Jim Smart
May 1, 2012
Photos By: Mustang Monthly Archives

Thirty years ago, tracing the history of a vintage Mustang wasn't so difficult. Today, it's a different story. Many surviving Mustangs have passed through numerous owners and several different states. Selling dealerships have gone out of business. And, unfortunately, many owners, especially original owners, are no longer with us.

Still, every Mustang has a story. And while most could be considered mundane at best, we can always dream about uncovering the fact that our Mustang was originally a Ford promotional car. Or perhaps it was once owned by a celebrity. Some information is better than no information. In fact, having a Mustang's history, especially for cars like Shelbys, Bosses, and Cobra Jets, can add to the value by documenting the car's pedigree.

Each of our Mustangs began life as a vehicle order that followed a path through Ford's system to a scheduled assembly at one of three assembly plants. The order became a warranty plate or certification sticker with a vehicle identification number (VIN). Raw steel stampings were welded together and your Mustang was born one assembly step at a time as it was massaged by people and machines to transform raw materials into a finished vehicle.

From there, perhaps your Mustang took a train ride to a distant city. Or maybe its selling dealer was just across town. If it was an export, there was likely a ship involved. Of course, some Mustangs were ordered by Ford for internal purposes like promotional activities, research and development, or executive use. Although R&D vehicles were typically crushed, many company cars were eventually sold off employee resale lots or other resale avenues. There were also special-order Mustangs with unique equipment or colors.

Much happens in the journey of a used Mustang. Most of today's Mustangs have survived a rough and tumble past, while a fortunate few have been pampered by one owner.

There are millions of Mustang stories in an increasingly naked society where information is right at your fingertips and yet so elusive--lost in the deep and distant past or a new gauntlet of privacy legislation. If Mustangs could talk, it would be easy. However, until Mustangs can talk (and donkeys can fly...), we have to become something of a tenacious detective to trace the history of a Mustang, especially the older ones from the '65-'73 generation.

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Start with Marti

If you own a '67-'93 Mustang (Ford destroyed the records for '66 and earlier vehicles), then the place to start is by ordering a Marti Report from Marti Auto Works, which is licensed by Ford to distribute Ford's production data. Invest in the Deluxe report, because, although it won't provide you with the name of the original purchaser, it will likely give you the name of the selling dealer, which gives you at least one place to continue your search. The DSO will tell you if your Mustang was originally shipped to the salt-covered winter roads of the northeast or the mild climate of California. The additional-cost Elite report adds data plate information and a reproduction of the window sticker.

Marti Reports also provide a wealth of other production data, like the order and build dates, colors, equipment, options, etc. With the Deluxe report, you also get production statistics that break down the numbers so you'll have an idea of how many other Mustangs were painted the same color, have the same interior, etc. Some will narrow down to the coveted "one of one," which means the car was the only one produced with its combination or colors, equipment, and options.

Marti Auto Works also has original Ford invoices for some '69-'86 Mustangs and Shelbys. Once known as "Eminger Invoices" because they were saved from the incinerator and offered to Mustang owners by retired Ford employee Lois Eminger, the invoices are the original documents that were used by Ford for billing purposes. They include the car's VIN, complete option list, wholesale and retail costs, and the selling dealer. Visit www.martiauto.com and click on the "Original Invoices" link to get a list of available invoices.

Ford History 999 Report

You can also order a free History 999 Report for '67 and later Mustangs from Ford's Customer Assistance Center at 16800 Executive Plaza Drive, P.O. Box 6248, Dearborn, MI 48121 USA. In the U.S., call 800/392-3673. In Canada, call 1800/565-3673. Outside the U.S. or Canada, contact Ford Worldwide Direct Market Operations, 1555 Fairlane Drive, Allen Park, Michigan 48101; 313/594-4857. You can also go to www.ford.com for your History 999 Report. Although the 999 report is free, it doesn't contain as much information as a Marti Report.

Title Search A title search is an owner history from the motor vehicle bureau--normally photocopies of titles going back to when your Mustang was first registered in your state. It also includes a copy of the title from the state your Mustang was transferred from if applicable, which enables you to contact that state for additional owner history. Title searches have always been available to enthusiasts interested in knowing more about their Mustang's past. Cost is minimal, especially if you wind up with an in-depth title history.

At one time, it was easy to get a title history because motor vehicle records were kept for decades by most state motor vehicle bureaus. However, budget cuts, privacy laws, and dwindling storage space has forced many states to purge files, so records don't go back as far as they once did. California, as an example, goes back only three years. Texas can search seven years. States that don't purge information sometimes place it in permanent storage that becomes harder to access. Some states don't require a motor vehicle title, which means there may be no record of your Mustang's owner history aside from the current registration.

Title histories are available from a number of sources, including state motor vehicle bureaus. Be cautious of websites offering motor vehicle histories because not all will provide great detail. The National Motor Vehicle Title Information System looks official, however, it refers you to any number of websites that charge a fee for a brief report offering very little history about your Mustang aside from its current registration. Most of these histories address whether or not your car has been totaled, scrapped, or stolen, but no real owner history, which is what you really want from a title search. In each of the websites we checked, classic Mustang 11-character VINs could not be found because these websites cater only to 17-character VINs used from 1980-present. That works if you're researching your '88 Mustang GT, but doesn't help classics prior to 1980.

