VINs Demystified

VINs DemystifiedIf you've registered a new car, sold an old car, or purchased insurance for any kind of vehicle at all, at some point or another, you've had to supply the VIN - that's Vehicle Identification Number. You probably already know that your VIN is a unique 17-character combination of numbers and letters that serves to identify your specific vehicle, but did you know that there's more to it than that? VINs aren't just random letters and numbers - each part of the VIN actually means something.

Where is It?
Before you can decrypt the hidden messages in your VIN, you need to know where to find it. If your car is a fairly recent model, the VIN is most likely on the driver's-side door or post, on a plate near the window on the left side of the dashboard, or on your vehicle's firewall.

For older vehicles, common locations include those three areas as well as the inner wheel arch on the left-hand side of the car, the steering column, a machined pad on the front of the engine, or on the radiator support bracket. Most of the time, your VIN is also printed on the documents that came with your vehicle, or inside the owner's manual.

Decrypting the VIN Code
Once you decrypt your VIN, it will tell you the year and country of your vehicle's manufacture, the make, model and serial number of the vehicle, and which assembly plant it came from. In some cases, even specific equipment specifications (like common trim levels) are also designated. All that information is compiled in a collection of letters (from A to Z, but usually omitting I, O, and Q), and numbers (from 1 to 9 with 0 (zero) coming last), that is divided into four sections:

  1. WMI - 3-character world manufacturer's identification
  2. VDS - 5-character vehicle description section
  3. Accuracy check digit (one character)
  4. VIS - 8-character vehicle identification section

Let's break down each section, in order:

  • WMI - World Manufacturer's Identification: The first character in the WMI signifies the vehicles country of origin. Countries in North America are represented by numbers (United States=1 or 4, Canada=2, Mexico=3), and other countries are usually represented by letters (Japan=J, Germany=W, Italy=Z). The second character, which may be either a letter or a number, designates the manufacturer. Some of these designations include Buick (4), Cadillac (6), Chrysler (C), Dodge (B), Jaguar (A), Jeep (J) and Saturn (8). The third character denotes either the vehicle type or manufacturing division.
  • VDS - Vehicle Description Section - and Check Digit: The next section of the VIN consists of five characters (the 4th-8th in the entire string) and a check digit. These numbers represent everything from the model and series of the vehicle to more specific information like the body style, braking system, and engine type. The ninth character in the VIN is an accuracy check digit meant to verify the previous numbers, and it's determined by a mathematical calculation that was developed by the Department of Transportation (DOT).
  • VIS - Vehicle IdentificationSection: The final eight characters of the VIN are the VIS, or Vehicle Identification Section, and these give more specific information. Character 10 represents the model year, and may be a number or a letter, i.e. 1998 (W), 2000 (Y), 2007 (7), 2008 (8), while character 11 refers to the specific assembly plant. The final six characters are the actual serial number of your vehicle, and can reveal its order in the assembly line (whether it was first or last constructed), which can be incredibly important data to people who collect cars.

Knowing all this won't save you money on insurance, or make you a better driver, but it will help you to understand why VINs are so important when it comes to verifying ownership, tracking accident statistics across specific makes and models of cars, and even finding stolen cars and trucks or protecting them from theft.