There’s nothing like that old car smell, at least to someone addicted to dilapidated vintage machinery. One of the formative moments in my bonding with said machinery is “decoding day,” when I spend a glorious hour or two getting to know where my machine came from, when it was born, and how it looked in its infancy. This rather simple sleuthing is a magic moment that only comes around once every two or three years (if you’re me). Let’s decode my new Firebird and the Dirty Dart for practice.
Generally, when one purchases a Firebird Esprit or a Dart wagon, the last thing on said purchaser’s mind is “Is it a clone?”. My new Firebird, like all of my mechanical loves, isn’t exactly a Hemi ‘Cuda or a COPO Camaro, so my concerns about its being misrepresented by a certain menagerie of previous owners are few. For people with more money on the line, VIN/fender tag decoding is a science that one MUST take seriously, lest one be taken for a ride in the proverbial sense. This, however, is not a treatise on how to determine if you’ve been scammed by an unscrupulous buyer; it is a casual first conversation with your new four-wheeled friend.
Getting to the point, this is the cowl tag of my ’74 Firebird; excuse the undercoating, as it saved this car from rusting through the Michigan winters it was likely subjected to. The tag is common to virtually any old GM car, although the codes will obviously vary. We’ll read the tag from left to right. The top line begins with “ST,” which simply means “style.” “74” is the model year. “2F” denotes that it is a Pontiac Firebird, while the “S” code was applied to all Firebirds built at the Norwood plant, from base models to Trans Ams. “87” is the bodystyle, and all Firebirds in ’74 were the same in that regard. “N” means that this car was assembled in Norwood, Ohio (Camaros and Firebirds were also built in Van Nuys, CA). “05211” is a Fisher Body unit number, and is fairly meaningless to decoding this car.
Line two begins with “TR,” for trim, and ends with “PNT,” for paint. The three digit number that is somewhat obscured by time is “590,” which stands for red “Morrokide,” from what I’ve been able to determine. “A51” tells me that this car has bucket seats, while “75” stands for Buccaneer Red, which is the exterior color for the upper and lower body (since my car is not two-toned).
It looks like the trim tag tells no lies; the car is red, and the interior is VERY red (if not a little dirty). What else can the trim tag tell us?
Only a bit more, actually. On the third line, “10A” tells me that the body was manufactured the first week of October, so this is undoubtedly a car that was produced early in the model year. “W67” is difficult to read, but it indicates that this car is an Esprit model. A Trans Am, for example, would be a “WS4” model. “RED” stands for the trim colors on door panels and dashboard.
To complete this task, one must examine the VIN number. In the upper right hand corner, “10/73” is the month and year in which the car was built, verifying the information on the trim tag. At the bottom center is the Vehicle Identification Number, or VIN. It begins with a “2,” which again denotes that this is a Pontiac. The “T” indicates that this is an Esprit, verifying the trim tag and visual clues on the car, like the “Esprit” badges. “87” is once again the body style; all Firebirds are 2-door coupes.
The first “N” is the engine code: 350 cubic-inches, two-barrel carburetor, dual exhaust; this is perhaps the most specific engine code I’ve seen, and it verifies the fact that the car’s dual exhaust and transverse muffler are factory correct. Finally, “4” represents the 1974 model year, and “N” once again stands for “Norwood” assembly.
Everything indicates that my Firebird is legitimate enough for me, and I now know a lot more about my new toy. Obviously, one could move on to date coded parts and engine codes, but that kind of thing doesn’t matter too much to me, so I don’t concern myself with it. This car, however, seems to have its original engine, and that’s good enough.
Now it’s time to treat all you Mopar fans out there by decoding the rare and desirable ’65 Dart wagon, as it will behoove said fans to understand the numbers the next time one of these babies crosses the block at Mecum or Barrett-Jackson. Of course, I’ve ruined mine by swapping to a bigger slant-six, but life’s not always about maximizing profits. At any rate, on with decoding.
Once again, we’re dealing with three lines of “code.” The numbers are hard to read here, but the “1” in the first line means that the original purchaser got an outside, manually adjustable mirror! Big spender! The “9” in the third place denotes variable wipers with washers, which is actually a nice option, even though I rarely drive my old junk in the rain. The “2” beneath the “7” signifies that this is a “sold car,” and I’m not sure what that means–ordered by a customer?
In the second row, there’s a “10” to the far left, which begrudgingly indicates that this Dart came with the base 170 cubic-inch slant six. The “1” under the “D” lets me know that the smooth-shifting column three-speed is factory-original. The “1” under the “E” is the car’s party trick; it came from the factory with air conditioning (the parts for which were mostly missing when I bought the car). Finally, the “1” under the “Q” means that the original owner rocked out in his/her cool car with a base AM radio. Mopar trim tags are thorough!
