QOTD – No Sticker for YOU! Any Good Annual Vehicle Inspection Stories?

It’s coming up that time.  Time to get the state inspection sticker. In my driving year, this is pretty much the time when my car is most in jeopardy of suddenly having to become “not my car”.  Naturally this brings some degree of stress, and therefore I have accumulated over the years a number of stories about the various causes for this stress.  Perhaps you have the same.  Or maybe you just like to read about things that cause other people stress.  Lucky you.  Read on.

I have 4 cars registered here in the great state of Massachusetts, so all 4 need annual inspection stickers.  Somehow – more through coincidence than planning – all of my vehicles are due for inspection during the summer from June through August. That’s lucky by my way of looking at the world, since I have always assumed that it’s easier to work on cars during good weather as opposed to in the middle of winter. Needing to “work on” my cars is something that I have nearly always associated with the state motor vehicle inspection process.

I’ll get to my more recent and current issues shortly, but let’s for a moment go back to 1984.

Yes, that’s me in the trunk.


As noted in my COAL about my first real car, I had that car until 1984. Why I no longer have that car – because let’s face it, I tend to keep pretty much everything pretty much forever – is a matter directly related to my state’s annual vehicle inspection program. It was in 1984, that my LeSabre failed the MA inspection process for at least the third time (as a 1971 vehicle in 1984, it was indeed several years past the expected lifetime for cars of its time). In those dark ages before the advent of modern networked computing technology failures could generally be solved by simply taking your car to another inspection facility where the inspector was a bit more “reasonable” and perhaps a bit amenable to considering that a car just needed an extra $5 to cover installing a “bulb or something” in order to pass. Know what I mean?

Well, in all honesty, the LeSabre had many more problems than could be ascribed to flaky turn signal or brake light bulbs.  It also had acquired by that time floors that were right up there with something that Fred and Barney might have piloted in 3M B.C.E.

“Through the courtesy of Fred’s two feet!”

These are from a 1970 Electra that I found on-line.

My LeSabre’s floors were much worse.

At first, I solved the problem through pop-riveting aluminum sheets to the floors.

Used plates in the press room at the Daily Hampshire Gazette.


Those aluminum sheets came from the exact press room pictured above.  The Daily Hampshire Gazette (Northampton, MA) apparently didn’t shut down its in-house printing operation until 2020. That was some 30 years after I was getting cast-off used plates from their press room.  Of course, thin-aluminum wasn’t ideal for replacing corroded steel on a Buick, but it worked for 20-something year old me at the time.  Until it didn’t.

The real reason that the LeSabre didn’t make it through its 1984 state inspection actually was much more due to the advent in 1983 of an emissions testing component for Massachusetts vehicle inspections.  If I recall correctly (and 40 years later, recalling correctly is a bit of a risky proposition), the introductory year of emissions inspection involved some process for inspecting cars using the new-fangled (at least in MA) tailpipe sniffing equipment every-other-year (it’s every year now).

With a 1971 model year car, I should have been subject to the dreaded test in 1983, but through some combination of luck and testing station high jinks I managed to wrangle a 1983 sticker. This being Massachusetts, municipal high jinks pretty much arrived with the Pilgrims in 1620, although I suspect that Massasoit/Ousamequin had that racket well nailed down even before the Pilgrims came on the scene with their urgent and therefore quite exploitable need for directions, heat, and food and stuff.

Nevertheless, my prospects for a 1984 sticker were dim. With my improvised aluminum floors, flaky brake lights, and an engine emissions system that looked more like slightly chopped spaghetti al nero di seppia than anything that had ever emerged from a factory in Flint, the likelihood of continuing to run the LeSabre in Massachusetts was slim.  So off to the crusher it went like so many cars in Massachusetts in those early years of state-mandated emissions testing.

Nowadays, the black R is for emissions rejection while a red R is for safety-related rejections. Back in the 1980s, there was only one R. A red one that really stood out.


Most of those cars would have shown up in the salvage yard with the dreaded “R” sticker. Technically, after receiving one of these, a driver has 60 days to get their car “repaired”, re-inspected, and then receive a standard (passing) sticker. Originally, there was no incentive or requirement to go back to the station that originally failed you to get your car re-inspected. This of course led some drivers to shop a variety of inspection stations (which were then as now just service stations or independent mechanics that have chosen to pay the fee to be a state inspection station) for one that would give them the best deal on acquiring a passing sticker.  More high jinks, as you can imagine, would ensue.  Nowadays, a failure is logged into the inspection system immediately so all stations know the reason why you have an R sticker. Presumably it’s therefore impossible to beat the rejection without actually fixing the problem that is identified in the state’s online system. Maybe.

