The romantic notion of taking your classic car on a tour of Europe could quickly become a thing of the past, as more and more Continental countries introduce low emission zones that drivers of older vehicles may pay to enter, or are barred from altogether.

There are now more than 200 low emission zones across Europe, many of which only affect vans and lorries. But restrictions affecting passenger cars, especially older ones, are spreading fast, with Spain the latest country to tighten things up. And in most cases, a foreign registration plate doesn’t get you off the hook.

There are inconsistencies over exemptions and what constitutes a historic vehicle, all potentially causing major confusion and putting British road-trippers at risk of multiple fines.

Each LEZ has its own name and scheme with different compliance procedures, sometimes even within the same country. Some are permanent, while others depend on the levels of air pollution.

Spanish inquisition

Spain now has a ‘permit’ system similar to that of France and Germany, where a system of coloured environmental stickers are determined by a vehicle’s emission standards.  Since these only apply to passenger cars meeting Euro 3 standard and above (roughly post-2001) and Euro 4-6 diesel cars (roughly post-2006), all older vehicles are then permanently banned from traffic. That’s pretty serious, for in October 2016, figures from the Dirección General de Tráfico (DGT) revealed vehicles outside these four categories represented a whopping 58.3 per cent of the total Spanish vehicle fleet.

Since last year there has been an emergency environmental zone in Barcelona, with older vehicles prevented from entering in an air pollution peak and a potential €100 (£89) fine if caught out. This will become permanent in 2020, while in Greater Barcelona – an area covering 95km² – pre-1997 cars and pre-1994 vans will be excluded on weekdays from next December.

And from this month, Madrid has three distinct zones that can be activated under different scenarios, affecting access and parking for non-residents. In the city centre, vehicles are permanently excluded from traffic without the right sticker, while the restrictions can spread to the other zones in air pollution peaks. The standards in Central Madrid are to be gradually tightened until a zero emission zone is reached in 2025.

Like Spain, France also has a system of emergency zones. These are known as ZPAs, but are in addition to permanent low emission zones (ZCRs) found in the central areas of places like Paris, Lyon, Grenoble and Strasbourg. The emergency ZPA zones are larger, and in some cases apply to the territory of an entire département.

Drivers using the low emissions zones must display what is known as a Crit’Air sticker, which places vehicles into six categories based on their emissions, or risk a fine of €68 (£61) for cars caught without one, rising to €180 (£161) if not paid within 45 days. However, petrol cars, vans and motorhomes registered before 1997 and diesels prior to 2001 don’t qualify for a sticker, meaning they cannot be driven if restrictions have been applied.

Historic exemption

So if you own an older car in Spain or France, are you out in the cold? In Spain it seems that way, as there are no exceptions for historic vehicles. In Paris, cars over 30 years old are allowed in providing they can prove their ‘oldtimer’ status, but this exception is not universal. We contacted the French government for clarification and we’re told to contact the city hall of the different cities to find out if historic cars were exempt. That’s not exactly straightforward for someone planning a holiday, especially if it involves multiple areas.

What about other countries? In Germany, where there are now over 70 environmental zones, things are clearer. These operate using the system of green, yellow and red, which require a corresponding coloured sticker for entry. Foreign cars over 30 years old are exempt as long as they are largely unmodified, and are well-maintained. We’ve also heard of cases where special dispensation for younger vehicles is allowed.

In Belgium, things look rosier for classics too, albeit not consistent. Antwerp and Brussels are the only cities affected so far, though more will follow. In Antwerp, cars meeting a minimum of Euro 1 for petrol and Euro 3 (with particulate filter) for diesel are permitted, while only diesels below Euro 2 standards are excluded in Brussels, but regulations for both cities will tighten in 2020. Foreign historic vehicles can be registered for a three-year exemption for Brussels when they are over 30 years old, and for concessions in Antwerp when over 40. In both cities, it’s possible to buy a pass for eight individual days a year if your car doesn’t meet the standards.

Italy, meanwhile, has no national scheme, but many different low emission zones with differing standards and time periods. Most have exemption for historic vehicles of over 30 years old, but rules and regulations vary by region and municipality. Our advice here would be to use public transport for central areas, if only for your stress levels!

Portugal has also restricted access of older to central Lisbon by dividing it into two zones. Your vehicle must be Euro 3 or above for Zone 1 and Euro 2 or above for Zone 2. Historic vehicle exemption is usually for pre-1960 cars.

Even with exemptions for classics over 30 or 40 years old though, plenty of popular but younger pre-Euro standard vehicles are barred from entry, with more set to be excluded as regulations inevitably tighten. Of course, the simple argument against all this is not to drive in any of these zones. However, many clubs and companies run tours abroad, and they are undoubtedly popular. Even with the best-laid plans, you could be forced into zones in the case of roadworks, for example, or may have erroneously booked accommodation inside a zone.

Our tip is to visit, which covers each LEZ in detail and has links for the official sources to buy permit stickers as some third-party sites charge up to five times more than they should.

It’s clear that road trippers are going to have to do their homework and plan their journeys more rigorously. Not too difficult for a one-off trip, but much harder for anyone on a long-term European tour. It’s only go to get harder, so our advice to anyone considering a trip is to do it, and do it soon!