27 February 2006

Tracing Vehicle Ownership History

A Hagerty Collector Network member recently asked if there was a way to look up vehicle registration history for a 1966 Mustang. There are many reasons that car collectors seek this type of information. First, it’s fun to know the history of a vehicle. Second, a previous owner can tell you about a car and verify its options as well as offer any literature or parts they might still have. Third, you might learn if the car has been in an accident or had major repairs. Also, you made need the written permission of the previous owner to maintain its unique registry number in some car clubs.

Tracing car ownership isn’t easy to do because of a federal law that went into effect in September 1997. The Drivers Privacy Protection Act prohibits state motor vehicle departments from giving records to individuals. The law was drafted because stalkers had used DMV records to obtain home addresses. Several states raised states’ rights objections, but the law is still in effect.

If you think you can talk a DMV clerk into bending the law for a car collector, visit the British Car Forum: Car History news group at www.britishcarforum.com. It includes a discussion about an Austin-Healey BN6 owner trying to trace registration information on his car.  

Due to the privacy legislation, any hobbyist who wants to trace their car’s history has a lot of legwork to do, but it is possible. In fact, I’ve been able to find the previous owners of eight of my 11 cars without any DMV help.

A good reference is How to Find Cars & Owners, by Barbara Spear and Mike Brezden. Though reprinted in 1992, it’s now out of print, but you might be able to find a copy via eBay, Amazon.com or used bookseller T.E. Warth, Esq. Both editions came out before the Driver’s Privacy Protection Act took effect in September 1997; however, the book covers many aspects of tracing ownership history – not just title searches through state motor vehicle agencies.

The authors start out telling people the reason they should care about past owners. They talk about things to consider, such as the car’s age, and having realistic expectations. “There is no magic computer with an all-encompassing database of past owners,” says Spear. There are basic instructions from how to set up a three-ring binder to make a “case file” to how to make phone calls and write letters that past owners will respond positively to.

Investigative techniques of searching through a car looking for clues to past ownership are also covered in the book. Are there old registration papers in the glove box? How about an ice scraper with the original dealer’s name? Better yet, an owner’s manual with the GM Protect-O-Plate or Ford Warranty Information Card glued in it? Look under the seats for old pay stubs or bank deposit slips. If you’re lucky, you might find a factory Broadcast Sheet with all the car’s options listed on it stuck behind the instrument panel or rear seat. 

The book tells you what to ask for if you do locate one of the car’s previous owners. This may sound like overkill, but in most cases the car owner won’t want a pen-pal, so it’s important to find out everything possible while you have the opportunity. The book also covers different questions to ask a car dealer or auction house that might have handle a sale of the vehicle. If you can’t find copies of How to Find Cars & Owners, you’ll be happy to learn that a great deal of the information in the book has been posted to the Internet by Spear. The copyrighted information is available at www.yankeelady.com/library.htm.

There are several other websites that contain helpful information about tracing vehicle histories. The 1970 Corvette Registry & Resources link list at www.corvetteforum.net/c3/1970registry/ includes links to an online owner center for research, information about getting started tracing your car’s history and a listing of DMV offices across the .

If you own a British Car, the British Motor Heritage Industry Trust can trace your car’s production records that will show when it was built and when and where it came to the states. It will also document chassis and engine numbers and may help determine if they properly match. There is a set fee for this service and a certificate is provided. The address is: British Motor Industry Heritage Trust, Archive Department, HeritageMotorCenter, Banbury Road, Gaydon, WarwickCV35 OBJ, England.

Visiting the websites listed above will get you started on tracing the history of your car or truck. How far you take the investigation is up to you. How much information you’ll find is up to Lady Luck. Hopefully, she’ll be riding with you.

John “Gunner” Gunnell is the automotive books editor at Krause Publications in Iola, Wis., and former editor of Old Cars Weekly and Old Cars Price Guide.

