Dear Mr. Faist:
This responds to the letter to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) from Chris Kuczynski, Fleet Services Division, City of Seattle Department of Administrative Services, dated February 4, 1992, asking how the provisions of 49 CFR, Parts 554-557, 565-568, 571, 573, 576, 577, and 579 pertained to "a municipal government agency that transfers, modifies and/or fabricates custom vehicle bodies for use by it's own departments." In a telephone conversation with Walter Myers of this office on April 3, 1992, you stated that the vehicle modifications referred to in the letter involve only trucks, both light and heavy; that you combine both new and used bodies with both new and used chassis, endeavoring to retain the old engines, power axles, and transmissions to the extent possible; that such modifications include mounting equipment on truck chassis to create such specific-purpose vehicles as dump trucks, cranes, and the like; that some of such modifications and fabrications are done in your own shops while others are contracted out to local body shops; and that passenger cars and buses are not involved.
Before addressing the specific issues raised in the letter, some background information may be helpful. The National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1966, as amended, 15 U. S. Code, 1381 - 1431 (hereinafter "Safety Act") authorizes this agency to establish Federal motor vehicle safety standards for new motor vehicles and items of motor vehicle equipment. NHTSA, however, does not approve or disapprove motor vehicles or motor vehicle equipment. Rather, the Safety Act establishes a self-certification process which requires each manufacturer, in the exercise of due care, to ensure and certify that its products meet all applicable Federal safety standards. Thereafter, NHTSA will periodically test vehicles and equipment for compliance with the standards and investigate allegations of safety-related defects.
Turning now to the modifications to your trucks, we start first with the provisions of 49 CFR, Part 571.7(e), Combining new and used components, which provides in pertinent part:
When a new cab is used in the assembly of a truck, the truck will be considered newly manufactured . . . unless the engine, transmission, and drive axle(s) (as a minimum) of the assembled vehicle are not new, and at least two of these components were taken from the same vehicle.
NHTSA has consistently interpreted that provision to mean that, by its terms, it applies only to new bodies and not to old ones, and that placing a new body on an old chassis does not produce a new vehicle so long as the engine, transmission, and drive axles, as a minimum, are not new and at least two of which were taken from the same vehicle. Conversely, a new vehicle would result by placing a new body on an old chassis utilizing new, a combination of new and used, or used engine, transmission, and drive axles no two of which were taken from the same vehicle.
A new vehicle would also result by placing a body, new or used, on a new chassis. In that case the new chassis is an incomplete vehicle which is defined at 49 CFR, Part 568.3 as:
[A]n assemblage consisting, as a minimum, of frame and chassis structure, power train, steering system, suspension system, and braking system, to the extent that those systems are to be part of the completed vehicle, that requires further manufacturing operations, other than the addition of readily attachable components, such as mirrors or tire and rim assemblies, or minor finishing operations such as painting, to become a completed vehicle.
By adding a body to the new chassis, you, the City of Seattle, become a final-stage manufacturer, defined in Part 568.3 as ". . . [A] person who performs such manufacturing operations on an incomplete vehicle that it becomes a completed vehicle." As such, you are required by Part 568.6(a) to ". . . [C]omplete the vehicle in such a manner that it conforms to the standards in effect on the date of manufacture of the incomplete vehicle, . . . ." Part 568.6(b) then requires that "Each final-stage manufacturer shall affix a label to the completed vehicle in accordance with 567.5 of this chapter." For your additional information I am enclosing a NHTSA fact sheet entitled INFORMATION FOR NEW MANUFACTURERS OF MOTOR VEHICLES AND MOTOR VEHICLE EQUIPMENT. To summarize, placing a new body on a used chassis does not make a new vehicle if, as a minimum, the engine, transmission, and drive axles are not new and if at least two of those components were taken from the same vehicle. A new chassis, however, is an incomplete vehicle and placing a body thereon, whether new or old, results in a new vehicle which must comply with all applicable Federal motor vehicle safety standards in effect on the date of manufacture of the new chassis, and the final-stage manufacturer who completes the assembly of the vehicle must comply with the certification requirements of 49 CFR, Part 567. Accordingly, in response to your question about the applicability of 49 CFR, Parts 554-557, 565-568, 571, 573, 576, 577, and 579 to your truck customization program, the answer is that if you create a new vehicle, all those provisions apply. If you do not create a new vehicle, none of them do. This is true whatever procedures/steps you choose to utilize in accomplishing your vehicle customization program.
One final matter should be discussed before concluding. Section 108(a)(2)(A) of the Safety Act prohibits manufacturers, distributors, dealers, and motor vehicle repair businesses from rendering inoperative any safety device or element of design installed on or in a complying vehicle. That restriction does not apply to private owners, which would include municipalities, who are free to modify their vehicles without regard to whether the vehicles so modified comply with the Federal motor vehicle safety standards. Such restriction would apply, however, to those local body/repair shops to which you contract out some of your customization work. Accordingly, those businesses would have to be very careful to leave intact all the safety devices and features that are on the vehicles that they work on for you.
I hope the above information is responsive to your inquiry and will be of assistance to you. If you have any further questions with regard to this matter, please feel free to contact Walter Myers of my staff at this address or by telephone at (202) 366-2992.
Enclosure Paul Jackson Rice Chief Counsel