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How an Old American Car Gets TÜV in Germany - Example: 66 Bel Air

When I introduced my 1966 Bel Air wagon I was immediately asked about TÜV. I assume between the lines the question was: How can a jolly old American car pass the technical inspection in Germany – a bleak country that is notoriously obsessed with rules, regulations and safety?

To answer this, I’ll give you an overview of what TÜV actually is, what it does and how it applies to a classic car like mine. As a bonus I’m also going to reveal the actual issue with freshly imported US classic cars.

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Table of contents

  1. What is Tüv?
  2. What is being checked in the German main vehicular inspection?
  3. How do old cars pass the TÜV inspection?
  4. What about modifications?
  5. Can a modified classic car get TÜV approval?
  6. US cars and legal compliance in Germany
  7. The biggest issue when importing US cars to Germany
  8. [TL;DR] Conclusion

(If anyone knows how to implement proper jump links to create a TOC in a kinja post I’ll be forever grateful)

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1. What is TÜV?

Let’s start off with the name: TÜV is the abbreviation of “Technischer Überwachungsverein” (Technical Inspection Association). Simply speaking it’s a registered association which provides standards of constructions and maintenance as well as technical inspections for a wide variety of businesses and products.

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The Chevy at a typical small town TÜV station (still on the previous owner*s plates)
The Chevy at a typical small town TÜV station (still on the previous owner*s plates)
Photo: Alina

The most well-known inspection is the vehicular inspection referred to as the “main inspection” and commonly known as “TÜV”. Since 1951 the main inspection is mandatory for all cars. New cars have to have their first inspection three years after the registration. After that the interval is two years.

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TÜV is due in 10.21. You can see the 21 in the middle and the 10 is on the 12 o’clock position.
TÜV is due in 10.21. You can see the 21 in the middle and the 10 is on the 12 o’clock position.
Photo: Mark

2. What is being checked in the German main vehicular inspection?

During this inspection the safety, legal compliance and environmental sustainability of the vehicle is checked.

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This means the following things are being looked at:

  • e-brake, brakes (effectiveness and pulling evenly)
  • structural integrity (damages, rust)
  • suspension, bushings, ride height
  • exhaust (leaks, loudness)
  • leaks (engine, transmission, diffs – a bit of sweating might be okay)
  • modifications (TÜV approved, documented in the papers and street-legal)
  • onboard safety equipment (safety vest, first-aid kit, warning triangle)
  • license plates (are they fixed? Lights and visibility)
  • seat belts
  • tires (profile, age and whether the tires are fully covered by the fenders)
  • windscreen (damages in line of sight of the driver)
  • windscreen wipers and fluid
  • mirrors
  • all exterior lights
  • check lights (airbag, engine and so on)
  • horn
  • emissions test

This seems to be a lot, but with the exception of the emissions and brakes test all of the inspection is being done visually. Normally the TÜV employee uses nothing but a flashlight and no disassembly of parts is required. The inspection will cost you about 55€.

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All of the above means that a well maintained, stock car that was officially sold in Germany passes the inspection with ease. The main problems are the cost of maintenance of critical safety items as well as structural damage because of accidents and/or rust. Considering the value of most older cars, the cost of keeping them up to TÜV standards is in some cases not deemed to be worth it anymore.

So what’s the big deal?

Well, so far I only focused on stock cars and cars that were sold on the German market. But enthusiasts like us face other issues than normal car owners. My Bel Air is a good example of this. It faces three challenges when trying to pass the main inspection:

  • it’s old
  • it’s modified
  • it wasn’t built to comply with German laws

Let’s go through those issues one by one.

3. How do old cars pass the TÜV inspection?

First of all, I have to define “classic car” or “historic vehicle” in contrast to older cars. In the context of my article classic car and historic vehicle are official terms referring to a specific insurance and registration status. This historic status is recognizable by the “H-plate”.

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The Chevy lurking in the garage sporting the H-plate. It’s too long I know...
The Chevy lurking in the garage sporting the H-plate. It’s too long I know...
Photo: Mark

Since this is only vaguely related to the TÜV topic, I’m not diving deeper into the H-plate here. For this article it’s enough to know that classic cars are older than 30 years and in a good, original condition worthy of being an historical asset. I’ll happily discuss those details in another article though.

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Back to TÜV. It is important to stress that the basic compliance and safety standards seldomly change. And they basically don’t have to. It’s not like the wheels are falling off of classic cars on a regular basis because the technical standards were so poor back in the day. And it’s important to note that TÜV doesn’t care about reliabiltiy. In the event of a breakdown the TÜV made sure that you have working hazard lights, a saftey vest and a warning triangle. Good enough!

