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.
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.