Even before your car was built, its Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) was assigned. And, like your permanent record from grade school, this VIN will follow it throughout its life span. Interestingly, while most people know their car has one, few know how to read a car’s VIN. Which is kind of a shame; within that 17-digit alphanumeric is contained information about where your car was built, when it was built, and the key features it possesses.
Further, your car's every recorded event will get its Vehicle Identification Number attached to it. Every time it is sold, or if it is ever in an accident or stolen, the VIN will be recorded. The number is also used to track recalls, warranty claims, and insurance coverage.
By the way, yes, in all probability, the license plate number associated with the car will be noted as well. However, while license plates can be readily changed, because of its complexities, a VIN cannot. Further, it is illegal to alter an automobile’s Vehicle Identification Number in any way.
The current VIN format has been in use since 1981. While most historians agree American manufacturers have been using VINs since 1954—we have seen unverified assertions the very first one was applied to the 1953 Chevrolet Corvette. (If you know for sure, please tell us in the comments section below.)
But we digress…
Those early vehicle ID numbers did not use a common (read: standardized) format. Because each manufacturer used their own formatting scheme, it was difficult to readily discern what was what by simply looking at the numbers. In 1980, the U.S. Department of Transportation adopted the International Organization for Standardization’s (ISO) Vehicle Identification Number format (ISO 3780), and it has been in use ever since.
The easiest place to find the VIN is in the corner at the base of the windshield on the driver’s side of the car. You’ll also find it on a sticker in the driver’s side doorjamb. Further, it is generally engraved into the firewall behind the engine underneath the hood and on a sticker near the radiator support. These are considered “public” VINs and are placed so they are intentionally easy to find for day-to-day recording and verification purposes.
To deter theft, NHTSA’s Federal Parts Marking Program also decrees a number of other places around the car where the Vehicle Identification Number can be found. The hood, the engine, the bumpers, the doors, the fenders, and quarter panels can also contain the VIN. In addition to these places, there are a number of other locations, which are not publicized. These “confidential” VINs are in place to make it harder to disguise a car should it ever be stolen.
And frankly, this is one of the primary purposes of the VIN—it is a security measure designed to identify the car (and/or its parts) in case it is ever stolen.
Comprised of letters and numbers, seventeen alphanumeric characters make up the Vehicle Identification Number. Because of this, reading a VIN is much easier if it is broken into its six constituent parts.
After studying a number of different VINs, the observant individual will perhaps note certain letters never appear when checking a VIN. These letters are O, Q, and I. This is because when the system was devised, those letters were not included to avoid the possibility of mistaking them for the numbers one and zero.
To illustrate the machinations of the Vehicle Identification Number we’ll use the VIN: WDDSJ5CB8EN032372.
The first three characters you’ll see when reading a VIN (the WDD in our sample number) are referred to as the World Manufacturer Identifier. In this case, these digits identify the car’s country of origin, manufacturer, and make.
The next five characters (SJ5CB) are the Vehicle Descriptor Section, designating trim specifications, driveline options and safety features.
The single digit in the middle of the VIN (8) is the Check Digit, which can be used to verify the authenticity of the number.
The tenth digit (E) is the Model Year Encoding, which signifies the model year of the vehicle, which may or may not be the same as the year the automobile was initially sold.
The eleventh character (N) is the Plant Code, which reveals where the car was built.
The last six digits (032372) are the car’s actual serial number. These reveal where in the order of progression of models of its type the car falls.
Assigned by the Society of Automotive Engineers (also known as the SAE), the proper name for the first three digits of the VIN is the “World Manufacturer Identifier.” The first character of the three digits always signifies the country where the car was built. The most common are: 1, 4 or 5; 2; 3; J; K; S; W; Z; Y; 6; V; 9.
In our sample VIN: SJ5CB8EN032372, the “W” indicates the car was built in Germany, while the next character (“D”) identifies the manufacturer. While in many cases the letter corresponds directly with the first letter of the name of the manufacturer, in some cases it does not.
Audi, Mitsubishi, Range Rover, American Motors, Sterling, Alfa Romeo, Maserati, and Jaguar; Dodge, BMW; Chrysler; Mercedes-Benz (Daimler-Benz); Ford, Fiat, Ferrari, and some Subarus (Fuji Heavy Industries builds Subaru cars); General Motors – Chevrolet, Buick, GMC, Cadillac and the now defunct Geo, Oldsmobile, and Saturn brands; Honda and Acura;Jeep; Lincoln; Hyundai and Mini; Nissan, Infiniti, and Kia; Porsche; Subaru Baja and Legacy; Toyota and Lexus; Volkswagen; Mazda
The third character (“D”), when combined with the first two (WD+D), designates either the type of vehicle, or its manufacturing division within its parent organization. In this case, it is the latter. Thus, the characters “WDD” indicate the car is a German Mercedes-Benz, a product of the Daimler-Benz Corporation. However, last of the three characters can also refer to the type of vehicle, indicating whether it is a truck or a car. For example, a VIN starting with “1GC” represents a Chevrolet truck.
