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