by Bob Blake

Our cars are light years away from the “chuggers” of yesteryear, but they maintain one thing in common – a license plate. Despite the peppering from gravel roads, impacts from collisions, rust, thievery, and other insults, the lowly license plate survives!

The state of New York required them in 1901 when there were fewer than 5,000 cars built in all America. The state required them but the owners had to craft their own, usually out of iron or leather. Two years later Massachusetts discovered that “tag sales” were an excellent revenue stream for the roads. 

North Carolina required automobile registration in 1907 but issued the first actual license plate in 1913. Our state exclusively used numbers through 1948. After that, the system became more specific by combining letters and numbers. Classes of vehicles, such as cars, trailers, and dealers had specific combinations. North Carolina joined the national standard size of 12×6 inches in 1956, and altered the numbering system again with either one or two letters followed by numbers.

Front and rear license plates are required by 31 states, while the remaining 19, including North Carolina, require only a rear one. Law prohibits automobile manufacturers from distributing cars with only one tag space in states that require two. Thus, it is easier to always have both! There appears to be a strong southern bias as all states from Arkansas to North Carolina mandate only rear ones.

 For many years, North Carolina and South Carolina tags were black and yellow and with loose association, alternated the opposite schemes. After a few years, however, the inevitable happened – BOTH Carolinas had the same color plates – Confusion!

North Carolina began a multi-year tag in 1975 with red and reflective white. North Carolina’s attempt at the legend, “First in Freedom” became controversial as well as confusing. The slogan was a reference to the Mecklenburg Declaration of May 20, 1775, in which Mecklenburg County, North Carolina (Charlotte area) declared independence from Britain. Many folks were unfamiliar with that event and construed it to mean North Carolina’s freedom from slavery which did not happen until 1865. 

These First in Freedom plates were gradually phased out and replaced with a new graphic First in Flight plates (1982-1985). In 2019, the North Carolina DMV introduced a new In God We Trust plate, which is also available at no extra cost. 

Under a new North Carolina law, effective effect July 1, 2020, plates older than seven years must be replaced. The DMV says the new tag won’t produce any additional costs. A type of digital license plate is under study. 

North Carolina now offers specialty license plates that feature designs representing more than 100 causes and interest groups. Their fee, in addition to the routine registration charge, is additional.

License plate sales are a good revenue source for North Carolina as the state has registered over 4.5 million trucks and 3.5 million cars.