Anyhow, I wasn’t going to deal with any of that with the LeSabre and gave it up for a new car that I figured (correctly) would not face significant annual inspection challenges other than the occasional grifting that might necessitate buying a new turn signal bulb or something minor.  That turned out to work fine until about 6 years later when I launched myself back into annual inspection terror with the purchase of an early 1970s BMW.  But that’s a whole different story. Other than that foray into inspection uncertainty, I’ve mostly steered myself to modern cars where the chances of getting your car yanked off the road by the state are slim.

Flash forward 34 years or so.

Of course, that couldn’t be the end of the story or the end of my persistent need to inject uncertainty into pretty much any vehicular situation.  No, of course not…enter  the 1976 Volvo.  Until recently, the Volvo was my only car that exceeded 15 years old, and as such is exempt from the tailpipe sniffer test in Massachusetts.  (As of this year – 2023 – three of my 4 cars including the Volvo are older than 15.  Whoo-hoo!) But all that means is that the inspection process can find additional opportunities to grant you the scarlet R sticker for various non-emissions infractions.  Despite having rock solid floors (good, because my source for aluminum printing plates has expired), the Volvo opens the door to flaky tail light, brake light, reversing light, and turn signal sockets which necessitate the purchase of a bulb from the inspection station (the price for them to open the thing up, determine that it’s in fact a loose bulb…but you’ve now bought the bulb…).  Even more vexing and potentially problematic is the gray-area of what is or is not required equipment-wise for a car to pass. At least in my experience, acquiring an annual sticker is anything but an objective process.

Notice any particular differences between this photo of the Volvo’s rear and the photo above?  Anything missing?  If you think that rear window wiper just “fell off”, you’d be wrong.  No, it in fact has gone on permanent vacation so that the attached car can get its sticker.  This was in response to the inspection station determining that while a rear window wiper was not required for a vehicle to pass inspection “in general”, it was required in my car’s case because “vehicles need to have in operational state all of the equipment they were originally built with” in order to pass.  How did the inspector (who likely hadn’t seen a 1976 Volvo in many a day if ever) know that my car was originally built with a rear wiper?  Well, there was one attached to the rear hatch, right? There you have it.  Owners don’t just screw those things on for laughs, you know?  Clearly this inspection station dude was not at all familiar with the likes of the J.C. Whitney catalog.

“I’m sorry, one of Winky’s eyes isn’t lighting up.  This could be expensive. No sticker for YOU!

The logic was that if the wiper wasn’t there, it could be passed…but it couldn’t be passed if the wiper was attached (as this one clearly was) and simply didn’t work. Making the wiper work is a whole lot of effort in my car’s case. Any CC readers who want to help me figure out if the issue is in the switch, the wiring, and/or the motor and then help replace the switch, wiring, and/or motor are welcome to come on down and give me a hand.

So, no wiper, no problem. Bring on the sticker – that year at least. Subsequent years continued to leave stuff like the parking brake, front windshield washer pump, and a gazillion other little things to keep tabs on.  Still, it went well for a couple or three years.  That was until the point when my traditional inspection station informed me that “we might have a hard time continuing to pass you with that missing rear wiper”.  Wait, the rear wiper that YOU told me to remove? I chalked this whole thing up to the inspection station owner needing to make an additional boat payment (with apologies to Click and Clack) or perhaps a yearning to own a 1976 Volvo that certain owners at their wit’s end might be “encouraged” to sell him on the cheap.

No, from what I can tell he has quite a collection of vehicles that have managed to fail inspection one way or another and that have subsequently taken up semi-permanent residence in his parking lot. It must have been the boat payment. At any rate, high jinks will ensue.

This time I went the route of changing inspection stations, and so far the Volvo and my other two 15+ year old cars have acquired proper stickers.  That of course could change in an instant, like it almost did for my 2008 BMW that has a defective passenger seat airbag sensor mat (that has already been fixed to the tune of $500) which required me to reprogram the car so that it didn’t continue to display a giant red error warning on the dash right at its July inspection date.

Stay tuned.

Perhaps the last new-old-stock left front turn signal lens for an early-model 240, replacing one that had growing hair-line cracks and hence one more reason for possible sticker failure. Depending on who you ask.


What state inspection stories do you have?  I realize that few states – other than of course California – can come close to the gauntlet that we in my state have created for motorists, but maybe I’m wrong about that.  And what about non-US readers?  The stories of Japan’s JCI (a.k.a. “Shaken”…which I have to believe describes the process as well as what it leaves drivers feeling) and Germany’s Hauptuntersuchung (one ought to get the sticker just for being able to pronounce that word…better to just say TÜV) abound.  Without getting anyone in trouble, do you have any stories of the high jinks present in your inspection process? A little gloating is ok from those of you who live and drive somewhere with no inspection.  Let’s hear it.