A vehicle identification number, or VIN, is the unique code that identifies each motor vehicle sold in the United States. You need a VIN for various purposes, such as applying for car insurance policies and registering vehicles. When you know where to find VINs, doing business concerning cars gets easier.
History of the VIN Number System
The 1953 Chevrolet Corvettes carried the earliest VINs, which were four-digit numbers identifying the chassis number of each vehicle. In 1954, American automakers started using serial numbers for each vehicle they produced. However, the systems were not uniform, and the numbers were in different places on each model. The federal government implemented the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard (FMVSS) No. 115 in 1969 to provide uniformity. This standard required carmakers to sink or emboss a VIN on every passenger car. A car's VIN had to be visible to a person standing at the pillar of the left windshield.
After the Motor Vehicle Manufacturers Association and Volkswagen of America petitioned the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the agency considered expanding the system. As a result, the NHTSA created a new standard that took effect with the 1981 model year. All over-the-road-vehicles sold must contain a 17-character VIN in a fixed format. A vehicle's VIN is a distinct code made up of 17 numbers and capital letters. VINs of any two vehicles built within 30 years cannot be the same.
NHTSA eliminated FMVSS No. 115 and placed all VIN requirements into 49 CFR Part 565 in 1996. Now, manufacturers must assign a VIN to each passenger car, multipurpose passenger vehicle, bus, truck, and motorcycle. Trailers, trailer kits, and incomplete vehicles must have identification numbers, too.
Why VIN Numbers are Important
Carmakers and the government use VINs to process vehicle recalls and correct safety defects. VIN checks enable tracking of compliance with federal regulation of imported vehicles. The codes simplify collecting data on motor vehicle collisions and monitoring insurance coverage. Law enforcement agencies, state DMVs, motor vehicle researchers, and dealerships use VINs to organize information and locate particular vehicles. Companies that create vehicle history reports, including Carfax, use data from the vehicle identification numbers to show owner history, liens or repossessions, and recall notices.
Do You Know Where to Find VIN Numbers?
A VIN for a particular vehicle is available in several places. The most accessible place to see it on a car is from the outside at the base of the windshield on the driver's side. Another place to look is the pillar of the driver's side door jamb. Open the door and look at where the door latches to the vehicle body. The passenger side doorpost often displays the VIN.
Other places to look for vehicle identification numbers on vehicles include the trunk, the radiator support bracket, and parts such as the engine and frame. On older cars, check the front end of the car frame when you have the door open. If you can open the hood on a vehicle equipped with a gasoline engine, look for the number stamped on the front engine block. For motorcycles, check the steering neck under the bike's handlebars, the frame near the motor, or the motor itself. To locate the VIN on a semitrailer, look at the front left, the driver-side of the vehicle.
Perhaps you're not standing in front of the vehicle but have access to its insurance documents. VINs appear on paperwork such as insurance cards, insurance policies, vehicle registration paperwork, and car titles. The identification number is often in the owner's manual for the specific vehicle. It's on the dealer invoice and bill of sale from a dealer and should be on the bill or sale and receipt from a private seller.
What the VIN's Numbers and Letters Mean
To get the most information from that 17-character identification number, you need to crack the code. The first character is the country of origin. If the first character is number, it typically means the vehicle was made in North America. A 9 means Brazil, and a V means France or Spain. Other common codes are W for Germany, Y for Sweden and Z for Italy. A J indicates Japan and an S for the United Kingdom
The second character tells you the manufacturer. A includes Audi, Alfa Romeo or Jaguar Land Rover. B means Dodge, C typically stands for Chrysler. D is for Daihatsu and Mercedes and F includes Ford. N includes Infiniti and Nissan, T is for Toyota and Lexus, V is for Volkswagen and Volvo.
The third through eighth characters are reserved for manufacturers to use. These characters describe items including the braking system, restraint system, and body type. All domestic automakers use the eighth character for the engine. The ninth character is a Check Digit that the Department of Transportation (DOT) developed based on Einstein's Theory of the Check Digit. The 10th character is the vehicle's year of manufacture, starting with B and progressing to Y for 2000. In 2001, numbers began to be used for this space but reverted to letters beginning with A for 2010. The 11th character indicates the assembly plant for the vehicle, while final numbers comprise a six-digit chassis serial number unique to the vehicle.
How to Do a VIN Check with a Decoder
Once you have the 17-character VIN, use it to run a free VIN check online with the VIN decoder at websites including driving-tests.org. This website generates an instant report, including the vehicle's make, model year, body style, make and model and engine size. Automakers supply the information to NHTSA, and it provides the data the site uses. VIN lookups like this are designed for vehicles built since 1981. Pre-1981 vehicles typically have 11-character codes and reveal less information. These usually will not be able to provide a full history of the vehicle, either.
Federal Government Websites Offer VIN Checks
The federal government website, vinrcl.safercar.gov/vin/, provides recall lookups by VINs. This search tool alerts you to safety recalls conducted over the past 15 calendar years, safety recalls that motorcycle and major light auto manufacturers have issued, as well as safety recalls that have not been completed on that specific vehicle. At the NHTSA.gov website, plug in VINs for access to safety information about vehicles, car seats, tires, and the Takata airbag recalls.
Checking the VIN on the automaker's website tells you whether the vehicle has been recalled. Website VIN databases from companies such as Consumer Reports and Experian offer VIN background checks and a vehicle's previous owners. These reports help identify problems including damage from major accidents, fires or floods, rolled-back or malfunctioning odometers, rebuilt or salvaged vehicles, and stolen cars.
Now that you know where to find VINs for vehicles and what they mean get ready to buy, sell, or lease. Whether you're looking for a 2020 model year vehicle from a new car dealership or a classic from 19 from a private seller, check out the vehicle's VIN to find out as much as you can about that specific car and avoid any surprises.