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100 Years of New Mexico License Plates

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Whether you love ’em or hate ’em, our new turquoise “retro” license plates have stirred up a lot of excitement. But this is not the first dramatic makeover for the state’s plates.

New Mexico has changed the design and/or color of our plates more than 50 times in the hundred years since the first plate was issued. This year, 2011, marks the 100th annual issue of New Mexico license plates, and plates expiring in our centennial year will be the 101st issue.

Here’s a look back at a century of New Mexico license plate history — the story of how we got to where we are today, and, to the surprise of many, the revelation that the current “retro” plates aren’t retro at all!

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1905: The New Mexico Territorial Legislature sets the stage seven years before statehood by enacting a law requiring registration of motor vehicles, but does not issue license plates. Owners must make their own plates.

1912: New Mexico becomes the 47th state, and begins issuing undated green-on-white license plates to cars and trucks. Each vehicle receives a single plate, to be attached to the rear bumper. Louis C. Ilfeld, a wealthy businessman in Las Vegas, receives plate #1 for his Velie automobile. By year’s end, 904 plates have been issued.

1913: The same undated green-on-white plates continue to be issued to cars and trucks, picking up with plate #905 on Jan. 2, and closing out the year with plate #1889 in late December.

1913: The registration requirement is extended to motorcycles, which are defined as any motor vehicles “with three or fewer wheels touching the ground.” They receive small, vertically oriented green-on-white plates that are dated with the year 1913. The vertical orientation is considered more suitable for mounting on a motorcycle’s narrow rear fender, but the state will switch to the more familiar horizontal orientation in 1924. Antonio Lucero Jr. of Santa Fe is the lucky recipient of motorcycle plate #1 in 1913, which is displayed on his Indian motorcycle.

1914: Car and truck plates are dated for the first time. Colors are changed to white-on-green, and will change again virtually every year for the next 50 years. Not until the 1960s will color changes become less frequent.

1916: Special “Dealer” plates are required for use by automobile dealerships on new cars taken on demonstration drives.

1920: Porcelain-coated license plates are introduced with the idea of saving money by using them for five years. In 1921 through 1924, they are to be revalidated by attachment of a small colored metal seal, or tab, the equivalent of today’s renewal stickers.

1920: The porcelain plates issued to motorcycles are curved so that they will match the shape of the rear fender. The idea is that they will fit snugly, like a glove, over the fender.

1921: A red diamond-shaped metal seal is attached to the 1920 porcelain plates to validate them for 1921.

1922: A silver octagon-shaped metal seal is attached to the 1920 porcelain plates to validate them for 1922. Upon exposure to sunlight the silver paint on the seal turns black, the color that all surviving examples appear to be now.

1923: A yellow six-pointed star-shaped metal seal is attached to the 1920 porcelain plates to validate them for 1923. Many people who see these plates today believe that they are sheriff plates, but in fact every car, truck, and motorcycle in the state had the same yellow star in 1923.

1923: For the first time, certain commercial vehicles, including both cars and trucks, receive unique license plates. These are standard embossed steel plates, rather than porcelain.

1923: The New Mexico State Highway Department is the first state agency to receive unique license plates.

1924: One year earlier than originally planned, porcelain plates are removed from service because law enforcement officials found it too difficult to ascertain whether the revalidation seals on the plates were current. The state reverts to standard embossed steel plates, and for the first time issues two plates to each car and truck — one for the front and one for the back.

1924: Motorcycle license plates are switched from the vertical format that had been in use for over a decade, to the horizontal format that continues to be used today.

1924: Although they do not have motors, registration is required for trailers, which receive small motorcycle-size license plates. In 1932 they will be enlarged to the size of car plates.

1925: Experience the prior year showed that some people with two cars would register only one of them, and use one of the two issued plates on each car. To combat the chiselers the words “FRONT” and “REAR,” respectively, are embossed on the two 1925 plates. Legend has it that New Mexicans traveling in other states were ridiculed as being “so stupid that the state had to label their cars so that they could tell one end from the other.” Whether fact or fable, the experiment lasted only one year.

1927: The zia sun symbol appears on New Mexico license plates for the first time, with the two-digit year appearing inside the zia. Also for the first time, the state name is spelled out in full, rather than being abbreviated.

1928: For the first time, the governor is issued a special plate with the word “GOVERNOR” embossed at the top. He gets plate #1, and the recipient is Gov. Richard C. Dillon, a Republican.

1929: Vehicles owned by the various city, county, and state agencies begin receiving license plates embossed with the word “OFFICIAL.”

