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Theseus’ Paradox – Rebodies, Replicas & Tampered Numbers; an Automotive Identity Crisis

NOVEMBER 16, 2016 - Bryan W. Shook - VintageCarLaw.Com

Greek historian and writer, Plutarch posed a question, over two thousand years ago, that has continued to confound philosophers.  “If the ship on which Theseus sailed has been so heavily repaired and nearly every part replaced, is it still the same ship — and, if not, at what point did it stop being the same ship?”  This same question can be posed differently and more succinctly; if one has an ax and replaces the handle and the head does he still have the same ax? 

This parable clearly presents a paradox that we collectors, restorers and enthusiasts of vintage and antique vehicles can well relate to.  At what point do our “restorations” become replicas of what the original is thought to have looked like?

Photo: BringATrailer.Com

Let us look for a moment at a fairly straightforward restoration of an otherwise solid car.  If a few body panels are replaced and others repaired and the drivetrain and chassis is otherwise original I think we can all agree that we have simply restored or rehabilitated the car; the majority remaining untouched and original.

But take the situation where  you replace the body but not the frame.  What about the situation where the frame and the body have been replaced?  What about just the frame? Does the authenticity of the engine change your opinion?  At some point the original car ceases to exist; its identity is destroyed and the resultant vehicle is a replica of what the original may have looked like.  True, to even the trained eye, a complete replica may well be indistinguishable from the original but it is clearly not the original.

As illustrated above, Theseus’ paradox continues to confound us in our hobby.  Cars today are being restored using many reproduction parts and it is unfortunately not uncommon to find that many of the rare cars have had their bodies, frames or had major components such as engines, transmissions or interiors replaced.    Other concerns regarding rebodied vehicles can be found in the article Rebodied Cars … what to do?.

Additionally, the removal and replacement of VIN and serial numbers can create an equally sticky situation Many laws have been enacted to protect the integrity of the VIN.  Pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 511, the alteration of a VIN, could be a federal criminal offense.  Further, pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 2321 whoever buys, receives, possesses, or obtains control of, with intent to sell or otherwise dispose of, a motor vehicle or motor vehicle part, knowing that an identification number for such motor vehicle or part has been removed, obliterated, tampered with, or altered, could be fined or imprisoned for up to ten years.  Similarly, Pennsylvania’s statutes also address this matter.  Specifically, 18 Pa. C.S.A. § 7703 states that a person who alters, counterfeits, defaces, destroys, disguises, falsifies, forges, obliterates or removes a vehicle identification number with the intent to conceal or misrepresent the identity or prevent the identification of a motor vehicle or motor vehicle part commits a felony of the third degree and, upon conviction, shall be sentenced to imprisonment for not more than seven years or a fine of not more than $50,000, or both.  Further, and most concerning is that pursuant to 18 Pa. C.S.A. § 7704  any person who purchases, receives, disposes, sells, transfers or possesses a motor vehicle or motor vehicle part with knowledge that the vehicle identification number of the motor vehicle or motor vehicle part has been altered, counterfeited, defaced, destroyed, disguised, falsified, forged, obliterated or removed with the intent to conceal or misrepresent the identity or prevent the identification of a motor vehicle or motor vehicle part commits a felony of the third degree and, upon conviction, shall be sentenced to imprisonment for not more than seven years or a fine of not more than $50,000, or both.  Moreover consider, especially with the case of restamped engines that, in Pennsylvania, it is illegal knowingly buy, or sell an automotive part from which the manufacturer’s name plate, serial number or any other distinguishing number or identification mark has been removed, defaced, covered, altered or destroyed unless instructed or done by the manufacturer.  18 Pa.C.S.A. § 4104.

Often times Bryan W. Shook, Esquire, through his law firm Vintage Car Law, is contacted concerning misrepresentation of vehicles that have been rebodied or otherwise replicated to appear one way when they were not actually produced in that configuration.  There is well-settled Pennsylvania case law which holds that “the deliberate nondisclosure of a material fact is the same as culpable misrepresentation.  Even innocent misrepresentations are actionable if they relate to matters material to the transaction involved; while, if the misrepresentation is made knowingly … materiality is not a requisite to the action…. A misrepresentation is material when it is of such a character that if it had not been made, the agreement would not have been entered into.”  McClellan v. HMO of PA, 604 A.2d 1053, 1060 (citations omitted).

In closing, if the car has been substantially modified during the restoration (i.e. rebuilt using all non-original parts, a new body, frame, engine, etc. )this information must be disclosed prior to the sale of the vehicle to the new owner.  Failure to do so could create legal liability.  The use of half-truths and crafty expressions of terms could create even further liability.

Attorney Bryan W. Shook is not only a devoted automotive enthusiast, but is also an experience litigator who devotes a large portion of his law practice to helping other collectors and hobbyists understand today’s market and protect their automotive investments. Attorney Bryan W. Shook is a seasoned automotive collector and restorer and as such brings real world experience and firsthand knowledge to the table for his clients throughout the world. Although Bryan Shook is headquartered in  central Pennsylvania (close proximity to Carlisle and Hershey), Attorney Bryan Shook is available anywhere for consultation, advice, and information, most times, on as short as a day’s notice. If you’d like more information about this topic or would like to speak with Attorney Bryan W. Shook please email him at BShook@shooklegal or by phone at 717-884-9010.  More information can be found at http://www.vintagecarlaw.com.