Car Buffs Have Bill in Headlights

Times Staff Writer

Comedian Jay Leno, the host of television’s “Tonight Show,” called Assemblywoman Sally Lieber’s office earlier this year and delivered a monologue that wasn’t funny at all.

Lieber, a Democrat from Mountain View, was sponsoring legislation to end a California exemption that spares many old cars from smog checks. Leno, an avid car collector, considered the bill stupid, and let Lieber’s legislative director know it.

“He was really angry,” said the staffer, Marva Diaz. “I thought someone was playing a joke on me. He didn’t sound like the person I had seen on TV.”

It was indeed Leno, however -- and he called again a few weeks later to remind Lieber of his opposition to the measure, which now sits on the desk of his Hollywood pal, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who must make a decision on it by the end of this month.

Currently, when a car turns 30, it no longer has to be smog checked. Each year, more cars become exempt. Under the proposed law, the cutoff would be fixed in time -- all cars from the 1976 model year on would have to be checked -- and the ranks of exempt cars would thin as older cars are taken off the road.


State officials estimate that if the governor signs the bill, by 2010 about 340,000 passenger vehicles that would otherwise have aged out of the smog check program will have to be inspected.

The measure is supported by an unusual alliance that includes the American Lung Assn., environmental groups, oil companies and farmers.

On the opposing side is a passionate subculture that’s as much a part of California’s mythology as beach bodybuilders Schwarzenegger once hung out with: classic car buffs.

Supporters of the bill say that older cars, most of which would be considered clunkers rather than classics, make up a disproportionate share of the smog problem in California.

Opponents see the measure as a first step by the state toward forcing smog checks on the classic vehicles they love.

Now that Leno has weighed in on behalf of the opponents, supporters of the bill worry that Schwarzenegger -- who declared his candidacy for California governor on Leno’s show, and boasts his own collection of Hummers -- will quash it.

Environmentalists and car club representatives both assert that Leno lobbied Schwarzenegger during the governor’s most recent visit to the “Tonight Show” last month. Spokespersons for the program and the governor said they did not know whether such a conversation occurred.

Leno’s publicist, Dick Guttman, rejected the notion that Leno would have any sway over Schwarzenegger, or that the two celebrities were close to begin with. He said Leno would never publicly discuss his political advocacy.

“They have had a relationship for years, but the use of the word ‘friend’ is sometimes strange in Hollywood,” Guttman said. “I would call it a symbiotic relationship. They don’t get together for dinner or anything. He is a good guest on the show.”

As they await the governor’s decision, car aficionados around the state are accusing politicians of trying to grab headlines with a measure that would make only a dent in the smog problem.

“Politicians are often ridiculous, and this is an example of how ridiculous they can be,” said Chuck Abbott, president of the Southern California chapter of the Pontiac-Oakland Club. “It’s going to have an infinitesimal impact on air pollution, and it’s going to make a lot of people’s lives miserable in the car world, all so some politicians can say they did something about smog.”

Environmentalists and air pollution officials counter that limiting the exemption would remove 12 tons of smog-forming pollutants per day by 2015. The law, they say, is a long-overdue step toward reducing motor vehicle emissions. They cited a USC study published last week in the New England Journal of Medicine which found that children breathing dirty air in Southern California were more likely to develop underpowered lungs, leaving them more vulnerable to health problems.

By 2010, cars made before 1983 are expected to account for 22% of the hydrocarbons and 11% of the nitrogen oxides emitted by passenger cars and light trucks, according to state officials, even though the older models will constitute just 2.6% of the vehicles on the road.

As for the true classics -- the 1969 Pontiac GTO, for example, or ’57 Chevys -- the measure wouldn’t affect them, the bill’s supporters point out, because it wouldn’t reach beyond the 1976 model year.

“We would argue there are no issues with this bill and classic cars,” said Tom Addison, a lobbyist for the Bay Area Air Quality Management District. “It’s very simple: If your car is in the smog check program today, it should stay in the program. That’s all the bill does.”

The measure contains a promise from California lawmakers that they will not seek in the future to extend smog checks to cars made before 1976. Classic car lovers are not convinced.

“There are a lot of Camaros and Mustangs that are going to be affected,” said Lee Lieberg, a mortgage underwriter from Westminster who in his spare time serves as treasurer of the Corvettes of Southern California club. “But even those of us with older cars are either violently opposed or at least nervous. People see this as ‘give the bureaucrats an inch and they’ll take a mile.’ ”

Lieberg’s wife, Sharon, is the historian of the Southern California Chevelle-Camino Club. For the couple, the preservation of classic cars is a deeply personal pursuit.

Sharon still has the car she drove when the couple began dating: a white 1969 Chevelle with a black vinyl top.

“She’s had that car longer than she’s had me,” Lieber said.

Environmentalists are equally passionate about the need to clean California’s air. They expect Schwarzenegger -- who promised when he was running for office to cut air pollution in half -- to do everything in his power to reach that goal.

Bill Haller, a Sierra Club volunteer working to end the 30-year exemption, was so livid at Leno for opposing Lieber’s bill that he decided to use the comic’s trademark humor against him.

Last week, Haller announced the formation of a faux environmental organization, “Californians 4 More Smog,” and organized pseudo-supporters to picket the “Tonight Show.” The rally in front of the show’s Burbank studio was sparsely attended -- only two people showed up -- but it still drew radio coverage.

“We say lung association, shmung association,” Haller joked. Becoming serious again, he said: “I hope Jay Leno reconsiders.”