Should replica cars be illegal?

Some people will read this headline and immediately say, “Illegal? Of course not! Why should they?”

The speed and certainty of this reaction bothers me.

If the word ‘clothing’ replaced the word ‘cars’ in the heading, I imagine that reaction might be somewhat different. What about the words ‘brake pads’? A different reaction again? Perhaps we need to change the word ‘replica’ too – what about ‘fake’? ‘Counterfeit’? ‘Knock-off’?

Before we go any further, let’s draw a line in the sand. The point of this post is not to start contemplating whether a meticulously handcrafted aluminium ‘250 GTO’ built using original parts on a 250 GTE chassis should be scrapped, nor whether you should be arrested for attaching M-Car ephemera to your 1.8-litre E36 (though that’s arguably another sort of crime…). The question is this: should you be able to buy a grey import MR2 cloaked in a poorly-made ‘Murcielago’ body kit, netting the vendor a tidy profit?

The law appears to be pretty clear on the matter. Section 92 (1) of the Trademark Act 1994 states:

“A person commits an offence who with a view to gain for himself or another… and without the consent of the proprietor –

(a)   applies to goods or their packaging a sign identical to, or likely to be mistaken for, a registered trade mark.

(b)   sells or lets for hire, offers or exposes for sale or hire or distributes goods which bear, or the packaging of which bears, such a sign…”

The legislation seems to say that anybody putting a Lamborghini badge on the bodywork of a car that isn’t built in Sant’Agata is committing an offence, along with anyone who sells, distributes or is essentially involved in any way with such cars.

On the continent, the law is even stricter: France and Italy both crack down routinely on buyers of fake goods, where fines of €1,000 or more are not uncommon. There have also been recent high-profile cases of OEMs enforcing their trademarks in Europe by seizing and destroying anything from cheap lookalikes to the most refined counterfeits.

So why are companies that make these cars in the UK apparently allowed to do so? This is not a black market after all: Google “uk supercar replica” and a plethora of websites promoting turn-key cars and kits proudly suggest that you compare their products to “the real thing”. The language we use seems to have a dramatic impact on reactions. Say ‘replica’, and the visual of a small, industrious cottage industry comes to mind; but switch in the word ‘counterfeit’ and it conjures images of crime and systematic trademark infringement.

Are we too accommodating of ‘counterfeit’ cars that do business using another’s registered trademark for financial gain? Where do we draw the line between a tribute/homage and a product that is nothing more than a knock-off? Are replicas to some extent a part of UK car culture that is simply treated with hostility in Europe and the USA? Should people have the right to do whatever they want to their own car as long as there’s no financial gain?