Every Corvette owner knows his or her car has a vehicle identification number (VIN) that's intended to help prevent theft and aid in the recovery of the car if stolen. But that's not the only reason behind the original car-ID system that was introduced in the U.S. in 1954. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Association (NHTSA), which administers the VIN program, "One of the original purposes was to enhance public safety…based on the assumption that drivers of stolen vehicles are more likely to operate those vehicles unsafely and thus be involved in vehicle crashes."
Today's VINs serve a much wider purpose than theft prevention, recovery, and public safety. "The VIN has…become the key identifier in data systems that track such things as compliance with federal importation regulations, vehicle registrations, insurance coverage, and motor vehicle crashes. Entities that today utilize VINs in data systems include NHTSA, state motor-vehicle departments, law-enforcement agencies, insurance companies, organizations involved in motor vehicle research, and manufacturers," says the agency.
In addition to these regulatory and safety functions, VINs allow Corvette owners to obtain certain historical information, depending on the year of the vehicle.
From 1953 through 1964, the Corvette's VIN provided data in a 10-digit sequence, showing model, model year, assembly plant, and serial number, respectively. (Note: '55 Corvettes used an 11-digit VIN sequence that began with the letter "V" to designate the V-8 engine in the vehicle.)
Model-year '65-'71 Corvettes used a 13-digit VIN system, which listed GM Division, car line or series, engine type (V-8, but not the specific engine option), body style, model year, assembly plant, and production sequence number.
In 1972, General Motors revised the VIN for all of its divisions and their models, including Chevrolet and the Corvette. The new alphanumeric sequence included engine type—not just whether the engine was a V-8—and assigned a specific letter (later, single-digit numbers were used, too) to every RPO engine available in the Corvette during the model year. This change made it possible to quickly identify a Corvette's original engine option by looking at the alphanumeric character in the fifth position on the VIN and decoding it.
In 1976, the Motor Vehicle Manufacturers Association petitioned NHTSA to adopt a 17-digit industry-standard VIN, which the agency did in 1981. The new system added even more data to the metal plate, including country of origin, manufacturer, and restraint system installed. Though later revised for uniformity across all domestic and import vehicle lines—and to include a scannable bar code—it's still in use today and is scheduled to remain in use for the next 30 years.
GM keeps VIN Data cards from model year '72 through '11 in a database system, as a way of helping dealers' service departments decode VIN-plate data. (Our research shows that 1972 is the first year of the VIN Data cards.) In Part 1, we'll help you decode Corvette VINs from 1972 through 1982. Over the next few months, we'll show you how to decode the VINs found on '84-'11 Corvettes.
Note: GM's Passenger Car VIN Data cards are inconsistent in naming data fields. For example, in some years GM calls the model-year code "Year Designation," while in others it calls it "Last Digit of Model Year." We've left the data-field-naming anomalies exactly as they appear on the official cards. Corvette owners who are interested in decoding '53-'71 Corvette VINs may find decoders on the Internet or in myriad books dedicated to the subject.
1 - Division Line (1=Chevrolet)
2 - Series (Z=Corvette)
3-4 - Body Style (37=Coupe, two-door hardtop, 67=Coupe, two-door convertible)
5 - Engine Type (K=350ci/200hp, L=350ci/255hp, W=454ci/270hp)
6 - Year Designation (2=1972)
7 - Plant (S=St. Louis, Missouri)
8-13 - Serial (Starts at 500001 through 527004)