When I post a unique vehicle to my Instagram account (@MountainWestCarSpotter — follow me!) not only will I typically call out the make and model, but I also include the model year and, in some cases, the specific trim level. The truth is, while I’m good at identifying most cars from a passing glance, I’m not that good. Usually, the first thing I do when I see a notable vehicle on the road is enter its license plate number and state into either the Carfax or VINWiki apps, and get all of this information at my fingertips in seconds. I thought this was worth writing about because I get the impression that most people don’t realize just how easy and free this is.
All you have to do is download the Carfax or VINWiki app, both of which are completely free in the Apple and Google Play app stores, and that’s it. The next time you see a random, perplexing car on the road, just enter its license plate number and state into either of these apps (without spaces!) and you’ll be provided with make, model, year and, in many cases, a specific trim level.
I typically use the Carfax app as it’s pretty reliable, and it will give you additional information about the vehicle for free, like recent maintenance history and estimated mileage based on maintenance records. Don’t get this confused with an actual Carfax report, which you have to pay for, and which gives even more additional information like accident history. Still, the little information served up on the Carfax mobile app can tell a very helpful story. If the vehicle’s for sale, and if you aren’t interested enough to buy a full Carfax report, the location tied to the maintenance records shown for free by the Carfax app will give you an indication of whether it’s lived its life in a hard climate, like Boston, or if it’s spent its earlier years in dry places like Southern California or Arizona, which in turn will give you an idea of how much rust is likely hiding underneath.
In really unique cases, the Carfax app will return "Unknown Type" in which case you can usually go into the "edit" function underneath "Today’s Mileage", then get the VIN and then Google the VIN.
Sometimes Carfax doesn’t work at all, which is when I head to VINWiki. VINWiki doesn’t tell the story of the vehicles in the way that the Carfax app does, but it does serve as a second point of reference, and will sometimes return results for extremely unique vehicles that stump the Carfax app. Ultimately, any additional data offered by VINWiki outside of make, model and year is based on user uploads rather than service records, meaning that the majority of vehicles with meaningful bread crumb trails on VINWiki are high-end, low-production performance cars.
While this will work on most vehicles you see on the road, there are a few requirements, and a few exceptions. First, the vehicle must be from the 1981 model year or later, as 1981 was when the U.S. Government standardized the 17-digit VIN format.
Second, it must be a U.S. market vehicle. This means gray-market vehicles, like that weird Mitsubishi Delica you saw on your trip to Portland, likely won’t return anything — even if it was wearing U.S. plates. The same goes for vehicles spotted here in the U.S. that are wearing plates from a foreign country like Canada, Mexico or Europe. A bit of Googling will lead you to a site that allows you to look up U.K. plates, but it doesn’t appear that anything exists for other countries.
Finally, and this probably goes without saying, the service doesn’t work for vehicles wearing dealer or manufacturer plates, as the whole idea behind these plates is that they’re tied to an entity and not a specific vehicle. That said, the app does work for antique plates, provided they’re affixed to a vehicle built for the 1981 model year or later.
One final note: if the vehicle isn’t wearing a license plate, you can always take a picture of the VIN at the base of the windshield and enter it into the app in the same way, as the app is identifying the VIN through the license plate number anyway.
So there you go — now you can quickly determine the exact make, model and year of just about any vehicle you see on the road, provided it meets the above requirements.
Each of the photos I’ve included with this post is for a rather unique or hard-to-identify vehicle that I’ve looked up through either of these apps. Download them and see what you can learn.
Chris O’Neill grew up in the Rust Belt and now lives in Salt Lake City, Utah. He worked in the auto industry for awhile, helping Germans design cars for Americans. On Instagram, he is the @MountainWestCarSpotter.