18 January 2016

Titled to You, But Maybe It’s Actually Not Your Car

After rattling off the hop-ups that make his ’32 Ford wickedly fast, the braggart of the Beach Boys’ hot rod anthem, “Little Deuce Coupe,” ultimately boasts, “I got the pink slip, daddy.”

He’s referring, of course, to the colored paper that California certificates of title were once printed on. While crowing that he owns his car outright, he’s also hinting at a willingness to race “for pinks,” where the loser forfeits his car.

Let’s say that five decades later, the Deuce coupe comes up for sale. Before you hand over the cash and let the Lake pipes roar, check the pink slip carefully. Is the seller’s name on it? Does the vehicle identification number, or VIN, match the one on the car? Did you check the VIN in the National Insurance Crime Bureau online database to see if it had ever been reported as stolen?

Those are just a few of the steps that an overly eager buyer might skip, according to Tony Monopoli of AVM Automotive Consulting in Montvale, N.J. Such neglect could expose one to problems titling and registering the car.

“Fights happen over ownership,” said Monopoli, who does appraisals and estate planning for car collectors. “You could end up in a legal dispute with a title-holder.”

Imagine in our example that the seller reveals he’d won the Deuce coupe in a race 50 years earlier. You could be surprised when the original owner shows up with a duplicate title and also claims ownership. That’s not the most common problem encountered with titles, but equally strange things have happened, said Bryan Shook, an attorney whose firm, Vintage Car Law, handles such cases.

Shook worked on a widely reported case involving the 2012 discovery of the No. 1 Corvette racecar that Briggs Cunningham entered in the 1960 24 Hours of Le Mans. Questions of ownership eventually resulted in a settlement among three interested parties.

“In the case of the Cunningham Corvette, there was an old record title interest out there, but the car was purchased from someone other than the record title-owner, and no one could find him,” said Shook, who represented the buyers. “So there were essentially two chains of title open.”

Shook explained that an automobile title is not the same as the deed to a house. “In most states, a title only indicates apparent ownership, but it is not conclusive proof,” he said.

Definitively showing ownership – something especially critical with collector cars – could require having a continuous history, Shook advised. “That means documentation showing every owner, every title transaction and every change made to the car,” he said.

The “open title” is a more common problem, according to Shook. It occurs when someone buys a car, and, expecting to resell it without ever registering it, does not complete the buyer’s information on the title. “They do that to avoid paying sales tax,” Shook said.

In such cases, Shook has insisted the seller get the car titled before letting his client buy the car.

There are many other titling issues than can be covered here, including questions of true mileage. Monopoli suggested a few tips to protect your interest: Before buying a car, have a professional appraiser verify that the car is what it’s claimed to be; after buying, title it in your name immediately. And never leave documentation in the car.

