The mechanic was a scruffy character. He rolled his eyes and started walking toward me as he took one last drag off his cigarette and doused the burning foam filter in a greasy cup of coffee. In a raspy voice, he mumbled, "What do you want?" My first thought was, This guy is incredibly in tune with his customer service skills. Immediately on the defensive, I shot back, "A smog check. How much?" With great emphasis, he injected as much surliness in his limited response: "I charge 39 bucks." I could tell this was going to be tough, and obviously I needed more information. "Is the test pass or don't pay?" I asked. The worldly mechanic fired back, "Do I look like a charity?"
When smog emissions' testing was first mandated in the early '80s, scenarios like this were commonplace. The state forced car owners to test their vehicles, and sometimes-unscrupulous mechanics took advantage of them. There was some oversight and enforcement of regulations by a state Bureau of Automotive Repair, but abuses were still rampant. Today, vehicle emissions test facilities are heavily monitored, and the punishment for abuse outweighs the benefit of cheating and rip-offs. My previous trip to a test station was quick and simple, and I didn't leave feeling violated.
Here in California, emissions laws can be confusing and are amongst the most stringent in the nation. You can bet most other states will follow. Even if we don't all agree with emissions standards and laws, it's important that we all do our part to keep our blue skies blue. Keeping our rigs in tip-top shape so they pass emissions tests isn't difficult. Most late-model vehicles don't require much maintenance beyond keeping the air filter clean, changing the oil regularly, and checking the spark plugs periodically. Older vehicles need to be tuned. If you sense that there's a problem and can't figure it out, take the vehicle to a qualified mechanic and have a full diagnostic test run.
If your vehicle doesn't pass smog, it could be flagged as a gross polluter. The problem might be something minor, but if it's major, you could be in for a roller-coaster ride of headaches, expensive repairs, applying for a waiver, and making a trip to a referee station. That's why it is more than worthwhile to keep up your vehicle's maintenance.
More importantly for enthusiasts like us, before you modify your engine, check state and local regulations, and make sure the new parts are smog-compliant. They should come with a sticker or be permanently stamped, indicating they meet state and federal emissions standards. Spending hundreds, even thousands on aftermarket performance parts only to have them removed by order of the Smog Police is disconcerting.
Engine swaps are legal. However, the new engine must not pollute more than the older engine, must be the same year or newer, and must be from a similar weight class vehicle (though not necessarily the same manufacturer). Also, all smog-related components must be installed and functional. An engine swap will also require a visit to a state referee station for inspection. If you are unsure of your state's regulations, check with the DMV and they can point you in the right direction. Those who live in rural areas might luck out by having emissions standards that are not as stringent.
In some states, smog test equipment is networked directly to the DMV. Vehicle registration is found before the test. After the test, the smog certificate is transmitted to the DMV. It's easy to find a legitimate smog station, and you can always check with the Better Business Bureau to find out more information on a company or to report a problem. Good luck.