Click here to return to OCC homepage


See Homepage. This page: Do some research and uncover your car's unique history..

Researching a car's history.

For me, knowing where a car has been all its life really adds to the interest I have in it. It helps to place the car within the history of the 20th century in my mind, and notable events in its life, such as change of ownership, can be put in context with important events of the time - for instance the moon landing, or when JFK met his maker.

photos that form the history of my A40
As well as early photographs, I have the original order card, delivery letters, BMC warranty and service logbook for this old Austin car. It has been in our family from new, and still has its original registration number.
My grey Mk1 A40 has been in our family from new, so tracing its history was easy. It was registered in 1960, a year when news reporters told the world about a U2 spyplane being shot down over Russia, and Italy hosted the Olympic Games in Rome. The A40 was purchased new by my Great Aunt and Uncle, with an all-over finish of Farina Grey (A40s came in two tone as standard). It led a sedate life pottering around the lanes of Devon for many years, until 1987 when they gave up driving altogether.

With the A40, researching the history of the car was a doddle. But this isn't usually the case, and here I'll go into some of the ways that the background of a car can be uncovered. This isn't so much about finding out where a car is now, after selling it years ago, more about how to trace the history of a car that you own now.

Is it worth getting this information together?

As well as for personal interest, there are other good reasons to trace as much of your car's history as possible. It is a known fact within the old-car world that selling a car, with a lengthy and informative history, makes it more valuable and easier to sell, than an identical car that is missing this background information. Old receipts, photos, insurance cover notes, speeding tickets, and tax discs all help to paint a picture of where the car has spent its life, and how it managed to survive til the current day.

Online resources worth trying

DVLA maintain records for all registered cars in the UK, and their database can be checked online, although won't divulge much information that you haven't already got on your V5C (logbook). However, if you have just bought the car and are waiting for the logbook to be returned in your name, some key details about it can be found on the motor vehicle licensing website, which can be accessed here. Information such as the car's first date of registration, when the tax disc is due to expire, its colour, engine size and fuel type is given with this enquiry. Some logbooks I have seen for cars that have had their numbers re-claimed, after a number of years where the car was not used, have a first registration date recorded as 1st January , despite being first registered part-way through the given year. Why this happens I don't know.

There is also a section on this site, the car registration numbers index, which may be of some use too. There you'll find information on a car's registration number - ie where it was first issued, and the date period(s) that the single- or double-letter registration code was used.
The RAC also offer a service where similar information can be gleaned on a vehicle, simply by entering its registration number on this page. A full check has to be paid for, but an initial enquiry is free (at the time of writing). This is handy if you know the registration number of a car, but not its maker.

History of an old car
To seach the DVLA site, you need to know the make and registration number of a car before a seach can be made. A check on the RAC site, which I think uses a chunk of the DVLA data, only requires a registration number.

However as already said, neither option gives you information that doesn't already exist on the new-style logbook, assuming you have one for your car. If your old motor hasn't been on the road for some years, and isn't yet on a new logbook, then further research is required. With a bit of luck, you will know the registration number that your car was issued with. You can then take this information to classic car forums, and owners' club forums, to see if the car rings a bell with any of the readership.

Clubs usually maintain a record of cars that belong to members. It can be worth contacting a relevant club to see if they hold any information on previous owners of your car, which may just throw up a few leads for your to pursue. The Data Protection Act will probably result in clubs not handing over the information to you, but hopefully they will contact any former owners that they have details of, and forward your details on to them, so that contact can be made. The usefulness and helpfulness of clubs varies wildly however, and my encounters with club officials have had mixed results over the years.

Many old cars, at some point in their lives, pass through the halls of a classic car auction house. These auction companies often maintain lists of previous sales, details of the vehicles that went through, and the prices achieved. This tip probably applies more to the expensive end of the market but is always worth a go, and costs nothing. I've had some success with tracing the history of cars I have seen in old photographs, simply by searching (for example on Google) for the car's registration number. For example, I found this old photo showing an Alfa Romeo, registration JB 3129. A search on Google brought up a reference to this car's registration, and details of it passing through a car auction at Coys, back in 1993. This record confirmed that the car is a 6C Zagato Gran Sport, and still around to this day, having sold for 185k. A current owner of this, or any other, car is well advised to try a simple search like this, just to see if a piece of its history sits on a web page somewhere. A look on the DVLA site currently says that the car is taxed til next year, and is painted black.
Classic car magazines have letters pages, as do club publications usually, and these are also worthy of consideration. Try emailing them, asking if your hunt for information could be published within their pages. Again, an email costs nothing, and might just turn up a lead or two. I tried this with the Dodge, and wrote to Classic & Sportscar magazine. This led me to contact both of the team mechanics that drove it in the 40s and 50s, and a fascinating string of stories about the old lorry.