1930: Non-commercial light trucks (e.g., pickup trucks) receive unique plates for the first time. The word “TRUCK” is embossed on the plate.

1931: Vehicles operated within New Mexico by federal government agencies are required to display OFFICIAL plates whose plate numbers include the letters “U.S.”

1931: The state issues specially designated plates for “Driverless Cars.” This contradictory sounding name was the term generally used for rental cars in the 1920s and 1930s.

1932: Long before the concept of “The Land of Enchantment” was thought up, New Mexico had for many years billed itself as the “Sunshine State” as an attraction to potential tourists, though 1932 was the only year that the slogan appeared on its license plates. The phrase Land of Enchantment didn’t appear on plates until 1941, and Florida, formerly the “Citrus State,” didn’t pick up new Mexico’s discarded Sunshine State slogan until 1949.

1932: Until the late 1930s many states did not unequivocally honor the license plates of visitors from other states. In 1932 New Mexico even required that tourists who lingered longer than 30 days buy a guest, or “GST” license plate.

1932: Special plates are made available to commissioned officers in the New Mexico National Guard.

1933: Beginning with the first plates issued under statehood, the state had bought all of its license plates from out-of-state civilian contractors. In late 1933 New Mexico buys its own manufacturing equipment and installs it in the State Prison at Santa Fe. From 1934 until the 1990s, all New Mexico plates are made by convicts at the State Pen.

1935: The New Mexico State Police, which had been founded just two years earlier under the name “New Mexico Motor Patrol,” changes its name and receives special plates for its vehicles, bearing the “State Police” name. The practice continues to this day.

1937: Other than the current Centennial plates, 1937 is the only year that New Mexico ever issued a license plate whose color even remotely resembles turquoise. In fact, the ’37 color is best described as robin’s egg blue, and it has dark maroon numbers.

1940: For this one year, the phrase “CORONADO CUARTO CENTENNIAL” appears prominently across the top of New Mexico’s plates, commemorating the 400th anniversary of Coronado’s passage through the state.

1941: New Mexico’s newly adopted nickname of “The Land of Enchantment” appears on license plates for the first time. The word “The” is dropped in 1952.

1941: Special plates are made available to members of the New Mexico Mounted Patrol, an all-volunteer police auxiliary organization whose operations were largely carried out on horseback. The license plates were for their cars and trucks, not the horses.

1942: New Mexico automobile registrations surpass 100,000 for the first time.

1943: The critical metal shortages of World War II induce New Mexico to forgo issuing metal plates. Instead, vehicles keep their 1942 plates, and receive a paper decal which is glued to the inside of the windshield. The only exceptions, motorcycles and trailers (which typically did not have windshields), receive their usual metal plates.

1944: Metal plates are reintroduced, but in keeping with war materiel conservation, each vehicle receives only one plate, a policy that will last through 1947.

1947: With the close of World War II in 1945, America found itself with tens of thousands of unneeded military airplanes. What to do with all that aluminum? Make license plates out of airplanes! Whereas all New Mexico plates in the past were made of steel, 1947 was the beginning of several years of aluminum plates. Since that time the state has switched back and forth between the two materials as costs have fluctuated.

1947: A numerical county number prefix is added to all plates, with the zia symbol separating the county number from the plate number. Santa Fe gets county #1, Bernalillo #2, and so on through #31 for Mora County. For reasons apparently lost to history, the counties are renumbered in 1948, with all but eight counties receiving reshuffled numbers. Los Alamos County, formed in 1949, subsequently is assigned #32, while Cibola County, created in 1981, came along after county prefixes had already been discontinued in 1972.

1947: Special plates are made available to a limited number of elected officials other than just the governor. The secretary of state, Alicia Romero, for example, receives a plate embossed with that title, on plate #4.

1948: New Mexico resumes issuing two plates to each vehicle. The two-plate policy will last another dozen years, until 1960.

1949: Instead of the usual smooth surface, 1949 plates are embossed with a textured, or “waffle” surface, making the aluminum less susceptible to cracking from vibration. Other than some leftover blanks used to make a few plates in the early 1950s, waffle plates will never be seen again.

1953: The two-digit year is moved out of the zia and placed in the upper left corner of the plate. To make room, the word “The” is dropped from “The Land of Enchantment” slogan.

1953: Because their cars were equipped with two-way radio communication equipment which could be useful in highway emergencies, the state begins issuing special plates to licensed amateur (“ham”) radio operators in 1953.  Bearing the radio call sign of the operator, these plates make it easier to identify those who might be able to assist in an emergency. These special plates are still available today.

