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.
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 Toolbox—which 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
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:
- “The Colorful History of California License Plates” in LA Magazine
- California DMV license plate introduction
- California State Archives
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:
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.
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.
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!
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.
Digitized Irish historical maps are among new genealogy records online. Also: Irish civil registrations; Irish, British, and Scottish newspapers; Westminster, England Roman Catholic records; wills and probates for Wiltshire, England and, for the U.S., WWI troop transport photos, Tampa (FL) photos, Mayflower descendants, NJ state census 1895, western NY vital records, a NC newspaper, Ohio obituaries, and a Mormon missionary database.
Beautiful Irish historical maps
- Dublin City Ordnance Survey Maps created in 1847, during the Great Famine. “This large-scale government map, broken up into numerous sheets, displays the locations of all the streets, buildings, gardens, lanes, barracks, hospitals, churches, and landmarks throughout the city,” states a collection description. “You can even see illustrations of the trees in St Steven’s Green.”
- Ireland, Maps and Surveys 1558-1610. These full-color, beautifully-illustrated maps date from the time of the English settlement of Ulster, Ireland. According to a collection description, the maps “were used to inform the settlers of the locations of rivers, bogs, fortifications, harbors, etc. In some illustrations, you will find drawings of wildlife and even sea monsters. Around the harbors, the cartographers took the time to draw meticulously detailed ships with cannons and sailors. Many of the maps also detailed the names of the numerous Gaelic clans and the lands they owned, for example, O’Hanlan in Armagh, O’Neill in Tyrone, O’Connor in Roscommon, etc.”
(Want to explore these maps? Click on the image above for the free 14-day trial membership from Findmypast.com!)
More Ireland genealogy records
FamilySearch.org now hosts a free online collection of Ireland Civil Registration records, with births (1864-1913), marriages (1845-1870), and deaths (1864-1870). Images come from original volumes held at the General Register Office. Click here to see a table of what locations and time periods are covered in this database. Note: You can also search free Irish civil registrations at IrishGenealogy.ie.
New at the British Newspaper Archive
The Irish Independent, a new national title for Ireland, is joined in the Archive this week by eight other brand new titles. These include four titles for Scottish counties: Aberdeenshire, Lanarkshire, Angus (Forfanshire) and Wigtownshire. There are also four new papers for England, two of which are from London (Fulham & Hampstead), one for Worcestershire and one for West Yorkshire. Also, significant additions have been made to the British Newspaper Archive’s online coverage for the Brechlin Advertiser (Scotland, added coverage for 1925-1957) and Southend Standard and Essex Weekly Advertiser (added coverage for 1889-1896).
Roman Catholic Records for Westminster, England
Over 121,000 new Roman Catholic parish records for the Diocese of Westminster, England are now available to search on Findmypast.com in their sacramental records collections:
- Parish baptisms. Over 94,000 records. The amount of information in indexed transcripts varies; images may provide additional information such as godparents’ names, officiant, parents’ residence, and sometimes later notes about the baptized person’s marriage.
- Parish marriages. Nearly 9,000 additional Westminster records have been added. Transcripts include couples’ names, marriage information, and father’s names. Original register images may have additional information, such as names of witnesses and degree of relation in cases of nearly-related couples.
- Parish burials. Transcripts include date and place of burial as well as birth year and death; images may have additional information, such as parents’ names and burial or plot details.
- Additional congregational records. More than 16,000 indexed records of confirmations, donations, and other parish records are included here.
London Marriage Licences 1521-1869
Findmypast has published a searchable PDF version of a published volume of thousands of London Marriage Licenses 1521-1869. Search by name, parish, or other keyword. A collection description says, “Records will typically reveal your ancestor’s occupation, marital status, father’s name, previous spouse’s name (if widowed) and corresponding details for their intended spouse.” Note: The full digital text of this book is free to search at Internet Archive.
Wills and Probate Index for Wiltshire, England
Explore more than 130,000 Wiltshire Wills and Probate records in the free Findmypast database, Wiltshire Wills and Probate Index 1530-1881. “Each record consists of a transcript that will reveal your ancestor’s occupation, if they left a will and when they left it,” says a description. “The original Wiltshire wills are held at the Wiltshire and Swindon Archive. The source link in the transcripts will bring you directly to their site where you can view their index and request an image. If you wish to view an image, you will have to contact Wiltshire Council and a small fee may be required for orders by post.”
New records across the United States
WWI: Ancestry.com subscribers may now access a new online collection of photographs of U.S., WWI Troop Transport Ships, 1918-1919. Browse to search by ship name.
Florida. The city of Tampa, Florida has digitized and published two historic photo collections on Hillsborough County Public Library Cooperative Digital Collections:
- The Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce Collection includes over 30,000 images of Tampa events dating from about 1950 until 1990, and includes many local officials and dignitaries.
- The Tampa Photo Supply Collection includes more than 50,000 images of daily life and special events (weddings, graduations) taken by local commercial photographers between 1940 and 1990, primarily in West Tampa, Ybor City, and South Tampa.
Mayflower descendants. AmericanAncestors.org has published a new database of authenticated Mayflower Pilgrim genealogies: Mayflower Families Fifth Generation Descendants, 1700-1880. The collection includes the carefully-researched names of five generations of Mayflower pilgrim descendants.
New Jersey. The New Jersey State Census of 1895 is now free to search at FamilySearch.org, which also hosts an 1885 New Jersey state census collection. “The state of New Jersey took a state census every 10 years beginning in 1855 and continuing through 1915, says a FamilySearch wiki entry. “The 1885 census is the first to survive in its entirety.” Click here to learn more about state censuses in the United States.
New York. Ancestry.com has published a searchable version of a genealogy reference book, 10,000 Vital Records of Western New York, 1809-1850. According to a collection description, “The 10,000 vital records in this work were drawn from the marriage and death columns of five western New York newspapers published before 1850….Birth announcements were not published in these early newspapers, but many of the marriage and death notices mentioned birth years, birthplaces, and parents’ names, and where appropriate such data has been copied off and recorded here.”
North Carolina. The first 100 years of the Daily Tar Heel newspaper are now free to search in digitized format at the North Carolina Digital Heritage Center. The collection spans 1893-1992 and includes over 73,000 pages from more than 12,000 issues. Click here for a related news article.
Ohio. FamilySearch also now hosts an index to Ohio, Crawford County Obituaries, 1860-2004, originally supplied by the county genealogical society. Obituaries may be searched or browsed; images may include additional newspaper articles (not just obituaries).
Utah and beyond (Latter-day Saint). The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons) has published a database of early missionaries. It covers about 40,000 men and women who served between 1830 and 1930, and may link to items from their personal files, including mission registry entries, letters of acceptance, mission journal entries, and photos. Those who are part of FamilySearch’s free global Family Tree will automatically be notified about relatives who appear in this database, and may use a special tool to see how they are related. Others may access the original database here. Click here to read a related news article.
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