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Since 1954, American automobile manufacturers have used a vehicle identification number (V.I.N.) to describe and identify motor vehicles. The early VINs came in a wide array of configurations and variations, depending on the individual manufacturer. Beginning with model year (MY)1981, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration required that all over-the-road-vehicles sold must contain a 17-character VIN. This standard established a fixed VIN format.
So let's dissect a VIN
The first 3 digits define the manufacturer. The first of these digits is usually the country of origin. For example, all VINs that start with J are producted in Japan and those that stat with W are Germany. Characters 4 through 8 are specific to that manufacturer's model for a given model year. The 9th digit is a check digit. VINs can actually be validated through a mathematical formula to ensure they are valid. The 10th digit is a year. For example, an 8 is for 2008, 7 is for 2007 The 11th digit is for the plant that manufactured the vehicle, in coordination with the manufacturer The remaining 12th through 17th digits are more or less the serial number of that particular vehicle for the specified make/model as defined by the VIN.
So how does it work?
VIN decoding works based off "VIN prefixes" or "Squish VINs" which are basically the first 11 digits of the VIN less the 9th digit which is a check digit. VIN Decoding providers have large databases of all the VIN Prefixes available and the vehicle data that links to them, thus providing a "VIN Decoder" or "VIN Exploder". There are about tens of thousands of unique combinations of VIN prefixes from 1981 to today.
So what can be decoded?
The year, make, model, engine, vehicle type and vehicle bodystyle can be decoded about 99% of the time. In some rare instances the year has been half model years or other goofy things. For example, the 2009 Kia Borrego actually has an 8 (2008) for the year digit but it is a 2009 model!
Can you decode the trim level?
Yes, but only about 30% of the time.
Can you decode the Transmission?
Yes, but only about 25% of the time
Can you decode the Drive Line Type? (4WD, AWD, etc)
Yes, about 80% of the time
Can you decode colors?
Nope, unless it is an Econoline van and everyone of them is probably white... :-)
For new cars a lot of dealers input the manufacturers model code and paint/option color codes in the DMS. These codes can be used in combinationo with VIN decoding to decode trim levels more often and lookup the manufacturer color names.
For some reason people always think VinSolutions is a VIN decoding company... we aren't.
At VinSolutions we use two VIN decoders. VINPOWER for basic VIN decoding since they also cover motorcycles, heavy trucks and other vehicles, and AutoData for our extended vehicle data and as a backup to VINPOWER. We actually apply a lot of custom rules to the data to perfect it for our dealers.