The two Volkswagen dune buggies sitting in front of VW enthusiast Dane Morrison’s garage in downtown Toronto make up just a small part of his classic car collection—but they’re his favourite part.
“That one I’ve had over 15 years,” he says, pointing to a faded dark red roadster with matching red Cragar wheels and a chrome roll bar. The other, a Beetle-based “Maxi Taxi,” is a more recent month-old acquisition, one Morrison’s worried he won’t get the chance to drive.
“My insurance company simply won’t cover it any more—no explanation, they just told me they’re no longer covering dune buggies,” he explains.
Because the cars are purpose-built for recreational use, he says regular car insurance is out of the question, meaning when the policy on the roadster expires, he may not be able to register or drive it in the province either.
Morrison is one of several classic car enthusiasts in Ontario who feel insurance companies, provincial regulators and emissions officers are waging an all-out war on hot rods and making every effort they can to impound their raucous souped-up rides.
You’ll find plenty of stories from the front on internet forums, where rodders recount battles waged during traffic stops, seek to arm themselves with information, and ask each other about the legality of certain modifications they’ve made to their vehicles, like:
- “Does anybody know if there is a law in Ontario that forbids a car or truck to run without fenders?“
- “Wondering if anyone here has been stopped for an emissions component check in your older vehicle with an engine swap…“
That last part, about questions regarding the legality of enthusiasts’ hot rods, is where lawyer Jonathan Hendricks comes in.
Ontario’s hot rod lawyer
Hendricks is as close as you’ll find in Ontario to a “hot rod lawyer,” a barrister whose practice deals in transportation law and who specializes in classic and customized cars. “We [Hendricks and partner Michael Pasquale] have kind of made the focus of our legal practice anything that happens in a car, from environmental [infractions] to stunt driving to stolen cars.”
He got into this particular branch of law during his studies at the University of Windsor, which is, of course, not far from Detroit, the “Motor City.” But it helped, too, that his dad was into cars and owned a Corvette.
“To me, cars have always been something more than just a mode of transportation,” Hendricks, 32, explains. “My family is from India, where there’re a billion people and only the elite had a car. When my parents immigrated in the 1960s, owning a car was a huge deal, so it didn’t even matter what kind of car you had, you’d cherish it for what it is.”
Though a lack of technical know-how and hands-on experience puts Hendricks in a Lexus rather than a piece of vintage machinery, he also likes working with hot rodder clients because they’re very passionate about what they do.
“A lot of them are putting together that classic car or souping up that import through sheer love of their vehicle. Relating to that as a car fanatic and being a young lawyer, I meshed those two together because it seemed like it made the most sense.”
A war on hot rods?
It’s that passion that Hendricks thinks drives some enthusiasts into an almost combative frenzy the second they get pulled over in their hot rod. While he admits Ontario has a lot of modified-car-related regulations on its books, he doesn’t agree that the province is necessarily out to get custom car owners.
“I don’t buy into the idea of there being a war against hot rods, but I definitely buy into the idea of there being misunderstandings,” Hendricks says. “And both sides, [regulators] and people in the hot rod hobby, have to try to reach an amicable position. Making something uselessly adversarial serves no point.”
Hendricks sees himself in the perfect position to help mediate between the two and clear up disputes: his father worked as a police officer, so he understands and respects governmental authorities, but he’s also a car guy, so he gets the frustration car enthusiasts can feel when slapped with certain charges or fines.
It’s also helped him realize better ways for hot rodders to challenge provincial regulations, through legal channels.
He cites an example of a petition that was circulating through automotive parts outlets like Performance Improvements asking the Ontario legislative assembly to exempt vehicles 20 years or older from certain emissions requirements.
“To urge people to write to their MPs, their local politicians, that’s a respectful way to bring about change. You’ve got to urge other people to think the same way you think, and then lobby the right people,” he says.
Unblurring the lines
During the 2015 Motorama Custom Car Expo in mid-March, in a room in a corner of Toronto’s International Centre, Hendricks is standing in front of about two dozen hot rodders seated there for his “Legal Pit Stop” presentation, sponsored by Performance Improvements.
Hendricks asks how many of them have been pulled over in their cars before; every hand but one goes up.
“Eighty-five percent of people, from the time they’re first licenced to the time they stop driving, have at least one interaction with the police,” Hendricks tells the group. He asks volunteers for a few examples of the infractions they were cited for in their hot rods, and before long some of those questions you read on forums start coming up.
The overarching theme of Hendricks’ responses is to keep cool and always be respectful during a traffic stop, and to be upfront and honest with the police officer or ministry official—without offering them information you don’t have to.
“Before they’re a police officer, or a by-law officer, or an environmental officer, they’re a human being,” he says. “And as with anybody you talk to day-to-day – save for maybe a few continuously miserable people – you have to conduct yourself respectfully.”
Hendricks is the only lawyer in Ontario offering custom car enthusiasts free legal advice at seminars like this, but he figures the time he donates is worth it, if it means spreading that message about mutual respect between regulators and hot rodders and teaching them about the better, legal way to effect change.
“A lot of people think the law is really inaccessible … but education is something that shouldn’t only be for a select few,” he reasons.
Of course making himself visible in the hobby helps his practice, too, but he says the people who attend his presentations can tell he genuinely loves the hobby, and would be turned off if he was doing this only for himself.
At the end of the day, he feels it’s more about doing what he can to make the law clearer for his fellow car enthusiasts and ending what they might feel is a war on hot rods. “It’s the duty of young lawyers to try to unblur the lines, to take away the fuzzy areas and clear it up.”
top image courtesy of Rob McJannett, Performance Improvements