Vehicle Identification Numbers (VINs) and Classic Cars

Today, most of us know how Vehicle Identification Numbers (VINs) work. However, very few of us would actually have any idea about the VINs that existed before 1980. Only since 1980, have we had a standard VIN system and the VIN is now a 17 digit alphanumeric code that identifies the vehicle based on its country of origin, its manufacturer, manufacturing division, vehicle description, accuracy of VIN, model year, assembly plant, and serial number.


How were the VINs made prior to 1980? Were they as important as they are today? Well, maybe not. One major difference between the VINs before 1980 and the VINs of today is that the code is mandatory today. Today, every car is required to have a unique VIN code of 17 characters. In the past, the VINs were mostly serial numbers that represented the make, model, and year of the vehicle. Only a handful of the manufacturers actually went the extra mile to introduce characters to correspond with the assembly plant and type of engine.

Lack of Set Standards
There were no real set standards for VIN numbers existing before the introduction of the VIN standards in 1980. As a result, there are no proper instructions on how to go about decoding a VIN that existed before 1980. Classic cars are quite a rage among certain car lovers. It would mean a lot to them if they were able to identify if the car they own is unique because it rolled out first, hundredth, or last from the assembly line of its manufacturer. They have faced a daunting task of gathering data about the car with the help of Vehicle Index Numbers. However, with some extra effort and luck, they might be able to find the car’s production number and information.

Cars that were manufactured before the 1950′s had a VIN established only for the purpose of serialization. The codes only represented the make, model, and model year. After 1950, all the way until 1980, cars had inadequate information represented through the VINs. For instance, when you look at all the Buicks manufactured from 1954-1963, you can only find 6 digit serial numbers. These digits represented: year (1st digit), assembly plant (2nd digit), and sequential production number (last 4 digits).

Here’s another example — for all the Ford Mustangs that were manufactured between 1960 and 1969, the Vehicle Index Number had 11 digits including: model year (1st digit), assembly plant (2nd digit), model and body (3rd & 4th digits), and engine (5th digit), with the last seven digits representing the sequential production number.

Some of the classic cars had included in their code, a section for price class. Some others did not. For example, Chrysler had included a 13-digit VIN number from 1966-1974, of which one number represented the code for price class (2nd digit). The last 8-13 digits of the code represented the sequential production number.

These data have been acquired after a lot of work. However, it has been observed that the codes used before 1980s are not common for all manufacturers. The codes varied depending on the manufacturing company. Therefore, for a first-timer, it is quite tough to decode the VIN and gather specific information.

VIN and Manufacture Year
There is a unique quality among collectors. People who have a passion for collecting antique items are obsessed with information like the date of manufacture and the order of production (e.g., 1st or 100th or Last). For most of them, though, the year of manufacture is the most vital information. Finding this information was not a problem for these people since most early cars had the year of manufacture included in the Vehicle Index Number.

However, for some antique car collectors, the year of manufacture alone would not suffice. They would love to gather other information as well. This information could include a code that suggests if the car was the first to roll off the assembly line or 100th or even the last. This is a matter of great pride for them since these antique cars are unique in their own right. This information about the production is represented in the VIN by the “production number.”

Classic Car vs. Vintage Car
There has always been a debate over whether classic cars and vintage cars are one and the same. There are sectors of the population that believe these cars are one and the same. This may not be true. In general, a car is considered to be antique if it is at least 25 years old. The distinction between “classic” and “vintage” cars has been described by DMV. According to DMV, a “classic” car is a car that is manufactured anywhere between 1925 and1948. On the other hand, a “vintage” car is a car that was manufactured between 1919 and 1930.