What You Can, and Cannot, Do With Vintage Plates in California
Text by Barry Lee Brisco
A vintage license plate can be the crowning touch of authenticity on a classic 356, and can be legallly used in California on all 356s (with some effort, as explained below). Few 356 owners are lucky enough to have the original plates on their car. Whether you find a set of well-worn old plates for cheap at a parts swapmeet or purchase a pristine restored pair for serious money, the real challenge can be dealing with your state DMV office and getting permission to legally mount them on your car.
This article is the beginning of what will hopefully grow to be a lengthy "how to" covering as many US states as possible, offering detailed information about how to legally use vintage license plates on your 356. Let's start with California, since there are more 356 Registry members there than anywhere else. I've gone through the vintage plate registration process twice in that state: once on a 59 Convertible D that had never been registered in the state, and once with a 59 coupe that was a California car originally but was being brought in from out of state.
California – Land of the Disgruntled DMV Employee
No need to mince words: the California DMV is not always the most public spirited bureacracy on the planet. It can be a trying experience attempting to convince the clerk behind the counter that the law does allow vintage license plate use in certain specific circumstances under the "Year of Manufacture" (YOM) statute, Section 5004.1 of the California Motor Vehicle Code. I have had DMV employees tell me that there is no such law, and that what I am trying to do is impossible. So take a printout of that webpage with you! And for S.F. Bay Area residents, here's a tip: the Santa Clara DMV is much more hip to the YOM rules than some other DMV offices. They even have a huge display on the wall of every CA plate style since they first started issuing them in 1914, which is interesting from a historical point of view.
California law allows owners of 1969 model year cars or older to use vintage plates issued in the same year on their car if the plates are legible and "clear", meaning not currently in use. Since each plate number is unique, and you have to bring into the DMV a matched pair of plates, that should prove they are not in use, but it's not always that simple. Errors in the DMV records may show they are in use when they are clearly not (assuming your vintage plates are legitimate and not modern copies!). Note that the law does not require that the vintage plates be the same as those originally issued with the car.
The 1951 – 1955 "Black/Yellow" Plate
Up until 1952, CA plate styles for almost all years showed a year number stamped into the plate, or a metal tab showing the year was attached to the plate. 1951 plates had "51" stamped at the lower right. From 1952 through 1955, the plates still show "51" and to indicate the year change a small metal tab with the later year was fixed over the "51" stamp (examples shown here).
The 1956 – 1962 "Yellow/Black" Plate
Starting in 1956, the state changed over to the "yellow/black" plate style (yellow background with black letters) with "56" shown in the upper right corner, and then kept using that same plate through 1962 without changing the year stamp. Instead the year was indicated by a sticker affixed just to the left of the "56" stamp which showed the year the plate was first issued. So every CA plate from 1956 through 1962 was stamped "56", only the year shown on the sticker changed.
This means that to use yellow/black plates on your 1956 to 1962 car, you not only need a matched set of vintage plates, you also need a year sticker (on the rear plate only) that matches the model year of your car. If your plate does not have a sticker, amazingly you can purchase them from private sources (not from the state). See the list shown below.
Note that if you meet those requirements, you can use any yellow/black CA plate stamped "56" on your 1956 to 1962 car. However, if you are a real stickler for originality, keep in mind that plates were issued alphabetically so that for any given year, plates starting with a particular letter were used. Here are the ranges: A-G (1956), D-O (1957), M-R (1958), R-T (1959), T-V (1960), U-X (1961), W-Z (1962). Of course these are not hard and fast rules, and exceptions are possible. Addison Yeaman reports that a Convertible D he purchased new in late 1959 came with the plate MFC 542.
If you are trying to register a 356 in California that has never been registered in that state, and you want to use vintage plates on the car, you will need to show the vehicle title to the DMV. If you just want to use current (modern) plates on the car, you may only need to show a current registration from the state of origin.
The 1963 – 1968 "Black/Yellow" Plate
In January 1963, the state changed back to a "black/yellow" plate style (black background with yellow letters) and did a complete reissue of plates to all CA registered vehicles. All old plates had to be turned in by years end in exchange for the new black/yellow plates. This new plate style was used through 1968, and always had the year "63" stamped in the upper right corner no matter what year it was issued. Every year, owners received a new year sticker when they paid their vehicle registration fees.
Note: one 356 owner has reported that in January 1962 he brought into California a 1961 B coupe that was purchased in France, and he was issued black/yellow plates, stamped "63", by the DMV. So it seems that the black/yellow plate style started showing up before January 1963. Unless, of course, his memory is not perfect.
The 1969 – 1986 "Blue/Yellow" Plate
The California "blue/yellow" style plate was first issued in 1969, so it would not be an original plate for a 356. You may see a 356 with that style plate, possibly because sometime in the past an owner lost the original plates and the blue/yellow plates are replacements. This could also be the case for a pre-1963 356 running with black/yellow plates.
State law currently says you cannot change from modern plates to blue/yellow plates on a 1969 or later car.
Vintage License Plate Sources and Information
California Vintage Plate and Sticker Source - Dave Hindman
California License Plate Information
California DMV Year of Manufacture Program
License Plate Collectors Portal
Darryl's License Plate Restoration
Rod Pearman License Plate Restoration ("The Tag Dr.")
ALPCA List of License Plate Restorers
Technical advice given on these pages is provided free and without warranty. The user of information presented on these pages assumes all responsibility and liability in its use. We're not lawyers, we're car folk, just sharing our experience. Be careful, use your head, have fun.
Questions or comments, please email to Barry Lee Brisco, Website Technical Editor, email@example.com
Published 04/23/06 – Updated 09/10/09