Mystery Monday: Getting to Know Your New Junker – VIN and Fender Tag Decoding


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.***