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VIN Number

Discover what a VIN number reveals.

A vehicle's VIN number follows the vehicle from the time it is produced and traces any sale, recall or accident involving the vehicle. [© Jupiter Images, 2009]
© Jupiter Images, 2009
A vehicle's VIN number follows the vehicle from the time it is produced and traces any sale, recall or accident involving the vehicle.

A vehicle identification number (VIN) is commonly referred to as a VIN number. Each VIN number is unique to the car for which it is created. Because no VIN number is ever duplicated, a vehicle's VIN number acts as a fingerprint or as DNA for that vehicle. The VIN number follows the vehicle from the time it is produced. Even after the vehicle is no longer in use, the VIN number will trace any sale, recall or accident involving the automobile.
Originally created in 1954 by the U.S. automotive industry, the VIN number was used to identify and describe the vehicle it represented. In the first two decades, car manufacturers assigned VIN numbers using any pattern they chose. In 1980, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) established a mandatory system for assigning VIN numbers to vehicles.

How is a VIN number created?

VIN numbers are 17 characters made up of numbers and 23 letters of the alphabet, excluding the letters I, O and Q. VIN numbers identify vehicles based on four categories: the World Manufacturer's Identification (WMI), the Vehicle Description Section (VDS), the VIN accuracy character and the Vehicle Identification Section (VIS).

The WMI is comprised of three characters. The first digit in a VIN number signifies the country where the vehicle was manufactured. The second character identifies the manufacturing company and the third describes the type of vehicle (for instance, the characters 1G1 stand for United States, General Motors and Chevrolet).

The VDS uses five characters to identify specific features of the vehicle, such as the vehicle's body style, the type of brake system and the restraint apparatus included in the vehicle at the time of production. The eighth character is typically reserved for engine type by U.S. automobile manufacturers.

The ninth character of the VIN number is used as a control for the VIN number. The VIN accuracy character is issued by a computer through the use of an equation that mathematically verifies the assignment of the previous eight characters. The alphabetic characters are assigned a numerical value. The quality control equation produces a remainder from zero to ten. This numerical remainder becomes the ninth character in the VIN number unless the remainder is ten, at which point the letter X is assigned as the VIN number's ninth character.

The remaining eight characters of the VIN number create the actual vehicle identifier that makes the VIN number unique. The tenth number is the last numerical digit of the model year, and the eleventh character of the VIN number identifies the manufacturing plant. The last seven digits of the VIN number are the vehicle's serial number and are the most definitive form of identification within the VIN number. Vehicles manufactured at the same plant cannot have the same serial number.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) relies on VIN numbers for identifying and locating recalled vehicles. The NHSTA requires automotive manufacturers to supply all of the information used in creating the VIN number at the time of production, such as clarifying which characters represent which body types or features. In order to facilitate vehicle registration, the manufacturer must provide VIN number information at least 60 days before the vehicle is available for purchase so that the NHTSA and local governments are prepared to identify vehicles at the time of registration.

VIN Number Placement

The Federal Parts Marking Program, issued through the NHTSA, requires that manufacturers mark 12 to 14 parts of the most commonly stolen vehicles with the VIN number. These parts include the bumpers, the hood, the engine, doors, fenders and quarter panels. Theft laws utilize the VIN number as a tool for combating the illegal sale of auto parts by ensuring the traceability of vehicle parts stamped with permanent VIN numbers. Once all of the major parts of a vehicle can be traced, the car is rendered unsellable, and a stolen car is far less valuable when sold in pieces.

The antitheft efforts of the NHTSA include the use of confidential VIN number locations. In the event that a vehicle may be destroyed as evidence, the confidential VIN number makes the vehicle harder to disguise. While other parts of the vehicle labeled with a VIN number may be removed, the confidential VIN number is not easily located, as there is no standardized placement. While the location of the confidential VIN number varies, any surface on the frame or firewall of a vehicle is the most likely area for placement.

Public VIN numbers are purposely noticeable and are most often used by insurance companies, dealers and consumers for verifying the history of a vehicle or identifying warranties and recalls. Public VIN numbers are typically found on the dashboard of the vehicle and are visible through the windshield. Companies like CARFAX provide consumers with fee-based car history reports by way of the vehicle's VIN number.

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