By VIC POLLARD, Californian Sacramento Bureau
Tuesday April 15, 2003, 10:56:17 PM

SACRAMENTO -- With Jay Leno and the rest of California's classic car buffs on his case, State Sen. Dean Florez has dropped his proposal to require smog checks for cars as old as 1958 models.

Leno, "The Tonight Show" host who has a large collection of vintage autos, personally called Florez's office to lobby against the plan.

The lawmaker was also inundated with letters, e-mails and phone calls from many other members of the highly organized hobby car community.

One of their tools was a cartoon depicting Florez in his state-leased SUV chasing classic cars out of California.
Florez was forced to back down on the bill, one in a package of 10 bills aimed at cleaning up the air in the Central Valley, before it even got its first legislative hearing.

The bill, SB 708, isn't dead, but it has been amended to crack down on cars that emit visible smoke. Originally, it called for requiring regular smog checks and repairs for cars up to 45 model years old. If in effect this year, it would apply to cars made in 1958 or later. That would have replaced the state's existing exemption for cars older than 30 model years, which this year is 1973.

"Given all the fights we have on all the other air pollution bills," Florez said, "it wasn't going to help to push that one."

He said classic car fans made a convincing argument that most of the oldest cars on the road, while they may be some of the worst polluters, aren't usually driven to and from work daily.

"We told the classic car folks that we're going to continue to talk to them," Florez continued, "but that was just too much of a detailed type of proposal."

Florez's legislative aide, Michael Rubio, said Leno called after reading a newspaper article about the smog bills.
" He said he wanted to know what the deal was with (SB) 708," Rubio said. "Several days later, he called back and said, 'You've got me thinking now.' And I said 'Can I start at the beginning?'"

He said Leno listened carefully and discussed his thoughts on the smog problem and the bill at some length, urging Florez to carefully distinguish between older cars that are driven for basic transportation and those that are merely exhibited most of the time.

Other problems, he said, are the difficulty of getting repair parts for older cars and the fact that emission controls were not mandated on cars until the late 1960s.

The same arguments were made by the classic car community's chief lobbyist, Steve McDonald of the Special Equipment Marketing Association, a trade group of manufacturers, retailers, publishers and restorers.

"Obviously we're thrilled that the senator has agreed to modify the legislation and refocus the target on what we believe is a more effective one, that being smoking vehicles," McDonald said.

So are hobbyists like Jan VanderPool of Bakersfield, who, with his fiancée, owns three vintage Ford Mustangs.
" That's definitely a big relief to me," he said.

VanderPool said it took years and a lot of effort to get the rolling exemption from smog checks for cars that are more than 30 years old enacted in 1997.

Florez and his staff appeared surprised, if not shellshocked, at the size and aggressiveness of the lobbying campaign against the smog check proposal.

But it was no surprise to VanderPool, who has been through similar drills before when legislation was proposed that helped or hurt car hobbyists.

"A lot of us have had to get pretty political," he said. "We've had to get active and kind of watch our backs."