How to Identify Old Cars in Photographs

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.

how to identify cars in old photos

how to identify old cars in photographs

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.”

With these categories in mind, visit websites that can help you identify old cars by providing descriptions and pictures of various makes and models. Two sites I suggest are Hubcap Café.com: Collector Car Resources and a Flickr group called Vintage Car Identification. (This second one is for the truly stumped because you can submit a photo that car enthusiasts from around the world could help you identify.)

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.)

My book The Genealogist’s Google Toolboxwhich is where you’ll find all the tips you need for doing these Google searches–has an entire chapter on finding videos on YouTube. A quick YouTube search on “Willys Knight 1928” brought up this short but cool video uploaded in 2014: “Take a ride in a 1928 Willys Knight made in, owned in and driven in Toledo, Ohio.”

2. Investigate old license plates

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:

how to identify old cars in photographs

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.

Registers of Motor Vehicles and Dealers in Motor Vehicles, with Indices 1905-1913

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 California has 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.

ArchiveGrid

ArchiveGrid

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!

Bill

Learn more!

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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.

Genealogy Gems Podcast Episode 215

The Genealogy Gems Podcast Episode 215

with Lisa Louise Cooke

Genealogy Gems free podcast episode 215

In this “Blast from the Past” episode, Lisa gives voice to the era of silent films, in a unique approach to understanding her great-grandmother’s life. Her passion for this mostly-forgotten film genre comes through in her conversation with film archivist Sam Gill of the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum in Fremont, California.

Don’t miss these fun segments, too:

A listener writes in after discovering a birth mom’s story in passport records (see what lengths he goes to in order to access the records!).

Just after RootsTech 2018, Your DNA Guide Diahan Southard reports on the latest DNA news you’ll want to know.

NEWS: DNA NEWS ROUNDUP 

First up was MyHeritage, showing their support for the 7 million adopted individuals in the United States with their new DNA Quest campaign. MyHeritage will provide 15,000 DNA test kits to eligible participants free of charge, in order to help these adoptees use DNA to reunite them with their biological families. With this initiative they “hope to make this project a shining light for corporate philanthropy and an example to be followed by other commercial companies in their own lines of expertise to make the world a better place.” MyHeritage has assembled an advisory board of genetic genealogists and genetic counselors to help drive this project and ensure it meets the needs of the community. If you or someone you know is interested in participating, you can head on over to the DNA Quest website (www.dnaquest.com) to fill out an application. But you better hurry, the application deadline is April 30, 2018.

Next, addressing the biggest problem in genetic genealogy, namely the looming What Next? question facing millions of newly swabbed participants, MyHeritage announced the Big Tree ? a giant network of genetic and genealogy results that will automate much of the match comparison and tree searching to replace your head-scratching with light-bulb moments. They have already made significant headway on this project, as reported in the journal Science, which MyHeritage’s own chief scientific officer Yaniv Erlich collaborated on. The journal reports that the team of scientists successfully extracted public family trees from Geni.com (a MyHeritage daughter company), and then used a computer program to clean up and link the trees together. It sounds like MyHeritage will be adding genetic data to this kind of tree data in their Big Tree project.

MyHeritage isn’t the only company out to improve the DNA matching experience. UK based LivingDNA announced that they plan to add DNA matching to their popular origins test by third quarter 2018. When they launched in October of 2016, LivingDNA was not offering cousin matching, but opted instead to focus all of their resources on providing very detailed origins reports, including breaking down the UK in to 46 categories. In the months since their launch, they have been working on a genetic matching system, called Family Networks, that will appeal to a wide range of users and will “reduce the risk of human error and take away the tedious task of figuring out how each person on a user’s list are related to one another.” They are promising an experience that provides “a level of relationship prediction and specificity beyond anything currently on the market.”

So it sounds like if you are currently struggling with turning your DNA matches into genealogical discoveries, our testing companies want you to know you are not alone, and they are working hard to provide solutions to these problems. Time will only tell if they can succeed.

Diahan also provides answers to questions asked about this blog post announcing updates to MyHeritage DNA matching technology and its new chromosome browser.

