Follow these tips to identify old cars in photographs from your family albums. You can often identify the make and model of the automobile; decipher and date the license plates, and even discover additional documents relating to the earliest drivers on your family tree.
Image courtesy of Jennifer McCraw
A listener’s mystery photo question
Many of us have mystery photos in our family archives. Jennifer sent me a creative question about identifying hers:
“Have you ever come across any information on searching old license plate tag numbers to find an identity of the registrant? I have old photos that, according to my aunt, are the family of my grandmother’s boyfriend, Max, before [she married] my grandfather. The photos are amazing. Very ‘Great Gatsby-esque.’ Amazing clothes and car, right?! One photo has a smiling man standing in front of an old car with a portion of the license plate showing. I do not know the identity of this man or children. I’m thinking start with searches for plates beginning with 109 in the years before my grandmother was married in the state of Indiana, where she and Max lived.”I didn’t know if I had a ‘lead’ in that or not. I may be pulling at strings. I’d love your advice.”
What a great idea! I haven’t tried Jennifer’s exact approach to researching license plates as a way of identifying owners. But I have a similar story about researching an old car in my own family photo. My story, below, may help Jennifer and anyone else wanting to identify old cars in photographs. Keep reading for tips on researching the make and model of a car; deciphering the license plate to help date the photo and even on finding early drivers’ records. Owning a car was (and still is) a source of pride and excitement for many families, so it’s really worth taking a closer look at their cars in old pictures.
An old car photo in my own family
Here’s a photograph I love of my grandmother Alfreda as a teenager, beaming as she poses beside the newly purchased family automobile. In her diary, she divulges her excitement for the surprise she came home to after church:
Oct. 21, 1929 Sunday. “Went to Sunday school and when I got back there was our new car waiting for me. Willy’s Knight. I drove it all around, went and gave Evelyn a ride. Made Mama mad.”
This diary entry piques my interest. What year was this? Where did the car come from? What’s a “Willy’s Knight?” And if Mama got mad, who gave Alfreda the keys? I suspect Alfreda may have been a bit of a Daddy’s girl, but alas, this photo may not be able to reveal that family dynamic. However, the photo does contain important clues that has helped me answer at least a few of these questions.
1. Identify old cars in photographs
Before you start trying to identify an old vehicle in a family photo, it will help to know whether it’s categorized as a veteran, vintage, or classic car. What’s the difference? According to ItStillRuns.com:
“Veteran cars were manufactured before 1903, vintage cars were made between 1903 and 1933, and classic cars are considered to be vehicles manufactured from 1933 until fifteen years ago.”
I already knew from Grandma’s diary that the car in the above picture was a Willys Knight. But I wondered if I could nail down the make and model. I ran a few Google searches and found some fantastic websites.
Paul Young’s Willys Overland Knight Registry website had just what I was looking for. The site features dozens of photographs of all the different makes and models of Willys Knight automobiles in chronological order. So I scrolled down to the late 20’s and compared each photo to the photo of my great grandfather’s car. Bingo! The 1928 Willys Knight 70A Cabriolet Coupe America matched the car to a T. Everything from the convertible roof, the headlights, bumper, and side view mirrors all matched up.
From there I clicked on the Willys Knight History link, which led to not only a written history of Willys Knight but a chart of Willys Knight Specifications. A quick scroll down led me to the specs for Grandpas 1928 70A series car. I learned that great-grandpa’s car was introduced in August of 1927 for the starter price of $1,295. (Here’s a free online inflation calculator. Try plugging in 1927 and $1,295 to find out what the car would cost in today’s money.)
I also learned that the car was a 6-cylinder, as well as specs on the horsepower, the wheelbase, and even the range of serial numbers that the car would fall within. This website was jammed packed with everything you could ever want to know about the Willys Knight car. (If you’re interested in chatting with others about Willys Knight cars, you could also visit this site’s Facebook page.)
Family Photo Detective by Maureen Taylor is your ultimate guide to identifying old objects in pictures to help you learn more about your family history.
In Family Tree Magazine a few years ago, I read an article called “Motor Trends,” written by my friend Maureen Taylor. She said that said that by 1918 all states had adopted license and registration laws. It recommended that you look for a license plate in old photos. License plates often have a year on them and possibly even the owner’s initials.
Unfortunately, the license plate in my photo is so dark I couldn’t read it at all. My guess is that this is probably the situation in many cases when someone has a photo of a car. So here’s what I did to solve this problem:
I opened a digital copy of the photo with the basic photograph editing software that came with my computer.
I cropped the photo to just show the license plate and then zoomed in to make the image as large as possible.
