The MOT certificate is part and parcel of motoring in the UK. We’re all familiar with the idea that every year you take your car, bike or van along to your local MOT testing station. A mechanic gives it the once over, and decides whether it passes or fails. This basic premise of the test hasn’t changed since the test was first introduced. But lots of other aspects of the MOT test have changed. Here’s a quick spin through the history of the MOT test.
Although the motor car was invented at the end of the 19th century, it wasn’t until 1960 that the British government decided to introduce a test to make sure vehicles on the road were safe. Until the end of the Second World War, not many people in the UK owned a vehicle. At the start of the 1950s, only about 18% of UK households had a car. By the end of the decade, this had risen to 40%. This rise in car ownership also created a huge spike in deaths on the UK roads. This combination of rising second hand car ownership and increased road fatalities was behind the 1956 Road Traffic Act. Ernest Marples, the Secretary of State for Transport, drew up initial plans for the “ten year test”, a basic check on car safety when a car reached ten years old, and every year after that. The test came into force in 1960 and although officially known as the Ministry of Transport test, it was soon abbreviated to MOT.
Just a year into the test, the number of vehicles failing the basic tests on brakes, lights and steering was much higher than expected. The high failure rate prompted the government to reduce the minimum age for a car’s first MOT test from ten years to seven. By today’s standards the tests were still fairly rudimentary, and mainly looked at the very basics. Back in 1961, a MOT test would cost you 14 shillilngs; 70p in today’s money. You also had to pay another shilling (5p) for your certificate.
By 1967, the age for a car’s first MOT was reduced to three years, and remains at that age to this day. One strange anomaly is the situation in Northern Ireland; it’s the only part of the UK where a car doesn’t need a MOT test until it reaches the age of four. There have been repeated calls to bring Northern Ireland into line with the rest of the UK but whether that means reducing the NI age to three years or increasing the rest of the UK to four remains to be seen. Another important change happened in 1968, when an inspection of tyres was added to the MOT test. At that point, tyres had to have a minimum tread depth of 1mm, less than the current requirements of 1.6mm minimum on all four tyres.
The next big change to MOT tests came in 1977, when the test was expanded beyond the very basics covered in the 1960s test. As cars got more sophisticated, so did the tests. Cars had their indicators, windscreen wipers, inspection of the chassis and exhaust were added into the standard MOT test. By 1977, there were about half the number of cars on the UK roads than there are now. Around 15 million cars went through the MOT test each year.
By 1994, concern about road pollution and exhaust fumes from diesel vehicles was a growing concern. The government of the day introduced emissions tests to the MOT, which first affected only diesel vehicles. Cars were required to meet a minimum cleanliness standard to pass the MOT. Over the years since 1994, the rules have been tightened further, and now involve petrol as well as diesel vehicles.
The government are usually fairly slow at adopting new technology, and it wasn’t until 2005 that the MOT became computerised. All MOT results from 2005 onwards are not stored on the DVLA database. If you know the registration number of a car, you can use this to search the database and see its MOT history. This is a very useful tool for anyone thinking about buying a used car. The history of the vehicle is more transparent and sellers can’t lie about a past failure of a vehicle. You can use the same web page to see whether a car is currently taxed or not.
Until 2018, the MOT was straightforward. Your vehicle either passed, or failed. However, in 2018 the government created two separate categories of failure. Now, failures are either major or dangerous. A major failure is something which needs immediate attention, but which doesn’t affect the car’s roadworthiness. It could be something like a headlamp not working, or a faulty exhaust. If your car fails on a major defect, you have the choice of allowing the testing garage to do the repairs or take it elsewhere. The other type of fault is a dangerous defect. This is the type of fault which makes your car not fit to be on the road, for example tyres being below the minimum tread depth. If your car fails on a dangerous defect, you can’t take it away for fixing elsewhere as you’ve been told it’s not safe to drive. Get it fixed by the garage which did the test, or arrange for a tow truck.
It’s not just cars which need MOT tests – the law applies to motorbikes, vans, lorries and taxis too. In fact, the requirements for taxis and other private hire vehicles are stricter than for private cars. One class of vehicles which is exempt from MOT checks is classic cars. Any car first registered more than 40 years ago doesn’t need a test. Similarly, any vehicle which is never driven on public roads, such as a tractor or farm Land Rover doesn’t need a MOT test either.