In the ’50s, reflective license plates were a revelation
When American firm 3M began advertising its “Safety Plates” overseas in the 1960s and 1970s, it must have seemed like an almost literal lightbulb moment to the world. By then, most cars wore little red reflectors, but the stamped metal plates at the rear (and, sometimes, the front) of a vehicle were simply stamped and painted metal.
Indeed, the copy in this late-1960s U.K. ad states that its new Safety Plates were visible six times farther away than regular plates, or around 1000 feet (a fifth of a mile). In an era when most car headlights were a long way from today’s standard, if less dazzling for oncoming traffic, anything that made other traffic more visible at night was an instant safety win.
What’s surprising is just how far the UK was behind parts of the U.S. at this time. 3M is an American company of course (Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing, if you didn’t know), but the ad notes that the U.S. state of Maine had been using similar reflective plates since 1950.
3M gets bonus points for the name of its technology too. “Reflecto-Lite” is excellent, and clearly from the same country that gave the world trade names like “Hydra-Matic” transmissions, “Blue Flame” engines, and “Electra Glide” motorcycles.
Today we take reflective license plates for granted, other than when people try to dubiously darken them or play around with risque alphanumerics. But it’s nice to be reminded of an automotive safety innovation that was so brilliantly simple.