14 Reader Comments

  • 1
    Jim Dorsey Naples, Florida January 20, 2016 at 14:20
    When did VIN numbers become required?
  • 2
    Phil Skinner Currently Kissimmee, FL January 20, 2016 at 14:25
    One item many collector car owners totally neglect to check are the serial numbers on their prized new ride. It is interesting how many owners don't even know where to find (or if it even has) the serial numbers. At a very recent sale I attended a collection of 1957 Chevrolets showed up. All of the cars had the VIN plates glued on rather than the factory original spot welds. This lead to a checking of the actual frame numbers and in each case those numbers didn't match the plate or the numbers of the titles. This happens quite a bit. After the euphoria of purchase wears off and before completing the transaction, make sure you know where your serial numbers are and that they match those on the title.
  • 3
    George Devol Connecticut January 20, 2016 at 14:42
    In some state like Connecticut, titles are not issued for cars over 25 years old. They are sold on a "Bill of Sale" only, so the above advice does not hold in this situation
  • 4
    Ben Greeley Hill, CA January 20, 2016 at 14:54
    I saw a Studebaker Hawk for sale on the internet, a rare Hawk at that, and also a valuable one. The seller gave a good description and history; even stated that he changed the rusty frame for a good one he found. Unfortunately, someone in the future will find the VIN on the frame, yep, it's there just in front or the rear gravel deflector. That replaced frame number won't match the numbers on the pink slip or the door post. There could be problems down the line.
  • 5
    jagvetfairladytc Grand Rapids, MI January 20, 2016 at 15:10
    I have had 3 incidents where titles show engine #'s rather than the true VIN. Not a deal breaker but certainly shows that mistakes are made. This seems to apply more to the cars that were titled before computers were used. Good information in the article.
  • 6
    Gibby Thrift Marietta, Georgia January 20, 2016 at 15:30
    What happens in a state that was a "no title state" when the car was originally sold.
  • 7
    Curious Old Collector Los Angeles CA January 20, 2016 at 19:07
    Considering the high profile cases of (stolen) cars being returned to their original owners after many decades of being missing and after a history of being titled in many different states and after having many thousands of dollars spent on restoration has Hagerty ever considered issuing collector car title insurance policies? In the cases reported several of the cars seem to have been issued full titles from states that do so. (not discussing non-title states) I would think one of those states should have checked the numbers against a stolen database and the title issuer should be responsible. You mentioned checking the VIN of your potential purchase against the nation stolen database. Please explain how this is done? If the title issuing state doesnt check, then how would a buyer?
  • 8
    What title? Los Angeles CA January 20, 2016 at 19:16
    Uhhh as I read the title to your 1946 Ford truck it is NOT a legal title(!) 1. Where is the VIN? Is it the number typed next to the make? in the wrong part of the form 2. If this is the VIN does it appear on the frame? AS I remember in 1946 cars used engine numbers, not frame numbers. You put a replacement engine in that truck this ensures that the ID numbers do not match. AS I interpret it you do NOT have a clear title to the truck as it now exists. Please explain how you titled the 1946 truck build.
  • 9
    Donald Hawley Kansas January 21, 2016 at 14:15
    I found out the hard way that in the state of Missouri VIN's and titles really mean nothing. I heard that my 63 Corvette is not "titled" and tagged as a 64. All the calls to the Missouri highway patrol and Kansas City police meant nothing. In Kansas messing with a VIN is a felony, from what I've found its normal in the state of Missouri . If you buy a car from that state GOOD LUCK.
  • 10
    Craig PA January 21, 2016 at 15:09
    Continuous history? I took 7 years getting my project done and had to have my title 'reinstated' so I could get registration, because they purge records inactive over 5 years.
  • 11
    Kyle Michigan January 21, 2016 at 21:13
    Key year to remember is 1954, all vehicles prior to that year were titled using the engine number. There may be chassis and body tags present however the legal titling number was the engine stamp or tag number. From 1954-68 the titling vin was changed to the chassis tag in the door pillar or jam area. In 1968 the vin was moved to the left side dash for all cars except the 68 Mustang (right side dash) and the Corvette (vertical on A pillar). Pickup trucks went to left side dash in 1980. The 17 digit vin started on all passenger vehicles in 1981 to present.
  • 12
    r. Tharp Glendale, AZ January 21, 2016 at 12:01
    A few years I went this same thing. Took a 1951 Chevy ($35K worth) to an auction. Had the title and registration in my name. Upon inspection by the auction officials, they told me I could not prove it was my car, why,because there was no VIN on the car. It seems that those years of Chevy the VIN was on the motor which had been replaced with a small block. I had to get a title bond for $200 to facilitate the sale of the car.
  • 13
    Tim Sullivan Farmington, MI January 22, 2016 at 09:58
    Is there a data base to search VIN numbers prior to 1968 when VIN numbers were standardized? I had a 66 Mustang stolen some years back, and would like to know if someone is enjoying it as much as I used to.
  • 14
    Rogers Abbott Oklahoma City, OK January 31, 2016 at 19:04
    In some counties in Oklahoma, you can obtain a court order directing the Oklahoma Tax Commission to issue a title by representing to a judge that you own the car (it was abandoned, I bought it on a bill of sale, etc.) When OTC issues the title, you now have a perfectly valid title and can sell the car or register it in another state to create the appearance of a chain of title. That is why the true owner should always report a car stolen when it goes missing and a buyer should always trace the title back as far as possible as well as check the stolen car database. Generally, title cannot be acquired from a thief, no matter how many times the stolen item changes hands or how much is paid for it.

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