Tracing Your Car’s Ownership History

By John Gunnel |

Bill Durica of Bay Village, Ohio, recently sent Old Cars Weekly an interesting note. Durica said that the publication had provided him with a wealth of useful information and great automotive history, but he still had a question.

    “I’ve been enjoying Old Cars Weekly for several years now,” he noted. “I don’t remember seeing information on tracing the ownership history of a vehicle.”

    Bill’s Porsche might seem like an easy one to get a previous-owner history on, because of five reasons: it’s a rare car;  he is the car’s second owner; he has owned it for 45 years; and he already knows quite a bit about it.

    Durica’s car is a 1955 Porsche Speedster that was delivered to Hoffman Motors Corp. in New York on Nov. 21, 1955.  He learned this information when he wrote to Porsche Cars of North America for a Certificate of Authenticity. He purchased the car in January 1963, so he has the name of the immediate previous owner.

    Durica knows that Max Hoffman was a major importer of Jaguars, Mercedes, Porsches and BMWs in the ’50s, but he apparently sold his businesses in the ’60s.

    Others who aren’t as lucky to have a resource such as Porsche Cars of North America, or whose cars have had more than one previous owner, might not know who the other people were who owned their car or how to track them down. If Durica is having a hard time with his Porsche’s history, imagine how difficult it is to trace the ownership history of a car that’s older than his, or one that’s traded hands many more times.

    There are many reasons that car collectors seek previous-owner information. First, it is simply fun to know the ownership history of a vehicle. Second, a previous owner might be able to tell you more about your car and verify that it still has the same standard and optional equipment it left the dealership with. You may also learn if the car has been in an accident or had major repairs. Furthermore the previous owner may still have literature, parts or documentation on a car, including photographs. In some car clubs, documentation from the car’s previous owner may also be required to maintain your car’s unique registry number. For some fortunate car owners, their car may have been owned by a famous person, which might increase its value. With so many people claiming a famous owner in their car’s history, documentation is a necessity for the value to be positively affected.

    As Durica learned, tracing car ownership is possible, but not easy to do. This is not only because of the passage of time, but also because of a federal law that went into effect in September 1997. The Driver’s Privacy Protection Act, which passed Congress in 1994 and took affect three years later, prohibited state motor vehicle departments from giving records to individuals. The law was drafted because stalkers had used DMV records to obtain people’s addresses. Several states raised states’ rights objections, but the law is still on the books.

    If you think you can talk a DMV clerk into bending the law for a car collector, you should visit the British Car Forum’s car history news group at www.britishcarforum.com. It includes a discussion about an Austin-Healey BN6 owner trying to trace registration information on his car. Another British car owner replied that he had asked his Congressman to track down similar information. The Congressman told him, “California is not very friendly to old cars; they want them off the streets.” The privacy law is taken seriously in that state.

    Due to the privacy legislation, any hobbyist wishing to trace the history of a car today has a lot of legwork to do, but it is possible to get certain types of information, if you’re a good detective. I have been able to find the previous owners of eight of my 11 cars without help from the DMV.

     In 1991, Barbara Spears and Mike Brezden published the book “How to Find Cars & Owners.” It was revised and reprinted in 1992, but the book is out of print today. However, you may be able to find a used copy. Both editions came out before the Driver’s Privacy Protection Act took effect in September 1997. However, the book covers many other aspects of tracing ownership history — not just title searches through state motor vehicle agencies.

    The authors start out telling people the reason they should care about past owners. They talk about things to consider — such as the car’s age — and having realistic expectations. “There is no magic computer with an all-encompassing database of past owners,” says Barbara Spears. There are basic instructions, from how to set up a three-ring binder to make a “case file” to how to make phone calls and write letters get positive responses from  past owners.

    Barbara and Mike covered the investigative techniques involved in searching through a car and looking for clues to past ownership. Are there old registration papers in the glove box? How about an ice scraper with the original dealer’s name? Better yet, an owner’s manual with the GM Protect-O-Plate or Ford Warranty Information Card glued in it? Look under the seats for old pay stubs or bank deposit slips. If you’re lucky, you might find a factory broadcast sheet with all the car’s options listed on it stuck behind the instrument panel or rear seat.

    The book tells you what to ask for if you do locate one of the car’s previous owners. This may sound like overkill, but in most cases, the car owner won’t want a pen pal, so it’s important to find out everything possible while you have the opportunity. The book also suggests different questions to ask a car dealer or auction house that might have handled a sale of the vehicle.

    If you can’t find copies of “How to Find Cars & Owners,” you’re not out of luck. A great deal of the information in the book has been posted to the Internet by Barbara Spears at www.yankeelady.com/library/pastowners/3htm.

    There are several other Web sites that contain helpful information about tracing vehicle histories. The 1970 Corvette Registry & Resources link list at www.corvetteforum.net/c3/1970registry/links.html includes links to an online owner center for research, information about getting started tracing your car’s history and a listing of DMV offices across the United States.

    If you own a British Car, there is an organization called the British Motor Heritage Industry Trust that can trace production records of a vehicle to tell you when it was built and when and where it came to the United States. It will also document chassis and engine numbers and may help determine if they properly match. There is a set fee for this service, and a certificate is provided. The address is: British Motor Industry Heritage Trust, Archive Department, Heritage Motor Center, Banbury Road, Gaydon, Warwick CV35 OBJ, England.

    Visiting the Web sites listed above can get you started on tracing the history of your car or truck. How far you take the investigation is up to you. How much information you’ll find is up to Lady Luck. Hopefully, she’ll be riding with you.

Below is a list of sources known to the Old Cars Weekly staff that offer some authentication services. Many, if not all, of these sources charge for this service. If the manufacturer of your car is not listed, contact a club that focuses on your car’s manufacturer (a list of car clubs is available at www.oldcarsweekly.com), or contact the manufacturer.

— Angelo Van Bogart

Porsche Certificates of Authenticity
800-PORSCHE (option 5)

Mopars, built from 1962-1980
Galen’s Tag Service, LLC.
Galen V. Govier
PO Box 516
Prairie du Chien, WI  53821-0516
608-326-8061 FAX

Pontiac Historical Service
P.O. Box 884
Sterling Heights, MI 48311-0884
www.phs-online.com

Cadillac and LaSalle
GM Heritage Center
Attn: Cadillac Archives
6400 Center Drive
Sterling Heights, MI 48312-2609

3 Responses to Tracing Your Car’s Ownership History

  1. James Tilley says:

    How do I find the owner of an older automobile if I have the plate number, year of plate and state of issue. Here is a live example: Wisconsin 1938, plate number 202-597.

  2. John Schmoyer says:

    I am trying to locate the first car I ever owned to see if it is still around, as I would like to purchase it. It was a 1965 Ford Fairlane 500 I purchased from my father-in-law back in 1977, and sold to a person known to me 4 years later. What do I need and how can I check if this car is still around or the last known whereabouts of the car?? I do not have the VIN number.

  3. steve Padgett says:

    I am trying to find the previous owners of my 1935 Ford street rod truck, all sites I have gone to say the vin # must have 17 #’s, my vin # is 7 – 2-letters & 5 numbers. How do I find the previous owners, I want to know more about the build.

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