Classic car 'matching numbers' has lost meaning in appraisals

A row of Mustangs line the street. The

A row of Mustangs line the street. The Back in Time Cruisers Charity Car Show held in front of Mary's Pizza and Restaurant in Islip Terrace brought hundreds to gaze on at classic muscle cars and imports. The Car Show was held to beneift childhood diabetes research. (Aug. 18, 2013) (Credit: Johnny Milano)

I’m sure that we’ve touched on the subject of “matching numbers” in the past. But what exactly does “matching numbers” mean? I really couldn’t tell you, because it means different things to different people, and different things on different cars. When you consider all of the permutations that are possible, it is virtually impossible to come up with a universally accurate definition of “matching numbers.”

This wouldn’t be a problem were it not for the fact that many classic car buyers, sellers, and owners bandy this term around as if there were some magic number on every component of every classic car that enables us to tell if the carburetor is original to the engine, which is original to the transmission, which is original to the rear end, which is original to the chassis, which is original to the body. And while we’re at it, let’s be certain that the cigarette lighter and ash tray are also correct. Unfortunately, this magic number does not exist.

If you’re considering buying a classic car that is being represented as “matching numbers,” you better do your homework and find out just what it means for that particular car. And if you are a seller who is representing a car as “matching numbers,” best to make sure that it really is. With the price being paid for many collector cars today, the old excuse of “The guy I bought the car from told me it was” is not holding up so well in court these days. 


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Perhaps an example of a popular collector car will illustrate how complicated this issue can become. Let’s look at a 1967 427/435 Corvette. If the car were entirely original, the engine number and transmission number would match the last six digits of the cars VIN (vehicle identification number). If the car was represented as being “matching numbers,” would a potential buyer be entitled to expect that all of these numbers match? Some would say yes, and others might say that only the engine number needs to match.

But what about the rear end, carburetor, distributor, alternator, intake and exhaust manifolds, cylinder heads, and a multitude of other items that have part numbers and casting codes? These numbers never matched the individual cars VIN, but would indicate if they were used on a 1967 Corvette. What if these numbers on our make-believe car indicate that these parts were never used on a 1967 Corvette? Is this no longer a “matching numbers car?”

But wait! What about the “paint codes” and “trim codes” that are indicated on the “Trim Tag”? Do these need to match the exterior color and interior color of the car? Lets not forget about the “date codes” on all of the glass and the mirrors. The list of potential numbers goes on and on.

This is why it is so important for a buyer and a seller to clarify exactly what “matching numbers” means to them. In general (and I’m sure I’ll get angry letters about this), the more expensive the car, the more numbers should match. 

Let’s go back to our 1967 Corvette. On a $60,000 “driver quality” car, a buyer might reasonably expect the engine numbers to match, and perhaps the transmission numbers as well. I would argue that 75% of the cars intrinsic value is derived from these numbers being correct. But on a $150,000 show car that has achieved “NCRS Top Flight” or “Bloomington Gold” status, a buyer might reasonably expect each and every number to be correct. 

Now that we have that cleared up, what happens when “matching” numbers really aren’t. The deceptive practice of re-stamping engine parts with the correct “matching numbers” has been around for a long time. This is usually done to enhance the value of a collector car. A seller that gets caught doing this, and ends up in court, will usually offer the excuse that “I said it was matching numbers, and it is. I never said it was the original engine.” Many advertisements will list a car a “matching numbers” but then go on to indicate that it has a “restoration block.” It’s up to you to know that this simply means that the engine block has been re-stamped to include the correct numbers for that particular car. 

1967 Corvettes have lots of numbers that are well-researched and fairly easy to decode. If no fraud is suspected, they are easy to authenticate, particularly for an expert. 

Another very popular collector car is the early Ford Mustang. Most of the advertisements that I see for these cars indicate that they are “matching numbers.” I can’t help but wonder what the sellers mean by this as there are no “matching numbers” (except for the very rare K-code engines) on these cars. One can check that certain casting codes and date codes are correct, but not matching numbers. 

When the term “matching numbers” is used properly, in a manner that is clearly understood as it pertains to an individual car, it can be used to positively quantify the originality of that particular car. When used improperly, it means nothing at all.  

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