19 Reader Comments

  • 1
    Sudheer Guntur June 3, 2013 at 03:26
    How to open the vehicle owner used as vehicle plate number.
  • 2
    James earl tipton Clute,Texas July 9, 2013 at 20:02
    Trying to find vin# on a 1975 GMC truck I once owned
  • 3
    GAJRAJ new delhi October 20, 2013 at 10:07
    pls. tell me about my car owner history vide car no.dl7cn4967
  • 4
    mikey United States January 6, 2014 at 23:13
    I want to know how to find a car my dad use to own any good directions?
  • 5
    Joe Florida July 16, 2014 at 16:38
    I bought a 55 chevy wagon in Colorado in 1979 and did not make it into my name. I pulled the car out of storage and started to work on it but can not find the title now. How do I find the name of the owner so I can contact them to see if they can get me another title. If they are even still alive. I do have the vin#. Joe
  • 6
    Cody Oklahoma August 6, 2014 at 17:28
    I have a 1970 challenger r/t that my grandpa left me. He really wanted to know the history of the car and talk to the previous owners. It was a old drag car that we are restoring. But this year my grandpa passed away and never got to know the history of the challenger. I tried but didnt have the time because his cancer was really fast paste. If there was anyway someone could help or get my going in the right direction that would be great! Thanks Cody
  • 7
    Jim Omena, Michigan September 26, 2014 at 12:33
    Any resource for military vehicle information by VIN number?
  • 8
    Ray Tulsa, Oklahoma October 13, 2014 at 09:58
    Cody, I am in the process of tracing the history on a 1970 Challenger R/T also. I would be interested in hearing how your search is going and what you have found.
  • 9
    ricki tyler tx. June 3, 2015 at 14:50
    trying to find vin# on 63 impala I used to own one I had in high school whould like to find possibly repurchase to restore lots of memories in it
  • 10
    De Washington, D.C. June 11, 2015 at 15:19
    I have a1999 Pontiac that I have misplace the title to. I have went to the DMV about my problem they said I have to contact the last owner but I have no way of getting in contact with them. Is there anyway I can get in contact or find the last owner of the car I have the vin#
  • 11
    Pattie il July 16, 2015 at 21:10
    Looking for my first car a 1977 Cutlass Supreme. The dealer I bought it from went out of business and I do not have the vin.
  • 12
    Jose Borrero Puerto Rico August 25, 2015 at 13:26
    How can I get history of a car. It's a 1980 Toyota Celica Supra Hatchback but by the Vin # I can't find. What website I need to look. Thank You for your help in Advance
  • 13
    Roger B Walker Sr 8631 Studebaker January 18, 2016 at 09:07
    Looking for a previous owner vehicle of 1963 Chevrolet Impala
  • 14
    Doug Raulerson Apopka, FL February 6, 2016 at 16:19
    My father showed me a round aluminum plate about the size of a silver dollar. He said it was the title to a vehicle owned by his father or grandfather. It has at the top FLORIDA then MOTOR VEHICLE then these stamped numbers 660383 then below that TITLE then below that CERTIFICATE PLATE. How can I find what type of vehicle this tittle plate was for and who's name was listed as the owner. Please reply via email or text me & 407-448-0157 and I will send a picture. Your assistance is appreciated.
  • 15
    mike barker st.louis mo. February 16, 2016 at 14:24
    looking for my 65 dodge pickup. i have vin# last known mo. plate # 825nx4 was my fathers truck in family since 1966
  • 16
    David dorsey Bowman, ga March 7, 2016 at 04:26
    I have lost the title to a 2001 Chevrolet 3500, I bought the truck and got the title in the mail from the auction and there is no record of what name the truck is registered to.
  • 17
    Inba Dayalan Halasuru March 8, 2016 at 10:12
    Want to find two wheeler owner details
  • 18
    Tom Hackman Pennsylvania March 17, 2016 at 16:30
    I bought a 68 Ford Torino fastback GT to restore from SD wit a b.o.s. I need to tilte in my state but need to know who titled it last in SD. The person I bought it from did no paperwork when he purchased the car so no title. I have a VIN # and also there are old plated from 1989 still on the car. Where do I start? I called the notory in my state and contacted SD dept. of rev. but could get no help. Thank you for any help with this.
  • 19
    Maria Osorio lamesa tx April 12, 2016 at 12:12
    I need to find out a vin# of a car I use to have.

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