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Vehicle Identification

American Government Special Collections Reference Desk

Vehicle Identification

Bill Crittenden
Security & Safety Information Site
January 1, 2005

"Vehicle Identification" previously appeared at the Security & Safety Information Site, and is written for a security officers' perspective

The Importance of Vehicle Identification

Most security officers encounter motor vehicles in the course of their duties every day. Many security officers will be assigned to patrol parking lots or a parking garage, and many parking lots will have some sort of driveway or access road between the public street and the parking area to patrol, as well as possibly a perimeter drive, visitor parking and docks.

Along with motor vehicles come the potential for their involvement in incidents. From someone bumping and denting the car next to them when opening a door to thieves using a getaway car, identifying vehicles correctly is vital to proper reporting of events.

Methods of Identifying Vehicles

There are two types of vehicle identification. One is attempting to visually identify the make and model of a vehicle. The other is specific vehicle identification, or the ability to pick a specific vehicle out of traffic or a parking lot, or identify the owner of a particular vehicle.

While the best method of identifying specific vehicles is always the license plate, sometimes the license plate cannot be read due to distance or the plate is obscured. Also, the vehicle make, model, color and any other identifying features of a car (customization, damage, etc.) should be recorded in any Incident Report as a matter of providing all available information about an incident.

The easiest way to determine the make and model of a vehicle is usually a nameplate on the back of the vehicle. Auto manuafacturers usually want other motorists to know who made the car in front of them. Almost all vehicles sold in the United States can be easily identified by nameplates and badging on the rear of the vehicle. However, nameplates are easily removed, and often very small.

The most reliable method of identifying a vehicle's make and model is simply to be familiar with most common vehicles for your country (in this article I will be referring to cars sold in the United States due to lack of knowledge of cars sold in Canada or the UK). The easiest way to do this is to simply be aware of the vehicles around you. When patrolling, read the nameplates of the vehicles as you pass them. Walk through a parking lot and look over vehicles and read the names until they can be recognized without needing nameplates to identify them. Get a subscription to an automotive magazine that reports on automotive news, such as AutoWeek or Motor Trend. Most auto manufacturers hand out free brochures on their vehicles, and most allow you to order those brochures online. Full-line brochures have pictures of all cars and trucks that a particular manufacturer currently makes. Also, free auto sales advertising magazines (commonly found in supermarket entrances) and automotive sales websites (such as that for used car retailer CarMax), make good study materials and are useful for verifying an identification of a vehicle.

Harder-to-Identify Vehicles

It is not the vehicles themselves that make the makes and models of large trucks and motorcycles harder to identify. It is instead the relative lack of familiarity that most people have with these vehicles. They are less common, there names are less obvious to read on the vehicles themselves, and that makes it more difficult to learn them.

It is not a reasonable expectation for most security officers to know makes and models of trailers, but security officers should be familiar with the manufacturers (and their models if possible) of large truck cabs. These, however, may not be easily seen if the trailer is blocking the cab from the officer's view. To identify the specific vehicle, DOT and other "official" identifying numbers should be used if a license plate number cannot be obtained. Due to sales of equipment from one company to another, company name and truck/trailer numbers can be inaccurate. Company name, truck number and color should be noted as a physical description, however.

Motorcycles can also be very difficult to identify. While stock motorcycles with their manufacturer logos intact can be identified, customization in motorcycles is far more common than in cars and small trucks. Add to that the near impossibility of identifying completely custom-built motorcycles (such as those from Orange County Choppers as featured on TV's American Chopper). In these instances, a good description can be as valuable as a make and model, since good custom motorcycles are very distinctive. Also, the license plates are much smaller than the plates for cars and trucks.

