California’s revival of classic license plates faces barriers

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The California Department of Motor Vehicles is planning to issue nostalgia-stoking replicas of the yellow, blue and black plates that graced the state’s bumpers from the 1950s to the 1970s.

But will classic car collectors buy into the impostors?

Starting Tuesday, the DMV will take orders for the so-called “legacy license plates.” If the department gets at least 7,500 orders, it will print them, said spokeswoman Jessica Gonzalez. But if that threshold isn’t met by Jan. 1, 2015, officials will refund the $50 application fee.


Though any driver can purchase a legacy plate for any year of car, commercial vehicle, motorcycle or trailer, the program’s success depends, at least in part, on classic car enthusiasts. And owners who’ve spent tens of thousands of dollars to painstakingly restore time-worn Chevys and Fords might not want plates with modern touches, such as the ability to reflect light.

“The people I talk to at swap meets are dead set against it,” said David Hindman of Vacaville, who sells a few hundred vintage plates a year. “They want original plates.”

In California, owners can affix classic plates to classic cars, if the DMV authenticates them. Vintage plates are not cheap. On Friday, a pair of 1951 California plates – blue background, yellow letters – was for sale on EBay for $325.

But some vintage plates have been forged or stolen, said Robin Cole, legislative director of the Assn. of California Car Clubs. Others arrive by mail in terrible shape. That’s why the group supports the retro-plate program and plans to tout it in classic car publications.

“This just solves a lot of problems,” said Cole, who plans to order plates for some of her five classic cars.

California already offers a dozen specialty plates, which are typically used as fundraisers. One with a whale tail and the phrase “Protect Our Coast & Ocean” supports the state Coastal Commission; another with palm trees and a setting sun, supports the state Arts Council.

The retro-plate program, the result of a bill by Assemblyman Mike Gatto (D-Silver Lake), is solely run by the DMV. The start-up cost, should the program move forward, will be $385,000 and covered by application fees, a legislative analysis said. Owners will also have to pay an extra $40 when they renew their registration.

More information is available here.


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Examples of the 1950s-,1960s-, and 1970s-style plates offered by the DMV.