Clean air zones in big cities are all the rage at the moment. Urban, built-up environments have always had a tricky relationship with cars, in part down to the consequences congestion has on air quality in these areas. As I write this article, over 200 cities across 10 European countries operate some sort of clean air zone. England alone has six. I’ve lived a mile from London’s Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) for over a year now, and I want to tell you all about it.
ULEZ was originally introduced in central London back in April 2019, designed to target a relatively small chunk of the capital. Think of London as an onion, having six layers or so. The centre is Zone 1, a relatively small area, but the one that took the brunt of all congestion. The further you go out, the bigger the zone and the larger the area covered is. In theory, although not always in practice, the further out of Zone 1 you are the better your air quality is, until you eventually end up in Zone 9, or something like that, which isn’t really London anymore and might as well be the countryside. Sorry Epsom.
In Speedhunters terms, there’s not much speed to be hunted in central London. The areas are filled with speed bumps, the limit is basically 20mph everywhere, and parking is mostly permitted Monday to Friday, 8:00am to 8:00pm. It’s definitely not a write-off for car culture though, quite the opposite. We’ll get back to this later.
When ULEZ was implemented, London already operated a congestion charge system, charging anyone who wanted drive around this area £15 (US$18) a day. There were exemptions, with residents receiving a 90% discount, EV users not needing to pay, and disabled people also not being effected. The latter two again aren’t impacted by the then new ULEZ, however residents and other road users would now need to pay the additional ULEZ fee of £12.50 ($US15).
Congestion Charge was just that, a £15 charge to deter people from driving in the zone, however ULEZ was a new thing, with a new purpose. ULEZ wasn’t battling global warming or congested roads, it was battling air quality which was quickly deteriorating from toxic gasses that unfortunately do actually get created as a result of our hobby. The specific toxic gas in question is nitrogen oxides, more commonly referred to as NOx.
As a general benchmark, ULEZ would be applied to petrol cars which failed to meet Euro 4 regulations which became mandatory in new petrol cars in 2005, and diesel cars failing to meet Euro 6, mandatory from 2014.
That’s correct, if your petrol car was made before 2005, that’ll be £12.50 (US$15), please. Diesel? £12.50. Whack the congestion charge on top and we’re talking £27.50 (US$33.50). Drive in Saturday evening and leave just after midnight? That’s two days buddy… £55 (US$67). Do that once a week? £2,860 (US$3,500) a year. I hope you guys have a big wallet.
No big deal though, as ultimately this area of London was quite tiny and frankly out the way for driving. This was until 2020, when rumours started to spread that this teeny tiny ULEZ zone will be expanding to the edge of Zone 2 at the end of 2021. South London get’s off lightly here, but North London… basically all of North London is in Zone 2. End result? On October 25th, 2021 ULEZ expanded to cover all of Zone 2, going from a small, central London area to covering an area of 4,000,000 people.
That’s an insane number of people. The state of Oklahoma is 4,000,000 large. It’s like two Nebraskas stuck on top of each other. I’ve never been to America so I’ve got no idea what that actually means, but it sounds like a whole lot of people and that’s because it really is. 4,000,000 people now have to pay £12.50 a day just to move their car off their drive if their car isn’t ULEZ compliant.
Automatic number plate recognition (ANPR) cameras are whacked all over the place inside the zone to make sure you can’t dodge this.
Now, there’s a whole host of socioeconomic variables that are taking a heavy hit as a result of ULEZ which I’m way too under-qualified to speak about, but asking people to suddenly replace their main form of transport during a cost of living crisis (with a newer and most likely more expensive piece of kit) is a recipe for disaster. It’s recently been announced that in August 2023, the ULEZ zone will expand to cover the whole of greater London. Today, that means 8,899,375 people will be living inside the ULEZ zone by the end of 2023. Oof…
The realisation of this situation is still sinking in for most people. We’re all still kind of looking around at each other thinking… ‘hold up, I have to get rid of MY car?’ Yes, Michal. Either pay £12.50 a day, or sell your ’90s BMW. There go my dreams of taking it to moon miles and beyond, or driving my firstborn home from hospital in it. Whatever…
The reality is, NOx causes some serious issues for people living in these air zones. Premature deaths are the biggest and most commonly spoken about consequences of doing nothing to fix the poor air quality. Of course, this isn’t just a problem for us in London. Our Parisian readers have the same issue and their clean air zones are more drastic than anything us Brits have. If a car was manufactured before 1997, they cannot drive their car Monday to Friday, 8:00am to 8:00pm. At all. They can’t even pay their way in.
