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Decoding a VIN


The Vehicle Identification Number program was initiated by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) in 1980 as a way to standardize car serial numbers. Cars built before 1981 don't follow a universal standard and thus require manufacturer-specific information to decode. Why was this worth the ISO's time? Simple: The whole thing was created to ensure that no one car — make, model, production run, etc. — was ever passed off as another.

Decoding a VIN is an easy way to make sure that you don't get ripped off in a purchase — either by buying a vehicle pretending to be something it isn't, like a stock Mustang dressed up to be a special edition Cobra, or by purchasing a car with a salvage or rebuilt title.

Step One: Find It

Finding a VIN The vast majority of new cars have their VINs located under the front of the windshield and typically visible through a small, clear square within the tinted area. Depending on the year and price of the car you're looking at, what's there will vary: It could be a nicely stamped piece of aluminum, or it could be a cheap plastic tag. Both are usually riveted onto the dash in order to make replacement difficult. Limited-edition models or expensive sports cars may also have a special VIN plate located in the door sill or on the dash.

Step Two: Break It Down

VIN parts As you can see in the graphic on the left, the VIN is composed of six parts:

Make/Model: (Digits 1-3) This breaks out the vehicle's make, model, and manufacturer.

Vehicle Attributes: (Digits 4-8) These digits identify the various features of the specific model — trim specifications, driveline options, etc.

Check Digit: (Digit 9) Determined through a complex mathematical formula that relates to the other numbers in the VIN; used to verify that the VIN itself is not fake.

Model Year: (Digit 10) Represents the vehicle's model year, which is not to be confused with the year it was sold or delivered.

Assembly Plant: (Digit 11) An internal digit that shows where the car was built.

Sequence Of Model Production: (Digit 12-17) These digits indicate the order in which the vehicle left the assembly line. This is effectively the serial number.

NOTE: A VIN will never include the letters I, O, or Q because of their similarity to the numbers "1" and "0"