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Wisconsin Hot Rod Equipment Case is Being Watched

Words: John Gunnell

Hot rodders throughout the United States deal with questions of what equipment is mandatory or legal on their hot rods. Vehicle equipment laws vary from state to state and even when they are the same, the way in which the laws are interpreted may vary.

Groups such as the Specialty Vehicle Market Assoc. (SEMA) do a good job fighting for the interests of hot rodders nationwide and keeping track of legislative issues, but some of the state-specific equipment standards are still hard to unravel. 

The Wisconsin Specialty Vehicle Council - an umbrella group for hot rodders and old-car enthusiasts in Wisconsin - recently got involved with a case in which hot rodders in the Dodgeville, Wis. area were receiving equipment violation citations or 10-day fix-it tickets for operating cars without fenders, hoods or proper exhaust systems. One of the hot rodders pleaded not guilty and decided to go to court over the ticket he received.

Equipment violation concerns were previously raised in Wisconsin in the spring of 2016. At that time, statewide meetings were held between Wisconsin State Patrol representatives and Wisconsin auto enthusiasts. The Automobile Gallery in Green Bay hosted a special-vehicle-equipment-standards meeting for Northeast Wisconsin car hobbyists that this Hot Rod Hotline contributor attended. We felt then that Sergeant Mark J. Abrahamson, of the Wisconsin Department of Transportation’s Division of State Patrol, had presented an informed discussion of how and why such standards are enforced.

In the latest situation, hobbyists contend that 1990s laws are being misinterpreted and incorrectly applied. Hot rodders believe that the 2016 meetings highlighted that misinterpretation of the 1990s laws was causing issues in titling and registering hot rods. They pointed out that a state patrol representative recognized the consequences of the misinterpretations and stated that correcting the misinterpretations would require changes to be made to what was being taught at Wisconsin’s State Patrol Academy.

According to the enthusiasts, a follow-up meeting was held in March, 2018 in Madison, Wis., at which representatives from the Wisconsin Department of Motor Vehicles/Vehicle Services, Wisconsin State Patrol, Wisconsin Specialty Vehicle Council and National Street Rod Assoc. met to discuss the issue and the state patrol said new legislation was required to change some 1990s laws to conform to new interpretations.

The enthusiasts reacted by stating that the 1990s laws had worked for 29 years and changing them to comply to new interpretations was unnecessary. Wisconsin State Patrol representatives did not agree with the enthusiasts. Some of the hobbyists said that, when they asked for additional meetings on the subject, the state patrol representatives stated that there was “nothing more to discuss.”

The hot rodder who wanted to fight the ticket issued in Dodgeville owned a 1932 Ford coupe that lacked fenders and a hood. A status hearing for the ‘32 Ford owner was held May 2 at Iowa County Court in Dodgeville, Wis. Over 20 interested hot rodders and enthusiasts showed up at the court. According to a spokesman for the Wisconsin Specialty Vehicle Council, some of these hot rodders came from the local area, others from the state capitol in Madison and some made a 250-mile trip from other locales.

This is the 1932 Ford coupe that was ticketed in the Dodgeville. Wis., area for not having a hood or fenders.

A status hearing is designed to determine what a court case involves and whether it can best be dealt with via a plea bargain or discovery issues or whether the case should be brought to trial. The status hearing date is usually not the same as the trial date.

Appearing at the status hearing was the ’32 Ford owner, a judge and the District Attorney (who just recently replaced a DA who passed away). No representative of the Wisconsin State Patrol was present. It was pointed out that the Wisconsin State Patrol had informed the Court that the frame of the 1932 Ford was not an original frame.

The court instructed the 1932 Ford owner and the District Attorney to get together to try to resolve the ticket situation. The court said if they could not come to an agreement, they would have to appear in court on June 13, 2019 to set a date for a jury trial. The Judge and the District Attorney gave no indication of what they thought about the legality of the tickets issued in Dodgeville and there was no discussion about those tickets.

As everyone quietly got up and walked out of the court room, the judge smiled and asked why all the people had come there. “We are here to show support,” said the Wisconsin Specialty Vehicle Council representative. “We all learned a bit more about our court system and we will return June 13. This fight is not over.”

After hearing about the case, a car enthusiast from the Milwaukee/Waukesha area contacted his State Senator’s office, in the Milwaukee suburb of Delafield, about the problem. He was told that Wisconsin State Senator Chris Kapenga (R-Senate District 33) was having a “listening session” for his constituents and that attending it would be a good way for hot rodders to voice their opinions. This information was posted on the internet and a group of concerned hot rodders showed up at the listening aession.

The owner of a 1979 Dodge Lil Red Express, similar to this one, was also ticketed for illegal exhausts even though the “stack” exhaust system was standard on this model.

The first rodder to voice his opinion about the tickers was informed by Senator Kapenga that the tickets written out to hot rodders in the Dodgeville area had been dismissed by the District Attorney of Iowa County, Wis., where Dodgeville is located. Because of the dismissal of these tickets, the June 13 court hearing had been cancelled.

Although the tickets were dismissed, it was further explained that the owner of the ‘32 Ford coupe that was ticketed cannot drive his hot rod until it passes an inspection by a Wisconsin State Patrol trooper. Senator Kapenga also told the hot rodders who came to the Listening Session that he would be willing to help with any other hot rod issues.