Germany has 58 clean air zones which you can’t enter at all in an ICE vehicle until you pay for your emissions number plate sticker. It’s no biggie, but if you fail to buy this sticker you can get stung with a €100 (US$105) fine. Oh, and you don’t qualify for a sticker at all if your car is a Euro 3 or below. No catalytic convertor, no sticker.
The choice is now clear to me, find a way to live with clean air zones, or… well, there is no other choice. I can’t fix this problem, and neither can you. Admittedly, the noise of these clean air zones coming in to take everything I love in life away from me has been present for a while now, allowing me to hunker down and prepare some contingency options.
Friends, if you haven’t already I suggest you buckle in as I take you through my ULEZ escape plan.
Option 1: Buy A Classic Car
We’re quite lucky in the UK. For some reason, our government grants cars over the age of 40 classic car status. In turn, they’re free from all tax and yearly mechanical inspections. That’s correct, because of their age they’re no longer required to go through an MOT roadworthiness test or pay any road tax, including, you guessed it, clean air zone charges. Now, off the bat this seems like a great idea, but at the moment it obviously only applies to cars made in 1982 or prior.
I don’t doubt some of the best cars to grace the pages of Speedhunters are older than 40, but if you’re unable to run more than one car (such as myself) relying on 1970s technology and engineering for daily use, reliability and safety is a little bold. Alex, my buddy who owns this gorgeous BMW E21 uses it frequently, but he does also have a modern daily to go alongside it. If I had to bank my own cash here on a daily classic car, I’d be looking nowhere but Mercedes-Benz.
The W123 started production in 1975, giving you plenty of ULEZ options to choose from, and best of all they came in all the body shapes you could ask for. Other appropriate options include the Mk1 Golf, all sorts of Fords, and even the Mini. These are all suitable city classics with life left to be used on and on if desired and looked after.
It’s worth adding here, with every year that goes by, more and more cars are unlocked for us via this classic car status. In 2023, we will have access to the earliest Mk2 Golfs, BMW E30s and Mercedes-Benz 190 Es. In 2024, we get the third generation Civic. I live down the road from an elderly lady who’s owned a 3G Civic since new. I managed to get chatting with her one day and she told me all the stories she had with the car, from the time she test drove one on holiday in Switzerland to her mother getting caught speeding in it.
The mood switched when she told me how distraught she was that ULEZ would force her to sell her beloved Civic, especially as she uses it maybe once a fortnight. It was an early 1984 model, so I told her to give it a year and a bit and it’ll be ULEZ-free anyway. She had no idea. It’s sad to think how many people in her position aren’t aware of the classic car status rules.
Option 2: Enter The World Of Modern Classics
There are a lot, and I mean an awful lot of good cars that are old enough to get retro status, and clean enough to meet emission regulations in clean air zones. Let’s start with the most obvious.
When it comes to city life, look no further than a hot hatchback. Chucking a small car around, rowing through the gears and revving out small capacity engines provides a joy like no other.
The Renault Clio is the first thing that springs to mind, specifically the 182 Phase 2s. Arguably the pinnacle of French hot hatchery, they’re ULEZ-free and ready to rip about the streets of Central London whilst looking trendy in a way only French cars can. The Phase 1 172s are prettier, but harder to find as ULEZ ready. A 2001 Y-reg car will be ULEZ complaint, but anything before won’t be. This is where cracks start to show in the system, and opportunities open up. More on this soon.
I found this 182 whilst walking around Soho with Lewis. Sticky tyres and a bucket seat far surpasses what you need to have fun in the city, but something tells me this sees more action than just Park Lane roundabout. I don’t blame the owner, I’d do the same thing to my one.
