Connecting state and local government leaders
With a simple aesthetic and catchy slogans, plate designs mimicking those from decades past are proving to be popular.
Americans—and their state legislators—love specialty license plates. States have been creating alternative designs for the back-of-the-bumper identifiers since the country’s bicentennial in 1976. But lately, some of the hottest designs have been decidedly retro.
This winter, for example, Michigan introduced a new specialty plate based on the design of Michigan license plates from the 1960s. The plates are dark blue—almost black—with gold lettering that simply says the state’s name and “Water-Winter Wonderland.”
In little more than three months, the Michigan secretary of state’s office has issued 132,461 of the retro plates.
That’s more than twice as many plates issued than in 2013, when the state introduced another favorite – one that shows the iconic Mackinac Bridge, which links the Upper and Lower Peninsulas.
“I’ve seen them everywhere. People really are excited,” said Tracy Wimmer, the director of media relations for Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson. “Actually, I think I’m probably going to get them. They’re really cool.”
Benson decided to bring back the plates, both because many people had asked for them and because it would be a way to commemorate the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which passed when the original design was standard in Michigan, Wimmer said. In Michigan, the secretary of state’s office oversees both vehicle registration and voting.
But the buzz over throwback designs for license plates is growing around the country. A retro design is now California’s most popular specialty plate. Montana allows drivers to choose between its current design or one of four previous looks. Colorado is bringing back a legacy design that has green mountains and a white sky (instead of the current white mountains with a green sky) as its main element. New Jersey legislators have recently debated bringing back a plate from the 1980s.
As state symbols that people see almost every day, license plates can spark intense emotions from local residents.
Ohio officials found that out the hard way last October, when they introduced a new plate design that, among other things, played up the state’s many historic ties to aviation. An image of the Wright Flyer, the iconic first airplane built by Ohio brothers but first successfully tested in North Carolina, dragged a banner calling Ohio the “Birthplace of Aviation.”
People pounced on the design, though, because the plane was depicted flying backwards, despite a 15-month review process.
It also stoked a longtime rivalry with North Carolina about who should get credit for the Wright brothers’ breakthrough.
“Y’all leave Ohio alone,” the North Carolina Department of Transportation tweeted at the time, with pictures of the Wright plane on the Ohio license plate and in flight above the Kitty Hawk beach. “They wouldn’t know. They weren’t there.”
Meanwhile, improved printing technology makes it easier for states to produce elaborate, colorful designs. The enhanced printing capabilities can also make it possible to fit more characters on a plate than in the past.
The result can be an aesthetic mess: busy designs with silhouettes of skylines and farm fields, elaborate depictions of scenic views, or simply fades from one color to another becoming common motifs.
Some of these types of designs have drawn criticism from license plate enthusiasts and law enforcement.
In several states, for example, law enforcement pushed for measures that would keep the background color behind lettering solid white. Even a nearly solid blue plate in Tennessee has caused problems for police who rely on license plate scanners that often have difficulty reading the new designs.
The throwback plates largely eschew the move toward more complicated designs.
“For me, personally, I appreciate the minimalist aesthetic, and I appreciate vintage things,” said Wimmer, from the Michigan secretary of state’s office. “I think the popularity of this plate and the ‘water and winter wonderland’ slogan is reflective of how proud most people from Michigan are to be from Michigan.”
“No one knows exactly why they’re so popular,” Bernard Soriano, the deputy director of the California Department of Motor Vehicles, told Route Fifty, about retro plates there. “I think the simplicity of the plate actually plays a part… It’s fairly plain: black with gold lettering. But when you put it on a vehicle, it pops out.”
Other factors might make the 1960s-style plate California’s most popular as well, he suggested, including the fact that it is less expensive than other specialty plates.
Currently, there are 827,000 California vehicles with the legacy plates. More than two-thirds of those legacy plates – or about 567,000 of them – are personalized.
But the black and gold configuration seems to resonate with Californians even more than other vintage designs. The law that originally authorized the creation of the 1960s-style plates also authorized the state to create two other designs, too, Soriano explained. The first was a 1950s throwback, with a yellow background and black lettering. The other hearkened back to the 1970s, with a blue background and yellow lettering.
Not enough California drivers signed up for the state to produce the other two designs, which means the 1960s style is the only one on the road.
Soriano points out, though, that the legacy plate is not the same plate the state produced in the 1960s. The modern plates are much more reflective and easier-to-read than their predecessors.
He also admits that California officials did not expect the plates to be so popular when they first came out in 2016. “It was surprising to us,” he said, “and it continues to be a surprise.”
Daniel C. Vock is a senior reporter for Route Fifty based in Washington, D.C.