I increased the brightness of the photo and adjusted the contrast. Often when you play with these two features, adjusting first one and then the other, you’ll get pretty good results.
The final touch was to apply an auto-sharpening tool which defined the image even more.
As you can see in the “before and after” images below, what once was a blob of darkness now read: 2L 67 24.
There was something printed under the license number, but I still couldn’t quite read it. It looked like CAL 29, which would make sense because they lived in California and the year they bought it was 1929. But I couldn’t be certain. So I ran a Google search for “old California license plates.”
Several websites proved interesting for learning more about old California license plates:
For example, I learned that California has required license plates since 1905. In that year, there were over 17,000 registered vehicles in the state. I found a replica 1929 license plate that read “CAL 29” across the bottom of it. Just what I’d thought mine said! And thanks to WorldLicensePlates.com, I was even able to determine that the license plate in my black and white photo had a black background and orange lettering.
What about the license plate in Jennifer’s photo? Only a partial plate is visible, but it’s enough to compare to images of Indiana license plates at WorldLicensePlates.com:
identifying old license plates
Jennifer can take several important clues from this comparison:
It quite a dark plate with very light numbers. Even though it’s a black and white photo, based on the contrast, I think the license probably doesn’t have orange in it. (Eliminate 1929, 1930, 1931, 1935)
There is no dash between the first 3 numbers and the next set (eliminate 1929)
The style is more of a Sans Serif font (we can eliminate 1929, and 1930)
Indiana appears at the bottom (eliminate 1931, 1933, 1935)
From these clues, I’d say that the 1932 plate is certainly the closest match.
3. Find records relating to early drivers
California state statutes of 1901 authorized cities and counties to license bicycles, tricycles, automobile carriages, carts, and similar wheeled vehicles. Owners paid a $2 fee and were issued a circular tag. Later, tags were either octagonal or had scalloped edges.
Motor Vehicles Records
So this got me curious. Could I access records associated with my great-grandfather’s license plate and automobile registration? Typically states move records of this age to their state archives. I started by Googling California State Archives. The Online Archives of Californiahas a searchable database that includes the state archive holdings. The online catalog has motor vehicle records (61 volumes!) for the first several years they were issued (1905-1913).
A description in the online finding aid stated: “Motor Vehicle Records, 1913 transferred those functions from the Secretary of State’s office to the Department of Engineering.” There are actually two clues here: 1) the phrase “motor vehicle records” is what I likely want to use when searching for records, and 2) the office that likely kept the records for my time period (1929) was the Department of Engineering. A followup search using these search terms got 13 results. Unfortunately, none of these records included 1929, and an email inquiry to the State Archives wasn’t fruitful, either. But this showed me that driver registration records may exist.
So may other driving-related records. I did several searches in ArchiveGrid, an enormous online catalog for archival collections. No California motor vehicle registrations popped up. But I did find a collection of 1928 maps and guidebooks for the Automobile Club of Southern California, held at the Brigham Young University library in Provo, Utah. There was also a collection of thousands of images collected by the Automobile Club of Southern California (mostly in the 1920s and 1930s) at the Huntington Library in San Marino, CA.
If I really wanted to learn more about the early-1900s “sport” of automobile driving in California, I could spend some time with record collections such as those.
Does this discovery change the course of my family history? No. But it was a heck of a lot of fun to learn what I did about the oldest automobile I’m aware of my family owning. It’s exciting to discover these little gems: they connect me to the past in such an interesting way. Even better, it gave me something to share with my husband, Bill, who loves old cars!
Listen to the free Genealogy Gems Podcast in favorite podcast app.
Hear inspiring stories and learn hands-on, try-it-now strategies for discovering your family history in my free Genealogy Gems Podcast. There are more than 200 episodes to get your genealogy motor running, with a new episode published each month. You’ll find the latest news, try-it-now online search strategies and inspiring stories to keep you on the road to genealogy research success.
Creating and maintaining a genealogy blog is a fun and rewarding way to share your family history. Blogging is also effective in finding cousin connections! If you are worried your blog isn’t pulling in the cousins you expected, elevate your ranking in search results by implementing these 3 ways to improve your genealogy blog.
I recently received this exciting email from Ruth:
“Thank you, thank you, thank you! Several months ago, I attended one of your all-day seminars in Bossier City, Louisiana and I must thank you for motivating me!
I’ve been researching my family tree off and on for 25 years or so, and at times it has taken a back burner to whatever was going on in my life; only to be dusted off when I would get an inquiry or perhaps when someone in the family passed away. In the last 3 years, I have been attending these local seminars with a distant cousin. They were fun and I learned a few things, but none had generated the enthusiasm that I have at the moment!
