License Plate Seniority

BMW E9 3.0CSL

Do you ever take note of the license plates worn by other vehicles? Admittedly, it’s pretty boring for the most part, but every now and again there are some interesting ones in the mix. Beyond the weird combinations and witty statements people have managed to come up with for the seven-character limitation on California plates, knowing how to read a sequence has also transitioned to being a talent, and I’ve become good enough at it to be able to guess whether a plate is original to the vehicle its mounted on.

In California, sequential license plates for passenger cars and SUVs all start with a digit, followed by three letters and then three more numbers. This order goes back some 40 years now, back to when the state was issuing those gorgeous yellow-on-blue plates. Midway through the use of the blue plates—which happen to be my favorite—I suppose the California Department of Motor Vehicles ran out of six-digit combinations, and then switched to the order that’s still in use today. Currently, new cars sold in California receive a license plate that starts with an 8, although I’m sure it will only be a matter of time until we hit 9, blow through that one, and have to start over with something else.

BMW 2800 E3 Vasek Polak Orange County

The discussion surrounding plate frames deserves its own article.

When I’m driving around and I spot an older car I appreciate, after the first cursory glance, my attention always zeroes in on the license plates. Are they original? On an E46 M3, the early models should start with a 4, while later models may have received some of the first few plates that started with a 6—we’re in California, remember? Going back a bit further to something from the 1980s or early 1990s, it becomes much easier to tell whether the plates are original or at least close to it, and every now and then you’ll see a true original.

Why does it all matter? To me, original license plates on an older car are something of a badge of honor: Through the years, enough people have cared to retain the plates, even if the car had changed hands from time to time (if it’s still being piloted by its original owner, that’s even better).

Taking a look at the Los Angeles Chapter interior window sticker visible below, it’s very possible that most of the driving public was not yet alive when it was affixed to the glass. The same applies to vintage cars, their license plates, and registration stickers. It’s probably a wildly erroneous metric, but when I see even a relatively modern car from the last twenty years wearing sequential plates that match up with its era, my respect for the driver goes up a bit.

BMW CCA La Chapter Los Angeles Chapter 2002

Then there are the registration stickers themselves. In California, shelling out for your yearly registration fees gets you a new sticker each year. The colors seem to be on a rotating wheel, where they don’t repeat for at least a good five years. Now, one is supposed to remove the old one each time a fresh one arrives, but who on earth actually does this? The stickers, just like the license plate, are a badge of honor. Roundel editor-in-chief Satch Carlson has been stacking them since Day One on his 2006 BMW M roadster.

California License Plate Stacked Registration Stickers

Another originality hint? The dealership isn’t called Cunningham anymore.

For years, I drove daily—and commuted to work—in a hand-me-down Honda Civic sedan that had been purchased new by my mother. This vehicle retained its original sun-beaten plates, which happened to match the overall condition of the paint by the time I sold the car. It was also still wearing every registration sticker since new, and I naturally felt compelled to continue the pattern of simply applying the newest sticker directly atop the old ones, followed by a few precisely placed slits with the exacto blade.

Honda Civic Stacked Registration Stickers California License Plate

Of my current garage, which contains two BMWs and a Honda, only one car still has its original plates. The one with the twin-scroll turbo was purchased Certified Pre-Owned, and was originally purchased new out-of-state, so I was issued a new plate when I bought it, even though it already had a current California plate when I took delivery (I subsequently hung that one on a wall). Another hand-me-down Civic has replaced the original, but while this one was owned by my sister, it was adorned with those new black-and-yellow plates that California is now reissuing—if you’re willing to wait long enough.

That leaves my 1985 BMW 325e coupe, which still proudly displays its original set of California Golden State sunset-theme plates—you know the type, with California spelled out in an unmistakable Art Deco font. The plates are actually older than the car, because when I removed them to give them a good cleaning before applying a fresh sticker to the rear, I discovered that the digits 84 were stamped in them.

The Golden State sunset plates are my second-favorite type issued in California behind the yellow-and-blue style, which simply offers unmatched contrast Interestingly enough, before buying my E30, which is clearly at the beginning of the sequence when it comes to the sunset plates, I was pursuing a nearly identical non-running example from the same model year that wore a set of blue plates—the standard offering up until 1987.

My E30’s plates are worn and faded from the sun, but they still bring something special to the car, at least for me. They sort of complete the thought of, “Oh, hey, an unmodified white E30 with diving boards—and look, it’s got the original plates!” Along with the fact that I have the original owner’s manual, complete with service stamps, and almost full records dating back to new, thanks to an unusually detailed vehicle-history report, these two characteristics give me pause when the thought of bringing the garage back down to two cars crosses my mind. The original tool kit, full of Heyco tools stamped Made In West Germany , and all of the glass that says the same in its etchings, act as motivators to keep the car.

BMW E30 California Golden State Sunset License Plate

I’m not the only one into this stuff, either. There’s a hashtag and an entire account on Instagram, while the podcast Driving While Awesome also sells some vinyl tape that allows one to convert a current a modern California license plate into a Golden State sunset plate, although it’s definitely illegal.

Of course, someone like me will always know what you did—because the number sequence won’t be right.—Alex Tock

[Photos courtesy Alex Tock.]

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