How to Find the History on an Antique Car

When you buy a daily driver, you want to know it’s history, so you can avoid a lemon. While a car may seem fine on the surface, it could be hiding accident damage and wear from poor maintenance. When you buy an antique car, knowing its history is helpful for more than just possible repairs. It can be helpful for evaluating the value and the course you should take during restoration. How do you build a history for a vehicle that has been on the road for decades?

How Does the Vehicle History Help with My Restoration?

The more you know about a vehicle, the easier it will be to make judgments when buying a project car, restoring it, and valuing it for insurance and resale.

Is the old car genuine, or a recreation? There’s a big difference in value between a genuine Hemi Dodge or Shelby Mustang and a normal car that had the right parts installed. Doing research before you buy can keep you from being scammed.

How much damage will you be dealing with during the restoration? Is the paint job the original color, or is it a respray? Was it in an accident? Was it repaired correctly? How was the vehicle stored?

How much do you care about originality? Gathering factory build information can help you restore your used car to the way it was when it first hit the showroom floor. Alternatively, if you plan on a restomod build, you can choose a rough or previously modified car that isn’t worth restoring to factory original condition.

Who owned your car, and what did they do with it? It may be more valuable if it was owned by a celebrity. You may also be able to find photos, race wins and other records on your car.

Checking the VIN

The Vehicle Identification Number is a unique serial number issued to every vehicle sold in the U.S. since 1954. This number can be found several places, including plates on the firewall, a front shock tower, or the front edge of the dash. There’s often a matching sticker on the driver’s side door pillar. Since it’s easy to get recreation stickers, these are less reliable than metal plates used on other areas of the vehicle.

Until 1981, the manufacturer could format this number any way they liked. These VINs are almost always shorter than 17 characters. To learn what the number means, you’ll need to look up information specific to the manufacturer. However, if your classic car was built after the 1980 model year, it has a standard VIN that is exactly 17 characters long. This makes VIN decoding fairly straight forward.

Vehicles made in the United States have a VIN that starts with 1, 4 or 5, while Canada-built cars start with 2 and Mexican cars with 3. Most other countries use letters: “J” for Japan, “S” for the United Kingdom, “S” or “W” for Germany, “Y” for both Sweden and Finland and “Z” for Italy.

The second and third characters indicate the manufacturer. This is the company that built the vehicle, which may not be the same as the vehicle brand. For example, Saab contracted Valmet, a third party manufacturer, to help build many of their cars. If you have a classic Saab with a VIN that starts with “YK1,” it was built by Valmet. Likewise, the “captive imports” sold as American cars in the early 80s have a VIN that matches their Japanese manufacturer.

The next 6 characters describe the vehicle, including the model, engine, body style and paint color. This is useful for checking the originality of your vehicle. The next character is a check digit, which is generated using a mathematical formula. It verifies that the rest of the VIN is correct.

The 10thcharacter is the year the car was built. Depending on the decade, this is either a number or a letter. The 11thcharacter is the factory the car was built at. The rest of the digits are the sequential production number.

Build Order Sheets and Shipping Invoices: Getting the Details on Your Car’s Equipment

Build order sheets go under several different names, including production broadcasts, broadcast sheets, line tickets and production manifests. No matter what the factory called it, this sheet has a list of everything that was fitted to the vehicle at the factory. That includes interior and exterior colors, options, the rear end ratio and more. It’s the best documentation you can have to verify the originality of the vehicle. These are located under the front passenger foot well carpet or behind the glove box, so they’re usually left undisturbed through the vehicle’s life.

Build order sheets are often confused with shipping invoices. A shipping invoice is sent to the dealer with the vehicle, listing all the key information, including the VIN, trim, options, and wholesale prices. This information is close to what you’ll find on a window sticker. While this is useful, it’s not as detailed as the build order sheet. If a historic vehicle organization offers reproduction documents, it’s almost always a shipping invoice, not a built order, that they can make for you.

Other Paperwork That Can Be Useful in Your Search

There are probably a few receipts, business cards and registrations left in the glove box. You can use the addresses on these forms to get an idea of where past owners lived. Even if the car was cleaned out, some receipts may be tucked away under a seat, behind the dash or under the trunk carpeting. An old dealership plate or sticker on the back of the vehicle can help you find the general area where the owners lived.

Do I have “Numbers Matching” Parts?

A “numbers matching” vehicle has the same major components that it was built with at the factory. This includes the engine, transmission and sometimes the rear axle. These parts are more desirable for an original restoration. However, the numbers in question can be hard to verify. Late model cars have the full VIN number printed several places to make it difficult for chop shops to part out stolen cars. However, classic cars usually have less precise information, using only a few characters to identify each part. Rear axles are usually the hardest to verify, because this information was printed on a tag that is easy to damage or remove during the vehicle’s life.