The bottom row tells us more about colors and bodystyles. “209” is the date code, which means that this car was scheduled on February 9, 1965, but it may or may not have been built that day. “06085” was a Chrysler factory invoice number. “L56” is interesting, because “L” is supposed to indicate a V8 Dart, which this car obviously isn’t. Is this a misstamp? A six-cylinder car should have a “2” in that place. “5” stands for “wagon low,” which means “Dart 170,” and “6” stands for “two-seat station wagon.” It all adds up so far (other than the V8 thing, which I would certainly prefer).
Under “TRM,” “L” indicates a cheap, low-grade bench seat; “”R” indicates “4,” which probably denotes a vinyl seat cover; and under “M” is “Q,” which isn’t a James Bond reference, but a reference to the turquoise interior. Ultimately, we get to the paint. “KK1” stands for single-tone “mono” Medium Turquoise, as does the final “K,” which is the molding and door insert color. Yep, this is a very turquoise little wagon.
Finally, we can examine the VIN tag in the driver’s door A-Pillar. This is far less revealing than the fender tag, but is still required to complete our sleuthing. “2” reinforces that this is a six-cylinder Dart (not, unfortunately, a 273 car); “5” is a model grouping (in this case, a Dart 170 wagon); “5” is the model year (1965); and “7” represents the assembly plant (in this case, St. Louis, Missouri, which makes sense because the car was sold in Little Rock, AR).
A little time with some cleaner, a flashlight, and the internet can reveal worlds of fascinating information about your old piece of junk. This detective work is one of my favorite things about buying old cars, and now, like Christmas, it’s all done until next year. Allow me to live vicariously through you–decode your old car now!
***Thanks to the following websites.***
I have done this as well. I first did it on my 1967 Galaxie 500 convertible, and will forever remember that Ford’s code for a convertible body was “76” Perhaps Jason Shafer can follow up with a classic Ford data plate installment.
It is interesting how each manufacturer has its own little system. Chrysler would stuff a paper “build sheet” into the springs under the rear seat cushion that gave a more complete listing of options on the car. Studebaker numbers are pretty opaque, with just a single “body number” on a firewall plate and a “serial number” on a door plate. Any decoding has to be done by a request to the Studebaker National Museum.
While it is relatively common to find a Chrysler build sheet sandwiched between the seat springs and cushion, you could find one in any of a bunch of different places. Build sheets told the assembly line workers what options to install on the particular car. When they were done with them, workers would sometimes stuff their sheet somewhere in the car. Sometimes you’d find more than one hidden in a car. (Unfortunately, I have not been so lucky.)
Upon tearing apart one of my parts cars, I found the remains of a build sheet sandwiched between the front subframe and one of the front bumper brackets where they were bolted together.
Occasionally a car wound-up with another car’s build sheet in it. In the rear seat springs of my Newport convertible, I found the build sheet for an almost identical convertible, but with slightly different options and obviously a different VIN.
Porsche always sticks a build sheet sticker under the front hood of the 911, pretty sure other models are the same. It includes and and all factory option codes that the car came with. A copy is also in the owner’s manual.
My ’94 RAM2500 also had a sticker under the hood. It’s been damaged by the elements (and possibly by the annual oil spray applications) after all this time and is pretty much illegible.
For newer Mopars, they keep a detailed computer database of every installed option on every vehicle they manufacture. I took the VIN of my ’07 RAM2500 to the dealer and they printed off a sheet with every option that the truck was ordered with, so I have that in my files. No decoding necessary.
I found one under the drivers seat of my dad’s ’78 LeBaron when it was new.
It had some pretty interesting references to things too. For instance, what is a “Dodge to Plymouth Conversion Package”?
I imagine that in the case of the M-body, this indicated a group of trim items (e.g.: hood ornament, nameplates, grille) used on the Dodge Diplomat body to produce the car as a Plymouth Caravelle for the Canadian market.
This may have also been used for trucks – Dodge Ramcharger/Plymouth Trail Duster and Dodge Sportsman/Plymouth Voyager.
I located two in my car. One under the rear seat and one under the front seat.
Jim, I was thinking about doing a Ford decoding before getting to the comments. That would be an easy one to do as I only need to take the camera downstairs to my extra garage bay.
It’s funny how the different makes differ on what information they provide, although I’m sure that evolved over the years. I’ve decoded my Ford and all I have to work with is the serial number and a data plate on the door. It does not specify options. Nor have I ever found any build sheet – yet. However, I do know Ford had a sales bank as that is where mine originally went.
It didn’t get any better by 1969 either. Friday I drove a car from that model year and the amount of information I had was about the same as my ’63. Oh well; it’s not mine, but I least got to drive it. And, as a teaser, I hope to get the article finished and scheduled tonight.
My ’71 Chevy pickup had a build sheet printout stuffed under the seat springs as well. Later GM trucks have a sticker in the bottom of the glovebox, such as on my 2000 Chevy.
