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What your car's VIN means - and why you can't change it

Hi Rob,

Is it possible to switch VIN numbers on cars? For example, could I move the VIN from a 2002 Mazda Protege5 SPEED Edition, to a Protégé 5 non-Speed edition?

The non-Speed edition is in mint condition and the other not so much.

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Thanks, Harry

Sorry to be the one to break the news to you Harry, but there are places in prison reserved for people that try this sort of thing. So the short answer is: no.

VINs, or Vehicle Identification Numbers, are the fingerprints of a vehicle.

VINs are stamped into plates that are usually riveted to a door frame, the base of the windshield (driver's side), or attached to the body as a decal with special adhesives that will destroy the decal if it's removed.

Before 1979, there were no controls in place that co-ordinated vehicle information, so it was determined that a standard system was required to consistently identify the specifics of every vehicle made. The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) was commissioned to provide this Standard of Practice, which they named "ISO 3779:2009."

This standard created the uniform 17 digit VIN code that the industry continues to use to this day. This code applies to each vehicle regardless of manufacturer and world-wide location.

Here's how to read the code:

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DIGITS 1 - 3

ISO has applied a World Manufacturer Identifier, a letter or number, to every automotive builder regardless of the number of vehicles built in a year. Because of the complexity and the sheer number of vehicle manufacturers, a separate standard was created and the first three digits were assigned to identify those companies.

The first character refers to the country where the vehicle was manufactured. The second refers to the auto maker, and the third refers to the auto maker's division or brand, or the vehicle type.

DIGITS 4 - 8

These spots are reserved for that particular manufacturer. This is where they illustrate:

  • Build Platforms
  • Options
  • Engine Sizes
  • Drive Trains

This area is not rigid in the type of information that must be displayed. To know exactly what is found within these five digits, a VIN decoder will be required. Harry, this is the spot that will get you into trouble with a VIN swap. Nothing will match across from your vehicle's in this section.

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DIGIT 9

The Check Digit is the most difficult to understand, so I'm going to paraphrase. This digit which is usually a number is derived from a mathematical calculation that involves every one of the alpha-numeric digits in the VIN. Once the math is done, the final figure must equal the number that is located in position 9. If it does not, the VIN is invalid and will require a lot of explaining… a position no one wants to be in.

DIGIT 10

This is an easy one - position 10 is the model year of the vehicle. The odd thing about the tenth digit is that each decade requires a different type of digit. The decade we are currently in - 2010 and up, is using the alphabet as the indicator. For a vehicle built in 2011, the digit will be a "B." For the years 2001 to 2009, the number located in spot 10 depicts the model year. Once we hit 2019, the manufacturers will revert back to numbers - and the pattern will repeat.

DIGIT 11

This spot in the VIN is reserved for the location of the build. This relates to my earlier comment about the first three VIN digits. The 11th digit had better relate to the manufacturer and or its global location.

DIGITS 12 - 17

These locations in the VIN are placeholders for the build sequence. If you happen to be a collector, this is where the chest puffing and bragging rights play out. Case in point: Let's say you happen to have a 1990 Corvette ZR-1 with the last six digits of 800001 (for the sake of illustration); you would be the owner of the very first ZR-1.

There you go Harry, tampering or swapping out VIN plates is not only a bad thing for record keeping, it's also illegal, as you can imagine from all the information contained within that unassuming 17 digit counter.

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About the Author
Globe Drive columnist

As associate dean of Motive Power programs at the British Columbia Institute of Technology, Rob MacGregor has nearly three decades' experience in training the province's automotive technicians. He has written extensively on car mechanics, appears regularly on television and is a member of the Autotmobile Journalists Association of Canada. More

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