For example, most push rod Ford engines made from 1959 to 1996 use a code that indicates the year the engine was manufactured, the engine family, and sometimes the vehicle model it was built for. While there’s a good chance that an engine with the correct code is original, there’s nothing tying it to that specific car. In the past, someone could have replaced the original engine with another engine from the production run. This makes it easy to install a more desirable powerplant that appears original. Other manufacturers have similar issues. Depending on the date of manufacture, a Pontiac engine may have the entire VIN printed on the front of the engine block, or just the engine code and year.

Even if you don’t care if your car is original, these codes can be useful. A Ford engine code will usually tell you if you have two or four bolt mains without removing the oil pan, while most axle codes will tell you the gear ratio.

Can the DMV Help?

Maybe. The Department for Motor Vehicles should have the title information, as well as branding. This includes salvage, fire and flood titles, as well as accident reports. However, state agencies only keep this information for the past 5-10 years.

Access to this information is limited due to the Driver’s Privacy Protection Act of 1994. It prevents personal information from being released, outside of specific legal circumstances. You won’t be able to get information on past owners, unless you’re working with an attorney or private investigator. This typically won’t happen unless you’re investigating fraud or other legal issues related to the car.

If you decide to go this route, contact the state DMV office, not the local satellite office where you get your cars tagged. They’re the ones who have access to all of the records.

Tracking Down People Who Know the Vehicle

While you can’t get ownership information from the DMV, you probably found information about previous owners when you searched the vehicle for paperwork. A quick web search can help you find them. From there, you can try contacting them and asking what they know about the car. If the car has meticulous service records, you may be able to contact the shop that did the work. They probably won’t tell you who owned the vehicle, but they can tell you more about its general condition.

Popular models built in several factories were usually shipped locally. This can help you narrow the sale of the car to a general region of the country. For example, a car built in California was probably sold on the West Coast, while a car built in Michigan was probably sold in the East or Midwest.

If the model has a dedicated base of car collectors, contact specialist clubs that were local to the owner. For example, a Corvette owner may have been in a Corvette club, while an MG owner may have been in a British car club. Furthermore you can check social media and reach out to many car clubs just by checking Facebook.

Contacting Historical Organizations for Factory Vehicle Information

When it comes to manufacturing information, car companies usually don’t deal directly with classic vehicle owners. Instead, they usually have a separate corporate division that specializes in classics, or they license information out to a third party. Some of these organizations include Kevin Marti Reports, Chrysler Historical, Pontiac Historic Services and GM Vintage Vehicle Services.

These organizations usually have a fee tier, letting you decide how much research you want to pay for. The amount of information can vary a lot between organizations and vehicle years. For example, GM lost most of their data from the late 1960s in a fire, leaving a big gap on information for their classic muscle cars. They can also provide statistics on your car, including how many were made that year with the same equipment and paint color. This is nice to have for car show displays.

What if I Want to Find a Car I Used to Own?

There are plenty of people who want to restore a car they remember from their youth, but there’s always “the one that got away.” What if you could get the exact car you used to own? That may be possible with a little research. You can apply many of the methods outlined in this article, albeit with a different approach.

The process starts by gathering up as much information as you can on your car. The most useful piece of information you can have is the VIN, since it’s specific to that vehicle. The VIN is printed on loan paperwork, insurance cards, inspection receipts and the car registration. You may also find it on receipts for repairs, and it’s usually included on accident reports and insurance claims.

If you can’t figure out the VIN, you may be able to trace your car back using the license plate number. Don’t remember it? Check old photos of your car to see if you have a clear shot of the plate. Keep in mind that they will only have records going back a few years, typically up to the last plate redesign. However, that’s all they can help you with. The Driver’s Privacy Protection Act applies, even if you previously owned the car. You won’t be able to find the current owner through the DMV.

It’s common for sellers to include the VIN number in ads to let buyers check the vehicle history reports using services like Car Fax. Nowadays the internet can be a great place to start. If use the search engines now and then, you may find a current or old ad for your car. Each search engine, such as Google and Bing, will show different search results. You'll be surprised about the history of a vehicle you can find with just a simple keyword search.

Gather up any other information you have on the car. Who did you sell it to, and where? Did the new owner mention any plans for the car? Does the vehicle have any standout features that make it easy to identify?

Unusually rare vehicles may be part of an owner’s registry, so it’s worth contacting clubs geared toward your car. There are also services like The Lost Car Registry that are aimed specifically at reuniting former owners with their cars. If you have a general idea of where the car is currently located, you can also try posting an ad on a local message board.

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