Researching the History of My Classic Car

I was lucky enough to grow up around classic cars. My dad had a 1938 Packard and a 1958 Cadillac when he was younger, and our neighbor the mechanic had more cars than I can remember.

My Dad's 1938 Packard.

I love telling my kids stories of those days learning about the cars and working on them together. One of the things that’s always amazed me was how much they both knew about the history of the cars – where they came from, who the previous owners were, and where the car was built. When my wife and I bought our Oldsmobile, and later a Trans Am together, I was interested in learning it’s particular history too, so here is how I set out to find out more about my car’s past life.

Back in the days before the internet existed (and yes there was such a time), most information was obtained by telephone or mail. Today, researching your vehicles history is much easier. The big three automakers (GM, Ford, and Chrysler) have web sites dedicated to preserving historical vehicles. My wife and I purchased a 1986 Oldsmobile 442 two weeks before hurricane Sandy devastated our state. We purchased it in Delaware, and got it back to NJ safe and sound. We learned from the previous owner that he was the second person to own the car and got it from someone in Maryland. But I wanted to know more – where it was built, and what dealership sold it.

After doing some research online I found a website that had a VIN decoder. I put the VIN number in and it told me some information, such as the plant it was built at, original colors and trim options, but that was all. Digging a little further, I came across the GM Heritage web site. You supply them with the VIN and some other information, and for $50 they will send you vehicle invoices, build sheets, and as many documents they can on your specific car. Within a few days, I had what I was looking for – an original vehicle invoice and build sheet. I learned our car was sold by a dealer named Jenkins Motors in Maryland, how much it cost, and the trim options it had. This matched the VIN decoder and the information I got from the seller. A few internet searches later I had historical pictures of the selling dealer and a map of their location.

An old photo of Ideal Auto Group, where my Oldsmobile was originally purchased.

Doing a little more digging I found that dealer was bought out by a larger one and the two merged together and is now known as the Ideal Auto Group. As it turns out, this merger occurred in 1983, three years before our car was originally sold. I called the dealership and spoke with a manager who was happy to talk about our car and story. He said that most of those documents are gone now from those years, so he didn’t think he could get me more than I already have. He did offer for my husband and I to come out and visit with the car, take some pictures, and he would show us around the old building where my car was sold from – we’ll be taking that trip soon.

We recently acquired a 1980 Pontiac Trans Am Indy Pace from its original owner. He told us how he purchased the car new from a dealership in Reading, PA. Doing a little digging turned me on to Pontiac Historical Services (PHS for short). Again, for $50 PHS was able to look up the history on my car, and sent me similar information as we got with the Oldsmobile. It verified everything the original owner told us about the car. For a little extra, they sent me reproduction window stickers as well. Having received the build sheet from the owner, along with the original owners manuals, I now have a complete set of documents for the car.


For those of you looking to research your classic car, here are some web sites and great starting points. Just remember, much like the days before the internet, there is no substitute for phone calls, and good detective work!

GM Cars - GM Heritage: http://www.gmmediaarchive.com/

Pontiac Vehicles: http://www.phs-online.com/index.html

Ford - https://www.thehenryford.org/collections-and-research/digital-resources/popular-topics/production-records/

Mopar - http://www.fcanorthamerica.com/company/Heritage/Pages/Build-Records.aspx


In addition to the above, there are a number of vehicle history museums in our area and around the country that can help. Here are some to look to for assistance:

NJ Vintage Auto Museum - www.vintageautomuseum.org

RE Olds Transportation Museum - http://reoldsmuseum.org/

National Auto Museum - http://www.automuseum.org/


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