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How to Decode Your Car’s VIN Number

Ever wonder how they come up with your car’s VIN? VIN stands for vehicle identification number and it’s a code that tells you a lot about the vehicle you’re driving. For the longest time, I thought a VIN on a car was a unique serial number that incremented with each manufactured car. As you can tell, I didn’t put much thought into it because it’s clear that a unique number, incremented each time, is not the best way to handle identifying cars!

As it turns out, part of the code is a unique number assigned to a single car of a single model at a single manufacturer, but much of the information contained in a VIN is not unique. Now, knowing about how the VIN works won’t save you any money on gas [3] but now you’ll know something few people do!

(I realize my title is a case of RAS syndrome [4], but everyone I know says VIN number)

Origins of the VIN

The modern VIN program is part of the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) and it was created in 1980 to help manage serial numbers for cars (specifically, ISO 3779). The main purpose of the VIN is so that you could track the history of a vehicle and prevent unscrupulous sellers from passing one car off as another. Before ISO standardized the format, vehicles still had VINs but they went by their manufacturer’s format. When ISO produced its VIN format, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration made it a requirement that vehicles adhere to that format on vehicles sold in and after 1981.

Vehicle Identification Number Breakdown

The VIN itself is a 17 character number and, as you’d expect, each digit corresponds to something specific about the car. It never uses the letter I (“eye”), O (“oh”), or Q (“cue”) because it could be mistaken for a one (1) or a zero (0).

Breaking Down Our VIN

We recently purchased a Toyota Venza and the VIN is 4T3BK3BB7BUxxxxxx. Breaking this down we get:

What’s tricky about the VIN is that after you get beyond the first few digits, you really need a guide to tell you what the others mean because it’ll vary from manufacturer to manufacturer. For example, BK4BB7 has meaning because we know the Toyota VIN codes. It means something totally different if we’re talking a Ford truck.

I can sometimes be a bit of a nerd (surprise) but it was kind of fun deciphering the code to my car!

(Photo: roens [7])