5 tips for identifying the mystery car in that old photo

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Photo by Kyle Smith

Going through the family album, or a dusty desk at the antique store, you see a dog-eared black and white image. Wiping away the thick layer of dust reveals a young couple standing tall and proud near the front fender of a car. What car is it though? When a member of the Hagerty Community recently asked for help identifying a car in an old photo, it prompted us to discuss what methods are best to accomplish the task.

Positively identifying a car in an old photo is sometimes tough to do. After all, where do you even start? Here are five tips that will hopefully help you identify that vintage ride.

Ask someone who was close to those in the photo

If the photograph is from a family album, start by talking to family members about who is in the photo and if they ever talked about a car they owned. Just talking to those who knew the people in the photo might get you a decent lead, like “Grandad only owned Fords.” That’s a valuable clue that will narrow your search.

Look for hints in the surroundings

Hagerty Community image asking for help
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The car may only have a few clues, but the setting of the photo might help narrow things down. Look at the buildings, clothing, and photo style. Was it shot using color film? That wasn’t readily available to consumers until 1935. Referencing historical archives for clothing styles can also help narrow down the time frame and potential model year.

Count

The resolution and age of a photograph often means the badges and other markings are illegible. However, subtle things like the shape of the logo or even a rough count of how many letters are on a hood or trunk can narrow down the possibilities for manufacturers.

Location and number of items like louvers and pinstripes will be a big help in narrowing down a year once you have an idea of who made the car. Windshield shape is also a big tell for many vintage cars, as just about everything else can be changed. Counting details will allow you to confirm the car you are looking for when a car of a different color or photographed from a different angle comes up in your search.

Consult the books

1974 Chevrolet Camaro
Phillip Thomas | Hagerty Media Site

If you’re fairly confident about who manufactured the car in the photo, start researching the brand. Often times books and other resources that tell the history of the company will have well-labeled photos of many of the brand’s models. Start in the auto section at your local library, or purchase a copy of Beverly Rae Kimes’ The Standard Catalog of American Automobiles. There are 5000 photographs in there, so find a comfortable chair before diving in.

Try searching the internet a different way (reverse image search)

Film photo of Model A Ford
Kyle Smith | Hagerty Media Site

Modern artificial intelligence is pretty powerful, including for things like this. Upload an image of the photo you are trying to figure out, and let a “reverse image search” online find similar images. This is a crap shoot, but sometimes the search rolls a seven. Even if it doesn’t give you an exact year, make, and model, it might show you some things that the car you are looking for is not, which is helpful.

Ask the right group

Hopefully you’ve narrowed down at least a make and are hunting for a model. If you are stumped, shift your search to find a group of more experienced eyes to tell you what you are looking at. Having some detail and showing you did a bit of research before asking usually gets a better reception. It’s a lot less frustrating to ask multiple groups, who cumulatively have no idea because what ends up being a Dodge in your photo is going to look totally foreign to a group of Ford experts.

In all, tracking down the year, make, and model of a car in an old photograph isn’t easy. Be persistent and keep digging, even if that’s just looking through pictures of similar era cars. Do you have any additional tips for figuring out the model of car in an old photo? Share them below.

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