All modern motor vehicles are distinguished by a specific Vehicle Identifying Number, or a VIN. Like a fingerprint but for a car, no two VINs are the same.
VINs are designed to help distinguish and identify exact vehicles, primarily for the purposes of registration, insurance, finance, recalls, service campaigns, and to help repairers order the correct parts for a specific vehicle.
The use of VINs enables manufacturers to easily isolate vehicles involved in a recall, and allows authorities to properly identify a car if it is stolen or used in a crime, even if it has been destroyed by fire.
In most cases the VIN is located in several places, either stamped into the bodywork, under the bonnet, on a structural part of the car, in a bottom corner of the windscreen, on a build plate, and (more recently) printed on an adhesive self-voiding label in the driver’s door frame. In this case, the label is destroyed if someone attempts to remove it.
When you buy a new or used car, registration authorities and insurers want to cross-check the car’s number plate with the VIN to confirm its bonafides.
VINs (also known as “VIN numbers” in the same way people say “PIN numbers”) were previously called chassis numbers, and there is often confusion around these terms.
In essence, VINs in modern cars and chassis numbers in older cars are used the same way to identify vehicles.
Both act as a serial number – and are different from engine numbers – but VINs contain much more detail than a chassis number, and VINs are always 17 characters long.
Older cars have individual chassis numbers (rather than a VIN). The term stems from the earliest era of motoring.
The earliest motor vehicles comprised of a body bolted to or based on a frame, or chassis. Each chassis was given a serial number so the vehicle could be properly identified and used for registration.
The term chassis number remained long after cars changed to a single body structure design, as is the norm today.
Some cars from Japan retained chassis numbers until the late 1980s; those vehicles when imported into Australia must be given a surrogate VIN.
The VIN system was established in the US in 1954 but wasn’t standardised or adopted by Europe and the rest of the world until the 1980s.
In Australia, VINs have been required on new motor vehicles since 1989.
VINs now meet both European and US standards and have become the primary vehicle identifier globally.
The 17 digits identify the manufacturer, the country, and factory in which the vehicle was produced, as well as certain characteristics of a specific vehicle (such as options). The 17 digits also identify a car’s model year and serial number.
However, deciphering this code is not necessarily straightforward – even with a list explaining what each letter and number means.
Some manufacturers list the location of their headquarters as the origin of the vehicle. Without inside knowledge, only the vehicle manufacturer knows the codes for its individual factories.
However, with this level of detail, it makes it easier for manufacturers to identify and locate vehicles requiring recall work, or which are the subject of a service campaign (or running repair that falls short of a safety recall).
Authorities can also use VINs to identify stolen or destroyed vehicles; if the adhesive label no longer exists, the VIN stamped on other sections of the car can reveal its true identity.
Car criminals became expert at forging VINs, however authorities are now better at identifying bogus numbers, as they know what each sequence should contain, and it is hard to copy the exact style of VINs etched by robots on a production line.