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For the sake of experimentation, we decided to punch bogus VINs into one of these websites to see what would happen. We were promised a motor vehicle history report once credit card information was entered. How do you produce a motor vehicle history from a vehicle that doesn't exist?

Each state has its own approach to motor vehicle title histories and searches. And though there are many ways to conduct a vehicle history search via the Internet and dozens of websites, the best advice we can offer is to start with your state motor vehicle bureau's website. You can also go to a full-service state motor vehicle office and do it in person.

Once you have a basic title history in hand, you have the foundation for your investigation. If your title search dates back a limited number of years, ask your motor vehicle bureau if they keep permanent records dating back to when your Mustang first entered the state. And if records are available, ask about the cost to dig them up. Most states charge reasonable fees for in-depth title searches. Some states won't do a deep history unless there's a solid legal reason why you're asking for it. Just because you want it doesn't mean you're going to get it.

Further Investigation

There's an old saying that goes, "It's good to have a friend in the business." For researching Mustang history, this means knowing someone in law enforcement, private investigation, motor vehicle bureau, AAA, attorney's office, or used car business because these people have the resources to investigate vehicle history if it still exists. Good private investigators have many resources at their disposal because it's what they do. They have access to records not available to the general public. The downside is cost, running upwards of $200 to $400 an hour to hire a good private investigator to research your Mustang's owner history. And sometimes even the best gumshoe won't be able to turn up any more information than you already have.

I've had the good fortune of knowing a few law enforcement officers who have been able to run owner histories for me. They have also been able to find cars that were sold long ago by tracking VINs state by state. A number of cool reunions have resulted from this ability. As privacy laws have tightened up through the years, this is not as easy as it once was.

If you are fortunate enough to conduct a successful title search, you will have names and perhaps even addresses of previous owners, which can yield a gold mine of information if these people are still around. Title searches can reveal repossessions, finance companies, banks, thefts, and more. You probably won't get far with banks and finance companies, but you can accomplish a lot by chatting with previous owners. One of them might just have the answer to your question about that 289 in place of your Mustang's original 390.

Begin your search for previous owners with search engines like www.google.com and www.ask.com. People searches like www.zabasearch.com can get you on the right course with addresses and telephone numbers if this information is available. Social networks like Facebook and Twitter are also good places to search for previous owners. We are more connected today than ever, which means you can learn a lot about previous owners from search engines and social media.

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Success Story

Editor's Note: In 2005, Doug Protz from Alberta, Canada, purchased his dream car, a '68 Shelby G.T. 500 convertible. At first, he was hesitant to buy the car, offered for sale by a Ford dealer in North Carolina, because of the limited documentation, which included the current title with the name of the previous owner since 1990. Doug bought it anyway. Here's the story of how he traced the car's history.

Previous to 1990, there was no ownership history whatsoever. The car had little else for history except for a few registration receipts, a couple of repair bills, and some pictures of the restoration that was done by the Ford dealership. There was no title history, original purchase invoices, or buildsheet.

Over the next few years, I became very motivated to get additional history on the Shelby as I felt it was somehow missing something without the "big picture." First, I contacted Marti Auto Works to get a Deluxe Marti Report. When ordering, I learned that Marti also had the original order sheet and invoice from Shelby Automotive. They don't have this documentation for all Shelbys, but I was lucky.

After reading about buildsheets and where they might be located, I started looking for one on my car. After about half an hour, I was able to find the buildsheet on the wiring harness behind the dash. After carefully removing it, I was happy to see that it was in absolutely perfect condition--no water staining or missing pieces.

I had read in Mustang Monthly and on the Shelby American Automobile Club forums about how owners had obtained reports through their local Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV), so I took a chance and contacted the North Carolina DMV to see if there might be any history on my car. I completed the forms and sent them in along with a check for the fees. I was expecting nothing but about a month later I received the "mother lode," a package with 20 pages of history about the Shelby, including an unbroken chain of owners back to 1968 and copies of every title, power of attorney document, and DMV registration certificates. The car was sold new at Johnny Bolton Ford in Maitland, Florida, in late 1968 but was brought to North Carolina immediately afterwards. It spent its entire life in North Carolina until I purchased it in 2005.

With the information, I contacted many of the previous owners and received more history, including a copy of an article from a North Carolina newspaper from 1982 that provides insight to the pride of ownership and unique history of my car. I contacted other owners back to the late 1970s and talked for hours about the car.

I now have a complete history of my Shelby along with tons of original documents, original orders and invoices, and fascinating information from previous owners. In some ways, the research has been more rewarding than actually buying the car.

After 5-1/2 years of ownership and the chase to find the history on my Shelby, I have been very successful. If I can offer anything to other owners who are missing some or all of their Mustang’s history, it’s "keep at it." It may take months or even years to find the history on your car but it will be rewarding.

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