The Vehicle Identification Number, or VIN, of a car or truck is the fingerprint of that vehicle. No two are alike, and that is why everything from registration to repair orders note this number for tracking. At the time of purchase, you should compare the VIN marked on the vehicle to the registration and title, odometer disclosure forms, and the purchase contract.
But what does it mean? The seventeen alpha-numeric characters that make up the VIN are not random. The VIN encodes the country of origin, the year of manufacture, the specific assembly plant, the make and model, special equipment, and finally a six-digit unique serial number. A given character can be either a number 1-9 or letter A-Z (but no Q, O or I).
The first three characters represent the World Manufacturer’s Identification. The first is the country. For example, 1 and 4 are for the U.S., 3 is Mexico, W is Germany, Z is Italy and J is Japan. The second character is the manufacturer. For example, a letter G is for General Motors. The third character is the vehicle type or manufacturing division - for instance a 6 indicates Cadillac.
The next five characters are the Vehicle Description Section. These characters identify major component parts, such as body style, engine type, brake system, etc.
The ninth character in the sequence is a bit of a cipher. The "VIN Accuracy Check Digit" verifies the entire VIN with a mathematical code, or algorithm, required by the Department of Transportation.
The final “Vehicle Identification Section” is also not random. The first of the sequence (10th character overall) identifies the model year and even though it represents an numerical value (i.e., year) it can be a number or letter code. For example, W is 1998, but 7 is 2007. The millennium year is the letter “Y.” The next character represents the assembly plant.
The final six characters are the actual serial number of the vehicle; it may also indicate whether the vehicle was the first, the hundredth, or the last vehicle off the manufacturer’s assembly line. This last sequence most interests the police in the event the car is stolen. It also contains interesting information for collectors of vintage cars.
The VIN can be useful in handling lemon law cases and product defect class actions. There might have been a flood at a particular factory around the time the subject car was made, or a series of defective components installed for a period of time at a particular assembly plant. The condition of a vehicle may be best inspected by an expert, but the VIN is like having a record of a car's DNA and is one of many tools we use in evaluating any vehicle defect claim.