What Does the VIN and Trim Tag Reveal about your Classic Chevy?
By Tommy Lee Byrd – Photography by the Author
When it comes to finding out your car’s factory options and features, the best place to start is the vehicle identification number (VIN) plate and the trim tag. In most cases, these two stampings will not provide every piece of information you want, but it’s easily accessible and can sometimes reveal some cool details. If you want the car’s full history, other documentation like a build sheet and Protect-O-Plate are needed, but those items are often long gone on an average Chevy from the muscle car era. Finding a build sheet hidden in the interior or on top of the gas tank is like finding buried treasure. We’ll cover some details of the build sheet, but the main purpose of this article is to explain some of the nuances of the VIN and trim tag through the years.
To simplify things, we’re narrowing the focus of this article from 1960 through 1980 because there are many variations of VIN and trim tag configurations and other documentation differences. Even in that 20-year span, there are dozens of variations, sometimes within the same year of production. Variations could depend on the factory, build date, or the combination of the two factors, especially in the case of trim tags.
We’re using a few real-world examples of cars: a ’63 Impala SS convertible, a ’64 Chevelle Malibu, a ’66 Nova, a ’69 Camaro, and a ’73 Nova. This information can help you make quick observations when looking at a car to buy, or if you’re simply curious about a car’s original configuration. There aren’t enough pages in this magazine to cover every option code or configuration, but we’ll do our best to simplify the process and give you some of the highlights from popular Chevrolet applications from the ’60s and ’70s.
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Going back to the ’50s, Chevrolet placed the VIN on the driver side A-pillar, near the door hinges. It is stamped on a steel or stainless steel plate and then attached to the doorjamb. This location changed in 1968, as Chevrolet moved the VIN tag to the driver side of the dash, visible through the lower corner of the windshield. The VIN contains information about the year of the car and its body style but rarely had any specific information about the car’s optional equipment. Regarding options, the only thing the VIN can tell you is the number of cylinders in the engine. Starting in 1960, Chevrolet began placing an engine number code in the third digit of the VIN. Typically, odd numbers were six-cylinder and even numbers were V-8 cars.
In 1972, Chevrolet introduced a new VIN layout, and now the fifth digit would feature a letter code for the exact engine in the car. This letter code would’ve come in handy during the height of the muscle car era, but alas, it arrived a little too late. In 1972 we saw the end of several engine combinations, but 1973 through 1980 codes stayed the same. Some examples of engine codes are as follows: F = 307 ci with two-barrel carburetor, H = 350 ci with two-barrel carburetor, T = 350 ci with four-barrel carburetor (Camaro Z28), W = LS5 454ci big-block (1972 only).
Other information in the VIN are body series and body styles. This group of numbers were most important during the mid ’60s, as Chevrolet separated Super Sport cars into a separate series. This allows you to quickly determine a regular production model from a Super Sport by checking the second and third digit of the VIN. A popular example includes 1965-67 Nova Super Sport, which had 117 or 118 as the first three numbers of the VIN, compared to other models like 111, 113, 114, 115, or 116. Remember, the third digit is also the engine code during this time frame, so that tells you the 117 Super Sport Nova was a six-cylinder and the 118 was a V-8. By far, the most well-known Super Sport indicator is the Chevelle, which has a prefix of 138, or in rare cases 137 (’65 Malibu SS with a six-cylinder engine). The 138 numbering is the quickest way to determine whether a Chevelle is a true Super Sport from 1965-68. From 1969 onward there was no Super Sport designation in the VIN or trim tag. Chevrolet Impala had Super Sport confirmation on the VIN from 1965-6, with the VIN prefixes: 165, 166, 167, and 168.
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The trim tag is a piece of aluminum with a series of stamped letters and numbers. Some information overlaps with the VIN, but it does often tell a little more about trim options, such as interior style, interior color, and exterior paint color. The trim tag is sometimes called a cowl tag because it is often placed on the firewall or cowl of the vehicle. Early Nova (1962-67) trim tags are located on the passenger side of the firewall, near the heater box, while ’68 and newer Nova trim tags are in the more conventional area on the driver side near the master cylinder. Camaro and Chevelle are in the conventional area. Impala trim tags moved the most—starting in 1960 on the upper portion of the cowl on the driver side, then moving to a lower location on the firewall in 1961 and 1962, then to the upper portion of the cowl on the passenger side (1963 and 1964), and finally to the conventional area on the driver side firewall from 1965 and beyond.
There is a sweet spot with trim tags from 1960-67; a time when Fisher Body assembly plants used accessory codes. In most cases, the accessory codes were associated with the body and interior but sometimes included information about special option packages or drivetrain options. These codes were placed in numbered groups and did not match Chevrolet’s Regular Production Option (RPO) codes, so it can be a bit confusing. Luckily, there are resources online to help decipher these accessory codes.
Group 1 of accessory codes is mostly related to the windows but also has information about convertible top and seat options. Group 1 does not have the number 1 present in the code, so it will only present as a letter(s). Groups 2 through 5 have the number present, followed by the letter code(s), example 2L. The numbers do not represent a code, but it does break up the accessory codes into different sections, allowing the same letter to be used in different groups.
Trim tags varied based on the factory, so it’s important to note that when trying to decode a car. A great example is the ’69 Camaro with its famous X codes, which were only used on cars built in the Norwood, Ohio, plant, starting in December of 1968. Early production cars for the 1969 model year did not have the codes and none of the ’69 Camaros built in Van Nuys, California, have the codes. This leaves a void in ’68 and early ’69 Camaros when it comes to verifying certain options. The ’67 models were easy because of the Fisher accessory codes but 1968 and 1969 are very hard to document without a Protect-O-Plate or factory broadcast sheet (commonly referred to as a build sheet).
|’69 Camaro X Code Reference|
|X11||Style Trim Group, could be combined with SS350|
|X22||Style Trim Group, combined with SS396|
|X33||Style Trim Group, combined with Z/28|
|X55||Base Car with SS350|
|X66||Base Car with SS396|
|X77||Base Car with Z/28|
Accessory Codes vs. RPO Codes
Regular Production Option (RPO) codes are Chevrolet’s way of labeling options and were only seen on the build sheet and window sticker. All RPO codes are three digits, and most are alphanumeric codes containing one letter and two numbers. These codes can point out option groups, such as the Z01 Comfort and Convenience Package, or very specific items like PL5, a code for F70-14 white letter tires. There are hundreds of RPO codes spread across the various Chevrolet passenger cars, ranging from interior items, engines, transmissions, rearend ratios, and more. Some popular RPO codes made their way into common automotive language, while others are not easy to recognize. The most familiar RPO codes relate to engines, with popular examples being L88, LT1, and LS6. Transmissions also carry an RPO code, but the only recognizable ones are the series of Muncie four-speed manual transmissions (M20, M21, and M22).
Chevrolet’s RPO codes and Fisher Body’s accessory codes have no correlation in how they present. Fisher had its system and Chevrolet had its system, but they were separate for the most part. The two codes systems didn’t cross over until the early ’70s. Even then, the only RPO code on the trim tag was the seat code (bench or bucket seat). Ultimately, RPO codes only matter if you have a build sheet or window sticker that matches your car’s VIN, but it’s fun to see the different options that were available during that time frame.