Lewis himself owns a ULEZ hot hatch, a Lupo GTI. These cars are full of charm, with a buzzy 1.6L under the bonnet and a host of homologation-esque touches around the place. Wider arches, lightweight panels, interior differences and that magical GTI badge on the boot lid makes this the go-to, appreciating modern classic hot hatch.
Alongside the sporting pedigree, the GTI badge gives you an almost access all areas feeling. It’s not out of place in the posh streets of Chelsea as it is in the suburbs. Anyone and everyone can drive a Lupo, Golf or Polo GTI and feel content knowing they’re driving an object that makes them fit in with everyone. At least in my opinion. Surprisingly, these Polo and Lupo GTIs are a rare sighting in central London these days.
Option 3: Hunt For The Cracks In The System
At first glance, ULEZ is incredibly intimidating and confusing. It shouldn’t be, but government communications are so all over the place it almost makes you wonder if they’ve made it difficult to understand for your average Joe on purpose. The reason a 6.0L Bentley is ULEZ-compliant but a 1.0L Micra isn’t is down to the type of toxic air these cars produce, but specifically the amount of NOx that comes out of the exhaust. Newer cars are cleaner, yes, but fortunately for us making clean cars was an initiative that a lot of the more established car manufacturers tried to meet back in the ’90s as well.
This leaves us in an interesting position where some Euro 3 cars from the ’90s have NOx emissions low enough to meet ULEZ standards. They aren’t marked as ULEZ on the government’s systems, but that’s purely because the system is automatically filtered to exclude anything before 2001 and before Euro 4.
The reason for this is a mystery, but I have a theory. Back in the ’90s when these cars were made, there were no requirement for car manufactures to declare NOx figures when registering these cars for sale in the UK. Filling in another blank box for hundreds of thousands of cars required labour which requires money. If the manufacturer doesn’t need to spend money on admin, they won’t. In 2001, legislation changed and this figure had to be recorded. Y-reg cars therefore can suddenly appear as ULEZ-compliant.
This leaves us with a weird period in car history where models running from the late ’90s to the early ’00s would come either registered with NOx up front… or not. If you own a vehicle in this time period, have a look at your V5. There will be a NOx reading box. It might be empty, or it might be filled.
The plot thickens as a lot of manufacturers made cars with low NOx ratings but never registered it as there was no need. Mercedes-Benz is a prime example of this. R129s, W210s, even the AMGs had NOx ratings low enough to make them ULEZ-compliant, but weren’t registered as so. Fortunately for us, Transport for London who are responsible for keeping a log of all the cars crossing the ULEZ border are aware of this and are happy to help, marking these rare Euro 3 modern classics as the ULEZ-free cars they should be.
Admin is involved in getting this done. To begin with, you’ll need a Certificate of Conformity from your manufacturer. Using Mercedes-Benz as an example again, they charge for this. I believe it’s £150 (US$182), and then you risk receiving a certificate that shows your model doesn’t actually meet ULEZ requirements. Dead end for you. For the most part, these are still uncharted and unpredictable waters and, frankly speaking, a lot of it is down to luck. W210 E 55 AMG? All good to go. SL 320? No clue, I’m still yet to find an owner who’s tried their luck and their £150.
Another good one is the Mk4 petrol Volkswagen Golfs. Early ones prior to the 2001 filter also meet NOx requirements even though they’re marked as not. A few good emails in the right departments could change that. My favourite one of the bunch so far? Pre-facelift BMW E39 M5s. Yup, they meet ULEZ! What us Londoners have on our hands here is quite literally a treasure hunt to try and find the cars that deserve to stay with their owners in the city. A literal hunt for speed. Who’d have thought?
It all goes back to what I said at the start. On paper, London is no good for us Speedhunters, but now that over 10% of the UK’s population will be living inside ULEZ by the end of 2023, there’s a huge chunk of car culture we have to stick up for. If that means doing some research and getting us excited by the prospect of potentially unlocking some new ULEZ classics, I’m all here for it. Also, whilst it’s not edge-of-the-seat motoring, there is something absolutely magical about cruising through one of the most famous capitals of the world with your friends at night. I recommend you give it a go if you can.
Worst case scenario, you pay £12.50 to make some great memories. Best case scenario with some admin work, you might even be able to do it free from the charges of ULEZ for years to come.
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