National Historic Vehicle Register Explained

If press coverage is any indication, the launch of the National Historic Vehicle Register is proving to be a hit with car guys and gals as well as the general public. So how does the Register work, exactly? What is the government’s role in the program? How does it help the community of people who love old cars? President of the Historic Vehicle Association, Mark Gessler, answers these and other important questions

The National Historic Vehicle Register is a documentation program to record America’s automotive treasures. The National Historic Vehicle Register is designed to help record this nation’s most significant historic vehicles, preserving their information for future generations and documenting their story in perpetuity.

Cadillac Line Drawing

What is the purpose of the National Historic Vehicle Register, and how does it help the classic car community?

By officially recognizing one of the world’s greatest technological achievements, the National Historic Vehicle Register celebrates the immense impact the car has had on all aspects of life, helps spread the word about the historic significance of the automobile and provides the classic car community a platform for saving and perpetuating America’s automotive heritage. This work has already been done for important buildings, bridges and airplanes, but not the automobile.

In the architectural world, private and public organizations have formed to document and celebrate historic structures, while in the aviation world, private-public efforts have been made to create the foremost conservation labs to ensure the continuation of important planes. It is time that we come together as a group of passionate enthusiasts and create the same level of infrastructure for the nation’s automotive history.  

Is this a government-run program?

The National Historic Vehicle Register is a program created and managed by the Historic Vehicle Association, a private, member-driven organization established in 2009. In 2013, the HVA initiated a collaboration with the U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service and Heritage Documentation Programs to develop a framework and guidelines to document automobiles as part of the Historic American Engineering Record, archived in the Library of Congress. 


How does the Register work?

Currently, the National Historic Vehicle Register consists of vehicles curated by a group of HVA advisors. Cars are chosen by this group of experts to represent the broad and extensive impact the automobile has had on all aspects of American culture and history. Furthermore, eligibility is based on historic significance, the integrity of the vehicle and, more specifically, draft guidelines adapted from the Department of the Interior’s criteria for historic buildings, vessels and aircraft. The four criteria are:

  • association with significant events
  • association with significant persons
  • design or construction value
  • information value such as first or last produced or among the best surviving example

After cars are chosen, they are documented by the HVA to the Secretary of Interiors Standards for Heritage Documentation. This documentation includes large format photography, a written historical narrative and measured line drawings. Once the documentation is completed it is stored at the HVA to be shared with the public on a future online infrastructure. Additionally, documentation is submitted to HAER in order to be archived at the Library of Congress and made available to the general public.  

What is the Historic American Engineering Record and why is the National Historic Vehicle Register associated with it?

HAER is a documentation program formed in 1969 by the National Park Service, The American Society of Civil Engineers and the Library of Congress to Document historic sites and structures related to engineering and industry. It procures documentation of engineering artifacts with written historical reports, large-format photography and measured drawings. HAER provides an excellent framework for documenting the automobile as both HAER and its sister program HABS have effectively recorded many of America’s most important artifacts in a manner that has stood the test of time, even if the artifacts themselves have not. 

Furthermore, HAER is a gateway for the Library of Congress’ Division of Prints and Photographs that allows for the widespread public distribution of documentation in a copyright free environment. It is important for the HVA and core to our mission to spread the word about the importance of the automobiles being recorded and to broadcast the significant stories to the public. 

Boyle Special  

Does the government have any control over how Registered cars are used?

Absolutely not. The National Historic Vehicle Register simply documents vehicles as they are now in order to celebrate the impact particular automobiles have made on our culture and history preserving their stories for future generations enabling further research and the sharing of ideas. Cars that become part of the National Historic Vehicle Register face no mandate for future use, modification, preservation, etc. We want to take a snapshot of our country’s most significant automotive artifacts while recognizing a private owner’s rights to do what they would like with their property. If a national treasure is lost for some unfortunate reason, having the National Historic Vehicle Register documentation will ensure our automotive legacy will live on in words, photos, videos and line drawings if not in the object itself. 

What level of government interference will take place with regard to these vehicles and should there be concern on the part of owners with the added level of scrutiny applied?

Again, there are no government restrictions for vehicles documented in HAER or the National Historic Vehicle Register.  In fact, this is really a benefit for owners, as the documentation associated with the vehicle results in a well-researched history of the automobile.

CSX2287 Line Drawing

The National Historic Vehicle Register is similar to the National Register for Historic Places, which is mired in government regulation of private homes. How is the National Historic Vehicle Register different?

While the National Historic Vehicle Register carries a similar name to the National Register for Historic Places and uses similar guidelines for recognition, the two organizations are independent. The National Historic Vehicle Register carries no restrictions for automobiles that are recognized and documented.  Furthermore, while the National Register of Historic Places doesn’t mandate any restrictions on properties listed, certain tax benefits and grants, as well as local historic district laws, have been placed on historic structures that create regulations.  Automobiles are not subject to these laws or local property ordnances. We are specifically working with the Heritage Documentation Programs to avoid these kinds of issues. 

How is the National Historic Vehicle Register being funded? Is this a taxpayer-funded initiative?

The National Historic Vehicle Register is funded privately by the HVA. There is no burden on the taxpayer as a result of the documentation undertaken by the HVA. The HVA works with the Heritage Documentation Programs of the NPS. The HVA, its members and donors have funded all documentation work for HAER to date. . 

Meyers Manx CATC

My car is historically significant, how can I get it on the Register?

The HVA is working with the U.S. Department of the Interior to refine the criteria that will be used to determine vehicle eligibility for future public submission. Please email us information about your vehicle ([email protected]) and we will place it on our list of potential candidates for the National Historic Vehicle Register.

To learn more about the National Historic Vehicle Register, visit the HVA’s website at

Previous Post
What’s In A Name: Corvair, Road Runner, Beetle, Dictator
Next Post
Stars & Their Cars: John Carpenter Edition