History of Florida’s License Plates

Every car has one. So does every truck, bus, motorcycle, etc. Our visitors from the North sometimes have two. In many cases (more so in the past few decades) they were blue. So, every Winter season would begin with arrival of the “Blue Plates.”

License plates have been required for decades. Every state has a unique design and countries around the world issue them as well.

Some states’ license plates were well-known for their colors (New York’s orange-and-blue) and some were known for their slogans (Idaho’s “Famous Potatoes.”) Many states’ plates were pretty boring and forgettable. Florida’s license plates have been known by the slogan “Sunshine State.” It hasn’t always been there, and it hasn’t always been consistent. Here is a brief history of license plates in “The Sunshine State.”

Do-It-Yourself: 1905

Beginning in 1905, the state of Florida required all in-state owners of motor vehicles to pay $2 to register their vehicles with the Secretary of State and provide make, description, serial number and horsepower of their vehicles. The Secretary of State then issued a paper certificate, and the number of that certificate was to be displayed prominently on the back of the vehicle. The owner was required to provide his own license plate—a common practice in many states and localities before 1910. Although it was not required, some license plates had “FLA” displayed on them. License plates were typically made of wood, leather and metal, some were homemade, and some were made by sign-makers or even purchased through mail-order.

Florida cities imposed licensing requirements similar to the state. Jacksonville, Pensacola, Palatka, Ocala, Orlando, Miami, Tampa and Brooksville were a few Florida cities to have required motor vehicle registration and number displays.

County-Issued Plates: 1911

Polk County Florida 1912 License Plate

Polk County, FL 1912

While state motorists displayed the permanent state numbers, and in some cases, permanent and/or annual city numbers, in 1911 the state mandated that they display annual county numbers as well. County plates were issued by each county’s tax collector every year. Fees were based on the vehicle’s horsepower rating and ranged from $3 to $50. County-issued plates were not standardized (each county was responsible for supplying its own plates), which accounted for plates appearing in a variety of shapes, sizes and colors.

State’s Plates: 1918

On May 28, 1917, the state of Florida created the first uniform statewide annual license plate. Florida was the last of the 48 states to issue motor vehicle license plates, following South Carolina and Texas, which had done so in 1917. The new law repealed city and county registration by mandating registration with the Comptroller of the state of Florida.

The Motor Vehicle Commission was then created (and the first line formed!). The Motor Vehicles Commission became the DMV in 1965. The 1917 Act provided for annual issuance of a paper certificate and a pair of plates per car (front and back). Pairs continued to be issued through 1921 and then single plates (back only) were issued from 1922 to the present.

Beginning in 1938 and running until 1975, county prefix code numbers were added. Numbers were based on rank order of counties by population as of 1937.

(Marion was 14, Alachua 11, Sumter 44, Lake 12, Citrus 47, Levy 39, St. Lucie 24, Martin 42, Putnam 22, etc.)

Sunshine State: 1949

Florida license plate 1951Sunshine State first appeared on tags in 1949, except in 1951, when “Keep Florida Green” was promoted and again in 1965 when “400th Anniversary (of St. Augustine)” was commemorated.

Also that year, the Amateur Radio License (ham radio) plate was established for residents who hold a valid official amateur radio station license issued by the Federal Communications Commission, bearing the call letters of his or her station.

Happy Birthday, Saint Augustine: 1965

Florida license plate 1965The 1965 florida plate recognized the founding of the city of St. Augustine. The city was founded by the Spanish admiral Pedro Menéndez de Avilés on August 28, 1565—the feast day of Augustine of Hippo, and consequently named San Agustín.

Indian Tags: 1971

The Seminole and Miccosukee Indian Tribe license plates were established for resident-members of the Seminole and Miccosukee Indian Tribes of Florida and are issued by the Tribal tag agency.

MYPL8S: 1972

The personalized (vanity) license plate program was started in 1972, which allowed people to select a 7-digit combination (letter or number, with a hyphen.) A $12 fee was established. Of course, some combinations were not approved.

Challenger: 1987

Florida Challenger license plateThe Challenger license plate program was to run for only a short time period, but in September 1991, the time period was extended to “indefinite.” This plate was issued to commemorate the seven astronauts (Greg Jarvis, Christa McAuliffe, Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka, Judith Resnik, Michael J. Smith, Dick Scobee) who died when the space shuttle Challenger exploded shortly after launch on January 28, 1986.

State College U: 1987

Collegiate license plates were established to raise funds for scholarships for the state universities of Florida.

DotCom: 2003

The slogan: “MyFlorida.com” was added to the Florida license plate. This is, in my opinion, the absolute worst license-plate-advertised state website in the world. See my post on license plate websites.

Wearing Stripes: 2014

Florida Sunshine StateBeginning in 2014, Florida should have had newly designed license plates. The new plates are flat, with a much easier-to-read font, with a green stripe on top and bottom. The new plates are also supposed to be more readable to traffic cameras—so speeding through the toll plazas on the Turnpike should become much more expensive.

The public had a choice of designs, and Governor Scott is expected to approve it. It’s been 3½ years since I first wrote this, and I have seen a total of one of these plates. I don’t know if they were, or will be, widely released.

The new design cost taxpayers $31 million.

Originally published in The Pineapple Post, Ocala, FL, January 1, 2013

Letter to the editor:

Jeff:

I read your article about Florida’s License Plate History in the Jan edition of the Pineapple Post with great interest.

As you may or may not know Dept of Motor Vehicles can approve the use of one of the plates on classic cars. The plate has to be the year of the car. I have a 57 T-Bird with a 57 plate on it. I was aware of the county prefix code numbers.

My question is I have a plate with the county code of “27” on it. I’ve been told it might be from Highlands County which is around Sebring but nobody knows for sure. Do you have any information on this.

Also there is a letter designation after the county code which I was told had to do with the weight of the vehicle.

I Thank You in advance and appreciate any info you might have.

(Answer: 27 is Highlands County, and the letter designates weight. Florida has 67 counties and each county was assigned a number based on population. A complete list can be found here. I am not the “Jeff” who made the list, but here is his hompepage.)

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