Classic Car Club Quickly Reverses Over Prank

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A Fake Tax Rattles Classic Car Buffs
by Michael Barbaro
The New York Times
April 7, 2011

Click to see the mock New York Times article.

As April Fool”™s gags go, the Shelby American Automobile Club”™s 2011 spoof did not seem especially convincing. Until, that is, hundreds of classic car lovers across the country were duped, became enraged and started to organize against a nonexistent threat.

A few days ago, the Connecticut club printed a fake front page of The New York Times that included what purported to be a major scoop: to close the federal deficit, Senator Charles E. Schumer of New York was proposing a federal tax on specialty automobiles.

“Collecting classic cars is in the province of the haves “” not the have-nots,” the article quoted Mr. Schumer, a Democrat, as saying. “Those who own these cars can afford a hefty tax on that ownership.”

The tax, he explained, would amount to a staggering 10 percent of a car”™s value, and the Internal Revenue Service would open a new division to collect the fees.

Red flags seemed to dot this particular issue of The Times, however. The article about the car tax appeared next to another about a study showing that recreational polka dancers have significantly lower rates of colon cancer. (A diet of kielbasa and stuffed cabbage was cited as a probable explanation.) Oddly, all of the quotes appeared in italics. And the daily weather report was replaced by curious trivia about cars and horses in the 1900s.

Collectively, the page “should have hit readers in the head, so they knew this was a joke,” said Rick Kopec, the national director of the Shelby American Automobile Club, named after the famed car designer Carroll Shelby.

It did not. The fake edition of The Times was e-mailed to about 3,000 members of the car club, who forwarded it to friends, who posted it on Facebook and car blogs. In roughly the time it takes for a 1962 AC Shelby Cobra to go from zero to 60, the reality-distorting, anxiety-amplifying powers of the Internet had transformed the spoof into a legitimate news story.

Within days, Keith Martin, who publishes the Sports Car Market, started receiving e-mails and calls from horrified car collectors. “I will go broke,” one caller groused. “I won”™t be able to afford my cars.”

Hundreds of messages poured into the offices of a trade group for car manufacturers and distributors known as the Specialty Equipment Market Association. Steve McDonald, the group”™s vice president of government relations, fielded many of them. He made a few inquiries “” and a visit to the Web site of The Times “” and quickly realized it was a hoax.

“This thing went crazy on us,” he said.

The article, as outlandish as it seemed, had struck a chord. “Car guys assume that everyone is trying to take their cars away,” Mr. Martin said. “All politicians want us to ride bicycles, take buses or, best case, drive Priuses.”

The implausible classic car tax, he explained, felt just plausible enough.

With the uproar reaching its peak, Mr. McDonald, of the car trade group, reached out to Mr. Kopec and advised him to issue some kind of formal clarification. The article, Mr. Kopec wrote in a letter to club members, “reached a much wider audience than anyone could have predicted. He added, “We deeply regret if taking this story seriously has caused anyone undue distress or embarrassment.”

No one seems more amused than Mr. Schumer, whose first (and most beloved) car was a 1971 Plymouth Duster, and who, for the record, is not proposing a classic-car tax.

“Senator Schumer firmly believes in every American”™s right to have tax-free fun, fun, fun, until their daddy takes the T-Bird away,” said Mike Morey, a spokesman for the senator.

The spoof, Mr. McDonald said in an interview, “was more successful than the author ever intended.”