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Playing By The Rules - Investigative

Avoid Engine Swap Headaches And Fines By Planning Ahead

Jonathan Thompson
Nov 11, 2010

Sema Action Network
The automobile has been a staple of American culture since Henry Ford introduced the Model T at the turn of the 20th century. Automobile manufacturers began to introduce new and exciting models with ground-breaking options to facilitate demand for their automobiles. Shortly thereafter, Americans began to crave new cars and as with most anything in America, custom options became a staple. In unity with the popular individualistic American culture, U.S. car owners began to modify and change their vehicles beyond Original Equipment Manufacturers' (OEM) offerings, creating a movement that has maintained itself somewhat stubbornly, and carried into the present. Unfortunately, the desire to be unique has created a complex situation. The dilemma involves car enthusiasts, OEMs, the aftermarket industry, and the U.S. government.

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This article focuses on California laws and regulations given the high concentration of Honda enthusiasts and Honda-oriented companies located specifically in California. The four main government organizations a California Honda aficionado must directly deal with are the California Bureau of Automotive Repair (BAR), the California Highway Patrol (CHP), the California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV), and the California Air Resource Board (ARB). California Law states that a vehicle cannot be modified unless the manufacturer of an aftermarket part or system proves it doesn't increase emissions. The ARB facilitates this process through Executive Orders (E.O.s), a certification process through which the ARB states that an emissions-related modification has not increased the emissions output of a vehicle.

ARB Air Pollution Specialist John Swanton, when asked if an '02-'06 Acura RSX Type-S K20A2 engine could be legally swapped into a '00 Civic, responded, "as long as the engine is the same year or newer of the vehicle, it's the same certification category or better, and if it's a California car, it must be a California certified engine." To add to that, the swapped vehicle must maintain all of the proper emission and smog devices, and if a car is the vehicle being swapped, the engine must also be from a car. For example, a CRV motor into a Civic would not be legal being that it's considered a light-duty truck, rather than a car, like the Civic.

To view ARB-approved aftermarket street-legal parts, visit the following link: Companies in this list have successfully completed emissions testing and certified their engine component(s) for legal use in accordance with ARB standards. A quick search under the "Turbocharger System/Turbocharger Modification" category resulted in three brands offering certified turbochargers for various Hondas: Edelbrock, GReddy, and HKS.

California Bureau of Automotive Repair (BAR):
The BAR is more directly involved with Honda enthusiasts. The BAR issues licenses to referee stations. Among their responsibilities, referee stations validate or invalidate engine swaps and engine emission modifications such as air intakes and exhaust manifolds. For example, when a Honda owner is ordered to visit a referee station, he or she must make an appointment for a vehicle inspection. This includes a visual inspection, as well as a run on a smog dyno. Many referee stations are located in or near California community colleges.

The BAR also administers the engine change guidelines that BAR-licensed referee stations follow when validating engine swaps and modifications. A general version can be viewed at: For example, one of the guidelines states, "no internal or external engine modifications (cams, pistons, intakes, etc.) may be performed unless the parts are ARB-exempted or EPA-certified for use in the installed engine."

When seeking to install a street-legal engine, there are a few main guidelines to follow. First, as previously mentioned, "the engine being swapped must be the same year of the vehicle or newer. Secondly, especially in California, you have to put a California certified engine into a car. You cannot put a 49-state or JDM engine into a California certified car. Third, the engine has to be the same classification. Another rule of thumb, you can always upgrade but you can't downgrade [in terms of engine year]," said BAR Program Specialist Alan Coppage. The two main problems are JDM engines and engine components without E.O. numbers.

As for JDM engines, they are not legal options. State Referees can easily identify JDM engines in that they have four numeric digits and USDM engines have five. Some individuals try to grind off the numbers of a JDM engine and stamp the illegal engine with a legal USDM identification number. "Law enforcement knows all too well how to deal with that," Coppage adds.

Regulated aftermarket parts are legal and will pass Referee station inspections only if they have an E.O. number. Again according to Coppage, "If you buy an aftermarket header that's got an E.O. number that's appropriate for the car, it's perfectly legal."

