Data Dive

Looking for a history report on your pre-1981 classic? We can help.

by Tim Weadock
27 October 2021 3 min read
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Before VINs became standardized in 1981, serial number formats differed from automaker to automaker. For older Ferraris, odd-numbered chassis denoted road cars while even numbers were reserved for race cars. Photo by Patrick Ernzen / Courtesy of RM Sotheby's

Genealogists have Ancestry, house hunters use Zillow, and used car shoppers rely on Carfax and AutoCheck. Each of these products uses data from the past to deliver insights relevant today.

When it comes to most classic cars and trucks however, good resources have been harder to find. Specialists have stepped in for certain makes and models—Ford or GM muscle collectors can obtain valuable documentation from Marti Reports or NCRS shipping data, and Ferrari collectors increasingly rely upon manufacturer provided Classiche certification. Yet even those resources, invaluable as they are, tend to focus on the equipment and location where the car’s life began. The challenge for collectors comes with finding details of the car’s life after it departed the dealership.     

We’re here to help. Hagerty, as well as third-party vendors like VINData, can provide information to educate owners or buyers and fill gaps in a vehicle’s history. 

What’s in a VIN?

To understand how our (and indeed almost any) service works, it helps to understand a bit about VINs and why they matter. Simply put, the standardization of VINs in 1981 was a watershed for those of us who value transparency in the automotive world. Just as social security numbers follow people through various stages in their lives, a VIN sticks with a car through multiple owners, registrations, inspections, and crashes.

Vehicles built before 1981 often had identification numbers—Cadillac began using four-digit serial numbers in 1903—but they varied greatly in what information they related. In the best case, a VIN confirms that 1970 ‘Cuda was equipped with a 426 Hemi from the factory; in the worst case, it doesn’t positively identify a thing. Worse, there was nothing to stop automakers from re-using a number that it or another carmaker had already produced. For instance, it is not uncommon to have a chassis number apply to a model of Volkswagen and another German car—like a BMW or Mercedes-Benz—of a different model year.

As a result, the major car-history providers have no consistent way to find the older records in their database. Fortunately we do. Our patented pre-1981 VIN decoder can identify many vehicles built in the “Wild West” of automotive identification. We can match these identities against more than 1 billion registration and title records of pre-1981 vehicles licensed from IHS/Markit (Carfax’s parent company), along with our own extensive databases of insurance and sales records, to produce a vehicle history report.

Digitizing documents is the best way to make sure they get passed on to future generations. An invoice printed on paper from 1963 is amazing, but preserving the historical record is as important as the document itself.

The content delivered is similar to what you might expect from modern vehicle reports. Title information may be the most critical component. Branded titles can indicate major damage in the form of fire, flood, or salvage. Titles branded with Exceeds Mechanical Limits or Not Actual Miles identify vehicles with odometer issues. An odometer may have rolled over naturally or have been rolled back intentionally; it’s impossible for DMVs to document every odometer issue (collectors should inspect low-mileage claims carefully and not solely rely on title information). Additional information included are items like the number of reported owners, state/zip, open safety recalls, and auction or sales transactions.    

A bright light—but not a microscope

In the interest of full disclosure, we should address the report’s limitations. The biggest is the records themselves. Before 1992, registration and title record-keeping consisted of papers stored in file cabinets. When the data migrated to a computerized database, records of dormant unregistered vehicles were left behind. Consequentially, most ownership timelines begin in the early 1990s.  

What it means for you—and how you can help

We and others are actively working to improve the documentation of classic cars—and you can help. Services like Hagerty My Garage, VINWiki, and The Motor Chain make it easy to digitize documents from a desktop or mobile device without decimating storage or compromising privacy. (Early adopters or crypto-curious collectors may be interested in The Motor Chain’s blockchain-based platform.) Digitizing documents is the best way to make sure they get passed on to future generations. An invoice printed on paper from 1963 is amazing, but preserving the historical record is as important as the document itself.

Hagerty Drivers Club members can request vehicle history reports through the Ask Hagerty Help Desk. VINData also provides reports on its own, starting at $9.99.

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Comments

  • Neal Speer says:

    I have a 66 Corvette coupe which I have owned since 1979 but very little history.Can you help

  • Kimberly Fry says:

    Hi Neal – I can help… by buying it from you. 🙂

  • Rick Amori says:

    How do we contact the Ask Hagerty Help Desk?

  • Glenn, Ask Hagerty says:

    If you are a Hagerty Drivers Club member in the US and the car in question is older than 1981, then call 800 922 4050 and have a conversation with one of the folks who will open a request for a Vehicle History Report, which is forwarded to the Ask Hagerty desk. It generally takes a few days to a week to obtain a report by email. Be aware – we can only send reports via email.

  • John Buckingham says:

    No real information here. It brought up my personal registration information (which, of course I already had), but nothing new. I am disappointed, but it is a 65 year old car. Don’t expect miracles, but it was worth a try…

  • Dean Baker says:

    I have a 1969 SS Camaro 396, I have owned for several years.
    The past few years, I have been trying to get the history on this Camaro, but hit dead end after dead end.

    I have contacted Hagerty Driver’s Club, vinwiki + others, by submitting the VIN number & the license plate (the license plate is a true 1969 plate the Louisiana DMV assigned to the Camaro, after I purchased it).

    Does anyone know what company (email, telephone number) to contact to obtain the Camaro’s history??
    Thank you!!

  • Julio Saiz says:

    Recovering the history of a car is like archeology, it takes time and most of the cases a bit of luck.
    Once you have tried all public administration sources and other information services the best option is researching the former owners. If you are lucky and got invoices from previous services try to contact garages and/or owners, and from there keep pulling the thread.
    Unfortunately, sometimes we must accept gaps in our cars’ history.
    The question now is: will your ownership period become another information gap? We do have a responsibility to document our cars. With that spirit we have created the different services mentioned in the article.
    Start preserving the history of your car today 😊

  • Craig Anderson says:

    Hello Hagerty:
    Obtaining info on a classic or muscle car is totally difficult to obtain. It appears that the recent article refers to U.S. vehicles. What about your friends to the north in Canada? Can we access the same data from the sources in your article? GM of Canada used to provide information on older vehicles but, they don’t do it anymore. So, how can your Canadian subscribers obtain the same information/benefits that the U.S. subscribers do? I’d love to trace the history of my 1970 Chevelle SS. Any comments,suggestions or information would be greatly appreciated. Thanks.

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