Essentials: Warning triangle, safety vest and first-aid kit
Essentials: Warning triangle, safety vest and first-aid kit
Photo: Mark
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And in case standards are being raised older cars are mostly exempt from those new rules. On the one hand this is simply a matter of applying common sense, cost effectiveness and technical feasibility, and on the other hand classic cars are intentionally kept in their original state as cultural assets. Although they are undeniably unsafe and most definitely pollute the air, the risk and environmental impact are put into perspective by the fact that they are rare, hardly ever used and carefully driven.

A good example of classic cars not meeting modern safety standards are seat belts. Since January 1974 seat belts are mandatory for every car sold in Germany. However, cars older than 1974 pass the inspection without having them. Case in point: My Bel Air is registered as a six-seater, but it only has four seat belts.

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Two seat belts for three passengers. The TÜV approves!
Two seat belts for three passengers. The TÜV approves!
Photo: Mark

The master cylinder is another example. My 66 only has a single-circuit brake system which is not exactly ideal. Upgrading this outdated system is encouraged, but not mandatory.

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Certainly not ideal to stop 1.9 tons of car reliably. But that’s how it was done. The TÜV acknowledges that.
Certainly not ideal to stop 1.9 tons of car reliably. But that’s how it was done. The TÜV acknowledges that.
Photo: Mark

The same can be said about advancements in structural integrity, airbags and all that jazz. It would simply be ridiculous to apply modern standards to historic vehicles.

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Also of importance is that the emissions of cars build before 1969 are not being tested. And cars younger than 1969 have to pass a test based on the standards of the time they were built. Of course they cannot hope to meet the standards of modern catalytic converters and particle filters. So not passing certain emission standards might not result in failing the inspection, but it could mean that a car is higher taxed and not allowed to drive everywhere anymore. The keyword is “environmental zone”, but this is a topic for a different article.

4. What about modifications?

Now this topic is really tricky and I’m not an expert by any means. The questions surrounding the legality and certification of mods probably deserve a few articles on their own. I’ll try to give you the gist of the matter and what it means for older cars specifically.

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In general, every modification to a car must be approved by a TÜV official to guarantee that safety and legal compliance standards are still being met. For this an expert looks at every mod and judges it. Of course, you have to pay for this check. It’ll set you back 50 to several hundreds of Euros. If deemed roadworthy you will get a certificate. With this you show up at your local DMV to update the car’s papers – for an additional fee of up to 31.50€ (in Berlin). Only then your car is officially street-legal. If modifications are not approved or recorded in the car’s papers, your car isn’t covered by your insurance and dependent on the actual mod the car could be impounded on the spot by the police when stopped.

First page of the car papers. You can see some of the mods on the bottom right (my personal data is blacked out)
First page of the car papers. You can see some of the mods on the bottom right (my personal data is blacked out)
Photo: Mark
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If the TÜV employee has any objections to your mods you either have to adjust or get rid of them. All of this is a time-consuming and potentially expensive endeavor.

OEM parts in general as well as certain aftermarket parts are certified and approved already because the manufacturer took care of this. When used within the strict legal and technical limits as well as for the exact application and car(!) they were approved for you’re not necessarily required to get an individual TÜV check for those parts. You might still have to update your papers though.

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Just to give you an example of what all of this means: Imagine you want to be the first person in Germany to use a certain rim that you found on the internet. The problem is that the rim has no TÜV certificate yet. In this case you’ll be asked to hand in five of those rims for a thorough technical inspection. The rims will be tested to make sure that they are up to the specifications needed for your car and meet the general quality standards. If the rim passes the check, you’ll get a certificate to use it on your car. If not, TÜV luck! Oh yeah, at least some of the rims you gave them will most certainly be damaged during testing.

This logic applies for every mod that is not yet certified by a manufacturer or aftermarket company. So theoretically it’s possible to modify everything you desire, but imagine the cost and effort it takes to get every single part and application approved.

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In the good old days, you quite often heard people say: “Don’t worry, I know a good (TÜV) guy. He understands and will approve of your modifications!” Those days are over, my friends.

Nowadays there’s simply less wiggle room for a more “subjective interpretation” of the standards. Additionally, you might be asked to get a check by an actual tuning expert who knows his shit. Thus, you can’t get away with having your friendly - or maybe even a bit naïve - local guy approving your new “enthusiast” exhaust system (aka “The Krakatoa 1883”).

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5. Can a modified classic car get TÜV approval? 

When dealing with classic cars, modifications are even more complicated to judge and to get them approved. The reason is that not only the roadworthiness is being evaluated, but also the historical accuracy. Remember that classic cars are being generously treated at a TÜV check and in other areas because of their status as historical assets.

