17 June 2003

Tracing The Ownership History Of Your Collector Car

      Dear Hagerty Protection Network,
      I was wondering if anyone knows how to track the history of my classic car. I have a ‘66 ‘Vette and I would like to know where it's been and all the previous owners. Do you have any suggestions?
      Joe from Tampa  

Dear Joe,
Tracing the ownership history of a car is not as easy as it used to be according to Roger Cross, former Administrator of the Wisconsin Department of Transportation Motor Vehicles Division. Cross – who owns several collector vehicles including a 1961 Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud II – says, “It’s hard because of the Driver Protection Act.” This recent legislation prevents state motor vehicle departments from giving out many types of information.

“The DMV can’t give out the information that the state has on microfiche,” says Roger. “In Wisconsin, I believe the information is now sent to the State Historical Society, but the state government cannot give it out.”

Cross suggests that it might be possible to trace the ownership of a car through dealer warranty papers, since the Driver Protection Act applies strictly to government documents.

General Motors has at least some computerized records on cars built after 1960. The company does not normally make them available to the public, but we know of two cars that were traced using the vehicle identification number. The first case involved a speedometer roll-back that showed up when an honest dealer researched the service records on a 1984 Camaro. In the second case, the buyer of a used ’91 Sunbird convertible traced the car through a friend who worked at GM. He found that the car had originally been invoiced to the selling dealer in Florida and shipped directly from Michigan to Hawaii, where it was used (carefully) as a rental car.

Neither of these cases involved tracing the car back to previous private owners other than the already known seller of the Camaro. However, it’s likely that GM could trace the ownership history of cars produced the 1960s as long as they were dealer serviced. However, the automakers really have no interest in doing such research and must also worry about privacy issues in this litigious era.

It appears that there are computerized records on 1960 and newer GM cars, because one of the automaker’s divisions has contracted with an outside vendor to help collectors find out about their cars.
Pontiac Historic Services (PHS), PO Box 84, Sterling Heights, MI 48311-0884 charges a $35 fee to provide owners of 1960-1985 Pontiacs with copies of their car’s Build Sheet and production information.

The PHS packet documents a car’s authenticity, describes what factory options it came with and lists the dealer who took delivery of the car when it was new. Pontiac collectors can visit PHS Online for information. Similar information about 1986 and newer cars is available from Pontiac’s public relations department. For cars made in 1959 and earlier, no information is currently available.

As far as we know, Pontiac is the only division of any auto manufacturer that offers such a service, but even PHS does not give out information on previous private owners. There was talk of Chevrolet outsourcing such a service about 10 years ago, but as far as we know it never happened. One reason is that there are just so many Chevrolets that it would be hard to fulfill all the requests.

Some collectors have had luck reaching previous car owners simply by going through paperwork that comes with the car and making a few phone calls. The Internet is also a very helpful tool when it comes to finding people today.

Last fall, a collector we know in Wisconsin purchased a 1952 MG from a part-time dealer in Buffalo, N.Y. When the car arrived, he went through the glovebox and discovered an old registration card for the car. Our friend called information in the city listed on the registration card and luckily reached the car’s previous owner one day before he left to winter in Florida. During an exciting phone call, he learned that this man had owned the car for nearly 25 years and that it was owned by a reverend prior to that.

Later, our friend put the reverend’s name into an Internet search engine and came up with two hits. One was a college alumni association in Ohio and it turned out that the reverend was active in this group. After a few emails, our friend had a complete record of his car for over 35 years!

If the car is a special-interest model (like your Corvette) or an antique or classic car, it’s very likely that at least some of its previous owners belonged to car clubs. Unfortunately, only a handful of clubs record car serial numbers. However, if your car has a unique feature, a distinctive paint color or something about it that stands out, it may be known to members of the applicable club. You can check out club lists in car magazines like Old Cars Weekly or on the Hemming’s website and write to clubs that cover cars like yours.

A final step you can take is advertising the fact that you’re researching your car’s history. A low-cost word ad in a national magazine or a free ad in a club publication can be used to list your car’s year, make, model and serial number and to advertise the fact that you want to locate previous owners. Especially with classics like the ’66 Corvette, you may find that the previous owners are still collecting cars and still reading the collector-car publications.

Whatever route you take, good luck researching your car’s ownership history. Let us know how you make out and if you learn any other good tips along the way.


10 Reader Comments

  • 1
    Nathan Calgary AB February 27, 2015 at 23:00
    I was wondering if it would be possible to track where a car has been. My dad owned a beloved 1970 Dodge Dart Swinger 340 4 speed and we have traced it down in Texas because of some modification work done by my dad in 1971 or so. We are 90% sure it is the car but when I contacted the owner of it now a couple of days ago, they said the car didn't come with much paperwork and the stuff that they had was blurred out or unreadable. I have done a VIN search but all that has come up is the vehicle information like the car, year and factory...etc! I was wondering if anybody has any advice. The reason why this is a bit urgent is we are interested in repurchasing the car if it is the car! Thanks!
  • 2
    Carol California August 29, 2015 at 04:40
    I am trying to find information on my car from my Father. Just, please give me a link how to reasearch a vintage 1964 SS Impala. Basic DMV records do not recognize the VIN, help!
  • 3
    Ben D. Wa. State January 16, 2016 at 18:36
    I have a 64 CJ5 with an 11 dig. VIN # and I can't find any info. on it. Does anyone have any suggestions?
  • 4
    brian fla January 30, 2016 at 09:40
    i have a 66 k code gt fastback from san jose and the original owner work at shelby i want to find history of my car to see if its true what do i do
  • 5
    john l stanwycks 34667 hudson fl July 30, 2016 at 10:31
    what protection against fraud when buying a classic?
  • 6
    Al Carpenter Indianapolis, IN October 19, 2016 at 11:26
    Trying to determine if this 1966 Pontiac Bonneville 3 seat station wagon was once owned by George Hurst (or Bill Campbell) 262456P152753
  • 7
    Jeffery Bezzina Malta Europe February 17, 2017 at 16:51
    Hello I own a jaguar 1952 xk120 roadster, which I believe it was in Texas and had registering number VCF 07K. Can anyone help me having some history on the car. It has classic number 660969. I thank you In advance
  • 8
    Tiffany MI May 6, 2017 at 02:21
    My grandpa left us his 1959 Ford Edsel convertible and I want to find out if it was made for someone and if so who. The reason I am wondering is because not only are Edsel kind of a rare find especially one that is all original, but this one has power windows and power seats. We have been to a lot of car shows and Edsel shows I have done a lot of online searching the last 6 or 7 years and I can not find another like it anywhere. I have even searched for Edsel's that were made from 1958-1960 and have not found a single one. Please if you can help me find out if this car was made for someone. I wanted to find out before my grandpa passed but that didn't happen he passed last month. Even though I wont be able to tell him who owned it I still want to know for closure.
  • 9
    Jim Nova Scotia Canada May 7, 2017 at 17:21
    Need help just purchased a 1966 Plymouth Belvedere II without registration papers. Is it possible to register this car.
  • 10
    Kathy USA June 16, 2017 at 14:08
    trying to complete an owner history my son's 1974 Scout....any suggestions?

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