GM SPID (Service Parts ID) Label Explained:
GM RPO (Regular Production Option) Codes:
I will next rainy day. I have the factory build sheet for my 1983 Ford Ranger 4×4. It was stuffed between the foam cushions and springs in the seat.
My Dad had a brand new early production ’83 Ranger (pre-4WD or V6 availability) that was a long bed with the 2.3L. The build sheet stuffed in the seat was for a different VIN with the standard Brazilian 2.0 and a short bed. Color and trim codes were the same.
My ’68 Ford “VIN tag” or Warranty Tag, as it’s called by old Ford guys:
First row: F25 = model: F-250, 2WD. Y = engine: 360 CID. R = Assembly plant: San Jose, Ca. D70140 = date of manufacture: August, 1968 (also my own birth year and month)
Second row: 131 = wheel base: 131″. MG = color code, Wimbledon White and Pebble Beige (or desert camo, if you will) F250 = GVW: 7,500 pounds. C = interior trim: Med. beige Leeds pattern woven plastic seat 81 = body style: conventional cab (as opposed to cowl and windshield, etc. No code for “Custom Cab” trim level or the “Camper Special” option, for some reason) G = transmission code: Automatic (C6). 38 = Axle code: Dana 60 3.73 ratio
Third row: 7500 = (GVW again, apparently for quick reference) 179 and 4000 = Net HP at specified RPM. 71 = sales district: Los Angeles, Ca
I bought this truck 18 months ago from a towing company in Littlerock, Ca who bought it from the original owner for $400. Born and raised in Ca, so no rust!
I believe the “Camper Special” option was dealer installed, which would explain the absence of a code on the warranty tag. The lack of a code for the “Custom Cab” option makes no sense to me. Perhaps someone here might know.
A Camper Special would have too many unique items scattered throughout the truck to be easily dealer installed. At least, it’s what I think.
One ton rear springs (on F-250s [F-100 CSs are rare but do exist]), HD alternator, transmission fluid cooler, second battery (in some, but not all CSs) and a slightly different wiring harness. Nothing a dealer couldn’t handle. In those days dealers installed quite a few options, like AC, so they were certainly up to the job.
Me too. I can’t quite imagine that being the case. And that applies to the Custom Cab too. The labor to tear new vehicles apart like that to change chassis components and whole interiors and exterior trim seems un-economic.
I once swapped drivetrains between two Lumina APVs. The keeper vehicle started with a 3.1 V-6, and ended up with a 3.8 V-6. I just planned to drop both sub-frames and swap the engine and transmission cradle from the donor car to the keeper car.
Even though I had parts from two complete vehicles, little differences between the two packages almost prevented me from completing the project.
I don’t remember all the details, but little things like the Cruise Control actuator location, wiring harness connector design and differences in the steering column shift quadrant kept throwing up road blocks to completion.
This brochure page lists the contents of the 1968 Ford Camper Special package. Not many items, but beyond dealer installed accessories.
There definitely is no code for a Camper Special. There is a code for Custom Cab and Ranger. On my tag under Body there is C81 which translates to C = green crush vinyl & green wicker pattern vinyl / 81 = 81B = Custom Cab.
If the interior code is a number then 81 = 81A Standard Cab
If the interior code is a letter then 81 = 81B Custom Cab.
That is my take on the matter after reading pages of decodes on FTE.
In order to really decipher Ford truck codes year to year one needs to talk to the keeper of the books in Los Angeles.
That makes sense. What year is your truck? Is that Holly Green? Love that color.
I’m using the decoder at Fordification: http://www.fordification.com/tech/VIN68.htm The FTE guys have questioned the source before with regard to specs listed in the technical articles section, though.
A holly green 1965 built in January 1965. That site tends to get a lot wrong so the only authority most go by would be NumberDummy on FTE.
I put the question to the guys at FTE and they were certain it was indeed a factory installed option. So, I was wrong and you all are right. 🙂
never regret the /6. it will outlive us all…
So how would one know if the engine is the actual one it left the factory with? Is there a master database somewhere that is accessible?
And on the Dart, the possible mis-stamped L for the V8 – what do you do you with that? I know it doesn’t matter in this case, but what if it did matter?
In the case of Mopars, the casting date of the engine will be indicated on the block. You’d compare that with the scheduled build date of the car. The engine casting date should be before the build date of the car but within about 3 months IIRC. If so, then there is a good chance it is the original engine. Starting in 1968 or 69, they started stamping the VIN of the car itself into a flat pad on the engine blocks, so there is no longer any guessing.
In the case of an option tag mixup on a very valuable car, it would probably pay to have a numbers guru like Galen Govier inspect the car. Then he would write up a statement to authenticate the car and note the discrepancy is a factory goof, if in fact that is the case.
