If you've been to a National Street Rod Association event, you've seen these guys. They're the ones in the snappy red-and-white shirts inspecting every crevice of various street rods like they were looking for loose change. But they're not. And they're not judges either. They're members of the NSRA Safety Division, and what they're looking for are ways to improve the safety of the cars rolling through their national events. Every rod that passes the 16-point inspection-which is completely voluntary and completely free-is rewarded with a little windshield sticker (called the NSRA Vehicle Safety Inspection Certification Sticker). Rods that pass the recommended 23-point inspection earn a "Safety 23" pin, too.
According to Frank Salerno, NSRA's National Safety Director, the program was started by Loctite back in 1972. Three years later, the first National Safety Director was appointed, along with seven Chief Inspectors. Today there are an additional 64 State Inspectors. These guys look at more than 15,000 street rods every year.
We went over to the vehicle safety inspection area at the NSRA Northeast Nats in Burlington, Vermont, to find out exactly what these guys do when they inspect somebody's rod. The first person we met was Dennis O'Brien, Chief Safety Inspector of the Northeast Division, who gave us the lowdown on each of the 23 inspection items, what the inspectors look for, and some of the builder blunders they've uncovered over the years.
Sixteen Required ItemsVehicles must satisfy the following 16 items to pass the inspection:
Horn-An electric horn with an easily accessible switch or button is required to pass. Inspectors check that the horn can be heard at a distance of 200 feet in front of the car.
Speed Indicator-Inspectors are looking for either a speedometer or a tachometer. If only a tach is used, the face must be marked to indicate 65 mph. Accuracy is verified by the good old "honor system."
Rearview Mirror-This one's simple. A securely mounted interior or exterior mirror-with no cracks-is required.
Glass-Inspectors require safety plate, Lexan, or tempered glass, with no cracks. Dennis says they will sometimes run across a barn-fresh rod running the original plate glass, which breaks easily and can be extremely dangerous when it does.
Lighting-NSRA guys check for two headlights with functioning high-beams and low-beams, at least one taillight and brake light, and a license plate light. Turn indicator lights are not required but are checked if the car has them.
Windshield Wipers-Many rods don't have wipers, and this is one of the most common reasons people don't pass, according to Dennis. An electric or vacuum-operated wiper is required, no hand-operated wipers. A removable clip-on electric wiper with an accessory wire is allowed on roadsters but must be in place during the inspection.
Auto Transmission Lockout-A Neutral safety switch, allowing the car to start in Park or Neutral only, can be a hassle to install after an engine swap and is the other big cause for failing the inspection. Even so, Dennis and the other inspectors consider this an important item. Sometimes the fix is just an adjustment.
Tires-Radial or bias-ply tires must be DOT-approved with a minimum 3/32-inch tread. No slicks or Indy-style tires allowed. Inspectors check for rubbing and tire condition.
Steering-Inspectors look for excessive play, binding, or rubbing. They check the mounting of the steering box and linkages, tie rod ends, or steering arms. They inspect the column and U-joints by turning the wheel back and forth or holding the wheel while they feel for excess play. Worn joints, or joints not securely attached, are a common culprit.
Throttle Linkage-This is important. The throttle linkage must not travel past center of the carburetor at full throttle and must return to idle when the throttle is released. Throttle return springs are checked.
Fuel System-In addition to leaks and proper line installation, inspectors check that the tank is located in the rear of the vehicle, contains a sealed filler pipe, and is vented to the outside of the car.
Exhaust-Two specific criteria are no leaks and that the system extends past the front door and exits away from the car. Dennis told us that mufflers aren't specifically mentioned in the rules but are a subjective call. "There are always the guys with weed burners showing off," he admitted, "but we don't usually find them coming through the safety inspection."
Self-Aligning Rod Ends-Inspectors examine for cracks, binding, wear, and sloppiness. Tie rods are also checked for fractures and excessive play.
Shock Absorbers-Highboys and T-buckets are sometimes missing front shocks, but inspectors are looking for one at each wheel. They also check the position of the shocks and the condition of the mounts. If a car has airbags, they make sure they're installed correctly, check the hardware, and look for any misalignment or rubbing.
Brakes-Four-wheel brakes are required. Safety crews inspect the lines for proper mounting and routing. They look for flexible lines at the wheels and check for leaks. Brake pedal travel is also checked. Copper lines are not allowed.
Scrub Line-Inspectors stretch a taut string from the bottom of each of the wheel rims to the bottom of the adjacent tires. No steering, suspension, or chassis components should descend below that line, since they would come in contact with the ground in the event of tire failure.
Seven Recommended ItemsIn addition to these sixteen items, the NSRA safety inspectors also evaluate the following seven items. These are not required to pass the inspection but are recommended.
Windshield-The glass must be safety plate, AS-1 glass (double sheet of tempered glass laminated with plastic film in between) being preferred.
