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How to Translate a VIN Number

by Jeri Studt

The VIN, or vehicle identification number, is an important key to a vehicle's history. With the VIN, you can research if a car or truck you are thinking of buying has been stolen or totaled, or sustained flood or fire damage. The VIN itself can reveal a good deal about a vehicle, even if the vehicle's appearance has changed. The combination of letters and numerals that is the VIN is like a vehicle's fingerprint: No two vehicles have the exact same one. Translating it takes only a little know-how.

Find the VIN. While seated on the driver's side of the vehicle, open the door and look at the inside door jam. You will see a sticker with information, including a combination of 17 letters and numerals. This is the vehicle identification number. Or, look on the upper side of the dashboard on the driver's side. In this case, the VIN is seen more easily from outside the vehicle. Write down this number for research.

Examine the first three characters. These are the World Manufacturer Identifier. The first character, which can be a letter or a number, tells the vehicle's country of origin. A "1," "4" or a "5" means the vehicle was built in the United States; a "2" means it was built in Canada; "3" means Mexico. Japan is "J" and Germany is "W." Italy is "Z." The second character tells you the vehicle's manufacturer. "A" is Audi, "B" is BMW, "L" is Lincoln. Saturn is "8." The third character tells you the make of the vehicle.

Examine the next six characters, the Vehicle Descriptor Section. Five characters identify vehicle features such as engine size and body style. The sixth is a "check digit,'' designed to identify if the VIN itself is fraudulent. It is based on a complicated mathematical formula developed by the Department of Transportation.

Examine characters 10 through 17, the Vehicle Identification Section. The 10th character identifies the model year. The years 1981 through 2000 are represented by letters B through Y, omitting I, O, Q and U. The year 1981 is B; 2000 is Y. The years 2001 through 2009 are numbers 1 through 9. The year 2010 starts with the alphabet again with A. The 11th character identifies the plant where the vehicle was manufactured. Characters 12 through 17 make up the number assigned to the vehicle as it came off the plant's assembly line.

Tips

  • Any vehicle made after 1981 will have the 17-character VIN. Before that year, the VIN ranged from 11 to 17 characters.
  • Write down the VIN of your vehicle and store it someplace outside the vehicle. The VIN will identify your vehicle in case it is stolen.

About the Author

Based in the wilds of western Iowa, Jeri Studt has been writing and editing articles on food, gardening, pets and people since 1987. She earned her bachelor's degree in journalism at the University of Nebraska at Omaha and has studied horticulture and biology.

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