News Column

Classic License Plates May Come Back to California

May 13, 2013

Sean Scully

Retro California license plates (image:WorldLicensePlates.com)
Retro California license plates (image:WorldLicensePlates.com)

California car enthusiasts may get the chance to get vintage-looking license plates for their car, with the state eyeing a revival of the classic yellow, black and blue plates issued from the 1950s through the 1980s.

The Department of Motor Vehicles is gauging interest in the plates before going into production. At least 7,500 motorists must pre-order one of the colors by January 2015 in order for the plates to come out. If not, the reproduction plates idea will go back on the shelf for the moment.

As of this month, the black plate, originally issued between 1963 and 1969, was in the lead with 2,833 orders. The yellow plate, from 1956 to 1963, was second with 930 and the blue one, between 1970 and 1986, had 690.

Not all car collectors, however, are thrilled with the return of the vintage plates.

Ken Williamson, president of the Redwood Empire Classic Chevy Club and owner of 13 historic vehicles, says the state is trying to pass off a "counterfeit." He said this issue came up at a recent club meeting and there was unanimous disapproval.

"It kind of cheapens the work we've done to to keep the old plates on our cars," said Williamson.

The state currently allows car collectors to put vintage plates on classic cars, but the requirements are rigorous, particularly the "year of manufacture" rule that says the year of the plates must match the year of the car: no '57 plates on a '56 Chevy, for example.

Williamson said it took him three years to convince the Department of Motor Vehicles to reactivate the plates on a 1951 Nash that he is restoring.

"It's really hard," he said. "The DMV, you really have to work with them to get these plates on your car."

Assuming enough people sign up by the deadline, the new plates would be open to any car of any age, not just vintage cars like those collected by Williamson and his club members. The plates would cost $50 the first year and $40 every year thereafter.

While Sonoma County collectors seem unenthusiastic, many car clubs are actively soliciting the preorders, said Rex Roden, president of the Association of California Car Clubs. The association, with 160 member clubs representing more than 10,000 car owners, strongly supported the 2012 bill that authorized the reproductions.

Roden, from El Dorado, has five cars including a 1962 Impala with vintage plates. He disagrees with critics who say the reproduction plates dilute the value of the original plates.

Serious restorers and collectors can still opt to hunt down authentic vintage plates, while others will have the option of the new reproductions, the same way car collectors can choose between reproduction and vintage parts.

"A lot of guys will find the real part, a real bumper, a real fender, and they'll put that on rather than the fiberglass; just keeping it pure," he said. "It's the same with license plates."

A big market for the new plates, he said, is likely to be purchasers of modern cars designed to look vintage: the updated VW Beetle, or the reissued Camaros and Chargers.

Assemblyman Mike Gatto, D-Los Angeles, a former car collector who sponsored the legislation authorizing the reissue, said last week that he was surprised to hear some collectors disliked the idea. He said his intent was to make life easier for collectors, not to undermine their work.

"Car collectors feel, pretty rightfully, that the state just imposes a bunch of Byzantine regulations and makes life difficult for the people who preserve the automotive history of our state," he said.

He said the DMV had assured him the new plates would be nearly indistinguishable from the originals, with the exception of reflective paint on the letters and numbers to meet modern safety standards. The DMV still has the original molds on file, he said.

However, the exact design remains in development, DMV spokeswoman Jessica Gonzalez said.

"We will try to preserve that original look as much as possible," she said.

The rage for vintage license plates stems from a technical change in California law in 1962. Previously, car owners got new plates every year, but that year, the Legislature allowed the owners to keep a plate for the life of the car. That allowed vehicle owners to keep classic looks as the DMV changed color schemes to meet newer styles, making it a badge of honor for collectors to display the old plates.

The state later changed the rule to allow old plates to be moved from car to car, opening up a private trade in plates. But since the year of the plates and the car must match exactly, it can be difficult and expensive for a collector to find the proper plates at swap meets and in online auctions.

On eBay this week, mint-condition sets of the 1960s-era black plates were going for as much as $999, though good-condition used versions could be had for half that or less.

Santa Rosa car collector Jim Brown dismisses the idea of reproduction plates as a money-making stunt for the state. Brown compared the reproduction plates to having someone show up at a classic-car show driving the retro-looking but decidedly modern PT Cruiser.

"It just seems like kind of a perversion," he said.

For information or to preorder one of the retro plates, visit www.dmv.ca.gov/legacyplates.

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(c)2013 The Press Democrat (Santa Rosa, Calif.)

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Source: Copyright Press Democrat, The (Santa Rosa, CA) 2013


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