I can’t speak for a ’74 Firebird, but my experience with my ’82 Camaro was similar to everything Aaron mentioned, so perhaps a code would be found on a “pad” at the front of the engine block with the final 6 digits of the car’s VIN along with a date/engine plant code. It’s been about 30 years since I decoded my car, so my recollection could be off slightly. Though my car was anything but rare and desirable, it was interesting to learn nevertheless.
On the Firebird, the VIN is supposed to be stamped on the block, but it’s pretty faint and I haven’t been able to pick it up yet.
On GM cars, a partial VIN is stamped on the engine and transmission. For example, with this ’74 Esprit the real VIN is 2T87N4N1xxxxx, the partial VIN would be 2N1xxxxx. It’s also the same partial VIN that is hidden behind the heater/A/C box on the firewall.
“Sold Car” means it’s not headed for the Sales Bank. Now, whether it means sold to a dealer, or the end-use customer, I’m not sure, I suspect the former, although it could mean the latter if it was specially ordered by said customer. This turned up on the window sticker as well.
My guess would be that Sold Car meant a customer order. There was another option code for the Sales Bank.
A Hemi Charger with almost every option? Unless it was a dealer like Grand Spaulding in Chicago that specialized in muscle or a demo ordered for the owner’s teenage son I can’t see the typical Dodge dealer carrying something like that in stock.
Here’s an example of something more typical of stock inventory, a stripper ’72 Dart Swinger….
While I don’t have the numbers handy, both my early ’60s Beetles have simple seven-digit VIN numbers. The only thing they reveal is the approximate month/year they were manufactured. Don’t know if VW still offers the service, but I’ve written them on both cars and got a letter back listing all the known options the car was built with, including color, etc.
My 1950 International L-170 still had the build sheet tucked up under the dash. It’s titled as a 1951, but the internal door hinges are a unique-to-1950 feature. Trucks were titled in the year they were sold, it seems.
Love the wide spacing between letters!
When I imported my 63 Beetle it was a bit of a problem at the American side of the border:
“Ok, let’s see the door mounted VIN tag”
“Uh, Beetles don’t have that”
“How do I really know what year it is?”
“Here’s a chart of year vs serial number, see it’s right in the middle of 63”
“Hmm…. Ok good enough”
On the Canadian side all they wanted to know was how much I paid for it, they were happy as a clam to be getting some tax out of it.
VW did have a riveted on VIN tag near the spare tire and also stamped in the chassis under the rear seat.
It wasnt until 1965 model year (August 1964) that the VIN could be decoded to show model type (first two digits) and year (third digit). Before that it was just sequential.
B1081200 is the chassis code for my oldie B108 means its a 3a it was 106 which denotes a series 3 but was overstamped and 1200 is the number from zero of when it was built there were no options other than Smiths automatic transmission and it doesnt have that, I do have the matching number motor though it isnt installed, if I ever sell it that goes with it included in a trailer load of spares.
My 63 Valiant Signet was built in LA and sold by Town & Country Chrysler Plymouth in Phoenix AZ. Can’t remember if it was built in Nov. 62 or in the spring/summer of 63.
It lived it’s first 18 years in AZ [Marysville, from the old newspaper I found in the trunk], then Yuma, then I bought it and drove it to LA where it lived for 30 years. It’s been back in AZ for the last 5.
Much like the sticker on the Dart: 170 engine [4 leaf rear springs and now 225], three speed manual, radio and heater, probably whitewalls.
I had the VIN decoded on a site called The Forward Look or something like it. No build sheet anywhere, unfortunately.
While cleaning out my ’83 Cutlass Supreme, I found the build sheet under the back seat. I bought the car used; therefore, I never saw the window sticker. The sheet indicated that my car had some type of handling packing which came with the super stock wheels.
This would explain why my car handled so much better than my friends ’82 Buick Regal with identical tires. He was so confused, but I never let on that I knew better.
Not saying anything, but back in the day, GM used rivets to hold the tag to the firewall. Rivets are hard to duplicate. There are some companies who do this. I would be suspicious of any VIN tag held to a firewall with screws. That being said, no idea when GM went from rivets to screws. Screws are pretty easy to duplicate, and making them look “old” is an art form.
This website I used to decode the car shows a picture of a ’78 trim tag with screws like the ones used on my car. And this isn’t a VIN tag; the VIN is listed nowhere on the Fisher Body tag.
Riveted VIN tags have been required by law since 1970. GM started screwing on the Fisher cowl tags around 1973 or so. Sometimes they used plain hex and others had the hex/Phillips.
Fake VIN/cowl tags have long been a problem. Now they’re even printing up fake build sheets. Prospective buyers of late C2 and all C3 Corvettes now have to be on the lookout for fake “tank stickers” (the build sheet was glued to the top of the gas tank as the chassis came down the line and remained on the finished car) that have been dipped in tea and put in a microwave.