This is one of those things you’d think wouldn’t be actually needed to say, but based on recent automotive design trends, it seems to be necessary. Whether or not you think front license plates are necessary or not, the reality is that they do, in fact, exist. In 31 states (well, 30 plus D.C.) in America they’re required (if you do the math you’ll see that’s over half) and even bigger front license plates are required in Europe and most of Asia. An awful lot of modern cars appear to have been designed under the beautiful fantasy that front plates simply don’t exist, and it’s time for designers to wake up and accept reality.
I’m not saying that there’s cars out there that flat-out can’t have a front plate mounted to them—there’s always some way to do it—but there are many cars that clearly were not designed with front plates in mind, and, based on the look of the cars, the designers would much rather you got a few tickets than ruined their lovely, carefully-considered lines.
The trend of the past few years for cars to have massive, graphic grilles demonstrates this very well. Look at the new BMW 4 Series up there; yes, it’s wearing a long, Euro license plate, but it’s just kind of slapped on there, almost in the middle.
You can tell that the original vision behind this design didn’t factor in the reality of a license plate, because the whole design is hinged on those massive kidney grilles, and why would the designer want to tack a big-ass Band-Aid right across the middle of them?
I mean, we know they didn’t really consider front plates seriously, because the BMW 4 concept car, the Concept 4, featured a clear license plate:
That right there just shows that yes, the designer knew front plates exist, but fundamentally was unwilling to truly factor their visual presence into the design. Clear is a cheat.
Speaking of cheating, look how Mazda shows the Miata with a front plate:
A black plate. Like absolutely no state actually has (well, California has the optional retro black plates, but that’s about it). The black plate hides effectively in the grille area, which is a clever trick on Mazda’s part, because they shamefully know that this happens when you put a light-colored front plate on the Miata:
The car transforms into a cartoon buck-toothed rabbit. Of course Mazda knows this; that’s why the black plate. But nobody is doing anything because the whole industry has tacitly agreed not to think about it.
Of course it’s not just BMW and Mazda. Look at another worshipper at the altar of colossal grilles, Lexus:
No matter what you think of that massive grille, it’s very clear the designer spent a lot of time and effort making those slats and lines look just right. Of course you can stick a front plate on there under the badge, but there is no way the designer of this car feels it doesn’t hinder the design.
There are some companies and cars that do at least seem to give the most modest of shits about the issue. Chevrolet, to their credit, has provided some non-terrible options for front plates on the new Corvette, which you can see described by the Corvette’s Design Manager:
This is certainly better, but, even with all this, there’s no question that the designer-preferred way to drive your corvette is without any front plate at all.
Grille-less EV designs seem to have less trouble, I think, as part of the issue here is a focus on invisible bumper/massive grille designs that simply do not lend themselves well to elegant, intentional-looking front plate placement.
The Porsche Taycan, for example, has no pronounced grille and retains a sort of traditional front bumper shape that doesn’t feel off with a plate screwed into it:
There are ways to do this well, but I realize it isn’t easy. Plates don’t need to be centrally or traditionally mounted, of course—lots of plates look cool asymmetrically placed, and perhaps there could be some flexibility—literal and metaphorical—in how license plates can be displayed on cars.
Take these examples of hard-to-front-plate cars:
That floating plate solution on the Prowler doesn’t look bad at all, and I always kind of liked those weird British sticker-plates used on old E-Types.
The big point is that cars need to be designed with their headlight-eyes wide open to the hard truths of reality: most cars need front plates.
Carmakers need to just suck it up and accept that’s how it is, and design with the plates in mind, from the beginning, and no fucking around with clear plates or shy black plates or any of that mess. Look those plates right in their embossed letters and give them a real home on the front of cars.
Designers already have to accomodate lights and grille intakes and radar emitters (they need work on that, too) and other realities, and making a car that can accomodate a plate or not and still look good is absolutely an achievable goal.
I believe in you, designers. Now you start believing in front plates.