13th April 2023

How to Research Your Classic Vehicle's History

How well do you know your car or bike? We’re not talking about how it drives or rides, or how to keep it running, but rather its history. You may know a lot, or maybe very little, but it could be worth spending a little spare time playing detective.

Other than being able to appreciate it that bit better, there’s the chance that its history will add something to the value. Be it an interesting owner, an unusual story, or even unicorn status, it can all add up.

Just how much you’ll be able to find will depend on the vehicle. With something unusual, there’s a good chance that you can unearth a fair degree of background. However, if you have a modern classic or collectable, you may struggle to get much more than where and when it was manufactured, and which dealer originally registered it.

So, here’s a handy how-to guide to sleuthing your pride and joy’s background – ranging from the simple to the far more involved.

Hit the internet

This only requires your phone, and maybe a cup of tea. Searching for your registration number may net some easy wins, but you can also try owners’ clubs and enthusiast forums. There’s a staggering amount of past experiences and chatter that you can trawl though if you have the time. It’s also a way of unearthing old pictures and little known events. Consider registering as a user, and politely ask if anyone has information they can share.

Some owners’ clubs also have a section on helping you find out more about a specific vehicle and can provide some helpful contacts. The very best (like the Talbot Owners’ Club) have detailed databases and can provide technical documentation. If in doubt, drop the club an email and ask for help.

Ask the last owner

A quick email or call may help you find some facts, even if it’s just the name of the person they bought from.

Strictly speaking, you should only have the current V5C (vehicle log book) as the DVLA requests that you destroy old versions. However, if you have some on file you could look for names.

Older vehicles (bona fide historic and classics) sometimes have the original buff-coloured 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 Obviously, this information could be well out of date, but you could try contacting them and asking for help.

Mel Holly, Chairman of the Wartburg Trabant IFA Club UK also suggests filing a V888 form with the DVLA. The DVLA may be able to tell you: 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 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, but check to see if your marque is be covered.

Seek a specialist

It’s time to get into the details. If you have a sheaf of 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.

The information contained in this blog post is based on sources that we believe are reliable and should be understood as general risk management and insurance 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. If you wish to discuss your specific requirements, please do not hesitate to contact your Footman James advisor.

I have some lovely photos of a 1921 BSA motorbike owned by my uncle in the 1960s - I would love to be able to pass them on to the current owner. I have checked via DVLA and it is still on their register although the last V5 was issued in 1988. The registration plate is L7280. Is it possible to find out who the registered owner might be?

Hilary, 20/11/2023

I managed to track my Dad's Aston Martin DB5 convertible, which he sold in 1972 , to New South Wales, Australia, where it resided for about 30 years. It was then sold to Sheikh Nasser of Kuwait to add to his collection. As far as I am aware it is still there. I have made further inquiries , however the Kuwaiti Royal family are notoriously secretive, and unfortunately I have not been able to get any further information. I heard a rumour that the Sheikh was looking to sell a few cars recently, so if any one comes across an Aston Martin DB5 Convertible chassis no DB5C/1907/R, engine no 400/1926 I would love to have some further information and a few pictures. Many thanks.

Adrian, 11/02/2021

It seems my classic AJS was once owned and used by the Eastbourne and District Motorcycle Club Trick Riders Team. Leader, Bertram Wright.

Chris , 15/05/2020