One of the best pieces of advice I was ever given in regards to buying a classic muscle car was to invest in high quality resource materials so I could crack the code on Vehicle Identification Numbers (VIN) to make sure that I was not getting scammed.
The best way to find a high quality book is to find what the experts are using. With the internet, you can type a subject like Camaro restoration book into the Amazon search box. You can also Google it and follow the links, which will take you to various forums and websites. Chevrolet by the Numbers, by Alvin Colvin, is the best book I have ever found for Chevrolet part numbers, Vehicle Identification Numbers (VIN), trim tags, and model ID. The book is an easy read, with chapters designated to the different components. Again, I used this process in my quest to purchase a rare Camaro. Just Google the car you are looking for and follow the links. The best resources will be obvious.
Here is a list of objects you will need when decoding your car.
Small flashlight, notebook, resource or reference Vintage cars book, mechanics mirror, pen or pencil, cordless or corded droplight, floor jack and jack-stands, coveralls, rags, brass wire brush, brake cleaner, yellow or white colored grease pencil, digital camera or camcorder.
If you are continuing to read this information, I can only surmise that buying a classic muscle car with the proper numbers and matching parts is important to you! Good! It should be! If this is true, I will walk you through an example of decoding a car. This will give you an idea of what it takes to properly decode a car.
Be prepared to take your time. I also discovered a sure fire way to determine who your true friends are. Ask them to go along to help you decode a car! Having an extra body can sometimes cut your time in half. I also recommend finding an expert or consultant on your car, and buying a couple of hours their time, especially if you are looking to purchase a special model classic car. It’s been my experience that an extra set of eyes can only help the cause. I found an expert through one of my reference books. Prior to me going to look at my current car, I spent about an hour talking with him, and making a list of things I should be looking for. (Of course, if you want someone to handle the process from A to Z, services are available. This is a great option if you are buying the car from remote.)
Before I arrived the owner told me the car was basically a roller project, meaning the engine and transmission were removed from the car. The engine, transmission and other components were placed in a pile where it would be easy to look at the numbers. The owner also claimed it was a limited edition Camaro, yet he didn’t have any paperwork like an original order invoice, or a protect o plate (a special metal plate shaped like a credit card that is used for warranty and repair services). This type of paperwork trail eliminates the need for further documentation. If you do not have this type of paperwork, then follow along. When I arrived at the location where the car was stored, the first thing I did was to check the VIN number. The VIN number is probably the most important number on a car. If you do not know how to decode a VIN on a particular Chevrolet, you will be unable to verify other components or numbers. What is nice about the book is it actually walks you through the whole decoding process, including providing the specific numbers location. As a sidebar, any good resource book on your particular make and model car will outline the way to decode your car, including number locations and decoding info. On 1968 and 1969 Camaros, the VIN number is located on the top of the dash board, on the drivers side. The number is visible through the windshield. I wiped the dirt and dust off of the VIN tag, and copied the numbers into my notebook.
I was able to determine that my car was originally a V8, it was a 2 door sport coupe, made in 1969, assembled in Norwood Ohio, and it was the 662,8XXrd car built at that plant in that year.
In 1969, all Camaro trim tags were located in the engine compartment, riveted on the upper left hand corner of the firewall. I took my rag and cleaned all of the dust and gunk off of the trim tag. Since the numbers were not that clear, I recleaned the trim tag, and removed the rest of the gunk. I used my flashlight to illuminate the numbers, and then copied the numbers into my notebook. Some of the trim tag numbers matched up with the VIN tag numbers, which was a good sign. The remaining numbers indicated that my car body was number 353,XXX to come down this plant’s assembly line. The interior was originally a standard black interior, and the car was built in the first week of June, 1969. The car was originally painted dusk blue and it was equipped with a spoiler package and a chrome trim package. So far everything was lining up. The reason for all of this detail is to illustrate how you can confirm that what you think you are buying is exactly what you are getting.
Before I move on, I want to share how this is relevant. A husband and wife from my car club went to look at a Chevelle. The car was advertised as a Super Sport. During the inspection process, and referencing the above book, they uncovered a number of inconsistencies. According to the numbers, the car had originally started out as a plain Jane 6 cylinder car. The car was now painted a different color, had a different color interior and a different engine. You get the picture. Over the years, one (or more) of the previous owners modified the car and tried to make it into a Super Sport. The point is it may have not been done maliciously, but the car still did not start out as a true Super Sport. And having the Super Sport option obviously raises the value of the car.
Engine code identification.
The engine is stamped in (2) places on a 69 Camaro. One is on the right front engine pad. The other location is on the rough casting portion on the rear of the engine, just above the oil filter. Again I wiped off the areas I just described with brake cleaner sprayed on a rag. You need to have a clean surface, and normally brake cleaner will do the trick. The front engine pad numbers appeared to have been restamped at one time, maybe after the engine block was decked (Decking in a machine process to check the flatness of the block deck for irregularities that cause compression and water leaks.) The tricky part is reading the numbers on the area above the oil filter. I recommend a really bright light and a magnifying glass. If that doesn’t do it, then I suggest taking a little muriatic acid an applying it to the numbers. This should make the numbers readable. The reason this number is sometimes hard to decipher is because these engines were hand stamped, and punched onto a rough surface. According to the numbers, I determined the engine was a 425 horsepower high performance engine, with a 4 speed manual transmission. The last numbers also corresponded with the last numbers in my VIN, which meant this was the original engine to this car. The numbers told me the engine was assembled June 14, which fell in line with the build date. The engine block part number that is cast into the rear of the block was cleaned with a rag and brake cleaner as well. The block part number indicated ahigh performance block used for Camaros. Another piece of the puzzle confirmed.
