How to Trace the History of Your Classic Car
Of all the restorations in which we've taken part we have successfully traced the cars' histories in slightly over half. As for the other half we have found some, but not all, information in every case. In all of the projects we have spoken to at least one former owner and learned wonderful little tidbits of information.
In every case — except one — we found previous owners more than willing to talk about their cars, and all were enthusiastic at knowing the cars were under restoration. In that single case, a '66 Sunbeam Tiger, the original owner had sold the car after his daughter borrowed it one night and was found murdered. He was pleased that the car was being restored but couldn't discuss his daughter's fate, even though over 20 years had passed. He declined an offer to see the car when the restoration was completed (very understandable.)
Knowing the history of your car adds tremendously to the restoration experience and it is worth the effort to find out where it was delivered and sold, then passed from owner to owner until it reached you. Here are some effective ways to trace your car's history that we've found quite effective...
First, The VIN
Whether you're trying to locate a car you once owned* (it can be done!) or tracing the owners of the one you are restoring, the first thing you need to do is decode the VIN number. Why? Because the VIN contains critical information such as: where the car was manufactured; production date; interior and exterior colors; accessories.
* You can't find that old car you owned without the VIN number, so start searching through those old insurance policies. They always contain the number. If you don't have old copies but have had the same insurance company/agent all these years, contact them and ask for a record check. Chances are they can find the number. Other sources might be checkbooks, military records, tax records and old photos that show license plates. Some DMV's have records that go back many, many years.
The most important pieces of information are the place and date of manufacture. The factory location is important because most popular cars were produced in a number of different locations. Knowing the factory location narrows down the geographic area where the car might have been delivered (Fords made in California didn't normally get shipped to New Jersey dealers, etc.).
The date of manufacture indicates where in the production run the car might have been, what engineering changes might have been incorporated and whether or not claims by previous owners may be valid (unscrupulous sellers will say anything to increase the value of a car, so don't readily believe the car is "the first one off the line," "factory installed big block" or some other claim.)
Decoding VIN numbers is easy these days. Many books about specific models have VIN decoder charts inside, frequently stating which dealer ordered the car. If you have the dealer's name you can go directly to them for records of the original purchaser.
Another way to do it is to join an enthusiasts' website or forum. Nearly all of these have members who will decode VIN numbers or they post the information on the site. Taking the time to decode your VIN number tells you so much that you can't afford not to do it.
Onward To The DMV!
It is most likely that you will have to trace ownership through a DMV. Everybody hates the DMV, so you have to change your "mindset" about them. Consider the DMV's of the 50 states to be a huge resource that is waiting to be tapped for information. It's how you go about doing so that is the secret to success, so be patient and allow yourself to explore the intricacies of the system.
In the final analysis, what you are trying to do is trace back each owner in succession, through the use of title searches. Therefore, you have to start with the state from which the title you received at the time of purchase was issued and work backwards.
Many times during this process you will receive copies of titles that go back to when the vehicle entered the state. At that point there will either be a copy of the previous title or its number and issuing state. That information will be used to contact the next state DMV for information, and so on.
Most state DMV's will look up titles for a fee and it is always best to contact the main office (usually in the state capital) instead of a satellite office. Below is the web address for all the US and Canada DMV's:
At this site you can find the appropriate DMV and, with luck, transact your business on the web.
How you do so is important, especially in this time of heightened social paranoia and concern for privacy. You don't want anyone thinking you're a detective looking for a deadbeat or a lawyer trying to sue some past owner, so take your time constructing your request. Here's a sample letter to a DMV that we've found produces results:
To Whom It May Concern,
I have purchased the following vehicle, ______________, VIN # ____________, Title #_________, for the purpose of a complete restoration. As part of that restoration I would like to trace its history through all previous owners, back to its date of manufacture and delivery to the dealer.
I am requesting a title search back to the time the car entered your state. Copies of titles would be preferred if your system allows. However, any information as to owners, dates of transfer, cities/towns, etc. will be appreciated.
Fees required for such searches will be remitted in any way you request, and I will be happy to sign any applicable non-disclosure agreement. Thank you for your assistance in this matter.
Be patient, because this process could take some time. If your vehicle "lived" in several states the tracing process could take months, but eventually you should be successful in tracing most, if not all, previous owners.
Contacting Previous Owners
This is the part where luck comes into place. Copies of old titles show the name and address of the then-owner, so a white-pages search (now on the internet) will sometimes turn up the individual still residing there. In most cases, however, you will find the owner moved away, died or otherwise can't be found. Just move on to the next one in that case.
When you do make contact make sure you tell the person that you believe he/she once owned the car you are restoring and you'd like to talk about it. You will almost always hear a good story and some details on the car itself.
Like the restoration itself, tracing the car's history is supposed to be fun. Don't get impatient or frustrated if you reach a dead end. Time has a way of fixing such problems and in the end any information you obtain will further enrich the restoration experience.
In addition to the Sunbeam Tiger tidbit above, these are some things we uncovered on various restoration projects:
1965 XKE — Original owner received the car as a birthday present. It was shipped to the family's resort home in the Bahamas, where the speed limit was 25 mph. A later owner (female) drove the now-shabby car in the Powderpuff Derby in Florida.
1954 XK120 — The car was purchased in Morocco by an Air Force officer and then put in the bomb bay of a B47 and flown to Newburg, NY to avoid the steep import taxes at the time.
1963 Falcon Sprint — Originally a Monte Carlo race car, one of us owned it for 5 years back in the 1960s, then sold it to a fellow Naval aviation officer who took it to Beeville, Texas. We found it in 1999 — still in the same town — and shipped it back to the Second Chance Garage for a full restoration.
1950 Ford — We found that its second owner (a graduate student at Wake Forest who owned it from 1956-1959) used it as a moonshine-runner in the Carolinas in order to put himself through school.
1955 Crown Victoria — The original owner of the car (an 80 year-old woman) traded in a 1954 Corvette to the Ford dealer. She stated that she didn't like the harsh ride.