A brief history of Colorado’s license plates

Gilpin Historical Society

by David Forsyth, PhD

For many years, Colorado’s license plates bore the slogan “Colorful Colorado” in reference to the state’s natural beauty. But, just as colorful is the history of the license plates themselves. Colorado first required owners to register their vehicles with county clerks in 1910, but provided no specifics for doing so. Vehicle owners had to come up with their own numbers, and some used their addresses or ages, while others used random numbers that simply occurred to them. After registering with clerks, owners also had to make their own license plates, with some attaching house numbers to their cars wherever they thought most appropriate, while others fastened numbers to leather or wooden tags that hung from the rear axles. The first state-issued license plates (white porcelainzed metal with black numbers) came in 1913. The state switched to steel plates in 1916, and continued to issue new plates every year, allowing motorists to keep the same numbers if they wished, which led to heated competition among drivers to get low-numbered plates when they ever became available. Denver oilman and politician E.E. Sommers, for example, had license plate number 1 for many years prior to his death. His wife then took it over, until it was issued to future Gilpin County resident Emily Griffith in 1931.

Colorado’s prisoners did not make their first plates until 1925 when the warden of the state penitentiary convinced the legislature to install the equipment to do so (it was destroyed during a riot in 1929 and not replaced until 1933). At times, the prisoners even had contracts to produce plates for other western states. Inmates did occasionally slip a joke plate through the system, such as one in 1965 that read HELP. In the mid-1930s, the state motor vehicle department assigned a number to each county’s license plates based on population and the Rocky Mountain News printed a guide to what it referred to as “Colorado’s cabalistic system of automobile numbers.” Gilpin County was assigned 60 (out of 63), and retained the number after the 1940 census. Under the new system, each county’s plate began with the number followed by a dash and more numbers (for example, 60-1001). Denver lost number 1 in 1955, but otherwise the number system remained in place until 1977, when letters were assigned to each county.

“Colorful Colorado” first appeared on license plates issued in 1950 and remained there until 1955. The state legislature attempted to return it to the plates for 1957, but Governor Edwin Johnson vetoed the bill, arguing that Colorado already meant colorful and the word cluttered the plates. Colorful reappeared in 1958 on what was the most controversial (and today the most collectible): the infamous skier plate, which included a rendition of a downhill skier. The artwork and slogan forced the use of smaller letters, made even more difficult to read through the use of dark green letters on a light green background. Many considered the skier plate the most artistic ever produced (the state legislature even tried to require all future plates to use the skier), but the state returned to a basic plate in 1959.

In 1977, the state scrapped the numbering system and went to a two-letter, four number designation for counties along with a reusable plate with white mountains and letters on a green background. Gilpin County was assigned ZK, which led to the nickname Zeke for county residents. Five years later, the state tried to scrap the two-letter designation in favor of a three letter, three number plate (the first letter in each still designated the county). The change angered residents who still had the two-letter plates, and after an intense campaign the state allowed motorists to keep them as long as local police deemed them legible.

In 2000, the state again issued a new license plate (green letters on a white background) to replace all plates issued since 1977, but budget issues forced the state to scale back the program and drivers have been able to keep their green and white plates if they desire. The state issued its first designer license plate in 1992, and Colorado now has over 200 styles of license plates, which has helped to make Colorado even more colorful.

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