Clues to Identifying an Unknown Vehicle

by , under Family History Research, WRHS

Family historians often are faced with the issue of trying to identify an automobile depicted in a snapshot in a family photo album. Today, I attended a workshop presented at Western Reserve Historical Society by the Genealogical Committee, an auxiliary of WRHS. The presenter was Derrick Moore, curator of the Crawford Auto Aviation Museum at WRHS.

Derrick gave a nice overview of the auto industry in NEOhio, noting that at one time in the early 1900s, there were more manufacturers of autos in Cleveland than any where else in America.

He then shared tips for identifying those mystery automobiles depicted in family photos. He summarized those in a one-page handout, which I am reproducing below:

The biggest clues to identifying unknown vehicles typically lie in trademark logos or components that are visible on the automobile. These trademarks are often the first clues and cues to use in beginning your search for the Marque of the vehicle. Below are general suggestions of clues that may appear on an unknown vehicle:

Look for a Marque logo/emblem on the vehicle. On early vehicles, pre-WWII, radiator emblems and mascots are the easiest way to identify a vehicle. On modern vehicles, post-WWII, emblems still exist but have become mounted on the front fascia of the automobile, and often emblems of a model name are on the sides of the vehicle mounted on the front fenders.

Look at the radiator shape. This is typically only a good clue on pre-WWII era vehicles. Many times early automobile companies would use uniquely shaped, and sometime uniquely painted, radiators on vehicles. One of the most notable examples of a uniquely shaped radiator is Packard. One of the most notable examples of a uniquely painted radiator is Stearns.

Look at the wheels of the vehicle. The wheels on a pre-WWII vehicle can tell you a lot about a vehicle. The first piece of the wheel to look at is the dust cap. The dust cap is the center cap of the wheel and often has the company logo on it; if it is visible it will be a definitive answer to the Marque. The second clue can come from the size and style of the wheel, some companies used unique spoke designs that help to narrow down what Marque the vehicle might be. Wheels on post-WWII vehicles often have full size hubcaps or center caps on the rims, which typically have the Marque logo at the center. This is a quick way to identify post-WWII vehicles.

Look at the style and size of body. The style of a body on pre-WWII vehicles can often be a major clue to what price range the vehicle was in. If it is a large, luxurious looking body, odds are that it is not a “common” automobile like a Ford Model T. The style of body can also help you identify the year range of the automobile. Open bodies, or touring cars, were more common in the early days of the automobile industry. Closed bodies, or sedans, became more common after the early 1920s, as more people began to own automobiles and use them year round.

FYI, the term “marque” in this context refers to the brand of automobile. It is commonly used by auto collectors and is primarily associated with “quality” automobiles. WRHS has an extensive collection of literature and information about nearly all brands of automobiles, both old and newer, luxury and ordinary. This WRHS collection is known as the Marque Files. It is available for use in the Research Library by family historians.

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