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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.