The knowledge that you share and the easy manner in which you deliver your presentations are so down-to-earth and it inspires me to learn more. I left your seminar with a Premium Membership package and I have been listening to your podcast ever since.
You also encourage your readers to blog about their genealogy. I took your advice and I’ve done just that. Please take a look at my blog – any suggestions you might have would be welcomed. The title is My Family Tree: Hobby or Addiction? and I have dedicated it to my father who passed away in 2005! Here is the link: http://myfamilytreehobbyoraddiction.blogspot.com/
Thank you again for all you do that encourages us and for the new tools that you share with your listeners to help their journey along the way!
Ruth Craig Estess”
Ruth, thank you and congratulations!
I love hearing how you have put it into action what you learned at the seminar.
Tips for Improving Your Genealogy Blog
Ruth is doing a terrific job including family information on her genealogy blog that others might be Googling. That means they are very likely to find her. But there’s more that can be done. Here are 3 additional tips for Ruth and anyone who wants to get more traction with their genealogy blog:
“1. Add more images. Google looks postively upon websites that have images. It considers the website to be more of an authority on the subject covered in the blog. Images improve Search Engine Optimization (SEO.) In layman’s terms, SEO refers the ways in which you have made your blog easy to use, and easy for Google to understand what it is about. The better Google understands the subject, the better chance it has of delivering your blog as a result when people search on things you write about (like your family tree!) It’s important that your image files have names that accurately reflect what they and your blog post are about. Therefore, it’s a solid strategy to include relevant genealogical information such as names, places and dates in the image titles. If you don’t happen to personally have photos about the subject of your blog post, include images of documents or other related items.
2. Include a Call to Action. At the end of each post, invite your readers to comment and contact you if they are researching the same family. It’s amazing what a little invitation will do to prompt interaction. If you skip this step, your readers may just “lurk”, or in other words, quietly read and then go on to the next website. That’s a missed opportunity for connection and collaboration. Even though a reader may be researching the family you are writing about, they may not think to reach out to you or comment unless you prompt them to do so.
3. Make use of blog categories. Categories and Labels help organize you blog content. Create a category for each surname you discuss on your blog. The category can appear in the side column on your blog. That makes it easy for readers to click a surname they are interested in and jump directly to your posts that discuss that name.”
Categories and Labels are great for SEO too. Google loves well-organized websites because they are easier to understand and deliver in search results.
More Gems on Creating Your Own Genealogy Blog
Ruth wrote to tell me she has already started putting these ideas into practice. She’s on her way to rising in the search results and hearing from distant cousins. How exciting! Click below to continue reading about rewarding and effective family history blogging.
Is that the sound of bagpipes? It might be, because the Scotland 1901 Census is now available at FamilySearch! Learn more about what you’ll find in this collection and get top tips from a Scottish genealogy expert on how to find your ancestors is in Scottish records. Then we head over to Central and South America for exciting new and updated genealogy collections for the Bahamas, Panama, and Brazil.
Scotland Census Now at FamilySearch
Does your family tree have roots in Scotland? You’re in luck! You can now search for your tartan-clad ancestors for free at FamilySearch! The Scotland Census, 1901 contains almost 4.5 million records for those living in Scotland on Sunday March 31, 1901.
“These records are comprised of Enumeration forms that were distributed to all households before the census night and the complete forms were collected the next day by the enumerators. Included in this series are returns from ships of the Royal Navy at sea and in ports abroad.
This collection is also available on Findmypast. If you have a subscription to Findmypast, you can access the 1901 census that includes Scotland, England, and Wales. Click here to search at Findmypast.
According to the National Records of Scotland website, they hold records of the census of the population of Scotland for 1841 and every tenth year thereafter (with the exception of the wartime year of 1941 when no census was taken) and of the sample census of 1966. Census records are closed for 100 years under the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002.”
3 Strategies for Finding an Ancestor in Scottish Records
If your love of tartan, bagpipes, and kilts equals your love of family history research, you are likely hoping to find an ancestor who was born in Scotland. Or perhaps nothing would surprise you more than to find a Scottish ancestor. In either case, the next step is to find this ancestor in Scottish records.
As with all immigrants, the first step to finding them in their homeland is to research their lives extensively in America before searching for them in Scottish records. Scottish genealogy expert Amanda Epperson, PhD joins us here on Genealogy Gems to share some of her top strategies to help you find your ancestors in Scottish records. Click here to read more!
New Genealogy Records for the Bahamas
Findmypast has been making major strides in expanding its collection to include rare and underrepresented records. The newest addition is the Bahamas Birth Index 1850-1891. Discover your Bahamian ancestors in this online index of registered births from the British Crown Colony of The Bahamas.
