The Ten Most Iconic American License Plates

Few baby boomers can say that they never played the license plate game during a long road trip or had a miniature plate embossed with their name on the door to their bedroom. Back in the day, each state had one simple design that often didn’t change for many years. Plates today have gotten like area codes — there are so damned many different “special” designs that generate revenue for DMVs that it’s hard to keep them straight. Here are 10 of our favorite classic plates from the baby boomer years:

  1. California Yellow Plates (1956-62): California was and arguably still is the epicenter of car culture in America. This is the plate from the “American Graffiti” era that adorned the white T-Bird, ’55 Chevy and John Milner’s Deuce coupe. The black California plates from the 1960s and the blue plates from the 1970s are equally iconic. So much so that the California DMV just re-issued them as part of their Year of Manufacture license plate program. We love the way they look on a 1955 Chevy Bel Air.
  2. New Mexico Zia Sun Yellow Plate (1912-2012): One of the longest-running plate designs also happens to be one of the most beautiful. The colors of yellow and red come from the New Mexico state flag and the sun design is a Native American image from the Zia Pueblo. Land of Enchantment is a great and particularly apt slogan in the case of beautiful New Mexico. We’ll take ours on a 1967 Ford Bronco.
  3. Oregon Pacific Wonderland Blue Plate (1960-64): We’re fans of great slogans that reflect the physical beauty of a state. The State of Oregon is 100 percent beautiful (and not just the coastal part). Polite reference to this fact by residents of inland places like Portland, Pendleton, Bend and The Columbia River Gorge may have contributed to this wonderful design’s short life. It was brought back in 2009 (just 40,000 copies) to celebrate Oregon’s 150th anniversary. There are still plenty of Volvo 544s and  Volvo 122s running around Portland and Salem with these plates.
  4. New Hampshire “Live Free or Die” Green Plate (1972-78): As state mottoes go, New Hampshire’s “Live Free or Die” is probably one of the least equivocal. It still appears on their plates but we like the classic simple green on white design. As an aside, automotive journalists everywhere have co-opted the motto, vowing to “eat free or die.”
  5. New York “Empire State” Orange Plate (1962-63): Another plate that, like the California plate, is iconic in its simplicity, the design was brought back again in the early 1970s. You can’t keep a good plate down. What else would you want to see on a 1962 Checker Marathon?
  6. Wyoming Bucking Horse Plate (nearly any year): Few plates more immediately evoke an image of their state more than this classic from Wyoming. The bucking horse with the cowboy design goes back to at least the 1930s and is still available in one form today. We hope it never goes away, and few other things look right on a vintage Ford F-150.
  7. Alabama Heart of Dixie (almost any year): Like the classic Wyoming plate, the Alabama “Heart of Dixie” plate is one that has seemingly been around forever. The simple design with the slogan and heart make it a classic. And while we confess to really liking the new Lynyrd Skynyrd homage plate that simply says “Sweet Home,” ask us how we feel about it in 30 years. For now, the Heart of Dixie is our favorite on the prom queen’s 1967 Chrysler Newport convertible.
  8. Montana “Big Sky” (1970): Another plate that is elegant in its simplicity, with the embossed outline of the state and the evocative slogan, “Big Sky Country” (a less evocative “prison made” slogan appears on the back of some versions), the Montana plate makes you think of the Marlboro Man (minus the pack-a-day habit). The clean blue-on-white version from 1970 gets our vote as the best, particularly on a Chevy C10 pickup of the same year.
  9. Colorado “Rockies” (1960-     ): Colorado sports another long-running plate design. Since 1960, they’ve been green and white with a design that reflects the Rocky Mountains that give Colorado so much of its character. The dominant background color has alternated over the years between green and white, but Colorado plates have always been particularly handsome on a Jeep CJ5 or AMC Eagle. 
  10. Michigan “Bicentennial” (1976): No list of classic plates would be complete without a little bit of “Dazed and Confused”-style cheesiness. Those who can remember 1976 recall that there were bicentennial  versions of everything from toothpaste to toilet paper, and most states offered some sort of bicentennial license plate. We love the way the Michigan bicentennial plate looks on a 1976 Cadillac Eldorado convertible.
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