Proper Vehicle Names

A major problem you may have encountered in reading reports is the use of a vehicle type as a model. "Sedan" and "truck" have not been used as model names in a long, long time, yet I have seen "Chevrolet Sedan" and "Ford Truck" on reports. Is that Chevrolet a Corsica, Impala, Lumina, Cavalier, Caprice, Celebrity, Malibu, or any other Chevrolet sedan produced? Is that Ford truck a Ranger, F-150, F-250, F-350, or is it a large commercial truck? Of course, someone somewhere will come across a vehicle old enough to use such a name, but if everyone is trained properly and uses proper vehicle names then sedan should really mean Sedan.

In instances where a vehicle's make and model cannot be identified but the body type is identifiable, you could make some notation such as "unknown sedan" or "unknown pickup truck".

One major issue that has emerged, especially in the last decade, is confusion with trim level lettering. Trim level is a term for the options package. On a Ford Ranger, for example, a basic truck with no options is a Ford Ranger XL. A Ford Ranger with a bunch of options is a Ford Ranger XLT. The XL and XLT designations are also used on full-size trucks, so a Ford XLT could refer to either a Ford Ranger XLT or a Ford F150 XLT, two very different vehicles.

Upscale editions of the F-150 sometimes have the name "Lariat" attached. The actual name of this vehicle would then be the Ford F-150 Lariat. There are also King Ranch and Harley-Davidson editions of the F-150, and Chevrolet has been producing special edition Monte Carlos to commemorate NASCAR drivers. While these and other special editions are not separate models, they should be noted as that may help identify the specific vehicle.

Often manufacturers, especially luxury carmakers, use a alphanumeric names such as BMW's 325i and Mercedes-Benz's S600. In these cases, part of the model name is determined by the engine displacement. From the front or side (or anywhere if the name badge is removed) a BMW 325i looks the same as a 330i and a S500 looks the same as an S600. In these instances, if you can determine the chassis but not the exact model, you can use the carmaker's designations. BMW calls the group the 3 Series. Mercedez-Benz uses the term S-Class. The first number of a BMW is the Series and the letter of a BMW is the Class. Note that BMW also has an M Series, with the M3 (built from the 3 Series), M5 (built from the 5 Series) and others. Hyundai changed the XG300's 3.0 liter engine after complaints of lack of power during its first year to the 3.5 liter and the car became the XG350. Infiniti also uses a system similar to Mercedes-Benz with their M45 and G35, but each model usually only has one engine displacement available.

There is occasional confusion between the manufacturers Honda and Hyundai. People sometimes just don't know that Hyundai exists, and any Hyundai is a Honda to them. Others are confused by the somewhat (but not really) similar names or logos. This confusion usually manifests itself in reports of "Honda Accents" roaming the streets. Chances are, if they got the name Accent off of the car, it's the Hyundai Accent, not the slightly larger Honda Civic. Hyundai's logo is an italicized "H" in an oval. Honda's logo is an "H" in a rounded trapezoid (narrow end on bottom).

Badge Engineering

Identifying vehicles correctly when a nameplate cannot be seen can be complicated by a few factors. One of which is badge engineering. Badge engineering is a process whereby one car is made into another for sale by another manufacturer's dealerships by changing the name of the car and usually some very insignificant feature.

While manufacturers' efforts at cost control have resulted in using one vehicle platform (chassis) for more than one vehicle, normally the vehicles are very distinctive. An exampleof this from General Motors is the Chevrolet TrialBlazer. The TrailBlazer's chassis has become the basis of the now discontinued Oldsmobile Bravada, GMC Envoy, Buick Rainier and Isuzu Ascender. From the exterior, all of the vehicles are very different. A security officer is more likely to mistake an Ascender for an Isuzu Rodeo than a TrailBlazer.

However, there have been times where a simple change of name and lighting equipment have been enough to justify a different car model. One example is a trade between Honda and Isuzu. The Honda Passport was nothing more than an Isuzu Rodeo with a different front grille and Honda badging. In return, Isuzu sold the first-generation Honda Odyssey minivan as the Isuzu Oasis. The only change between Odyssey and Oasis (visually) is the nameplates.

