Here's How to Decode a VIN Number

In a recent post we learned all about VIN numbers: what they are, where they’re found, and how they’re tracked, all while cracking Fast and Furious jokes and looking at pictures of Chargers. Today’s topic is VIN Decoding, or how you can tell the difference between a Civic Type R and a Civic SI using nothing but the VIN number. This is how to decode a VIN number and why knowing this trick could save you a load of trouble.

VIN decoding is the process of unlocking the data contained in a VIN number. It can confirm a vehicle’s trim level and reveal any history of VIN tampering the car may have. VINs can be decoded manually or as part of a vehicle history report.

VIN Decoding

Why would you decode a VIN?

If you’re not into muscle cars, the one above might look like an old clunker with a crazy wing. It’s actually a base-model Dodge Charger that’s been modified to resemble a Charger Daytona, an extremely rare version that’s worth a lot more. That’s all in good fun, but unless you really know your stuff a seller could fool you into believing this was a real-deal Daytona – and into paying over five times more than you should.

What’s stopping the seller from making a quick and dishonest buck?

Don’t fall for fake badging

That Charger was extensively modified to cover up its true origins. Less invasive but equally problematic, fake badging is far too common with modern cars – even new ones. For example, shady dealers will sometimes pass a 3 series off as an M3 to someone who doesn’t know the difference. Because look, it has the badge!

We’ve all seen those cheesy V8 emblems at AutoZone, but that’s just the start. You’ll find fake badges on BMWs, Audis, Benzes, and yes, Dodge Chargers. How is a buyer to protect themselves?

Never let a car’s badges be the only proof of its trim level – run a VIN check or decode the VIN to be sure. Decoding a VIN is the only ironclad way to verify that a car is what the seller says it is. VIN decoding often reveals the factory paint code, engine size, and optional extras, so you can buy that Camaro 2SS knowing full well it’s not a 1SS.

Or that a Ferrari isn’t a Fiero. You laugh, but it’s almost certainly happened.

Don't trust the V8 badge on the side or the M badge on the trunk - fake badging is used to make a car appear to have a higher trim level than it does.
A typical VIN decoder.  source

A typical VIN decoder. source

Decoding a VIN number

A great example of a VIN decoder is the VIN decoder for Volkswagen Rabbit convertibles pictured above. Each digit in the sequence corresponds to a certain variable, and this general format is common in modern cars from any country.

If you want to decode the VIN number of a specific car, Google is your friend. Most cars have VIN decoding guides published online or active forums whose users can decode a VIN number for you. Every brand’s VIN numbers decode differently.

Keep in mind that some VINs aren’t this straightforward; for some obscure cars, the decoding records have been lost to time. To learn certain details about a vintage BMW 2002, for example, one must email BMW directly.

A car’s badges can be changed. What about its VIN?

Unfortunately, that’s possible too.

It’s called VIN tampering and it speaks to what thieves will go through to sell a stolen car. That article goes into detail about how to avoid VIN tampering; in short, your best bet to avoid VIN tampering is to run a VIN check or get a vehicle history report before you seal the deal.

On vintage vehicles, the serial number will often be found on various parts of the car. On modern cars, however, checking the VIN is often the only way to be sure. Decode the VIN to learn more about the car as it left the factory – color, options, engine size, and so on. Match those to the car in question, and if something doesn’t line up walk away.

Has your car’s VIN been tampered with?

A few times a year, someone tells us they didn’t run a Carfax or VIN check when they bought their car and now, months or even years later, they’ve discovered it’s been tampered with. Whoever committed the crime is long gone, but nobody wants to be driving around in a potentially stolen car, let alone one that was stolen months or even years ago. So, what’s a person to do?

The best and most legal option would be to correct the VIN if possible. You may want to collect any documents from the time of purchase (bill of sale, dealership receipts, etc) and contact local authorities, especially if the car came from a dealership. Prepare for the chance of your vehicle being confiscated and know that it may be hard to re-register in the future.

We’re here to help!

Title Gods specializes in anything related to car titles – contact us and we’ll be glad to answer any questions you have.

We offer a $10 VIN Check to help you make the best car buying decision possible. It provides the car’s options and ownership history along with previous accidents, claims, and other red flags. Protect yourself as a buyer: run a VIN check on every car you consider buying.

And remember, if something about a car just doesn’t add up, walk away.

This article is not legal advice.

Cover image source