17 June 2003

Tracing The Ownership History Of Your Collector Car

      Dear Hagerty Protection Network,
      I was wondering if anyone knows how to track the history of my classic car. I have a ‘66 ‘Vette and I would like to know where it's been and all the previous owners. Do you have any suggestions?
      Joe from Tampa  

Dear Joe,
Tracing the ownership history of a car is not as easy as it used to be according to Roger Cross, former Administrator of the Wisconsin Department of Transportation Motor Vehicles Division. Cross – who owns several collector vehicles including a 1961 Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud II – says, “It’s hard because of the Driver Protection Act.” This recent legislation prevents state motor vehicle departments from giving out many types of information.

“The DMV can’t give out the information that the state has on microfiche,” says Roger. “In Wisconsin, I believe the information is now sent to the State Historical Society, but the state government cannot give it out.”

Cross suggests that it might be possible to trace the ownership of a car through dealer warranty papers, since the Driver Protection Act applies strictly to government documents.

General Motors has at least some computerized records on cars built after 1960. The company does not normally make them available to the public, but we know of two cars that were traced using the vehicle identification number. The first case involved a speedometer roll-back that showed up when an honest dealer researched the service records on a 1984 Camaro. In the second case, the buyer of a used ’91 Sunbird convertible traced the car through a friend who worked at GM. He found that the car had originally been invoiced to the selling dealer in Florida and shipped directly from Michigan to Hawaii, where it was used (carefully) as a rental car.

Neither of these cases involved tracing the car back to previous private owners other than the already known seller of the Camaro. However, it’s likely that GM could trace the ownership history of cars produced the 1960s as long as they were dealer serviced. However, the automakers really have no interest in doing such research and must also worry about privacy issues in this litigious era.

It appears that there are computerized records on 1960 and newer GM cars, because one of the automaker’s divisions has contracted with an outside vendor to help collectors find out about their cars.
Pontiac Historic Services (PHS), PO Box 84, Sterling Heights, MI 48311-0884 charges a $35 fee to provide owners of 1960-1985 Pontiacs with copies of their car’s Build Sheet and production information.

The PHS packet documents a car’s authenticity, describes what factory options it came with and lists the dealer who took delivery of the car when it was new. Pontiac collectors can visit PHS Online for information. Similar information about 1986 and newer cars is available from Pontiac’s public relations department. For cars made in 1959 and earlier, no information is currently available.

As far as we know, Pontiac is the only division of any auto manufacturer that offers such a service, but even PHS does not give out information on previous private owners. There was talk of Chevrolet outsourcing such a service about 10 years ago, but as far as we know it never happened. One reason is that there are just so many Chevrolets that it would be hard to fulfill all the requests.

Some collectors have had luck reaching previous car owners simply by going through paperwork that comes with the car and making a few phone calls. The Internet is also a very helpful tool when it comes to finding people today.

Last fall, a collector we know in Wisconsin purchased a 1952 MG from a part-time dealer in Buffalo, N.Y. When the car arrived, he went through the glovebox and discovered an old registration card for the car. Our friend called information in the city listed on the registration card and luckily reached the car’s previous owner one day before he left to winter in Florida. During an exciting phone call, he learned that this man had owned the car for nearly 25 years and that it was owned by a reverend prior to that.

Later, our friend put the reverend’s name into an Internet search engine and came up with two hits. One was a college alumni association in Ohio and it turned out that the reverend was active in this group. After a few emails, our friend had a complete record of his car for over 35 years!

If the car is a special-interest model (like your Corvette) or an antique or classic car, it’s very likely that at least some of its previous owners belonged to car clubs. Unfortunately, only a handful of clubs record car serial numbers. However, if your car has a unique feature, a distinctive paint color or something about it that stands out, it may be known to members of the applicable club. You can check out club lists in car magazines like Old Cars Weekly or on the Hemming’s website and write to clubs that cover cars like yours.

A final step you can take is advertising the fact that you’re researching your car’s history. A low-cost word ad in a national magazine or a free ad in a club publication can be used to list your car’s year, make, model and serial number and to advertise the fact that you want to locate previous owners. Especially with classics like the ’66 Corvette, you may find that the previous owners are still collecting cars and still reading the collector-car publications.

Whatever route you take, good luck researching your car’s ownership history. Let us know how you make out and if you learn any other good tips along the way.


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