1953: Special plates are made available to New Mexico state senators and state representatives.

1956: At the urging of the automobile industry, New Mexico joins with all other states in the country in standardizing the size of their plates to 6 by 12 inches, thereby simplifying the manufacture of bumpers.

1960: The front license plate is eliminated, returning to the one-plate-per-car policy that is still the rule more than a half century later.

1960: New Mexico begins issuing renewal stickers for the first time, rather than issuing new plates every year. The 1960 stickers are affixed to 1959 plates. Gov. John Burroughs receives sticker #1.

1961: Although the state had experimented with reflective license plates on official vehicles as far back as 1951, it took another decade for them to be adopted for general use. Both types of plates — painted and reflective — are tested for general issue in 1961. Reflective plates win out, and have been used every year since.

1961: Undated plates are introduced to facilitate the use of renewal stickers over a multi-year period. Although plates with embossed dates would appear a few more times in the future, the undated plate is here to stay.

1961: House trailers are required to be registered and obtain license plates, even if they aren’t going anywhere.

1965: Horseless Carriage license plates become available for vehicles more than 35 years old. At the time, the 35-year age stipulation made perfect sense for this classification, but the requirement has never been updated, which means that today you can get a Horseless Carriage plate for a 1976 muscle car.

1966: Motorcycle registrations exceed 10,000 for the first time.

1967: Personalized, or “vanity” plates are made available. Although only 200 of these plates are sold the first year, they will later become immensely popular.

1969: The letters “USA” are added after the state name to help geography-challenged people in other states know where we’re from.

1972: Motor vehicles have become so numerous that New Mexico’s license plates have run out of room for numbers. This forces the elimination of the county number prefixes, and the introduction of the three-letter/three-number system.

1974: Through a combination of material shortages and bureaucratic bungling, the state runs out of steel license plate blanks and finds itself forced to issue paper license plates. Two months later the state is finally able to obtain a supply of aluminum blanks, and vehicle owners are mailed metal plates bearing the same number as appeared on the corresponding paper plate.

1974: During the Arab oil embargo, a special renewal sticker is issued to vehicles that run on propane, or LPG.

1976: In order to satisfy motorists who lamented the loss of the county number system, plates are introduced which have a rectangular depression at the top where a decal bearing the county name can be optionally affixed.

1976: In celebration of the country’s bicentennial, purchasers of vanity plates this year receive a stunning red, white and blue license plate.

1979: Although today’s familiar red-on-yellow color scheme had been used sporadically as far back as 1929, it isn’t until the end of the 1970s that these colors, drawn from those of the state flag, become permanent.

1979: Vanity plates are made available for motorcycles for the first time.

1980: The flood gates are opened, and over the next 30 years the state Legislature authorizes dozens of new types of license plates to be issued to commemorate New Mexico military veterans, public servants, volunteer organizations, fraternal organizations, museums, universities and other special causes.

1982: For the past 70 years, New Mexico’s license plates had always expired on Dec. 31, with a 30-day grace period extending to the end of January. Consequently, the workload at the Department of Motor Vehicles (later renamed the Motor Vehicle Division) during this period was not only unmanageable, but was further exacerbated by the renewal period falling in the middle of the traditional Christmas-New Year season. In April 1982, the staggered registration system is introduced, such that a vehicle’s registration will expire in the same month that it was initially registered, thereby spreading the Department’s workload evenly throughout the year. Renewal stickers, therefore, now bear the month as well as the year.

1986: For well over a half century, since 1930, New Mexico has issued unique plates to light trucks (e.g., pickup trucks). Hereafter, they will receive the same plates as cars.

1992: The three-letter/three-number layout is reversed to a three-number/three letter sequence. Native American designs and picture of a yucca are added to the border.

2000: The popular “balloon” plate is made available for general issue.

2010-2012: One hundred years after New Mexico’s first license plates were issued, the Motor Vehicle Division has made available the “turquoise” Centennial plate. A common misconception is that this is a “retro” design, harking back to the appearance of New Mexico’s early license plates. In fact, the only year that New Mexico had plates whose color came even close to resembling turquoise was 1937, and even on those plates the numbers were dark maroon, not yellow. In spite of grumblings about these new plates being difficult to read, they have become wildly popular with motorists.

Do you have an old New Mexico license plate that you’d like know more about? Contact the author, Bill Johnston, by e-mail at NMhistory@totacc.com or postal mail to Bill Johnston, New Mexico Transportation History Project, P.O. Box 640, Organ, NM 88052-0640.

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