What Is a Vehicle VIN Number?

By Staff WriterLast Updated Jun 24, 2020 6:48:01 PM ET
Classic car with license plate.
CC0/Patrick de Boeck/Pexels

You have a Social Security number. Your vehicle has a VIN. This combination of letters and numbers is unique to each vehicle, making it a useful tool for tracking what happens to it. Not only is it possible to identify cars by VIN numbers, but these letters and numbers can also tell you some important details about the vehicle's past.

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Why Do Vehicles Have VIN Numbers?

The first official vehicle identification number appeared on the 1953 Chevrolet Corvette. One year later, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration started requiring VIN numbers on all vehicles. On cars and trucks produced after 1981, the VIN has 17 characters. Like fingerprints on a person, no two vehicle identification numbers are exactly alike. This makes it possible to track the history of the vehicle from the assembly plant to the most current owner.

Where Do You Find the VIN Number?

The easiest place to find a VIN number on a car or truck is on its title or insurance policy. If you don't have these papers, you can also locate it stamped or printed on the vehicle. Most manufacturers attach a plate to the dash near the windshield on the driver's side. Sometimes it's difficult to read the VIN from this location, so you may find it on other parts of the car. Inspect the front of the engine to see if the VIN is stamped there. Look at the door jam on the driver's side for a sticker listing information like recommended tire pressure and the VIN. Check the rear wheel wells and under the spare tire in the trunk.

What Do Those Numbers and Letters Mean?

A VIN has three groups of numbers and letters. The first three symbols, collectively called the manufacturer identifier, indicate the country of origin, manufacturer and type of vehicle. The initial number usually represents the country where the manufacturer produced the vehicle. For example, a Ford car assembled in Mexico has a VIN that starts with three. In some cases, like in Europe, the number may identify the country where the manufacturer has its headquarters.

What Information Does a VIN Tell You?

The second group of letters and numbers provides a specific description of the vehicle. You can identify attributes like the model, engine type and body style from these symbols. The last number in this section is a number called the check digit. This is a built-in tool that validates the VIN so that owners, law enforcement officials and mechanics can verify that the posted VIN is the one originally assigned to vehicle. The symbols in the last section of the VIN give vehicle specific information, including the production year, assembly plant and production number.

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Who Uses VIN Numbers?

VIN numbers are helpful to anyone who wants information about the vehicle. Technicians who repair vehicles sometimes use VIN numbers to identify the correct parts for the car. In some cases, it's possible to determine original car options by VIN if you know which symbols correspond to the type of engine, transmission and exterior paint color the car or truck had when it left the assembly plant. This information is also useful to classic car collectors. By checking the VIN, they can identify whether the vehicle has original or reproduction parts. These are factors that can significantly affect the value of the vehicle.

If you're in the market for a used car or truck, you can use VIN numbers to help choose your next vehicle. Insurance companies and law enforcement officials record VIN numbers when they document accidents. You can run the number through a database and instantly find out if the vehicle was in a fender bender at some point in its past or if the damage was so bad that the insurance company totaled it. This also gives some clues about how well previous owners maintained the vehicle. Look for outstanding manufacturer recalls because you'll have to take care of those if you buy the vehicle.

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