The whole process begins when a Honda enthusiast contacts a referee station or is issued a citation requiring a visit. Appointment times depend on the station's backlog of work and the nature of the inspection. "If it's determined what's been done is legal, [the State Referee] will issue a BAR label, or an engine change label," he said. The BAR label consists of the car's VIN number, make and model, and includes a description of what's been altered from stock. Even the simplest modification to an emissions control system or part requires a new BAR label. Such labels remain in effect when transferring ownership of a vehicle. During subsequent smog checks and vehicle registration, technicians will simply refer to the existing label, regardless of ownership origin. Coppage offers the following advice for Honda enthusiasts: "Make sure [the changes] you're going to make in your car meet BAR and ARB requirements. You can do a lot of changes legally. Look at the 'Engine Change Guidelines' and 'Aftermarket Parts Database.' If you do that, you'll be miles ahead of the game."

California Highway Patrol (CHP):
The CHP, along with local sheriff and police departments, has the responsibility of enforcing emissions-related laws and regulations. These departments issue citations for rules violations such as illegally-modified emission control systems, and can send vehicles to a California referee station for inspection. The CHP becomes more directly involved with respect to Vehicle Identification Numbers (VINs). "Salvaged vehicles must be inspected by a VIN Officer. They inspect paperwork to determine where the engine and other parts came from," said CHP Spokesperson Jamie Coffee.

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California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV):
The California DMV has a straightforward role by keeping track of California-registered vehicles. "As long as the car passes smog, the car can be registered," said DMV Spokesperson Jan Mendoza. If a Honda aficionado wants to sell a Civic hatch with a BAR-approved engine swap, all they have to do is have it smog checked prior to the sale. Passing a smog check is the seller's responsibility, not the buyer's. The smog certificate is valid for up to ninety days after its date of issue. The smog check requirement and procedure rule applies to all California counties. "For different states, [the buyer] must make sure the vehicle passes California emissions if it's not a brand new car," said Mendoza.

Off-Road Hondas:
Honda owners who use their car solely for off-road purposes, such as racing, are exempt from ARB and BAR emissions requirements. Therefore, they are allowed to swap in JDM engines and perform engine modifications with non-compliant emissions parts. The CHP and other law enforcement agencies are not involved as long as the Honda is driven exclusively in off-road areas such as raceways. Hondas intended and used just for off-road events only require legal vehicle registration. The vehicle must be re-registered annually with the California DMV as a "non-operational vehicle."

Why Groups Like Specialty Equipment Market Association Action Network (SAN) Are Needed:
Of course, government agencies aren't always completely frustrating. They have some major benefits as well. Organizations such as the CHP find and recover stolen vehicles. They also impound vehicles with stolen parts. Agencies like the ARB are simply trying to protect the environment. However, the current economic and legislative environment is emboldening governments to become more aggressive with legislation to increase revenue and prescribe limitations. Honda owners need a helping hand in the matter to make sure government organizations don't become too controlling and abrasive. The SEMA Action Network (SAN) is an organization dedicated to providing the tools and information necessary for hobbyists to protect their passion.

The SAN is a partnership between enthusiasts, vehicle clubs, and members of the specialty automotive parts industry in the United States and Canada who have joined forces to promote hobby-friendly legislation and oppose unfair laws. With nearly 40,000 members, three-million contacts, and an ability to reach thirty-million enthusiasts through print and press, the SAN is the premier organization defending the rights of vehicle hobbyists. Best of all, the SAN is free to join with no obligations or commitments. Get involved. Visit and sign up today to receive important information on issues that affect your passion.

Finally, when working with government agencies to meet emissions requirements, a Honda enthusiast must be persistent and patient. Honda owners can no longer ignore the reality of their hobby. Plan ahead and go legit. In doing so, headaches, fines, impounds, court appearances, and all of the other associated negative baggage can be avoided.

Contact Information
Sema Action Network (San):

California Air
Resource Board (ARB):
Phone Number: (800)-242-4450

California Bureau of Automotive Repair (BAR):
Phone Number: (800) 952-5210
Referee Center: (800) 622-7733

California Highway Patrol (CHP):
Phone Number: (800)-835-5247

California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV):
Phone Number: (800)-777-0133

By Jonathan Thompson
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