Dirt Bike VIN Info

You've worked hard for your money and the last thing you want to discover is that the used dirt bike you just bought was stolen. Buying a used dirt bike in good mechanical condition is only part of the total equation. Making sure the dirt bike isn't stolen is the other part, and the dirt bike's VIN (Vehicle Identification Number) can help determine if the used dirt bike you're buying is legit.

What is a dirt bike VIN?

Prior to 1980 most dirt bikes had a metal tag stamped with a serial number of about eight or ten characters (depending on the year and model of the bike) riveted somewhere on the bike's frame. In 1981 the NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) instituted the VIN system which is a 17-character alphanumeric identifier and the VIN is now etched into the dirt bike's frame. Most of the VIN info relates to cars, not dirt bikes, but here's a quick VIN decoder explanation:

  • Characters 1 - 3 (World Manufacturer Identifier): The first character indicates in what region the dirt bike was manufactured, the second character when combined with the first character narrows the manufacturing region ever further, indicating in which country the bike was manufactured, and the third character is used to identify the vehicle type.
  • Characters 4 - 9 (Vehicle Descriptor Section): This group of characters describes things such as model, engine size, and various style options. Character Nine is a check digit that's used to make sure the VIN is correct.
  • Characters 10 - 17 (Vehicle Identifier Section): These characters are referred to as the Vehicle Identifier. The all-important (for dirt bikes without paperwork) 10th character indicates the marketing year of the vehicle. The rest of the characters (11-17) denote the assembly plant, production number, and available options.

Where is a dirt bike VIN located?

The VIN on a dirt bike is usually located on the right side (as you're sitting on the bike) of the handlebar stub. The handlebar stub is the short piece just above where the front fork is mounted on the frame and is right behind the front number plate. The VIN should be etched into the frame and should not be altered or defaced in any way. The image below shows the area to check for the dirt bike VIN:

Dirt bike VIN location

Engine number vs. VIN:

The dirt bike engine number is an 11 digit identifier usually located on the right side of the engine case near the kickstarter (or where the kickstarter used to be if the bike has e-start). The engine number contains 11 characters as opposed to the VIN's 17 characters, so when buying a used dirt bike without paperwork (never a good idea!), don't let the seller use the engine number on a Bill of Sale. Only the dirt bike's 17-digit VIN can be used to identify and register ownership of the dirt bike.

How to tell the age of a dirt bike:

The 10th digit of the VIN (counting from the left) denotes the model year of the vehicle. The model year is different than the production year. If a dirt bike was manufactured in January 2019 and hits the showroom floor by October 2019, they're one in the same. If the bike was manufactured in October 2019 but doesn't get to the showroom until 2020, it will be assigned a 2020 date. Once you have the tenth digit from the VIN, you'll need to consult a VIN decoder chart to be sure of the dirt bike's year of manufacture because the numbers and/or letters aren't sequential. The letter I, O, and Q are not used in any VINs at all, and the letter U and Z along with the 0 (zero) are not used for the 10th digit model year code. The image below shows a VIN chart decoder to calculate the age of a dirt bike: (Source: NHTSA and Wikipedia)

Dirt bike VIN chart

How do you know if a dirt bike is stolen?

The only way to know a used dirt bike isn't stolen is to check, and double-check, the VIN and paperwork. If you're buying the dirt bike from the original owner they should have an MCO (Manufacturer's Certificate of Origin), sometimes called a CCO (Certificate of Origin), regardless of whether they registered the bike or not. That paperwork comes from the dealer and will have the bike's VIN right on the MCO. If they're not the original owner and there's no paperwork, proceed with caution. That's not to say the dirt bike has been stolen, but be absolutely sure the VIN hasn't been defaced or altered in any way, and once you have the VIN from the bike's frame, you should run it through some of the available stolen dirt bike databases.

Stolen dirt bike databases:

Nothing is foolproof when researching stolen dirt bikes, but check some of the stolen dirt bike databases before buying the bike. Keep in mind there might be a certain amount of lag time between the time a dirt bike was stolen and the time it gets entered into the database. For example, once the dirt bike is reported stolen, the police may spend a couple of days trying to find the bike before entering the bike's VIN into the database. If the bike had insurance, the owner might contact the insurance company first and they might take a couple of days before contacting the police, who might take a couple of days to investigate, etc.

Here's a list of some stolen vehicle databases. Most of the databases were created to find stolen cars, not dirt bikes, but as long as you have a legitimate VIN they should return the same results as for a car:

  • VINCheck | National Insurance Crime Bureau: The NICB is a not-for-profit organization created from the criminal divisions of various insurance companies. Their database determines if a vehicle has been reported stolen and not recovered, or if it has been reported as a salvage vehicle.
  • National Highway Traffic Safety Administration: The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the Department of Transportation (DOT) VIN decoder page.
  • National Motor Vehicle Title Information System: The Department of Justice (DOJ) oversees the NMVTIS, and the NMVTIS works in partnership with the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators (AAMVA). They have several authorized third parties that will provide detailed reports which currently cost between $2.99 and $12.99 per report.
  • CycleVIN: CycleVIN is one of the few databases that focuses on stolen dirt bikes, ATVs, snowmobiles, etc., instead of automobiles. The CycleVIN site charges a fee (currently $25) to get a detailed report.

Your best defense against buying a stolen dirt bike is to buy a used dirt bike that has an official, verifiable paper trail. You don't want to end up in possession of stolen property.