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However, you can imagine that the historic vehicle status is lost the moment a classic car is modified with modern or historically inaccurate parts. It doesn’t mean it’s not roadworthy or street-legal anymore though! As long as the car passes the technical inspection, all is fine. The car just loses the benefits the owner of a historic vehicle enjoys (low taxation for example).

So how did my Bel Air get TÜV and kept the historical vehicle status although it doesn’t have the original powertrain anymore?

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It’s quite simple. Two rules apply for modifications of historic vehicles:

  1. Either the modification would’ve been possible within the first ten years of the car leaving the factory (“typical of the time”)
  2. Or the modification was made over 30 years ago (thus the modification itself reached the historical status by now)
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All of this must be proven obviously. Good luck trying to convince an expert that an engine swap was made over 30 years ago without any documents or photos…

My 1966 Bel Air has hijackers, a Goodwrench 350 crate engine (certainly younger than 30 years), an intake, headers, a 4-barrel, a glasspack exhaust and the THM350 3-speed – god knows how old.

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A 350CUI small block and the THM350 was not available in 1966. That’s not an issue though because they were introduced in 1969. Therefor the modifications would have been possible within ten years after the car was built. And although the engine itself is relatively new an engine with very much comparable specs was sold back in the day. This means the new engine fits the “typical of the time” requirement. The same is true for the other mods. Yes, the glasspack is certainly louder than stock, yet there’s a bit of wiggle room when looking at the decibel numbers in the historic context.

OEM and well-established period correct aftermarket wheels are no issue. The same is true for American tires as long as they are fulfilling the basic safety requirements.

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You see, if I replaced the original 327 with a new performance 350 with electronic fuel injection and double the horsepower of Chevys sold back in the day, I’d have problems to convince the experts of the “typical of the time” thingy. No LS-swap for me because it couldn’t have been done over 30 years ago.

To sum it all up: The deeper one dives into performance and niche modifications (low-rider, hot rods) the more complicated it gets. You better be able to proof that the mods are over 30 years old and/or typical of the time. And even this might not be enough to get everything approved because the basic technical and safety standards still apply! Is a car too low, has no lights or fenders you can yell at the expert about “period correct American modifications” as much as you want: No TÜV for you!

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6. Compliance with the German law

Last but not least, every market has its idiosyncrasies and unique laws. Luckily, I can keep this fairly short. American cars are not that much different from German vehicles in terms of the legal compliance and technical standards.

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The most common adjustment is concerning the headlights. They have to meet a certain TÜV standard and need to be exchanged to ones with a slightly different spec. It’s cheap and basically not noticeable. For cars younger than 1.1.1970 the red turn signals have to be exchanged (or at least you have to get an official exemption) because in Germany they must be yellow/orange. I have an exemption for the red high beams indicator on the dashboard as well since the German law requires said indicator to be blue.

When it’s about these smaller issues the authorities normally opt for historical accuracy and grant exemptions. Enforcing absurdly expensive or unreasonable compliance requests is thankfully rarely done.

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One noteworthy thing is that it’s mandatory to use a device to lock the steering wheel if a car has no integrated steering lock.

It’s a legal requirement to have a steering lock. There are ways to solve that issue.
It’s a legal requirement to have a steering lock. There are ways to solve that issue.
Photo: Mark
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7. What is the biggest issue when importing a US classic?

Well, you might have guessed it already: The biggest issue is the lack of a comparable TÜV main inspection in the US. This means the new German owner might face the finest redneck engineering when welcoming the dream car to Germany. Vehicles were fixed and modified over decades with whatever was found in the barn that day. That’s why a lot of issues have to be remedied when trying to get TÜV approval for the first time over here.

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Some expert mechanic drilled holes in the trunk floor. We suspect it was for a trailer hitch...
Some expert mechanic drilled holes in the trunk floor. We suspect it was for a trailer hitch...
Photo: Mark

Always be aware of cars that are freshly imported and sold without TÜV. It’s save to assume that it’ll cost you 1,500-2,000€ more to make it street-legal if you can’t wrench yourself.

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To have an easier time at the TÜV inspection it’s strongly advised to buy the best, unmolested car you can find.

My car was already registered in Germany and the previous owner took care of every necessary step.

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8. Conclusion

There you go! This is how a classic American car gets TÜV! TÜV is not tough as long as common sense is applied when puchasing and/or modifying a classic US car.

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[TL;DR] A well maintained American classic car with modifications that are verifiably typical of the time it was built has basically no problem to pass the main inspection. But the more complicated your mods, the more sketchy your car, the more difficult it is to get TÜV approval.

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