MAILBOX: TOM’S PASSPORT SEARCH SUCCESS

Kathleen Head’s passport applications
U.S. passport applications on Ancestry and FamilySearch through 1925
National Archives article on passport applications
U.S. State Department passport application (since 1925) copy requests
Frequently asked Questions about the Freedom of Information Act

BONUS CONTENT for Genealogy Gems App Users

If you’re listening through the Genealogy Gems app, your bonus content for this episode is a marvelous soundtrack of silent film music, played live (you’ll hear audience laughter occasionally in the background) and supplied by Sam Gill at the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum. The Genealogy Gems app is FREE in Google Play and is only $2.99 for Windows, iPhone and iPad users.

Backblaze lisa louise cooke

GEM: INTRODUCTION TO SILENT FILMS

(Image above: a page from Lisa’s grandmother’s journal)

Genealogy Gems Podcast Episode #2 about transcribing family journals and letters was remastered in Episode #134.

Episode #8

Stanford Theatre, Palo Alto, CA (shows silent films)

Internet Movie Database (IMDB)

Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum: the website for this museum is packed with resources: links to Chaplin-Keaton-Lloyd film locations; the International Buster Keaton Society; Classic Images Magazine; a timeline and early history of film and more.

Films mentioned in this episode:

Diary of a Lost Girl starring Louise Brooks (watch trailer)

Safety Last starring Harold Lloyd (watch here)

The Mender of Nets with Mary Pickford (watch here)

The Blot directed by Lois Weber (watch here)

Don’t Park There with Will Rogers (watch here)

Flivvering by Victor Moore

Wife and Auto Trouble directed by Bill Henderson (watch here)

A Trip Down Market Street (watch here)

Wings (watch here)

All Quiet on the Western Front (watch here)

Destruction of San Francisco by Blackhawk Films (watch part here)

Four Sons (watch trailer)

INTERVIEW: SAM GILL, FILM HISTORIAN AND ARCHIVIST

Shown here: Sam Gill and Lisa Cooke at the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum on the day of this interview. Throughout their conversation, you hear the sounds of excited theater patrons filling the auditorium before a screening.

Sam Gill’s interest in silent film dates to 1966, when as a college student he traveled to Hollywood to interview his aging heroes from the silent screen comedy era. For more than 20 years, he was Archivist of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science’s Margaret Herrick Library, where he established the Academy’s Special Collections and helped it grow to its current status as the preeminent repository for the study of American cinema. He is currently a Board Member of the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum. Over the years, he has consulted on or otherwise contributed his expertise to numerous film festivals, museum film programs and film history books.

Sam recently sent us these delightful photos (below) of himself over the years:

  • (Image 1) 1966: His first trip to Hollywood
  • (Image 2) 1974: A news article about a research trip to Florida
  • (Image 3) 2017: A birthday party for Diana Serra Cary (Baby Peggy), the last surviving star of the silent screen, held at the Edison Theater of the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum; also shown is Rena Kiehn, the museum’s publicity director and store manager

San Francisco Silent Film Festival

How to identify old cars in photographs (a technique that adapts well to film!)

National Film Preservation Foundation (click here to see where to find films they have helped preserve, including Japanese internment camp footage)

Old Town Music Hall

MyHeritage.com is the place to make connections with relatives overseas, particularly with those who may still live in your ancestral homeland. Click here to see what MyHeritage can do for you: it’s free to get started.

GEM: HOW TO FIND SILENT FILMS

If you’re looking for a specific movie, start with a Google search with the name in quotations (and, if you like, anything else you know about it, such as an actor or director’s name or the year). You may find lots of results, including a Wikipedia page and film history write-ups, but if you want to WATCH it, limit your search results to Video.

You can also turn to free curated collections online, such as:

101 free silent films: the great classics (links to free film footage on YouTube, Internet Archive, etc.)

YouTube playlist of silent movies

Internet Archive Silent Films collection: feature and short silent films uploaded by Internet Archive users

Silentmovies.info: watch several classic silent films

Netflix.com: Netflix subscribers can access the service’s little-known collection of silent films by entering the Netflix link for browsing its film categories and then the category specific to silent films, 53310:

http://www.netflix.com/browse/genre/ 53310

(Click here to read an article about this tip, along with Netflix’ full list of specific film categories.)

