OTAKU OBSESSION: The true history of period-correct California license plates

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California’s unique blend of arid weather, car culture, and state law forcing license plates to stay with the car, even when it changes hands, have created a perfect storm for a unique otaku obsession. For sale ads in all corners of the US use the term “California car” as shorthand for salt-, moisture- and thus rust-free sheetmetal.

Buyer beware, of course, as cars registered in the Golden State weren’t necessarily California cars to begin with, but here’s the thing — cars coming into the state don’t get the original plates, making the period-correct ones a telltale indicator of exactly how California the car really is. Thing is, California doesn’t even know its own license plate history.

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Thus we embark on another journey into the nerd-dom that consumes keepers and hobbyists of vintage cars. In case you weren’t aware, license plate collecting has a whole community rich with candy shop-like varieties and obscure factoids. There’s even established organizations overseeing the hobby, the biggest one being the ALPCA, the Automobile License Plate Collectors Association. With so much state-issued variation over the years across these United States (and provinces, prefectures, etc.), many reflecting the culture and style of the times, naturally they would become objects of obsession.

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Many of us look at the JNCs we pass and get a kick out of the occasional period-correct license plates affixed to them. As reported, this sentiment is currently being fed through the Legacy License Plate program by California’s Department of Motor Vehicles, with the blue plate most likely of interest to most JNCers. Turns out, however that even California’s DMV doesn’t know its own history.

The blue plate with golden lettering was a long-running and signature California plate recognized by many. It’s a simple, classic, and pleasing design, so much so that Mazda designers were inspired by its blue hue when they created the iconic Mariner Blue of the NA Miata. However, the homepage for the Legacy License Plate program designates the blue plate to belong to the ‘70s, with the DMV’s own history page claiming production from 1970 to 1982.

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However, you may have noticed that many cars of mid- to late-‘80s vintage are seen wearing the blue plate. What gives? In fact, California produced and issued blue plates as the official standard from 1969 all the way up to 1987. Minor alterations updated the design during this period, but the fact remains that the plate stayed in effect well into the Eighties.

You may also have noticed something missing alongside the yellow, black, and blue Legacy plates: the just as iconic and oh-so-‘80s “sunset” or “Golden State” plate. The DMV is correct in that this plate debuted in 1982. However, it did not replace the blue plate as standard issue; it was an optional plate costing an extra five dollars. This remained so for most of its life until January 1987. By this time, legislation required reflective license plate surfacing, and the blue plate was discontinued.

For a short ten-month period in 1987, the Golden State plate became the standard, only to be wholly replaced later that year by the new reflector-coated white plate, essentially a re-color of the blue plate with a blank background and block “California” lettering. This is why many deep-‘80s cars such as Cressidas and FCs still wear the blue plate.

The Golden State plate, being optional during most of its tenure, is also much rarer than the blue plate nowadays. One more curious factoid: because “California” was printed rather than stamped on the Golden State plates, concerns arose over identifiability in severe fire. Some batches of these plates thus have “CA” lightly stamped in the box for the month sticker on the left side.

Many important JNCs came from the 1980s, so it’s disappointing that the Golden State plate isn’t part of the Legacy License Plate program. Plus, it’s a personal favorite of mine. Admittedly, its design —the font spelling California and the sunset graphic — is very much of its time, and ‘80s culture tends to still be associated with more cheesiness than not. However, it is hard to argue against this plate’s iconic status. Just look at what the Back To The Future DeLorean wore.

Shortly after debut, the Golden State plate also won the “Plate of the Year” award from ALPCA and remains the only California plate to have done so. The plate was iconic abroad as well. For instance, fans of Tamiya models might remember its inclusion in the water-slide decals of classic 1/24 scale kits such as the ST162 Celica, Z32 300ZX, FC RX-7, A70 Supra, and Subaru Alcyone.

To delve into yet another realm of otaku-ness, these license plate decals even featured creative geek-appeasing vanity combos such as “300024V” for the 300ZX, “P747978” for the RX-7, and “7MGT24V” for the Supra. (The “WE PLN4U” on the Alcyone, however, eludes this geek still.)

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Like many other states, California now offers a wide variety of specialty plates, the ancestor of which is the Golden State plate. Unfortunately, while you can find examples of this plate for sale at places like eBay, California law doesn’t allow the transfer between vehicles unless they are personalized vanity plates. Meaning, if your JNC does not have its original plates, you are out of luck if you obsess about this period-correct detail.

For fans of the Golden State plate, there may be hope if the Legacy License Plate program is a resounding success. Around 6000 more applications are still needed for the blue plate as of this writing. Historically, the blue plate is still period-correct if you own the likes of an AE86, Z31, Marty McFly’s Toyota Pickup, etc. So if you don’t already have a blue plate on your JNC, this may be your only chance to achieve that original look. And if your JNC still wears the original Golden State plate, it is a badge of honor and preservation. Keep that registration current and continuous, as there is no replacement for those plates.

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19 Responses to OTAKU OBSESSION: The true history of period-correct California license plates

  1. Steve said:

    I am a little confused: if license plates are supposed to stay with the car it was originally issued to, why do they need a Legacy Plate program? Shouldn’t all JNC cars have the gold-on-blue plates they were originally issued? As well, I see a lot of old cars (used cars?) with newer plates; are ALL of these such cars out-of-state cars?

    • The Black CRX said:

      JNCs might not have their original plates for a few reasons: They lost their original plates to theft, damage or years of unpaid registration; they had vanity plates that the owners kept upon selling the car; or they’re not originally from California. And 1987-89 JNCs would most likely have the plain white plates with California in block letters (the script came in 1993). Even with the boring white plates, you have to have a good sense of when the number series changed to know if a CA car is on its original plates.

