Q&A: May 23, 2019 Edition

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Q. I am the owner of Specialized Collision Center in O’Fallon, Mo., in suburban St. Louis. We are a company that does restorations separately from the collision portion of the company. We have a customer who would like to have some additional work done to his 1941 Chevrolet, which is a “war car” he recently purchased, He does not want to proceed until he has a clear Missouri title for his car, which he cannot get from the state until he can show a VIN number attached to the car. In my research on attached VIN tags it seems that the “attached” tag of any kind was not started until 1955. Previously, the original motor number on a body tag was the method of identification. The owner of this vehicle has a clear title for the car and a clear title for the vehicle that the sub frame was acquired from and grafted to the original frame.

I am also the State of Missouri Leadership Council chairman for NFIB, the National Federation of Independent Businessmen, that has me visiting our capital often and allowed me to bring this problem to the attention of our legislators and the Secretary of State to confirm to them that old cars do not have the VIN tag attached to the body. Your help would be greatly appreciated as this issue is trying to be resolved before the end of the legislative session at the end of May, and if not we will have to try again next session.
— Jack Schroeder, O’Fallon, Mo.

A. You are correct that engine numbers were once the preferred method of identifying cars, but beyond that it’s a bit more complicated. The rationale for that was probably that the engine was the most durable and long-lasting part of the car, but that was in a period when it was common to overhaul engines, often in the chassis, rather than replacing them. More recently, a chassis number, or as it has become, Vehicle Identification Number, has become the norm and is mandated for new cars.

Engine numbers and serial numbers were, in the beginning, just that: numbers. Henry Ford had a fetish about starting with “1”, and early Model T’s had both engine and engine or motor numbers until around 1916. Thereafter, engine numbers alone were used. When the Model A came out, the first car was A1 and so on, the first V-8 (Model 18) being 18-1. On Model A’s, the engine number was stamped onto the chassis as the pre-numbered engine was mounted in. This causes consternation today, because that chassis number in most cases is covered by the body. Ford even stopped stamping engines around 1933, which enabled the company to start its own engine-swap program.

Over time, manufacturers started to put other information into the vehicle numbers. Chevy numbers from 1916 used the first digit to designate an assembly plant. By 1924, model designators crept into the number. Engines, too, were numbered, but not keyed to the chassis or vehicle number. Numbers could be stamped on the chassis, as at Ford, or onto a plate screwed or riveted to the vehicle. My 1925 Hudson, for example, has its serial number on a plate screwed to the engine side of the firewall. The first overall U.S regulations on numbers came for 1968, as part of the Motor Vehicle Safety Act, calling for a VIN to be placed so as to be seen through the windshield. This helped to establish the identity of stolen cars. The current 17-digit VIN, with specific meanings for each position, began in 1981. Prior to 1968, a number might be located anywhere, and through 1980 the information it contained was determined by the manufacturer.

I’m interested in your term “war car.” I usually associate that with the 1942 models that have been the subject of recent Q&A columns. Of course, 1941 cars were still on the road and many probably were used in the services, as well as by the public. Chevrolets in 1941 had a serial (VIN) plate by the front passenger door, on the sill under the floor mat. The challenge is to find a number in that location that corresponds to your customer’s title. Chevy engine numbers were stamped on a machined boss near the base of the distributor. Either one might be sufficient to title the car — I say “might be” as I have no experience with the Missouri registration procedures. In my state, Connecticut, a car with no visible number can often be registered by having a DMV inspection, following which a state-assigned VIN is added. I don’t think of 1941 Chevys as having a sub-frame, so I’m not sure where you’d find a VIN from the donor vehicle.

This is just a quick tutorial on the subject of ID numbers. The Krause Standard Catalog series has much information on locations of ID numbers and decoding them. The “bible” for older cars and orphan makes is Grace Brigham’s Serial Number Book for U.S. Cars 1900-1975, published by Motorbooks International in 1979. Used copies sell for $35 and up.

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