1985 Buick Century, Gross Polluter, by Flickr user head36

1985 Buick Century, Gross Polluter, by Flickr user head36

As two competing Federal cash-for-clunkers bills make their way through Congress, California has offered money for years to retire the highest-emitting vehicles on state roads. The Obama Administration is believed to support a national 'Cash for Clunkers' plan, and be willing to retire up to 1 million old vehicles at a cost of up to $4 billion.

The first bill, sponsored by Rep. Betty Sutton (D-OH), aims to boost demand for new cars to revive moribund sales. It offers cash vouchers up to $5,000 for vehicles from 2001 or earlier. It would award the largest amounts to US-made cars that get at least 27 miles per gallon or trucks that get 24 mpg or better.

The amount would be lower for vehicles built in Canada and Mexico, and the bill offers nothing at all for those made outside North America. The Sutton plan has been endorsed by the Detroit Three and the United Auto Workers, but some feel it may violate international trade agreements.

The other bill, from Rep. Steve Israel (D-NY) would award vouchers as high as $4,500 for trading in vehicles that get 18 miles per gallon or less. They could be used to buy new vehicles under $45,000 that are at least 25 percent more fuel-efficient than the average in their vehicle class. The most recent vehicles traded in would get the highest vouchers.

Meanwhile, California's program to scrap "gross polluter" vehicles chugs quietly along. Its goals are slightly different: the current bills want to boost demand for new cars to lift car sales and reduce fuel consumption, while California wants to cut emissions by removing the dirtiest cars on its roads.

The California program is pretty simple. If you own a registered car built before 1988, you may get a letter with your renewal that goes something like this (received by a friend with a 1951 MG TD):

Since the registration on your model year 1951 vehicle is expiring soon, please consider an alternative to driving this vehicle. You can receive $650 for your 1987 or older car, van or pickup truck from the Bay Area Air Quality Management District and help reduce air pollution.

The District's Buy Back Program buys and then scraps 1987 and older vehicles. These older vehicles have less efficient emission control equipment and therefore produce much more air pollution than newer vehicles. This program is completely voluntary. If your car is a classic car or otherwise valuable to you, please disregard this letter. 

Note, first, the second-to-last sentence: This program is completely voluntary. Despite hysteria among some collectors that old-car-crushing programs will become mandatory, we simply don't believe that will happen. Ever.

Second, you can't just drag a junkyard hulk to the station and get paid. The car must have been registered for the last two years, and be driven to the junkyard under its own power.

Third, the form to be filled out is here. It takes more time than signing your name, but one owner who traded in his 1980s Chevrolet Celebrity said it took him about 10 minutes. He mailed it to the DMV and got the necessary form in a couple of weeks. He took the form and the car to the local junkyard, which took an hour to inspect the car and verify that it had been continuously registered. Once that came through, they handed him a check for $1,000. End of story.

scrap heap

scrap heap

[SOURCES: Detroit News, Arcane Autos Yahoo Group; PHOTO: Flickr user head36]