Birth of a New Machine - Building a Cobra Kit Car
Copyright 1996, Daniel J. Sommers

Part 15: Making it Legal

Funny thing. It looked like a motor vehicle. It acted like a motor vehicle. But it couldn't be a motor vehicle until the Commonwealth of Massachusetts said it was so by assigning a Vehicle Identification Number (VIN).

In fact, according to the Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles, there were six things Deb and I needed to accomplish before we could drive the new Cobra replica on the highways and byways (whatever they are) of Massachusetts:

  1. Submit the vehicle to a thorough inspection by the State Police to obtain a VIN.
  2. Obtain a motor vehicle insurance policy with appropriate coverage.
  3. Pay state sales tax.
  4. Apply for a motor vehicle title.
  5. Register the vehicle and obtain license plates.
  6. Pass a motor vehicle safety inspection.

Given a choice of dealing with the state bureaucracy or having a root canal, I'd usually have to think about it before I gave you an answer. But this was different. The Cobra was involved.

We decided it would be best to take care of everything in one day, so Deb and I arranged to be absent from our careers for the entire day on Wednesday, May 22, 1996. Weatherwise, it was a magnificent New England mid-Spring day, and we had the Cobra loaded onto the trailer by 7:30 that morning.

Rush-hour traffic was heavy as we drove the 15-or-so miles to one of the Commonwealth's official motor vehicle inspection stations. I had called earlier in the week and found out that inspections take place throughout the day; an appointment is not required to participate. They said to just bring the car, its certificate of origin, receipts for the power train and other components, and the all-important inspection fee.

It was about 8:15 when we pulled into the parking lot of the inspection facility. We could see four or five cars already waiting in line. I didn't know if we could leave the Cobra on the trailer during the inspection, so I went inside the warehouse-like building to find someone to ask.

Over in a corner, several state police troopers were having coffee and talking at a table. I walked over and politely interrupted to ask my question. The answer (given very courteously I might add) was that all cars had to be driven into and out of the facility to "prove" they were functional motor vehicles.

Sounded reasonable to me, so Deb and I moved the truck and trailer to a level piece of ground and unloaded the car. With a couple of pumps of the Holley and a twist of the key, the 427 fired. All eyes followed the shiny green Cobra as I pulled the car into line behind an old Toyota. (Later we learned that cars "built" from parts of wrecks with salvage titles also need to receive a new VIN and are subject to the same inspection as a new kit car.)

We were the sixth car in line that morning. By lunchtime, we had moved to the number three position. Slow going to say the least.

Finally -- after more than six hours in line -- it was our turn to drive inside. The big engine, lope of the aggressive cam, and the low-restriction sidepipes combined to literally shake the walls of the building as a trooper directed us into the center of the bay and closed the overhead door behind us.

I was expecting a lecture about noise pollution, but the trooper just grinned as he walked around the car. "She's a beauty. Did you build it yourselves?" Deb explained that we did and went on to tell the story of how we found the engine in Miami. We lucked out; the trooper was a "car guy."

He invited us into his office and asked to see the certificate of origin from ERA, as well as all the other receipts and cancelled checks we had collected over the course of the project. Using a desktop calculator, the trooper added-up the cost of the kit, the options, engine, accessories, and supplies. The total was entered onto an official-looking form -- in triplicate, of course. After that, we went into sign-here-and-initial-this mode for a few minutes and surrendered that all-important fee.

We returned to the car and the trooper actually asked us where we would like him to affix the new Massachusetts VIN tag. Together, we decided to place it near the upper hinge of the driver's door. In this position, it would be easy to read with the door open, but entirely out of sight when the door was closed. The trooper did a neat job of affixing the small aluminum tag. He explained that the adhesive backing on the tag was permanent; the tag would be ruined if anyone ever tried to remove it.

The entire hassle-free process took about 15 minutes. We thanked the trooper for his time and watched him grin again as we rattled the windows on the way out. Other than the six-hour wait in line, I've got to give credit to Massachusetts for making it relatively easy for kit-car builders to get a VIN. Keep up the good work, Governor Weld!

With the car back on the trailer and securely tied-down, we were on our way to our next stop -- our insurance agent's office about 10 miles away. Late-afternoon traffic was already starting to get heavy, and I was beginning to wonder if we could do everything on our list in one day.