Don't forget the pen and paper!

With so much of our lives being handled over the internet, its easy to forget how things were done 'in the olden days'. I'm told that if you write to DVLA, enclosing a cheque for a nominal sum, they will send you photocopies of old logbooks for the car you now own. This can be a real help if you're trying to track down previous owners of your car. The current V5C only lists the previous owner, but a chance to receive details of all previous known owners, is something not to be passed up on. With a bit of luck you may still have the old buff logbook for your car, which will contain details of many previous owners, going back some decades in the case of older cars. Why not try writing to the names and addresses given? at worst you'll only lose the cost of a stamp, and with a bit of luck you might stumble across a previous owner, or maybe a relative of same.
Basically, any nugget of information, that sheds a little more light on your car's background, is worth getting hold of to help build up that history file.
If you write to a previous owner, ask them to see if any of the following snippets are available:
  • old photographs showing the car, perhaps on holiday or on special occasions
  • special memories associated with the car
  • any old papers, eg logbooks, MOTs, fuel receipts, petrol coupons or similar, perhaps left in a drawer and forgotten about
  • items of memorabilia that once belonged with the car, such as route maps, accessories, or spare parts
Service history
With luck you'll receive a reply back - the chances of a reply are greatly increased if you enclose a stamped, self-addressed, envelope with your initial communication. If you hear nothing after a few weeks, try going on the BT website and see if you can track down a telephone number that is associated with this person and address. If the contact address was from a long time ago, then the previous owners of your car may no longer live there, but there is still a chance that the new house owner has a forwarding address for the previous inhabitants. All of these approaches cost very little, but could just turn up some fantastic information about your car. Not everyone is online, so a bit of 'offline' investigation can pay dividends.
With a little luck, a previous owner may give you details of where the car was serviced. If you know where it was serviced, especially when new, a call to the garage may just yield some old records - dealerships and garages may change name over the years, but sometimes old paperwork simply gets pushed to the back of the pile, rather than chucked away. Being this lucky with a 1902 Benz is perhaps a bit more that you can hope for, but if you're researching a car from more recent times, you could just hit the paperwork jackpot.

Help from car manufacturers

Some car manufacturers also have a 'heritage' division within their organisation. If so, you're in luck. A call to their archivist may turn up some interesting nuggets of information about your car, such as its build date, original colour and trim specification, chassis details, and so on. Anyone who owns a product of the BMC / BL / Austin Rover dynasty should try contacting British Motor Museum in the first instance. Jaguar and Daimler owners have the services of Jaguar Heritage to hand. Other manufacturers, such as Mercedes Benz and BMW, also have larger archives, detailing their older models. Again, some clubs have old build records so are worth contacting, just in case they can help (most club services are for members only).

Potential problems with digging up history on a car

Old document
Of course there are any number of problems that may thwart a mission like this. After several decades, the original owners of a car may no longer be alive, could have moved (elsewhere in the UK, perhaps to a care home, or even overseas), or have changed names. A real problem nowadays is the vanity numberplate market - so many cars are now losing their original registration numbers, and being affixed with non-transferable 'age related' replacements. As soon as this happens, the continuity of a car and its original registration number is lost. A photocopy of all old logbooks from DVLA will provide the continuity, detailing when the change of registration took place, and the reg. no. before and after the swap was made.
DVLA records are not always up-to-date either - perhaps they are behind in updating their database, and many owners are a little slow when updating DVLA of any changes that occur with their car. Although things are tightening up now, for many years cars were scrapped and DVLA not notified of the event, which led to cars still showing in their database, despite being chopped up years beforehand. More than ever cars are being exported to foreign climes, fuelled by the ease of buying cars from the other side of the world via the internet. Inevitably this will make tracing a car's history more difficult, so if your car has recently been (re)imported from abroad, try sniffing around forums and registration authorities in the country it came in from, just in case there are opportunities to make enquiries like those already mentioned.
Tracing the history of a car, van, lorry or whatever can be fraught at times, but with persistence can be very rewarding. Since 1995 I have researched the history of my old Dodge lorry. When I first got it, I knew nothing of its past, but now I have files inches thick, packed with magazine clippings, letters from people who used to drive this, and similar, vehicles, photographs old and new, and a log of work done on it to date. To me the uncovering of all this information is as interesting as the vehicle itself.
Custom Search
Old Classic Car (C) R. Jones 2023. Content not to be reproduced elsewhere.
Website by ableweb.
Privacy Policy, Cookies & Disclaimers