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©2019 by Eric N. Tanner
The earliest reference to the licensing of automobiles comes in the form of a state law in 1901. Chapter 149, passed March 16, 1901, and effective immediately, authorized cities, cities and counties, or counties "to license the use of bicycles, tricycles, automobile carriages and carts, and similar wheeled vehicles...", with the maximum fee being $1 annually. Non-residents of the city or county were exempted. Any personal property tax due the state, county or city was to be deducted from the license fee, keeping the rate at $1 or less. A county could pass an ordinance for such licensing only if "any town or municipal authority" within that county did not provide for it. This means that cities and towns had precedence over the county. The term "cities and counties" refers to San Francisco, which was both a city and county combined into a single entity. The "governing body of such jurisdictions...may devise such label, tag, or certificate...to be witness of the possession of such license...", this being the earliest reference to possible license plates in California. Whether any were issued is unknown. For further details on city/county registration in the 1901-05 era, see the page on Local issues.
The first law requiring automobiles to register directly with the state was 1905 Chapter 612, passed March 22, 1905, and effective April 21, 1905. This law required automobiles to register with the Secretary of State for a fee of $2, display a state-issued disc and an owner-provided black-on-white rear plate with the disc number in 3-inch-tall numbers and the "abbreviated name of the state" in 1-inch-tall letters. All known examples have the abbreviation "CAL". The assigned number was also to be painted in 1-inch-tall numbers on the front headlights. Dealers were to register in the same manner, but were also entitled to as many duplicate seals as needed for 50c each. Non-residents were exempted, and all local automobile registration ordinances were prohibited. However, motorcycles were specifically excluded from state registration; therefore, they continued to be licensed by cities or counties all the way through 1913. Information on these issues can be found on the Local page.
An unintentional loophole in the 1905 law seemingly allowed owners who had already acquired their automobiles before April 21, 1905, to be exempted from registering, all because of the two words "hereafter acquiring." Section 2 states that "Every person hereafter acquiring a motor vehicle shall...file in the office of the secretary of state a statement of his name and address, with a brief description of the vehicle to be registered...". This language was corrected in the next amendment to the law in 1907.
Number 1 was issued to Charles D. Spreckels, President of the Park Commissioners of the City and County of San Francisco, on the day of passage, March 22, 1905. (The Park Commission had been licensing automobiles since 1901.) Other members of his family were assigned numbers 2, 3 and 4. The highest known 1905-13 pre-state plate is #122186. Numbers issued by calendar year (and the yearly totals) are as follows:
1905 1 - 4727 (4,727)
1906 4728 - 8764 (4,037)
1907 8765 - 14005 (5,241)
1908 14006 - 19563 (5,558)
1909 19564 - 28636 (9,073)
1910 28637 - 42483 (13,847)
1911 42484 - 61784 (19,301)
1912 61785 - 90660 (28,876)
1913 90661 - 122444 (31,784)
1907 Chapter 500, passed on March 23, 1907 (exactly two years and one day later), effective immediately, amended the 1905 law by fixing the language to close the loophole, now requiring all automobile owners to register, not just those acquiring a vehicle after April 21, 1905. The only other substantive changes made involved speed and handling regulations.
Many pairs of pre-state plates have survived, leading one to believe that the law had been changed at some point to require plates on the front as well as the back of automobiles. In fact, it almost was! The Oakland Tribune ran a fascinating story on June 11, 1911, under the headline "LAW DOES NOT REQUIRE TWO NUMBERS ON AUTOS". To summarize, Senate Bill #656 was introduced in the Senate on January 27, 1911, and after numerous amendments, it reached the Assembly on March 10. Following further extensive debate (mostly on the amendments), the finalized bill was rushed to the printer on March 25, just two days before the Legislature was to adjourn. The bill, including the requirement that automobiles display their license numbers on the front and back as outlined in Section 9, passed in the session's final minutes, but the Governor pocketed the bill and never signed it. Several newspapers published articles about the passage of the bill but failed to note that the Governor had not actually signed it into law. Therefore, the previous (1905) law continued in effect with its provision of license plates on the rear only, yet a large segment of the motoring population was under the impression that pairs were required, and ordered two plates from 1911 through 1913!
A San Jose Evening News article of December 27, 1913, states that "From now on a tag must be in front as well as in back." This, of course, refers to the new state-issued 1914 plates. Many "pairs" of pre-state plates exist, often with mismatched styles. Some could be attributed to being extra plates belonging to dealers, while others were the result of an owner's desire to voluntarily add a front plate. Still others may represent a replacement for an earlier style of the same number, either due to damage, incompatibility with a newer car being transferred to, or just going out of style. For example, the Southern California Auto Club porcelain style wasn't sold until 1912, yet owners with lower numbers sometimes upgraded their older style plate with the new one. This would result in two plates with the same number but never used at the same time as a pair.
A few lines are also in order about the wide variety of materials and styles used by motorists who made their own plates or ordered them from auto supply firms. While the same diversity can be found in pre-state plates of any North American jurisdiction of the era, California had the largest quantity of assigned numbers of any state or province, over 122,000 in all, not counting instances of pairs, multiples for dealers, or second-generation plates. (New York comes in second with over 108,000 assigned registrations.) A plethora of different fonts and methods of construction of plates were used. Numbers could be painted directly on the body of the vehicle, but this was not aesthetically the preferred mode of display. Separate plates, tags or "pads" were used, and these were made out of leather or wood with aluminum house numbers, cast aluminum, metal screen with attached numbers, brass cut-out, porcelain, nickel-plated stippled brass, or hand-painted flat metal. Some of the earliest commercially-produced plates were the distinctive nickel-plated brass plates made by the Moise-Klinkner Co. of San Francisco, which had indented numbers outlined in black against a white painted background. The most famous type appeared in 1912 and 1913, offered by the Automobile Club of Southern California, and bearing their seal and that of its then-affiliate, the AAA, on each end of the plate, usually in porcelain. Most popular with collectors today are the variations of this format, with the seals above (or occasionally below) the numbers, now nicknamed "Mickey Mouse" plates due to the seals' resemblance to "ears"!
(Catalog Ad in ALPCA APR-88 p.39)
California's lengthy pre-state era, both the state automobile type and the local motorcycle type, ended on December 31, 1913. 1913 Chapter 326, passed on May 31, 1913, and effective at midnight on December 31, 1913, provided for registration with the State Treasurer and for annual state-issued pairs of passenger and dealer plates. Importantly, motorcycles were now included with state-issued single rear motorcycle plates. Dated discs were also issued by the state in 1914 and 1915. The registration year was January 1 to December 31. Non-residents were still exempted. Headlight numbers were discontinued. This law repealed the 1905 law.
Fees were $5, $10, $15, $20, $25 or $30 depending on horsepower, motorcycles were $2, and dealer plates cost $50 for 5 pairs, plus $10 for each additional pair needed. Motorcycle dealer plates cost $5 for 5 plates, and were designated only by a diamond symbol. Half rates were in effect for all vehicles starting August 1 of each year. 1914 plates were issued in five categories, and the highest plates known are as follows:
New Car Dealer: #B2418 (Started at #A1, issued in groups of 5 pairs,
lettered A,B,C,D and E)
Used Car Dealer: #E100217 (Started at #A100001, same groups of 5)
Motorcycle: #Q285 (#1 - 9999, #A000 - A999, etc., no I or O used
Motorcycle Dealer: #854 (#925 reported)