Rear axle identification.
The numbers on a Camaro rear axle are stamped on the top of the right axle tube. My experience has been that this area is normally pretty crusty and rusty. And this rear axle was no exception. After considerable wire brushing, I wiped the area clean with brake cleaner. Laying on my back, I shone the light on the area, while holding a mirror. It still wasn’t clear enough for me to read accurately. I then took my grease pencil, and ran it over the numbers. The purpose of the grease pencil is to provide contrast with the metal of the axle tube. When I put the mirror back over the area, I was rewarded with a very sharp image of the part numbers, which I copied into my notebook. According to the numbers, this rear axle assembly had a 4.10:1 gear ratio, limited slip. The axle was assembled June 16, 1969. Are you seeing a pattern starting to appear here? The axle numbers also indicated the axle to be original to the car based on the dates codes referencing June 1969 build date. I took the same approach with the other parts.
Here are my findings. The cylinder heads, intake manifold, carburetor, and transmission were the correct part numbers for the car. However none of these parts were date coded to the car. One of the heads was manufactured in April 1968, the other head was manufactured in February of 1969. The transmission was manufactured Jan 24th 1969. The reason I know all of these parts are not correctly date coded to the car is I decoded each one, by researching the part numbers, and date codes. All of this information is important, because not only did it verify what the owner had told me, and it also showed that the other parts were in line with the build date. Thereby providing further confirmation of what I was looking at. During my investigating, I took pictures with a digital camera of all of the parts and part numbers, as best as i could. I spent about 30 minutes walking around the car with a video camera and editorializing what I was taking footage of. I also took the list of things the Camaro expert had told me about and checked them off one by one. Later in the week I called the Camaro expert and shared my findings. I reviewed all of my research, including going over the individual part numbers, and the “things to look for” checklist. By the end of the phone call, I was 99 percent positive that this Camaro was what it was being advertised as.
The last thing I did was to have the car documented and certified by a Certified Camaro appraiser.
GM also stamped hidden VIN numbers in (2) different places on the car. The reason for the hidden VIN numbers was to add another step in preventing and identifying a stolen car. Because it is fairly easy to remove and swap out the VIN tag on the dash, the hidden VIN’s provided a back-up system of check and balances. For example, someone could possibly swap out a VIN tag, but if they didn’t know about the Hidden VIN numbers, a person in the know could easily identify the numbers not matching up. Because the car was bought a roller project, it was easy to check these hidden VIN’s, against the VIN tag on the dash. I wanted the appraiser to check them personally, and he confirmed the numbers as matching and authentic. In other words the certificate authenticates the car. Many appraisers will also supply you with a report on their findings. The nice thing about having a car certified is this type of paperwork is normally viewed as iron clad documentation. It normally raises the value of the car, because of the authenticity certificate. And if you ever go to sell the car, now you have documentation to provide the seller that the car is a real (Super Sport, Rally Sport, Z/28, etc. You fill in the blank)
Some people may wonder why would anyone go through all of this work.
However, keep in mind that many of these muscle cars are 20 plus years old and have gone through numerous owners and modifications. All of that history is prior to it being restored back to showroom original condition. In other words, many parts are bolt on and interchangeable from other models and different years. So just because the parts look ok, doesn’t mean that they even belong on the car. In the above example about the couple and the Chevelle, the car was priced as a Super Sport, yet the trim tag and other numbers reflected a totally different story. Even though the car was beautifully restored, it was really nothing more than a modified 6 cylinder, base model Chevelle that someone converted over to a V-8 at some time in it’s life. Don’t get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with modifying a car to an individual owners taste. The issue is when the car is sold and the seller forgets to mention (consciously or unconsciously) and inform the new owner of the modifications. Our Chevelle couple would have gladly paid the asking price if the car was a true Super Sport. But, because they knew how to decode the car, they were able to save themselves a lot of time, money and aggravation. At the time the difference between a plain Jane Chevelle and a real Super Sport was over $10,000. Just to throw some numbers out there, let’s be conservative and say it takes 6 hours of research to decode a car. Using our $10,000 figure, that equates to approximately $1,600 an hour. Not a bad return on your time investment. As muscle and classic cars have become more popular, I have seen many cases where just for the fun of it, an owner will start to do research on a car he or she owns.
Discovering your car isn’t really what you thought you purchased can really knock the wind out of you. By investing a small amount of money, and time, in researching and decoding your prospective muscle car purchase you can sleep at night knowing that you received the value you paid for. Anyone else interested in investing a couple of hours for peace of mind when purchasing a classic or muscle car???