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.

3M Reflective Safety Plates Ad Full

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.




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    Now if 3M (or GE?) would figure out how to keep those “dazzling” headlights from blinding me every night.

    In Canada, perhaps someone can figure out how to prevent those reflective number plates from delaminating and peeling off. This has been happening for years and still an ongoing problem. How is it license plates from 60 and 70 years ago never ever had this issue but in todays modern age technology era we cannot solve the problem

    Interesting to see that the UK was almost two decades behind the USA or at least the state of Maine.

    Soo right about the truck headlights. Ford pickups are the worst in the blinding oncoming vehicles department. Maybe the manufacturers are just feeding you another reason why self driving vehicles are so important. Now you won’t have to look at the blinding oncoming vehicles. How do I back up my car? Dang that camera thing is not working! What ever happened to keep it simple stupid?

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