VIN Number Decoding

Understanding Vehicle Identification Numbers / "VIN Numbers"

VIN Number Chart

In the above video, we talk about "reading your VINs". It sounds pretty exciting right? That's because it is. A Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) is the 17-digit string of numbers that an automotive manufacturer assigns to a specific vehicle that it produces. You can find out a lot about your car or truck if you are able to read and decode its VIN number, and that's why we are going to show you how to do just that. Before 1981, there was not any standardization of VINs on American model cars and trucks. Vehicle manufacturers could have used 8 digits, 10 digits, 25 digits, or really whatever they wanted. So, to make America a better place, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration put their foot down in 1981, and made all of the car manufacturers use 17 digits. Each number within that 17 digit VIN meant something specific about that car, well...except for one of those digits. We'll get into that later, though.

The letters I, O, and Q are not used in VINs, at least from 1981 until today (and into the future). That's because they get easily confused with the numbers one, and zero. Before we go any further on this automotive journey, I think we need to briefly talk about redundancy. I realize that saying "Vehicle Identification Number...Number" is silly, but it sure rolls off the tongue easier (fingers too). So, you may see "VIN Number" throughout this page, even though it is totally redundant. In the real world, that is how people say it, and being a real person (not a robot like many others), well you get the point.  Okay, where were we? For the tenth digit of the VIN number , they never used the letters U, or Z. Why? I'm not really sure, but the NHTSA decided it, and that's just the way it is.

The first 3 digits of the VIN are known as the "WMI", which is an acronym for "World Manufacturer Identifier". That encompasses the country of origin, the manufacturer, and the division that the vehicle is built for.

First: In the example above, the first digit (1) means "United States"; if it was "J", it would mean Japan. So this digit designates the country  where the vehicle was made.

Second: The second digit of a VIN number is the manufacturer that made the vehicle. This doesn't necessarily mean the "make" of the car though, because companies like General Motors have many different divisions. They have Chevy, Buick, and GMC, along with many others. In the example above, the second VIN digit would mean "General Motors".

Third: The third digit is the division of the larger manufacturer. In the case of General Motors, the division would be the more specific Buick, Pontiac, Oldsmobile or whatever it is. So, in the example above, the "N" happens to mean "Chevy".

The fourth through the eighth digits combined, are called the "Attributes" of the VIN. They include things like safety, engine size, body style, and the series that the vehicle is.

Fourth: The fourth digit is safety, braking and suspension. So if you have a special option,heavy-duty truck with the eight lug wheels, or a towing package, this is the digit that will tell you "Hey this vehicle has a special suspension and brake package." It might also reference a specific safety restraint package, like if the vehicle had a two vs. eleven air bag option or something crazy like that.

Fifth: The fifth digit, in this case S, which is the series of the vehicle. In the 1980's for example, General Motors built full size trucks that were C and K series along with and R and V series. The C/K was a different body style than the R/V. The C and R were designations for two wheel drive. The K and V were designations for four wheel drive. The letters would be found in the fifth digit of the VIN on these trucks. It was/is important when ordering parts because a "1988 Chevy Truck" could mean a variety of things depending on what that letter is. In this picture above, we have S series, which happens to be an S10 series truck. There was also a "T" series at the same time.

Sixth & Seventh: The sixth digit, along with the seventh is the body style. So if the vehicle is a convertible, a two door, four door, or wagon, it is defined in these two digits.

Eighth: The eighth digit, in this case a Z, is one of my personal favorites. It's the engine size! So if you were to go to a junkyard, this digit is really helpful for vehicles that had two different engines during the same year. An S10 Truck or an S10 Blazer are perfect examples of this. Both of these trucks could have come with a 4.3 liter that was a Z series engine or a W series engine. Both engines were 4.3 Liter's, but they had different parts attached to them. Buying parts for these engines is always interesting and this digit is what makes it that way. 

Ninth: The ninth digit is called a check digit. It is called a check digit because the purpose of it is to check the rest of the VIN number for legitimacy. This is done by putting the VIN digits through some complex math. At the end of the equation, hopefully come out with the number that is in the 9th spot. If it comes out as something other than that, you know that the VIN Number is made up.

Tenth: The tenth digit is the year, which is amazingly helpful if you're in a junkyard or showing off to your friends. You can easily figure out which years match up to which letters and which numbers with the simple handy dandy chart below. Print it out and throw it into your wallet.  Someday, you will thank us. In today's example, the tenth digit is "M", so you dance over to the handy dandy chart, and see that "M" is 1991. Tada! This is great in a junkyard because you can walk up to a VIN number and say "Hey this is a VIN J, which means it's a 1988". Go ahead, try it out and impress your friends. Remember, 10th digit = year.

VIN Number Chart

Eleventh: The eleventh digit is the manufacturing plant. As you can guess, that's where the vehicle is made! This doesn't often matter so much, unless you are talking about certain cars that have major followings. Corvettes are a great example. Many, many Corvettes were made in Bowling Green, Kentucky. There is even a museum there! So whenever you talk about Corvettes, Bowling Green inevitably comes up. The 11th digit of the VIN number is the one that confirms the plant at which the vehicle was built. It might be Lansing, Michigan; Detroit, Michigan; or somewhere in Illinois. Car manufacturers have plants all over the world.

The Last Six Digits: The last six digits are the production line numbers. Most vehicle manufacturers start with the number 100001 as a starting point. This is normally not a super important number as far as buying auto parts goes, unless you have one of those vehicles that changed production specifications halfway through a production run. So, you might have a vehicle that had different mirrors if it was built in April of 2004, than if it were built  in August of 2004. If you have one of those vehicles, you need to know where it was in the production line, which is where these last six digits become important.

In addition to VINs there are also a plethora of option codes located somewhere in the interior of every vehicle. Long ago, they used to be actual printed pieces of paper, that were stuffed into the seat springs. In modern cars, it is usually a printed sticker in the glove compartment, console, or trunk. When you combine the VIN number with the option codes, you get the entire genetic makeup of the vehicle from top to bottom.

The last thing worth noting is that some foreign car manufacturers switch around these VIN numbers slightly. On many Volkswagens for example, the 3rd through 8th digits are in a different order than the American brand cars and trucks. They still have the same VIN information, but in slightly different spots. Typically the engine, vehicle series, body type, restraint system, and model are the ones to watch out for. The country, make, check digit, year, plant, and serial number are usually in the same positions regardless of the vehicle manufacturer.

Now you know how to read and decode your car or truck's VIN number! Thanks for watching, and reading along!

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