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!

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.

We have a WINNER! Family Tree Magazine Giveaway

Congratulations to Amanda, the winner of our Family Tree Magazine Digital Subscription Giveaway!

We did the giveaway to celebrate my article in the December 2013 issue of Family Tree Magazine, co-written with Genealogy Gems Contributing Editor Sunny Morton. The article is all about collaborating on our genealogy research.

family history genealogy blogs are cousin baitI think it’s cool that Amanda’s big on collaboration herself. She blogs about her research at ABT-UNK. (Yes, that’s the name of her blog: it combines two common genealogy abbreviations for “about” and “unknown.”) Amanda points us to a recent post, “a really good example of collaboration via my blog.  The two photos in the post http://www.honeytraveler.com/pharmacy/ were provided by two cousins of different degrees who found me via my blog, and five different people (so far) have been involved in identifying the people in the “Christmas Cousins” picture.  I’ve connected with lots of other kin who found me via my blog (including a distant cousin in Lithuania, who helped me break through a brick wall there), and they have provided a wealth of information and wonderful photographs!”

Congratulations, Amanda, both on winning our giveaway and on your excellent research and blog. Keep it up! And thanks to Family Tree Magazine Editor Diane Haddad for donating the subscription.

Catholic Church Records in New and Updated Genealogical Collections

Findmypast announces the new catholic church records in their Catholic Heritage Archive this week. This new partnership with British and American Archdioceses will be a monumental help to those searching their early Catholic roots. Also this week, records from Italy and the Netherlands at FamilySearch.

By JakobLazarus (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Catholic Church Records in the Catholic Heritage Archive

Findmypast announced their new Catholic Heritage Archive this past week. They are releasing over 3 million exclusive records including sacramental registers for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia from 1757 to 1916 as well as for the British Archdioceses of Westminster and Birmingham from 1657 forward. This builds on last year’s publication of more than 10 million Irish Catholic parish registers.

The Catholic Church holds some of the oldest and best preserved genealogical records and in the past, have been difficult to access.

In collaboration with various Archdioceses of the Catholic Church, Findmypast is helping to bring these records online in one unified collection for the first time ever. Exclusively available on Findmypast, images of original documents will be completely free to view in many cases. Fully searchable transcripts will also be included, providing family historians from the around the world with easy access to these once closely guarded records.

Click “Play Now” below to listen to Sunny Morton’s brief interview with Findmypast about the announcement: [display_podcast]

The next phase of the Catholic Heritage Archive will include records from the archdioceses of New York and Baltimore as well as additional records from Philadelphia. There are over 30 million records in just these three dioceses. The digitization of the whole archive is a monumental undertaking and, when complete, will contain hundreds of millions of records for the USA alone.

Catholic Heritage Archive Holdings for This Week:

United States – Pennsylvania – Philadelphia – Baptisms

The Philadelphia Roman Catholic Parish Baptisms at Findmypast are the first of these record releases from an agreement made with the Roman Catholic Church to digitize their records. These baptismal records will include a name, their parent’s names, and residence at the time of the event.

Additional information may include place of birth, sponsors, minister who performed the ceremony, and notice of marriage. Catholic priests were charged with noting all vital events of their parishioners. If, for instance, a parishioner married outside her home parish, the priest who performed the marriage would contact her priest to confirm she was baptized and to share the details of her marriage, hence the marriage notice in the baptism register.

United States – Pennsylvania – Philadelphia – Marriages

You can now view a transcript and an image of your ancestor’s marriage register from the Archdiocese of Philadelphia in this collection titled Philadelphia Roman Catholic Parish Marriages from Findmypast.

Information contained in these records include the couple’s names, marriage date and location, and you may find dates and locations of the couples’ baptisms.

All Philadelphia Roman Catholic Parish records are from the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, covering Bucks County, Chester County, Delaware County, Montgomery County, and Philadelphia County.

England – Westminster – Roman Catholic Census

Another Catholic records resource from Findmypast includes the Westminster Roman Catholic Census 1893. As well as the typical information you would expect from a census (occupation, address, birth year, etc.), notes detailing the local priest’s opinion on your ancestor’s faith and dedication to the church let you find out if your ancestor was a good or bad Catholic. Scandalous!

England – Birmingham & Westminster – Roman Catholic Church & Parish Records

Four separate collections, also in the Catholic Heritage Archive at Findmypast, include Roman Catholic baptismal, burial, marriage, and congregational records for locales in England. The records released this week are for the areas covering the Birmingham and Westminster archdioceses. The amount of information in each of these record sets will vary on the age of the record, legibility, and the amount of information recorded by the parish priest. You will find both a transcription and a digital image of the record.

England Roman Catholic Parish Baptisms

England Roman Catholic Parish Burials

England Roman Catholic Parish Marriages

England Roman Catholic Parish Congregational Records

United States – Pennsylvania – Vital Records

Provided by the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Findmypast brings you a large collection of vital records. The first is titled Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Births & Baptisms. These records include images from a variety of sources spanning years from the late 1600s to the mid 1900s.

It is important to note this may not be the only place to find births or baptisms—and there may be records included that are not births or baptisms in this material from the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

The Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Deaths & Burials collection will include records that may contain the following information: decedent’s name, date of death and burial, parish and diocese, and could include additional information such as military service, age, and birth date.

The Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Marriages collection is also a helpful group of records and include marriage records ranging from the early 1600s to the late 1900s. You can view a transcript and the original image.

United States – Pennsylvania – Congregational Records

The Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Congregational Records is a unique collection that may give you insight into your ancestor and the church they attended. Not only will images include lists of past ministers, but you may find additional lists of those persons baptized and confirmed. Some of these records may also be used as a source to discover the names of your ancestor’s parents and spouses.

United States – Pennsylvania – WWII Records

WWII cards

Screenshot from Findmypast of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, WWII Casualty Cards.

The Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Word War II Casualty Cards collection is a group of records created by the Army so if something happened to a local soldier, the newspaper wouldn’t have to scramble for information. These records are particularly relevant in light of the fire at the National Archives and Records Administration in the 1970s when most World War II personnel files were destroyed.

 

Netherlands – Miscellaneous Records

We have brought you many collections from Findmypast, which require a subscription. However, these next few collections are brought to you by FamilySearch and are free to access.

Netherlands, Archival Indexes, Miscellaneous Records collection has been updated this week at FamilySearch. These records include many record sources, such as civil registration, church records, emigration lists, military registers, and land and tax records. These records cover events like birth, marriage, death, burial, emigration and immigration, military enrollment, and more. These indexes were originally collected, combined and published by OpenArchives. For the entire index collection and more information visit www.openarch.nl.

Italy – Trapani, Civil Registration

FamilySearch brings you updates to the Italy, Trapani, Civil Registration (State Archive), 1906-1928 collection. This collection consists of civil registration of births, marriages, and deaths within the custody of the State Archive of Trapani. Availability of records is largely dependent on time period and locality. This collection of civil registrations records covers the years 1906-1928 and may also include:

  • Residency records
  • Marriage banns
  • Indexes
  • Marriage supplements
  • Miscellaneous records

Learn More about Institutional Records Research

Catholic church recordsFrom schools and orphanages to prisons, hospitals, asylums, workhouses, and more, there’s a good chance one or more of your ancestors might be found on record in one of the many types of institutions. In this Premium eLearning video, Institutional Records Research Methods, Lisa Louise Cooke presents methods for finding your ancestors in institutional records, from establishing a workflow and investigating clues found in the census and other records to resources and strategies for digging up the records. This 40-minute video includes a downloadable handout and is available right now to all Premium eLearning members. Click here to sign up!

 

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