Birth records are essential to expanding your family tree. There are tens of thousands of records in this collection, giving information not only about relatives born in the Bahamas but also their parents. Click to search the Bahamas Birth Index 1850-1891.
Panama Records Indexes
Three new indexes containing just under half a million vital records from the Republic of Panama have recently joined Findmypast’s growing collections of international records. There are now four collections for Panama:
These new additions consist of baptisms, marriages and deaths spanning the years 1750 to 1950 and will generate hints on Findmypast family trees. (Learn more about Findmypast’s new tree hinting feature by clicking here.)
Brazil Civil Registrations
FamilySearch has a new genealogy collection for South America: Brazil, São Paulo, Civil Registration, 1925-1995. Boasting nearly 2 million records, this data set includes births, marriages, deaths, and indexes created by various civil registration offices in the state of São Paulo. Some of these records have been indexed and are searchable as part of this collection. Additional images and indexed records will be published as they become available.
These records are in Portuguese so you may want to take a look at these resources for help with these records:
You can search the index or view the images or both. Before using this collection it is helpful to know your ancestor’s given name and surname, identifying information such as residence, and estimated marriage or birth year.
Bring genealogy records to life with Google Earth!
Genealogists love making discoveries in records, but the excitement of documents doesn’t exactly translate to the non-genealogists in your family. Capture your family’s imagination by telling their family history story with Google Earth. See how easy it is to turn the genealogical information you’ve collected into compelling multi-media stories. These tours will help everyone in your family appreciate your genealogical research and protect as a legacy for generations to come. Enjoy!
About the Author: Lisa Louise Cooke is the producer and host of the Genealogy Gems Podcast, an online genealogy audio show and app. She is the author of the books The Genealogist’s Google Toolbox, Mobile Genealogy, How to Find Your Family History in Newspapers, and the Google Earth for Genealogy video series, and an international keynote speaker.
Disclosure: This article contains affiliate links and Genealogy Gems will be compensated if you make a purchase after clicking on these links (at no additional cost to you). Thank you for supporting Genealogy Gems!
It’s a common Pennsylvania genealogy brick wall: “My ancestors are from PA—but I don’t know where!” Pennsylvania expert Jim Beidler has strategies that may help narrow down the needle-in-a-haystack problem of identifying your ancestor’s home county. Here, we also add...
U.S. land entry case files are now free to browse at FamilySearch. We give you a link to a free index to those–and MORE new and updated records for Argentina, Australia, England, France, Germany, Ireland, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Scotland, and other U.S. collections (Crimean War photos, Illinois birth certificates, and more).
Featured: U.S. Land Entry Case Files
Over a quarter million record images have been added to the free FamilySearch database of United States, Cancelled, Relinquished, or Rejected Land Entry Case Files, 1861-1932. This collection gives researchers access to browsable images of case files for those who unsuccessfully applied for homesteads (such as the one shown above; click the image to see its citation), mining claims, and land pre-emptions. Even better–the National Archives website hosts a name index to speed along your search of the browsable records at FamilySearch!
According to a National Archives description of the original collection, “A file may contain the original entry application, correspondence between the officials of the Lincoln Land Office and the GLO in Washington, D.C., receipts for fees paid, public notices, affidavits and witness statements, proof of military service, the entryman’s naturalization records, and documents concerning the cancellation or relinquishment of the entry.”
This collection of Land Entry Case Files includes Kansas land offices at Dodge City and Topeka and Nebraska land offices at Alliance, Broken Bow, Lincoln, North Platte, O’Neill, and Valentine. More records will be forthcoming.
The British Newspaper Archive recently announced it now has a title online for every county in England. (Click here to learn more.) They’ve also updated several London titles and added two new ones, among them the North London News and West London Observer.
Findmypast.com has recently added more than 4.5 million records that can help those searching for ancestors in Wiltshire, in southwest England:
Newspapers.com has added Louisville, Kentucky’s Courier-Journal to its collections of digitized newspapers. Basic subscribers have access to just shy of 100 years’ worth of issues (1830-1922) and Publisher Extra subscribers also may access more recent years (1923-2016).
A new online database of The Michigan Daily brings more than 23,000 issues digitally searchable. This is the student newspaper of the University of Michigan. The newspaper archive spans 125 years: 1890-2014. Click here to search it for free.
Google your way to MORE genealogy records like these
Wish you could find similar records for another time or place? Use Google search strategies to target the record types, places and even a specific range of years. You can even search for digitized photographs on Google! Click here to read more about Googling old records online.
Disclosure: This article contains affiliate links and Genealogy Gems will be compensated if you make a purchase after clicking on these links (at no additional cost to you). Thank you for supporting Genealogy Gems!