The next five digits of the VIN: WDD8EN032372 get into specifics concerning the configuration of the vehicle. Thing is, each manufacturer is permitted to code this section to their own specification, so deciphering this part of the Vehicle Identification Number can be rather complex.
However, regardless of the coding, the Vehicle Descriptor Section of the VIN (in this case: the characters “SJ5CB”) will usually tell you what safety features the car has, which platform the car is based upon, what its model designation is, and will also delineate its body style. In this case, the code tells us we’re dealing with a four-door sedan CLA-Class Mercedes-Benz.
Given the breadth of the possibilities in this case, they are too numerous for us to go into here. However, for those of you who want to get deep off into this aspect of it, here’s a guide to deciphering the Vehicle Descriptor section of a Vehicle Identification Number.
The ninth character of the VIN is the Check Digit. An element of every North American Vehicle Identification Number; the Check Digit can be used to verify authenticity when reading a car’s VIN. To accomplish this, every alphabetical character of the VIN is assigned a numerical value, while the existing numerical characters retain their actual value.
Allow us to explain; the letters “A” through “H” are equal to their positions in the alphabet with A = 1 and H = 8. Keeping in mind “I” is not used in a VIN; it then starts over with J = 1 and R = 9, also keeping in mind the letters “O” and “Q” are not used in a Vehicle Identification Number.
It then begins again with S = 2 and running through “Z”, which equals 9.
Each character is then assigned a weight based on its position in the VIN as follows;
Position = 8, = 7, = 6, = 5, = 4, = 3, = 2, = 10, =0, = 9, = 8, = 7, = 6, = 5, = 4, = 3, and = 2.
Thus, applying the formula to our sample VIN: WDDSJ5CBEN032372we see the ninth character is the check digit, which is 8, so its value is zero.
The value of each of the other characters is then multiplied by their weight to determine their product.
In this case, the first W = 48. (the W’s numerical value of 6 multiplied by its position value of 8).
Similarly, the first D = 28 (the first D = 4 multiplied by its position value of 7).
Following this formula; = 48, = 28, = 24, = 10, = 4, = 15, = 6, = 20, 8 = 0, = 45, = 40, = 0, = 18, = 10, = 12, = 21, and = 4.
The sum of the products is then totaled.
In this case; 48+28+24+10+4+15+6+20+0+45+40+0+18+10+12+21+4 = 305
The sum of that operation is then divided by 11, with the remainder from that operation equaling the check digit.
305/11 = 27 with a remainder of 8, which is our Check Digit—thus our VIN is legit.
If you’d like to see the Check Digit calculation tables for yourself, you’ll find them here.
The 10th digit of the VIN is the Model Year Encoding designator.
The Model Year Encoding codes started with the letter “A” signifying the year 1980, and the letter “Y” signifying the year 2000 (again, keeping in mind the letters I, O, and Q are not used).
The numbers “1” through “9” were then used to signify the years 2001 through 2009, after which the letters “A” through “Y” were repeated to signify the years 2010 through 2030. For 2031, the numbers 1 through 9 will be used again, this time until 2039. The pattern will then repeat with “A” signifying the year 2040.
Thus, in the case of our VIN: WDDSJ5CB8N032372 the “E” in the 10th position indicates our car was designated a 2014 model. This holds regardless of the year the car was actually built. If it were built in 2013, but designated a 2014 model, the Model Year Encoding designator would still be an “E”.
The 11th character in our VIN: WDDSJ5CB8E032372 (“N”) indicates which of the manufacturer’s factories built the car. Each manufacturer uses its own plant codes as well; you can find the lists of a number of the major car builders on Wikipedia.
In the case of our VIN, the “N” designates our car was built at Mercedes-Benz Manufacturing Hungary in the Mercedes-Benz Kecskemét Plant where the B-Class Mercedes and CLA-Class Mercedes models are constructed.
The last six characters of our VIN: WDDSJ5CB8EN comprise the actual serial number of the car. As every manufacturer uses its own sequence, the significance of this number can vary from company to company. But in most cases the serial number represents how far along in a particular production run any given car falls.
So with all of that said, our Vehicle Identification Number indicates our car is number 32,372 and is a 2014 Mercedes-Benz CLA-Class, built in the Mercedes-Benz Kecskemét Plant in Hungary.