Not exactly badge engineering, but very similar is the occasional practice of making a high-performance version of a vehicle a separate model with a separate name. The Dodge SRT-4 is essentially a high-performance Dodge Neon with a different front bumper, hood, and other minor body changes. There is also the aforementioned BMW M Series. The Volkswagen GTI is another example, built from a Golf.

An interesting example of badge engineering comes from Chevrolet's Lumina and Monte Carlo. In the late 1990's, the Lumina and Monte Carlo were the same vehicle, except that the Lumina was a sedan and the Monte Carlo was a coupe.

One extremely rare example of badge engineering worth mentioning is the first-generation Dodge Neon. Neons were also sold by Plymouth, but instead of changing the model name they were sold as the Plymouth Neon. They looked identical-except for the badges on the hood or trunk that said either Dodge or Plymouth.

Vehicle Modification

Modifications can also make identifying vehicles difficult. There is a point at which even the most experienced car expert cannot recognize what a vehicle started its life as from the exterior. Thankfully, such vehicles are not very common on the roadways.

Most vehicle modifications consist of a few basics:

  • Addition of driving/fog lights
  • Addition of rear spoiler
  • Addition of ground effects
  • Changing light assemblies
  • Changing the hood
  • Changing the front/rear bumpers
  • Changing the vehicle's height
  • Changing wheels/tires

    Most of these vehicle modifications change features of the car without changing the overall shape of the car or its basic structure. While these modifications should be looked past in identifying the vehicle's make and model, they are very important to note in any Incident Report or any description especially if the vehicle needs to be identified by police or security in the future (such as a vehicle used in a crime).

    Added parts, such as driving lights, spoilers, and ground effects (body panels along the bottom of the car) should not affect your identification of the vehicle's make and model, since vehicles should not be identified by their these parts. They can be easily changed, altered, or added to cars that did not come with them from the factory. Ground effects alter the overall look of the car and can hide some basic body structure but does so along the bottom of the car, which usually does not affect identification of the vehicle's make and model.

    Changing of most exterior parts (light assemblies, hoods, bumpers) alters the basic look of the parts and possibly some of the shape of them but it does not change the outline of the parts as they usually still need to fit into the space where the stock part fit. Most modified vehicles will still retain the basic outlines of the hood and headlights even if the lights, bumper and hood have been changed.

    Lowering of the vehicle changes a car's center of gravity and alters the appearance by making it look like more of a performance vehicle. Raising a truck makes the vehicle look much bigger and can aid in off-road driving. Neither should affect identifying a vehicle's make and model.

    Since manufacturers sometimes use one wheel on multiple vehicles and wheels are easily changed, wheels and tires should not be used to identify a vehicle's make and model. However, very distinctive wheels (including spinners, wheels with movable parts that give the wheel the appearance of rolling while the vehicle is stopped) and unusual tires (slicks, very large tires, colored treads) should be noted.

    Basically, in trying to identify a modified vehicle you should look for stock parts that you can recognize. If a vehicle is heavily modified, you can look at the overall shape and structure of a car, which is very hard to change. Familiarize yourself with parts such as the roof and roof support pillars, doors, trunk lid, fenders and quarter panels.

    While this seems a near impossible task, it is made easier by the simple fact that not all cars lend themselves well to modification, or are not popular vehicles to modify. I have assembled a list below based on my experience at car shows and cruise nights of the most popular recently made vehicles to modify:

  • Acura Integra, RSX
  • Chevrolet Blazer, Camaro, Cavalier, S-10, Silverado 1500
  • Dodge Dakota, Dodge Neon, Ram 1500
  • Ford F-150, Focus, Mustang, Ranger
  • Honda Accord, Civic, del Sol, Prelude
  • Hyundai Tiburon
  • Jeep Wrangler
  • Mitsubishi Eclipse, Lancer
  • Nissan Sentra
  • Scion tC, xA, xB
  • Subaru Impreza
  • Toyota Celica, Matrix, MR2, Tacoma

    Bill Crittenden is a security officer and has a certificate in Automotive Technology from Universal Technichal Institute.

    ©2005 Bill Crittenden

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