At about 3:45 p.m., we pulled into our insurance agent's parking lot, grabbed all the paperwork, and rushed inside to see Jack. Deb had warned him that we would be stopping by, so he had already started filling out the forms necessary to obtain an insurance policy, apply for a title, pay sales tax, and register a motor vehicle. We helped Jack fill in the blanks that remained and within 15 minutes were on our way to the closest Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles office -- again about 10 miles away.

By then, traffic was heavier than ever, but we made good time. At 4:40 p.m., Deb and I were standing in line with an inch-thick pile of paper -- and our checkbook. At least it was one of those lines like they have at airports, where the first person in line is helped by the next-available agent. This eliminated the chance of getting stuck in a slow-moving line.

During the next ten minutes, we watched as a half-a-dozen-or-so middle-aged women randomly shouted "next" to the collection of patrons. Finally, it was our turn. Everything went smoothly at the window except for a disagreement about a $205 penalty for late payment of sales tax.

The nice lady behind the window insisted that we should have paid sales tax on each Cobra component (e.g., the engine) within seven days of acquiring it. We explained that we were there to pay sales tax on an entire motor vehicle. What's more, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts had proclaimed that it was a motor vehicle only a couple of hours earlier. So how could we have paid sales tax on something that did not exist?

She held her ground. It was obvious that she didn't share our point of view. And never would. To expedite the transaction, we paid the penalty -- along with the other fees and taxes -- and received our Massachusetts motor vehicle registration and license plates. As we walked away, I glanced at the paperwork. Awright! The nice lady had issued a registration and a title application for a 1966 Cobra Replica. All's well that ends well, I guess.

Back on the road with the Cobra on the trailer and the trailer in tow, we headed home at the height of rush hour. A lot of people gave us the "thumbs-up" sign as we picked our way through stop-and-go traffic on the four-lane highway.

By 6:00 p.m. we had the Cobra unloaded and the trailer put away. Deb and I hadn't eaten all day, so we decided to go out to dinner that evening to celebrate our accomplishment.

Work-related stuff consumed the rest of that week, so it wasn't until Saturday, May 25, that I found time to take the Cobra for its safety inspection. In Massachusetts, inspections are done by state-authorized automotive service establishments -- typically a local filling station with repair facilities.

For years, Deb and I have taken our cars to a small shop called Landry's Automotive Service for their annual safety inspections. Owned and operated by Nick Landry, the three-bay Getty station has a reputation of offering competent service at a fair price.

With a new license plate bolted to the rear of the Cobra -- and a little apprehension in my gut -- I headed for Nick's station at about 10:00 a.m. The three-mile drive gave me an opportunity to become acquainted with the new car and get comfortable with the placement of the clutch, brake, and accelerator pedals (they're positioned toward the left of the steering column).

The overhead doors were wide open on all three bays as I pulled onto Nick's apron. I could see Nick wiping his hands on a red shop rag as the Cobra's distinctive exhaust note attracted his attention. I parked well out of the way of Saturday morning's gas customers and walked into the shop to ask Nick if he had time to do the safety inspection. "Yup. Pull it in. Third bay, Dan."

Once inside, I handed Nick the registration and prepaid the $15 fee. Together, we checked the lights, wipers, horn, etc., then made sure that the VIN on the registration matched the one on the car. Because the car was a 1966 model, it was exempt from all emissions tests, but Nick questioned the loud exhaust, "These came this way from the factory, right, Dan?"

"You've got a good memory, Nick," I replied. "You're absolutely correct. That's a stock exhaust system for this model."

"Well, if that's what the factory installed, what can I say?" And with that, Nick applied a new "passed" inspection sticker to the windshield. I thanked Nick and promised that Deb and I would stop by to say hello during cruising season. Nick just shook his head and smiled as I fired up the 427 and backed out of the shop.

The ride home was superb. And I savored every minute. I wanted to keep driving, but the ERA assembly manual made it clear that the underside of the fenders must be sprayed with a heavy coat of rubberized undercoating. This would minimize the chance of having a tire-thrown pebble crack the fiberglass from beneath.

I had already made an appointment with the guys at Phaze II for the final buffing and the undercoating. But for now, the Cobra would have to remain motionless for a few more days.

Next week: How Sweet It Is!