Saturday, May 18, 2024

Going for a drive? Here’s a history of license plates and what’s new for Californians

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We see them every day and every vehicle has one. Today we have a little news and history about license plates.

People drive the most miles in the summer months so here’s a few things to consider while rolling down the road.

When the Department of Motor Vehicles began in 1915, gas was 8 cents a gallon and a new car cost about $500. If you think the lines are long now, the first DMV office had two employees and registration fees were $2.

In 1901, the state of New York was the first to require all vehicles to be registered and have license plates. The California Secretary of State’s Office began requiring vehicles to be registered in 1905 and issued the first plates made by the state in 1913.

Many variations of the plates have been made over the years.

Early plates had the year they were issued and changed frequently in size and color. Some plates were revalidated multiple years with metal plates fixed on them.

The plates in use from 1963 are still valid for use today, here’s a look at a few changes.

Plates still valid for use

1963: The last year a complete new plate issuance to all vehicles occurred (the plates had a black background and chrome yellow characters). Stay tuned, this plate made a comeback.

1970: The basic plate was changed to a blue background with yellow characters. It was also the last year any black/yellow plates were issued and the first time California allowed personalized plates.

1976: Year-round registration started, which requires a month expiration sticker affixed to the upper left-hand corner of the plate.

1982: The standard plate was changed to a white background with blue characters with a sun graphic and CALIFORNIA in red block letters. It was also the last year any blue/yellow plates were issued. This is the only California license plate to win “design of the year” by the Automobile License Plate Collectors Association. The Plate of the Year has been awarded since 1970, and the organization has members in every state and 19 countries. The most recent winner for 2022 was the Hawaii plate below.

1987: Reflecting plates with CALIFORNIA in red block letters were issued. The sun graphic was discontinued.

1991: Only reflecting basic plates were issued.

1993: The word CALIFORNIA was changed to red script.

1997: Stickers were made with background colors that change every year and characters printed in black.

1998-2000: Basic plates issued contain the words SESQUICENTENNIAL – 150 YEARS in red block letters at the bottom of the plates.

2001: Basic plates are white with blue characters and CALIFORNIA in red script. There is no writing at the bottom of the plate.

2011: The department’s Web address, “,” is added to the bottom of the basic California red script license plate.

2015: Legacy black plates with gold lettering became available. They are some of the most popular special interest plates sold. Fees collected are deposited into the Environmental License Plate fund, which benefits environmental projects in California.

2023: Digital plates are available for all California drivers.

California, Arizona, Colorado, Georgia and Michigan have approved digital license plates for widespread use. Texas allows them for commercial vehicles.

There’s only one company selling digital plates. Reviver offers two versions of its RPlate: a battery-powered model that requires a $20/month subscription fee or a hard-wired model for commercial vehicles for $25/month.

Learn more at

You can find a list of California’s specialty plates here.

You can find a list of California’s special interest plates here.

Some of the differences between states

California: A standard plate for a passenger vehicle will contain both letters and numbers. Since 1980, California has followed the same sequence: one number, three letters, and three numbers. The process began on 1AAA000, and, as of May 2023, has reached the 9EWZ000-9EWZ999. It is projected to end in 2027. Trucks, vans and specialty plates have a different system.

Texas: One of the few states that skips all vowels along with the letter Q on license plates.

Connecticut and Illinois: Two letters and five number combinations.

Iowa: Began using the slashed zero beginning in 2012 on all standard passenger plates in order to distinguish it from the letter “O,” which is also used.

Arizona: License plates have six characters, which can be either letters or numbers, with the exception of the fourth character, which is always a number.

Getting personal

In 1970, the first vanity plate in California was “AMIGO.” The state has had millions of submissions since.

A four-person team for the DMV reviews about 100,000 personalized plates a year. On a five-day workweek that’s more than 380 a day. The group rejects about 25 a day that are deemed inappropriate.

Around the world

The first license plate in the world was issued in France in 1893, through the Paris Ordinance. Three years later, in 1896, the first car license plate was registered in Germany. In 1898, the Netherlands introduced a national license plate.

Hands on

In the first years of license plates being issued in the U.S., the car owners had to make their own and it wasn’t until 1909 when New York was the first state to issue official plates.

Since 1947, inmates at Folsom State Prison have manufactured California’s license plates for the DMV. About 100 inmates work in the factory run by the Prison Industry Authority. As of January, there were more than 35.6 million vehicles (and 848,332 motorcycles) on California roads, of those 1.1 million had special interest plates.

Sources: DMV,,, Automobile License Plate Collectors Association, SEMA Action Network,,

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