Answer Man

The history of personalized license plates in Illinois

Q: When did Illinois start allowing car owners to pick their license plate numbers? Not just today’s alphanumeric plates, like NVRL8 and GOCARDS, but plates that had six-digit numbers, like 314 159.

Dan Franklin, of Belleville

A: By law, the year was 1980. Unofficially, it’s anybody’s guess.

That’s the answer I got from Henry Haupt, the secretary of state’s deputy press secretary. It was 1980 when legislation was passed to allow Illinois drivers to order vanity and personalized license plates. As defined then, vanity plates contained up to six letters or the numbers 1 to 999. Personalized plates had a combination of desired letters and numbers. In the very first year, 24,000 state residents decided they wanted to pay extra to show off their vanity to fellow motorists. (One of my favorite games in traffic jams is trying to figure out their various messages.)

But as you seem to imply in your question, I know from personal experience that drivers were displaying personalized plates long before 1980 — and, being the pack rat that I am, I have the evidence to prove it.

Even after 40 years, I remember how proud my dad was of his “vanity” plates. Year after year they sported “412 412” — the address (two times over) of our family home on South 16th Street. But just to double-check, I zipped downstairs to root out the Eckert’s peaches basket filled with my dad’s old plates. Sure enough, in 1976, the year the state issued red, white and blue plates to celebrate the nation’s bicentennial, there was 412 412 for the first time. I found similar plates in 1977, 1978 and 1979, when the state stopped issuing plates every year.

When I related this personal anecdote to Haupt, all he could do was chuckle. There was no law that he could find before 1980 authorizing such plates. Instead, he figures it likely was a typical case of not what you knew being important, but who you knew. Dad had a good friend at the local secretary of state’s office so it’s a good bet that the friend asked Dad if he wanted a specialized plate and then put in Dad’s request. Such personal favors likely had been going for years, but your guess is as good as Haupt’s as to when the first one was granted.

There’s no question, however, that it was 1907 when the Motor Vehicle Act, which required motorists to register with the secretary of state’s office, became law. For a one-time $2 fee per vehicle, motorists received a round aluminum disk with a registration number to affix to their vehicles. (Drivers had to furnish their own plates until 1911. The disks were dropped in 1917.) From July 1, 1907, to June 30, 1909, the state registered 20,224 vehicles. Sidney S. Gorham, of LaGrange, was issued license plate number 1.

As you might guess, that “one-time fee” didn’t last long. Probably realizing they had a cash cow on their hands, the state began charging an annual fee in 1909 and re-registered all vehicles.

More interesting plate trivia: In 1912, front plates were perforated so more air could flow through a car’s radiator. Aluminum license plates were issued for the first time in 1950. The slogan “Land of Lincoln” debuted in 1954, although a requirement for showing Lincoln’s image was dropped because it was deemed impractical at the time.

Purple and white plates were issued in 1964 to honor both McKendree College and Rockford College (as they were known then). In 1966, for the first time in 30 years, fees were increased 50 cents to pay for a new reflective coating. In 1977, drivers were able to complain about lousy photos on their licenses for the first time. The discontinuation of annual plates in 1979 ended a 67-year run, the longest in the United States. In 1985, all vehicles were charged the same fee ($48) rather than one based on horsepower.

For more year-by-year changes and innovations, be sure to visit www.cyberdriveillinois.com/special/plate_history/start_history.html.

Today’s trivia

In 1975, who was issued special Illinois license plates with stick figures of people instead of numbers?

Answer to Wednesday’s trivia: In 2005, Pocahontas native Gretchen Wilson set a mark for releasing the highest debuting single ever on the Hot Country Singles chart when “All Jacked Up” started out at No. 21. It has since been eclipsed twice, first by Carrie Underwood’s “So Small,” which debuted at No. 20 in 2007, and, most recently, by Taylor Swift’s “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together,” which launched at No. 13 in 2012.

Roger Schlueter: 618-239-2465, @RogerAnswer

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