Researching Your Car?s Past
By Joe Sikora
So you want to trace your car?s history? Sounds simple enough, but as they say, ?it?s easy when you don?t know how!? Researching a car?s past is a slow process that often leads to frustrating dead ends. Sometimes the breakthroughs come quickly; sometimes painfully slow. Ah, but when you finally find the ?missing link,? or actually contact a previous owner, the satisfaction is unbeatable! I have had mixed results researching the history of my cars over the years; here are some of the tricks (and lessons) I have learned along the way.
The natural starting point would seem to be the original, selling dealership, but you can almost always rule them out for out any help. Unfortunately, even if you are lucky enough to know their name, it is doubtful that they are still in business. If they are, the dealership has probably changed hands or names, and it is very unlikely that they will still have any records or employees from when your car was new. In any case, dealerships are in the business of selling NEW cars, and probably don?t really care much about your pride and joy. I approached the original selling dealership about a decal for my 1967 Shelby GT 500. The car is a low mileage survivor, and since the dealership was still in business, I figured they?d jump at the chance to put their name back on the car. After seven phone calls, and promises from people at every level, the only way I managed to get a decal was by stopping at the dealership while I was on a business trip!
Given all the pitfalls, the best way to obtain ownership history is still to contact the DMV directly. Patience is the key here; it may take you a year to exhaust all the previous records on your car. Start with your present State's DMV and work the title backwards. There is usually a minor research fee ($5-50) associated with this service, but remember this is a torturous path that can often lead to a dead end. Many States only keep records for fixed lengths of time, so as these cars get older and older, microfiche and paper records are continually being destroyed. As DMV's continue to switch more information over to computer, access to the old microfiche and paper records is getting harder and harder to dig up. States vary widely in their individual interpretation of the Privacy Act, so DMV's are by no means consistent with the degree of information they will provide. If you're lucky, you'll get copies of old applications/ titles. If you're not, you may only get a name. In any case, you certainly will not get social security or telephone numbers. When you're done in one state, just start the process all over again with the information you have learned in the next one. Keep going until you complete the search or hit the brick wall. I have included a list of phone numbers and addresses for the various State Motor Vehicle Departments, that was originally printed in November 1994 ?Mustang& Fords.?
Regardless of your degree of success with the DMV, it may be next to impossible to determine all of the "actual" owners of your car. The DMV only tracks "registered" owners, and over the years, your car's title has more than likely been "skipped" or "passed" several times. Often cars are traded from one from dealer to another without record. Also, a prior owner may never have bothered to get the vehicle retitled in his name. Any one of these "actual" owners" may have had more of an impact on the history of your car than all of the "registered" owners combined! If the prior owner was in the military, veteran organizations keep excellent records of their whereabouts. Don't forget about a relative, friend or helpful club member who may live in the area you are researching. Of course, internet chat groups are a great resource nowadays. I have used private investigators, but detective work is expensive. Professionals are, well, professional, have alot of tricks and are privy to information that you just cannot get. A local detective may know things that only a local would know, or can access information that you just can't get over the phone or that would take forever to get with formal letters/requests. Given the cost of long distance phone calls, and a cross country trip or two, professional investigators may even end up being cheaper in the long run! Don?t rule out that the previous owner may be dead. A call to the Social Security Office will not get an address, but can confirm this for you.
Actually contacting these previous owners is another story, and creativity is the key! Although the internet has made phone number/ email searches alot easier, I have made HUNDREDS of phone calls to people with the same name as previous owners; you never think about all the folks who have the same name across the entire country! It is even worth contacting other people with the same last name in the town, as they are often relatives or children of the previous owner. Sometimes calling on a neighbor or the new owner of the home where the previous owner used to live will get you some clues. You are out of luck with phone number/ email searches for unlisted numbers. If you have an address, but no number, a quick call to the telephone company will let you know if there is still a number for that person at that address, and if the number is unlisted. You can ask the operator to make a call to the unlisted number for you and to ask the person call you back, but it is up to the person to return your call. Request that the person call you back collect; you will have a permanent record of the phone number on your phone bill (even if its' unlisted) in case you ever want to call them in the future! I have found that most folks are as helpful as they can be, and seem fascinated that I am going to all of the trouble for an old car! People are so jaded with telephone solicitations nowadays, so don't waste their time (or yours:). Keep your introduction short and to the point. I write down my introduction, and just say it over and over to each person I call. Use something like: "Hello! My name is (use your full name), I am the present owner of an old (year/ model) and am calling to speak to Mr./ Mrs. (full name) to see if they are the same Mr./ Mrs. (full name) who used to own my car and to talk to them a little about it's history." Be upbeat, but not sickening (that's tough after you've made 100 no hit phone calls in a row!) Don't forget to properly THANK the person for their time and help even if the call was of little use to you. You?ll learn alot about people making these calls!
Letters are a last ditch effort, but sometime the Post Office can actually forward them to the previous owner's new address! You can try regular mail, but I always send them certified/ return receipt requested. It gives the letter the priority it needs for the previous owner to take notice and respond. If it is a very important contact, you may try 2-3 times to make sure that your letter isn't just getting pitched in the trash, or just sitting around because the previous owner hasn't had a chance to get back to you yet. Remember, although this is very important to you, other than a touch of nostalgia, or general human kindness, there is nothing in this for the previous owner. Be polite and provide as much information as you can in your letter about yourself, and your car to jog their memory and to give credence to your request. Again, folks are so jaded with junkmail, your letter must stand out and not require too much effort on their part. I hand address them, use a question and answer form with SIMPLE, yes/ no questions and include a stamped pre-addressed envelope. Although I have never had anyone accept it, I usually include a personal check for $5-10. This is a good way to encourage response while showing your sincerity and appreciation. Some folks would rather call than fill out the form, so include your phone number and email. Let the previous owner know that they should call collect; again this makes it easy for them and will give you a permanent record of their phone number.
When you finally make that all important call, be courteous, and ask the person if this is a convenient time to talk. Every previous owner, I have ever reached, was more than happy to talk about their old car, but remember your ?pride and joy? may just have been another car to them! Be patient; your car is fresh in your mind, but you are asking about details on a car that someone owned a very long time ago. A few specific questions are ok, but try not to steer the conversation too much. People tend to remember generalities rather than specifics; try to ask questions that will just let the previous owner talk. You never know what will come out! If the person is open to future contact, it's a good idea to arrange to speak again in a couple weeks. Now that you have jogged their memory, the previous owner will probably be thinking about things they haven't thought of in years. Be sure to give them your phone number so they can contact you in case any interesting thoughts come to them before you talk again!
Don't be disappointed if you can't complete the entire title history of your car. Historic research is largely out of your hands; no amount of creativity on your part can ever retrieve information that just doesn't exist anymore. You should be proud of what you are able to accomplish, not disappointed by what you were unable to complete. Good luck and remember to enjoy the adventure-
Hope this helps;-)