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How to Decode Your Car’s VIN Number

Posted By Jim On 05/03/2012 @ 7:10 am In Cars | 6 Comments

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).

  • 1-3: World Manufacturer Identifier – The first three digits correspond to a World Manufacturer Identifier [5] for the make and model of the vehicle.
  • 4-9: Vehicle Descriptor Section – Digits 4 through 9 correspond to the model of the vehicle including options. The 9th digit is often used as a check digit to confirm a legitimate VIN.
  • 10-17: Vehicle Identification Section – These digits identify the specific car. The 10th digit is for the Model Year, 11th is the plant code, and 12-17 correspond to the specific car and is a sequential number that increments with each production.

Breaking Down Our VIN

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

  • 4T3: The first two digit is the region of the manufacturer and 4 corresponds to the United States, 4T corresponds to Toyota. From here we need to look for a guide on Toyota VINs, which we found here [6]. From there we know that the 3 corresponds to a Multipurpose Passenger Vehicle (SUV).
  • BK4BB7: These correspond to the features of the car and the Toyota guide can explain what codes mean what. B means it’s a “4DR Sedan 2WD or 4DR Truck 4WD,” K means it’s a “2GR-FE” engine, 4 is a Chassis code for the car, B defines the restraint system (not on the guide), followed by a B for the Model/Platform (Avalon). The 7 is merely a check digit.
  • BUxxxxxx: The first digit (B) corresponds to model year, 2011, and the next corresponds to the plant of U – which is the one located in Georgetown, KY. After that, it’s just a sequential number counting up with each vehicle.

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])

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[1] Tweet: http://twitter.com/share

[2] Email: mailto:?subject=http://www.bargaineering.com/articles/decode-cars-vin-number.html

[3] won’t save you any money on gas: http://www.bargaineering.com/articles/7-ways-save-money-gas.html

[4] RAS syndrome: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/RAS_syndrome

[5] World Manufacturer Identifier: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vehicle_Identification_Number#World_Manufacturer_Identifier

[6] here: http://en.wikibooks.org/wiki/Vehicle_Identification_Numbers_(VIN_codes)/Toyota/VIN_Codes

[7] roens: http://www.flickr.com/photos/roens/135598103/sizes/z/in/photostream/

Thank you for reading!