Shift Pattern-"This goes back to when you had manual valve bodies that sometimes had the opposite shift pattern of a regular automatic-so you're not backing up when you think you're going forward," Dennis explained. "Now that there are so many different types of automatics, this is still important." The car should have a visible, preferably permanent, display of the shift pattern. Cars with three-speed manual transmissions are exempt. "We're generally fairly lenient, as long as there is some indication of shift positions."
Fuel Lines-Lines should be securely mounted and there should be no leaking. Inspectors look for rubber lines that won't fatigue. Lines should be mounted every few feet against the frame or crossmembers with no contact with the exhaust or any moving part. Copper lines are allowed on carbureted motors. Clear plastic lines are not allowed. New fuel-injection systems now in use must have factory or better high-pressure-type fuel lines (no screw clamps allowed).
Parking Brake-A lot of rods don't have them, and Dennis identified this as one of the main reasons for not earning a "Safety 23" pin. Basically, if the car doesn't move when idling in Drive with the independent parking brake on, it passes. A line-lock setup doesn't qualify as a parking brake.
Self-Aligning Rod Ends- This involves a more thorough check than in the 16-point inspection. Inspectors check for binding and want to see a good-condition outer washer between the tie rod end and the bolt head, in case the ball separates from the outer race.
Brake Lines-Lines must not be leaking, crushed, or mounted in contact with the exhaust system or moving parts. Routing and secure mounting is checked. As stated earlier, flexible lines are required at the wheels, and copper tubing is not allowed.
Chassis Fasteners-Inspectors make sure that all fasteners have locking devices, such as lock washers, cotter pins, self-locking nuts, or safety wire. Nylon locking nuts must have a few bolt threads exposed. Loctite does not qualify because inspectors can't verify its use.
Four Optional ItemsThe NSRA Safety Division recommends and looks for these four optional items during inspections: fire extinguisher, seat belts, third brake light, and dual master cylinder. These items will not affect the outcome of the inspection, but participants are highly encouraged to have them on their rods.
Dennis emphasizes that the safety inspectors are not judging the cars and that they are instructed to be helpful, not critical. Their job is to serve as another set of eyes, to spot and identify things on a car that the owner should work on to make the car safer. In fact, Dennis says that the majority of people are appreciative when an inspector finds something wrong, especially if it's something they didn't know about.
"We've seen people go directly to the swap meet area or to a vendor's booth to get the right part they need to fix the car on the spot, so they can come back and pass the inspection. Once, a participant came through with a brand-new car with so many problems that we got writer's cramp writing them all up. That guy ended up staying up until 4:00 that night fixing every last thing on that list, came back the next day, and passed."
Not everybody is that conscientious. In some cases, such as with windshield wipers, there are many rodders who just don't want them, even though it means their car does not pass the inspection. Dennis encourages those people to get a free inspection anyway. "Let us look at the rest of the vehicle and make sure everything else is safe." Unlike at the DMV or the dragstrip, there is no penalty for not passing an NSRA inspection. Sure, the occasional inspection surprise is embarrassing, but they happen to everybody who's ever spun a wrench, and they're dangerous if they go undiscovered. That's why it's a great idea to put your rod through an NSRA safety inspection. Even if you don't care about the sticker or the pin, you'll know you're driving a safe street rod.
LightingInspection SurpriseThis isn't a mistake as much as a McGyver-style quick fix. Dennis recalls one ride that wouldn't pass because it had no license plate light. The owner came back 30 minutes later. "He'd taken the top off a regular click-type ballpoint pen, pulled out the ink cartridge, found a bulb that fit inside the top, clipped it to the license plate, and ran a wire to the taillight wires. He had himself a license plate light!"
SteeringInspection SurpriseDennis still can't believe the time somebody brought in a car with the steering shaft built out of EMT conduit. That's not how to pass a safety inspection.
BrakesInspection Surprise"Some inspection teams have a guy press on the brake and then put his foot under the brake and pull it back. If the car doesn't have a master cylinder rod retainer, you can actually pull the pedal back and make the rod fall out of the master cylinder. That's rare but it happens."
Brake LinesInspection SurpriseDennis recalls, "An inspector once told me, 'I just inspected a car with independent four-wheel suspension and steel lines.' I said, 'Good.' He said, 'You don't understand, it had just steel lines...no rubber.' The steel lines ran from the wheels to the frame. Those lines wouldn't have made it very far with the wheels bouncing up and down."
Brake LinesInspection Surprise "One time a guy told me that he'd just put in a new rearend," Dennis said. "When I checked that area, I found that the brake line ran over the top of the axle and had been smashed flat by the frame. He was really happy to find out why his rear brakes weren't working right!"
Chassis FastenersInspection SurpriseDennis remembers inspecting a Deuce coupe with a dropped axle. "I lifted up the drag link and said, 'This is probably supposed to be bolted tighter than this.' There was no nut on the steering arm bolt! One bump and the drag link would have fallen off."
Did You Know?Several states have modified the NSRA Vehicle Safety Inspection for their DMV street rod registration programs. For more information about NSRA, go to www.nsra-usa.com.