25th January 2023

How to discover the history of your classic

For many of us, our cherished classics can quickly become a part of the family. Every vehicle has a story to tell - whether it’s perfectly polished or peppered with patina – and searching through the pages of its history can be an incredibly satisfying experience.

While some are blessed with folders of photos, receipts and first-hand stories, some memories are destined to disappear forever. But although tracing the history of your vehicle can be little more complicated than your family tree, all is not necessarily lost.

It pays to put in the hours to see what you can find… There’s a chance that your discovery might increase the value of your vehicle – whether you uncover a famous owner, unusual story, or something even more significant.

So, here’s our how-to guide for automotive ancestry – ranging from the simple to the far more involved. Don’t forget to let us know how you get on by leaving us a comment below – we’d also love to hear any tips of your own…

Hit the internet

You’ll need your computer, and perhaps a coffee. Start by searching your registration number online – you may find results from previous sales or auction sites. Owners’ clubs and enthusiast forums may also net threads of old photos, maintenance, modifications, or stories from previous keepers.

Some clubs also have a dedicated section for this sort of thing - the very best have detailed databases and technical documentation. If in doubt, drop the club an email and ask for help.

Some online forums have seen a decline in users in recent years, having given way to Facebook groups like our Coffee & Chrome Collective Facebook group. Check whether there’s an active social media community for your vehicle – the right club or group may be able to share your request to a legion of like-minded enthusiasts. 

Ask the last owner

You’ll probably only have the current V5C (vehicle logbook), as the DVLA requests that you destroy old versions. However, if you have one to hand it may be worth a look through the names of previous owners.

Older vehicles sometimes have the original owner’s logbook, which may list names and addresses of past keepers. Obviously, this information could be well out of date, but you could try contacting them and asking for help.

Filling in a V888 form could unlock a goldmine of information from the DVLA: the number of previous registered keepers, vehicle changes such as colour or engine, and details of any previous keepers where you can 'provide evidence as to why the previous keepers details are required'. However, the DVLA do note in their guidance that 'whether details can be released will depend on the circumstances of the case' and you must need a 'reasonable cause'. More information on this can be found on the DVLA website.

Contact the manufacturer

Some manufacturers are willing to help fill in the blanks, usually if a vehicle is rare or has led an interesting life. If you own a British classic, then you can apply for a British Motor Industry Heritage Trust certificate. There are a range of cost options – don’t forget to check if your marque is covered.

Seek a specialist

It’s time to get into the details. If you have old paperwork from the last owner, it’s possible that there are old invoices and service records. Look for details of specialists that worked on the vehicle, and then get in touch – they may know a surprising amount about its pedigree.

Finally, for the more exotic or historically important, you can contact one of the UK’s museums or archives, like Beaulieu, the British Motor Museum, or the National Motorcycle Museum. These contain an extraordinary amount of detail, but it could take a while to track down anything relevant.

Have you ever tried to track down your vehicle's history, and did you find anything really interesting? Leave your stories in the comments section below.

To find out more about a classic bike policy from Footman James and to get an instant quote online, visit our Classic Bike Insurance page.

The information contained in this blog post is based on sources that we believe are reliable and should be understood as general information only. It is not intended to be taken as advice with respect to any specific or individual situation and cannot be relied upon as such.

Between 1983 and 1986 I owned an orange 1.9 Opel Ascona (HBT 40S) and took it from 65k to 98k. It was last taxed in 1982 but changed hands in Jul 2021. The DVLA confirmed it is still out there. I have emailed owners' clubs classic insurance companies and done my very best to trace it all unsuccessfully. I have loads of photos and information on the car I'd love to pass on. Would be great if someone could set up a website that specializes in reuniting owners with cars or people with classic cars trying to trace previous owners none exists.

Ste 64, 30/01/2023

I contacted the original UK regional registration district archive section for information on their records which was issued prior to digital DVLA records which only start about 1972. And found my correct chassis number linked to the registration number and not a later DVLA digital number added to an age-related registration plate for convenience. This gave me the information that the chassis was originally altered by a specialist company involved with motor racing in the 1950’’s. Unfortunately, most regional registration offices destroyed their records after digitalisation and mine was a survivor of a fire that destroyed 95% of stored files with the Maidstone office in Kent. The cost of the copy from a very helpful archivist was £2 and is part of the history file of my 53 years of ownership of this car.

Ron, 16/08/2021