YouTube: watch for free, rent or buy, as shown here:

More places to explore for silent films:

Turner Classic Movies (TCM.com): under TCMDb, click Database Home and search for a title you want to watch

Amazon.com: Search for titles in the Video section; or search the Classic Silent films category

Your local public library (search catalog: try searching for an actor’s name as author)

Ebay: May be the right place to purchase a hard-to-find title. Click here to view current results for a search on silent films, filtered to include only movie/film items.

PRODUCTION CREDITS

Lisa Louise Cooke, Host and Producer

Sunny Morton, Editor

Diahan Southard, Your DNA Guide, Content Contributor

Hannah Fullerton, Production Assistant

Lacey Cooke, Service Manager

Disclosure: This document 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 this free podcast and blog!

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Genealogy Gems Podcast Episode 254

How to Use Google Photos for Family History

Have you thought about using Google Photos but just weren’t sure how it worked or where to start? This episode will answer your questions and give you the confidence to use it effectively. In this audio introductory tour to Google Photos we will answer the questions:

  • What is Google Photos? Is Google Photos private?
  • What features do I get with Google Photos?
  • How does Google Photos storage work? (Is Google Photos free?)
  • How do I start using Google Photos?
  • How do I upload my photos and videos?
  • How to search and retrieve photos and videos in Google Photos How would Google Photos benefit genealogists, archivists and others?

This audio comes from my YouTube video series Elevenses with Lisa episode 23.

Listen to the Podcast Episode

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Watch the Original Video:

 

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Genealogy Gems Podcast App

Don’t miss the Bonus audio for this episode. In the app, tap the gift box icon just under the media player. Get the app here

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MyHeritage

MyHeritage is the place to make connections with relatives overseas, particularly with those who may still live in your ancestral homeland. Visit www.MyHeritage.com

 

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Podcast Resources

Download the episode mp3
Show Notes: The audio in this episode comes from Elevenses with Lisa Episode 23. Visit the show notes page here.

Learn to Leapfrog by Speaking Google’s Language!

Speaking Google’s language will have you “genealogy leapfrogging!” It’s a new phrase coined by Gems reader, Steve, after his amazing discovery using the Google search techniques shared by Lisa in a recent lecture. You too can make some giant leaps in your genealogy research by speaking Google’s language.

Leapfrog by Speaking Google's Language

After a recent lecture presentation, we received this email from Steve:

Hi Lisa,

Steve here. I just attended your Google Tools seminar in Kelowna. I have created a new term as a result of your workshop and it is called the “Genealogy Leapfrog.” That is when you leapfrog way ahead in your genealogy research because of something you have learned from Lisa! Here is the context. I am completely green at genealogy, this was my first conference and I have just recently commenced my family tree research. I have had a very, very hard time finding anything out about my mother’s maiden name Rochon and their family. Well, as a result of the tips I learned from you, I used my grandfather’s name “Joseph Rochon” OR “Joseph A. Rochon” Liliane (Grandmother’s name) and up pops the most incredible website I have ever seen. By clicking on the Rochon with Liliane, the complete family tree back to the 1600s is revealed. Wow…I am in complete shock. While I know that I need to research and verify this information, I am humbled at how you have enabled me to “Leapfrog” in my genealogy research. I now know more about the Rochon family than my cousin who has been researching our family tree for 20 years!

So, here is the real reason for my email – to simply say thank you. Thank you for coming to Kelowna to share your knowledge with us and thank you for your passion for genealogy research. I am a huge beneficiary of your knowledge which has enabled me to do the “Genealogy Leapfrog.”

Yours in genealogy,

Steve

Learning to Leapfrog by Speaking Google’s Language

We were tickled to hear this new phrase based on the exciting techniques that Lisa and we here at The Genealogy Gems Podcast are sharing. Learning to speak Google’s language is a truly amazing tool for successful searching.

It is all based on using Google search operators correctly and Lisa shares that knowledge with you in this video below.

Happy hunting, friends! We know there is a wealth of information to comb through on the internet, but you can do it. Will you share your successes with us here in the comment section? We love to hear from you!

Learn even more about using Google for genealogy in Lisa’s book The Genealogist’s Google ToolboxYou can find this book in the printed edition or a handy e-book edition in our online Gems store.

leapfrog

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