What's in a VIN?

Decoding Vehicle Identification Numbers puts the brakes on auto theft, cloning and chop shop operations


     There are only a handful of times vehicle owners must know an auto's Vehicle Identification Number (VIN): when buying or selling a car, applying for insurance or registering a vehicle with the state Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV). Other than that, few people pay much mind to the series of numbers and letters on a vehicle's dash.

     But because there are those among us who are experts at manipulating a vehicle's VIN to conceal its true identity, it pays to know what's in a VIN. Law enforcement officials in particular should be familiar with the data a VIN contains as well as the methods crooks use to alter or obliterate this information.

What's in a VIN?

     A VIN is a series of numbers and letters that represent coded forms of vehicle information. The coded data found in this series adds detailed vehicle information to what is already found in the DMV's license plate database.

     VINs for vehicles manufactured between 1958-1970 may have 11 numbers and letters or less, while all automobiles manufactured in North America since 1971 contain a series of 17 numbers and letters.

     Sgt. William Smylie, whose career in vehicle theft investigations with the Miami (Florida) Police Department spanned nearly three decades, describes the elements of a 17-digit VIN as follows:

  • World Manufacturer Identifier (WMI). This information is found in the VIN's first three characters. The first character identifies the nation of origin. For instance, Canada is a 2; while the United States can be 1, 4 or 5; and Japan is a J. The second digit indicates the corporate manufacturer, such as Ford, General Motors, Toyota and so on. These numbers or letters may vary according to the place of manufacture. So, for instance, a General Motors vehicle, built in Canada would have a VIN that starts with 2G, while a VIN for an import from Japan, such as a Toyota vehicle, might begin with JT or 1T, depending on whether it was produced in Japan or the United States. The third character indicates the type and model of the vehicle, such as Chevrolet or Dodge.
  • Digits four through nine. The VIN's next five digits give information on various components of the vehicle such as body style, engine type, transmission and drivetrain category. The ninth character is a number known as the "check" digit. This number is part of a mathematical formula, which when applied tells investigators whether the VIN is authentic. Each character in the 17-digit VIN is assigned a corresponding value and weight. The first eight characters' values are added together, as are the last eight. The total sums are then divided by a specified number, which gives a remainder that should equal the check digit's value.
  • Vehicle Indicator section. This is the last eight characters (of a 17-digit VIN). The character in position 10 indicates the vehicle's model year. The codes alternate between numbers and letters according to the year in which the vehicle was produced. All VIN's use numerals from 1-9, and all the letters of the alphabet except I, O and Q. Therefore a vehicle built in 1971 would be a "1" while a vehicle manufactured in 1979 would have a "9" in the 10th position. A vehicle produced in 1980 would have an "A" in the 10th position and so on. (Each year after 1980 is assigned a letter of the alphabet with the exception of I, O and Q until it reaches Z, then the 10th position reverts back to numbers.)
Where's the VIN?

     Before 1967, a VIN could be placed almost anywhere on the vehicle. After 1968, North American manufacturers were required to place the code in an area visible from outside the vehicle. This data string is usually found on the left-hand side of the dash next to the vehicle's lower edge. However, in some older vehicles, the VIN may be on the right side, and in some European models, such as BMW, it may even be situated on the steering column.

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