Here's Proof That America's Old License Plates Were Way Cooler Than Today's

Here's Proof That America's Old License Plates Were Way Cooler Than Today's

A New York license plate underneath an original French plate on a Citroën 2CV.
A New York license plate underneath an original French plate on a Citroën 2CV.
Photo: Stan Honda/AFP via Getty Images (Getty Images)

License plates are one of those mundanities of life nobody discusses all that much, but I’m willing to bet everyone has an opinion on. If you’ve lived somewhere long enough, you’ve seen multiple designs come and go, and earlier today we asked you which state had the best of them.

Full disclosure: I initially wanted to whip up a list of the best current plates in the U.S., but what I quickly discovered was that the vast majority of plates issued today kind of suck. There are a few modern outliers, but from what I can gather, license plate design peaked in the ’70s and ’80s, before touching off a long downward spiral in the ’90s that lasted through the 2000s. The past decade has seen returns to form for a few states, but I fear the golden era of aesthetically-appealing vehicle registration has long since passed us by.

Bearing that in mind, I’m going to honor America’s best-ever license plates the only way I know how: with a slideshow and a few overly romantic words about how things used to be better, gosh darn it.

Staff Writer at Jalopnik. 2017 Fiesta ST. Wishes NASCAR was more like Daytona USA.

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Michigan’s Classic Blue (1983-2007)

Michigan’s Classic Blue (1983-2007)

Jalopnik has more than a few Michiganders in its ranks. But East Coast boy that I am, I was initially unaware of the handsome blue plates that lined the states roads throughout the ’80s, ’90s and 2000s. Having never seen it before, I have to say it looks great, with a straightforward white-on-blue background motif that never fails to appear classy and smart. Modern plates suffer from overdesign in the worst way, so it’s hard to go wrong with something so simple. I especially love the font Michigan is embossed in — it’s got that pseudo-rustic, late 20th-century vibe going for it, and it also bears a passing similarity to the Mercedes-AMG logotype, so top marks all around.

Today’s standard-issue Michigan plates don’t look anywhere near as good, with a bland white background and Pure Michigan text up top. To make matters worse, the “M” in Michigan is scrawled in a generic script that looks like it was lifted from a yogurt cup. But don’t despair: it turns out classic blue might soon make a comeback as an optional design, thanks to a bill sponsored by Michigan Sen. Mallory McMorrow, who’s had a couple bylines on this very site in the past and happens to be married to former Jalopnik Editor-In-Chief Ray Wert. The proceeds from these plates will go into the Michigan Transportation Fund. Jalops doing cool things in government — you love to see it.

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Colorado’s Mountains (1960-72; 1977-99)

Colorado’s Mountains (1960-72; 1977-99)

“But Colorado’s current plates also have mountains,” I hear you interjecting from afar. While that may be true, Colorado’s original mountain design dates back to 1960, and looks slightly but critically different from what the state uses today. Over the ensuing decades, the mountains shifted in position and swapped colors with the background; sometimes it was a green ridge against a white sky, other times, the opposite. Today, the mountains are shaded, and the green backdrop is a bit darker, which to my eye makes the whole design a bit more muted. It doesn’t pop in the same way.

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Pennsylvania’s State-Shaped Outline (1937-71)

Pennsylvania’s State-Shaped Outline (1937-71)

I’ll concede that Pennsylvania’s current plate — a white background bisecting navy and gold upper and lower portions — isn’t terrible. It benefits from the fact you only need one on your car. But it doesn’t compare to this gorgeous design, which hearkens back to 1938.

For about four decades, the Keystone State’s plates featured the state’s outline embossed, with the letters in relief, and a two-tone navy-and-gold motif that would sometimes switch positions. (The later editions of this design traded those hues in for bright yellow and royal blue.) It works so well, and Pennsylvania is so perfectly proportioned for a license plate, I don’t think the state ever had any business ditching this theme.

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New Mexico’s Centennial (2010-)

New Mexico’s Centennial (2010-)

As one of the few recent examples on this list, I have to hand it to New Mexico. This is a state that’s always had some bold and distinctive designs, with the standard-issue plate being a striking mix of yellow, red and green, and the Zia sun symbol featured prominently in some fashion dating back decades. Of all these unique looks, I really like the alternative design the state released in 2010 to commemorate its centennial; you can still opt for it today, only without the centennial text. Turquoise and yellow with a dash of red, along with good choices in typefaces, makes for a refreshing yet memorable license plate.

