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How to decode your car's VIN

Every vehicle has one. What exactly do those 17 numbers and letters mean?

By MSN Money Partner May 8, 2012 1:11PM

This post comes from Jim Wang at partner blog Bargaineering.


Image: Convertible (© Carlos S.Pereyra / Pixtal/age )Ever wonder how they come up with your car's VIN? VIN, which stands for vehicle identification, is 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 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 number works won't save you any money on gas, but now you'll know something few people do. (I realize that saying "VIN number" is a case of RAS syndrome, but everyone I know says it that way.)


Origins of the VIN

The modern VIN program is part of the International Organization for Standardization and it was created in 1980 to help manage serial numbers for cars. The main purpose of the VIN is to allow you to track the history of a vehicle and to prevent unscrupulous sellers from passing one car off as another. (Post continues below.)

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.

VIN breakdown

The VIN is 17 characters and, as you'd expect, each character corresponds to something specific about the car. It never uses the letters "I," "O" or "Q" so they can't be mistaken with one or zero. 

  • 1-3: World Manufacturer Identifier. The first three digits correspond to a World Manufacturer Identifier for the make and sometimes type of vehicle.
  • 4-9: Vehicle Descriptor Section. Digits 4 through 9 correspond to the model of the vehicle. The ninth 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 through 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:

  • The first two digits refer to the region and the manufacturer. The "4" corresponds to the United States, and "T" corresponds to Toyota.
  • From here we need to look for a guide on Toyota VINs. We learned that the "3" corresponds to a multipurpose passenger vehicle or SUV.
  • "BK4BB7" corresponds to the features of the car. The "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, and the final "B" is for the model/platform (Avalon). The "7" is merely a check digit.
  • Regarding "BUxxxxxx," the "B" corresponds to model year 2011, and the next corresponds to the plant 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 will 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.


More from Bargaineering and MSN Money:



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