      The legacy plates are for nostalgia, not authenticity (that is, a new way for the DMV to make money). They will be easy to distinguish from the original plates by their design variation, reflective finish, and their number series.

  2. Parrot said:

    Now for an explanation of japanese plates!

  3. Midship Runabout said:

    The “1S” tag on my ’86 AW11 has to be one of the last original blue plates issued in California…even an editor of this site was confused by it.

  4. Sfzpilot@gmail.com said:

    You also surrender plates when purchasing a used car during registration and title transfer. This is where the plates are switched for current plates throughout the years.

    • Dave said:

      This is not the case in California. Plates stay with the car by default, unless they’re specialty or/and vanity plates (in which case the seller fills out a form to keep or release). The older styles are still legal to use provided that registrations have been kept current. The buyer isn’t required to keep the same plates, however, and can opt to get the most current design when transferring ownership and registering.

    • Steve said:

      This is what I thought but I keep reading (here and other forums) that the plates are tied to the car for the life of the car (except for theft and loss as mentioned above).

    • Jim-Bob said:

      The thing is though, this varies from state to state. In many states (like my home state of Florida), new plates are issued every few years, irrespective of ownership. I have had my Nissan truck since new in 1998 and it has had at least 4 different tags on it since we are required to change them every 4-5 years. Also, some countries do like California and keep the tags with the car (the UK comes to mind here).

      • Mike McDonald said:

        Wyoming is one of the states that reissued license plates every year. I have 10 plus years of Wyoming plates that were on my Datsun RL411. I made many license plate counting kids happy to see a Wyoming plate! Of course on the main continental US Hawaii plates are rarer. The Alkan highway makes Alaska plates more available in the lower 48.

        Maybe I should contact a movie special effects house regarding old Wyomig plates for use in movie and TV productions?

  5. Dutch 1960 said:

    Turning in old plates when title is transferred or back registration is due is a “hit or miss” experience for me. I was recently able to keep a blue plate on a title transfer, with a “skip” transfer (previous owner never transferred into his name from 2nd previous owner) and a missing title. Because everything was still in the DMV computer, the lady produced two special affidavits to be signed by the previous two owners (forms not available on line), and all was caught up from 1985! I was already in touch with the two previous owners, it was all on the up-and-up. The secret, the car was a “red MG” and the DMV clerk “loved red MGs”. And I was nice and respectful and thankful throughout the process. The cost of all those back fees? Wow, don’t ask. But I still have blue plates! If it doesn’t work with one clerk, try another office on another day to complete the deal. If it still not working, wait a bit longer, maybe those “darn neighborhood kids” might steal them off the car IYKWIM. Then get your new set, and someone in the neighborhood, very close by, will still have the old ones for shows.

    • Dave said:

      Yeah I’ve heard stories like this. However, 1985! I’m surprised that your car wasn’t purged from their computers, as this is one of the reasons these plates become lost. I’ve heard another workaround (of dubious legality) to use vintage plates, but finding a friendly DMV is certainly the legitimate way to go.

  6. pstar said:

    License plates… I have some otaku opinions about them. Namely, I (mostly) hate the whole North American style of them. The pictures and cutesy phrases are just stupid. And the dimensions are junk. Euro is best and Japanese is ok too. Also helps that those places use plain black characters on white background. Euro has best fonts.

    • juppe said:

      What do you mean by “those places”? In Europe each country has its own system and design. E.g. Germany has black characters on white background and you can choose your own characters/numbers (the first characters designate the city or village of registration). France has different background colors on front and rear of the car (or used to, I’m not sure if this is still applicable). Belgium uses small plates with red characters on white background, and in the Netherlands they have black on yellow background with the California system where the plates stay with the car. Pre ’78 cars are allowed to use the vintage white on blue. But because of the plates-stay-with-the-car-system you can easily spot if a car has been imported or not.

  7. Dutch 1960 said:

    Compared to European or Japanese plates, the US ones are very hard to read quickly or at a distance. But the US plates come in such a variety of designs, styles, and colors. Much more interesting and less generic. Which is why, IMO, having vintage plates with a vintage car in the US is more important. The old style is proper. Vintage or original dealer frames can be a good addition, too. Rose Toyota in San Diego always claimed it was the first Toyota dealer in the USA. How about a vintage set of Rose Toyota license plate frames for your California registered Toyopet or early Corona?

  8. Mike McDonald said:

    Even the “plain vanilla” reflective plates went through growing pains. At first the “California” was block letter and painted red. Then it was block letters painted but not embossed. The “California” morphed into script. There were 2 scripts. The first had the final “A” as a final loop below the pocket for the annual tag. The second was a more “airy” for a better term flip that hit the annual tag pocket at a higher point.

    • The Black CRX said:

      The block lettering for “California” was embossed until the end of its run in 1993. It was never painted on the flush surface (the red and blue part of the those plates were painted by a roller that hits only the raised surfaces). I have a car with one of the final block-letter plates… it’ll be a JNC in four more years!

      The flush-printed script that started in 1994 actually had three versions, growing a little in 1996, and a little more (to its current size) in 1998.

  9. Tedman said:

    I guess I never considered my Golden State plates all that special. Stoked I have ‘em, though.
    http://i.imgur.com/g9l2iIq.jpg

  10. Verv said:

    B) just checked my 85 Civic CRX Si, and I have the sunset plate
    neat.