Chasing your car’s past: 10 tips for finding prior owners (and other surprises)

Almost everyone wants to know where their old car has been. Does it have a racing history? Did someone important own it? When did it get bigger carburetors and that fiberglass hood? Sometimes finding out about a car’s past can be easy, while other times it can be tough and time consuming. Here are some tips that will make your quest easier:

  1. Request all documentation from the seller, including copies of any titles or registrations from prior owners. If you bought the car from a dealer, broker, or auction house, press them for help obtaining anything an estate or prior owner may have.

  2. Review service records for the names of previous owners.

  3. Carefully search a car for any information that could lead you to a past owner, including an original Protect-O-Plate, an envelope, or an old registration.

  4. When you have a name and location for a prior owner, you can check internet directories such at whitepages.com, city directories, or even old phone books (if you can find them). If a previous owner was prominent in the community, the local library or Historical Society may have additional information not available online.

  5. Contact a marque club or model registry to see if they have a record of a given car and can provide information regarding prior owners. If a source has a policy not to share personal information, ask the registrar or administrator to forward a note or call the previous owner. Volunteer to accept collect calls or to send self-addressed stamped envelopes, keeping in mind that many older enthusiasts may not use email. Also check with any marque documentation experts who have extensive records and can build a report for you. Four of the best include: Galen Govier for Mopar muscle, Kevin Marti for high-performance Fords, Marcel Massini for Ferrari, and Clare Hay for Vintage Bentley.

  6. If you’re researching a limited-production car, check with the corporate history office and ask if there are records of first owners or subsequent owners who may have returned the car for repairs or service. For a fee, many companies or historical organizations offer a service to provide the original build information for a car. Porsche and British Motor Heritage Trust are among the best-known organizations that offer this service. Sometimes information includes the original selling dealer, which may also be a starting point.

  7. Unless you luck out with a scrapbook from a past owner that includes a strong ownership chain and history, work your way back one owner at a time. Sometimes you can get all the way back to the original owner. There is no easy trick. Expect the process to take many hours, perhaps spanning several years.

  8. When you know where a car was restored, try reaching out to the restorer to see what records or memories may exist. Sometimes they’ve even had contact with a prior owner.

  9. If a car has been featured in a magazine, obtain a copy of the article and contact the editor or writer. They may have kept records as basic as a few notes or as extensive as a comprehensive file with photos.

  10. Photos often contain useful leads, so study them carefully. Old prints often have photographer, location, or car description on the back. Digital photos may lead you back to the photographer who can supply more information. Close scrutiny from friends and other enthusiasts may reveal something important like a landmark or familiar face.

Over the years I’ve used almost every one of these tricks, and they’ve led me to an octogenarian first owner of a Tojeiro sports racer and a solid chain of ownership on an important Cisitalia once exhibited in the Museum of Modern Art. Based on those successes I was asked to research another Cisitalia and ran into a brick wall in Argentina after I’d documented fewer than five years for a 60-year-old car. Thanks to the help of a local historical society and a colleague, however, I was able to document every owner of a 1901 Frisbie, dating back 90 years. But that was easy, considering there were only three owners.