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Nebraska’s Sunset (1987-89)

Nebraska’s Sunset (1987-89)

This Nebraskan plate, which was pressed for all but two years in the late ’80s, easily qualifies as the state’s all-time best in my opinion. Yes, it’s phenomenally of the time, but not in an obnoxious or ugly way, and the palette of red, light orange and black against a white background makes for a rare but effective combination. I especially love the typeface Nebraska is in — it looks as though it belongs on a NASCAR screen-printed tee from the time, which is definitely an aesthetic I see returning to fashion these days. The current standard-issue design, decorated in fonts that most closely resemble the default option in Microsoft Office, is outrageously and offensively dull by comparison.

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South Dakota’s “America, But Make It Brutalist” (1981-86)

South Dakota’s “America, But Make It Brutalist” (1981-86)

There’s a lot going on in South Dakota’s license plate in the years of 1981 to 1986, so let’s unpack this. First off, it’s obviously very patriotic. You’ve got Mount Rushmore in the bottom-right corner, which I guess is a nice touch though it would have been nigh-inscrutable from a safe following distance, and probably just looked like some weird black corrosion. But what I really adore about this design, typography nerd that I am, is the use of Eurostile Extended in the bottom left there. Eurostile, which rose to prominence in the ’70s and ’80s and briefly appeared on Illinois’ plate around this time as well, is a rather cold, impersonal and strong typeface that today evokes an outdated concept of modernity, but definitely would’ve fit right in 40 years ago. The two monolithic blue bars sliding in from the left just complete the piece. (This particular plate belonged to a resident of Minnehaha County.)

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California’s Iconic Black Plate (1963-69)

California’s Iconic Black Plate (1963-69)

Of course no list of iconic American license plates could ever be complete without an appearance from California’s much-coveted black plates, which were pressed for only six years between 1963 and 1969.

It’s a design that has transcended its stoic appearance. Like many states, California has a Year of Manufacture program that lets owners of historic vehicles legally put a plate on their car from the year it was built. As a result, black plates are highly sought for ’60s vehicles, and not just because they look good, as Bring-a-Trailer’s Randy Nonnenberg told The New York Times back in 2012:

“Black plate cars draw a premium because it is one and the same as saying it is a California car,” said Randy Nonnenberg, 36, co-founder of the San Francisco-based website Bring-a-Trailer. “Our cars are on the whole pretty dry and not affected by the rust.”

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California’s Very ’80s Plate (1982-87)

California’s Very ’80s Plate (1982-87)

I have to be honest — the black plate doesn’t really do it for me. It’s the case of a plate being more about what it signifies than how it actually looks. If I were given a choice of any of the Golden State’s designs, without question I’m going for this ’80s-as-hell iteration, adorned with a minimalist sunset and the state name written in a glorious Art Deco font. It is so appropriate for the era, it’s hard to imagine this plate in any other context than on the back of a Ferrari 308 GTS.

This plate was actually optional until the last year of its run, when it was briefly elevated to standard-issue status before quickly being replaced with the meh blue and red text-on-white design that remains to this day. Apparently it was awarded Plate of the Year in 1983 by the Automobile License Plate Collectors Association, and it’s certainly deserving of that distinction.

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Montana’s Big Sky (1991-2000; 2012-)

Montana’s Big Sky (1991-2000; 2012-)

Mountains just look good on license plates, and if you need yet more proof take a peek at Montana’s design throughout the ’90s. It’s one of the more colorful examples on this list, but it’s delightfully retro, with the warm-toned ridge and the state name set in block all-caps lettering, balanced on the opposite end with Big Sky written in script. The more I look at it, the more it looks like a very stylish puffer jacket, the kind you might wear sitting by a campfire on a cool Montana night with the scent of pine hovering blithely in the air.

One of the interesting aspects of this design is just how much unused space there is, particularly on the left side. Montana used seven-digit plates then and now, but the actual lettering takes up a relatively small portion of the total surface area. This design returned in 2012 to mark the state’s centennial as an alternative style, and it can still be registered today.

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Maryland Lookin’ Classy (1983-2010)

Maryland Lookin’ Classy (1983-2010)

This simple black-and-white design from Maryland lasted almost 30 years, but actually began as an optional plate for the first three years of its run. In 1986, this design became standard issue, and it still looks elegant today.

In 2012, it was replaced with an extraordinarily patriotic design to mark the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812 that honestly looks pretty garish compared with this more tasteful look. In 2016 the state felt the time was right to return to the black-and-white design, but elected to modernize it this time. The new approach doesn’t look half bad, with the Maryland flag ruffled in the background, but the old design is so faultless it’d be a tall task to ask anyone to improve upon it in the first place.

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Staff Writer at Jalopnik. 2017 Fiesta ST. Wishes NASCAR was more like Daytona USA.

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