If year-of-manufacture (YOM) license plates grew on trees, the tree for the United States would have 50 branches, with about 38 of them bearing YOM tags. I say “about” because it’s hard to determine if proposed YOM laws in three states have yet been passed by state legislatures. So there are either 35 (or 38) states that currently have laws permitting the use of old license plates on collector cars.
The 35 states that definitely have YOM laws are Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, District of Columbia, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Kansas, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia and Wisconsin.
One good source of YOM license plate information on the Internet is www.thebolthole.com/misc/yom.html. Though it’s no longer being updated, it is current up to some point in 2005. It lists Indiana , Nevada and South Carolina among the states not having YOM laws, but other sites suggest these states are probably on board the YOM train by now.
There are wide variations on how YOM laws for U.S. states and localities in other parts of the world are written. In general, the key requirement for a YOM registration is that the collector vehicle must be at least a certain number of years old and substantially unchanged or unmodified from the manufacturer's original product. Usually, if the vehicle is to be used for commercial purposes, it can’t qualify for YOM plates. In at least one state – Minnesota – the use of vintage plates is for passenger cars only. Other states allow them for trucks and motorcycles.
Usually, the old license plates have to be authentic and reproductions can’t be used. However, the YOM law in Indiana specifically allows the use of “replica” license plates. At the opposite end of the spectrum is New York ’s YOM law that seems to prohibit the use of even “painted” plates. Does that mean a nicely restored set of old plates can’t legally be used in the EmpireState ? Possibly, although who would know they have been repainted?
In all cases the YOM plates must match the vehicle’s year of manufacture date. However, there is an Internet posting by a Corvair fan in Washington who discovered that the state made a mistake issuing plates during one year in the ‘60s. The end result was that plates carrying the year of his car weren’t actually made in that year! We haven’t found out if he got the problem straightened out.
In California , YOM license plates must be for a year that matches the model year of the car. If you have a 1951 model year vehicle that was built and originally registered in 1950, you’ll still need 1951 plates. The California law also says that you can run YOM plates on pre-1963 vehicles only. This has many collectors of more modern collector cars up in arms. Currently, there is a campaign underway to get “Governator” Arnold Schwarzenegger to change things.
Most YOM laws state that the plate must be in good condition. This seems like a reasonable requirement, as a true collector wouldn’t put a mangled old plate on his or her car. In some states, if the plate year is one where a bolt-on metal tag was applied to an earlier plate, then you need the earlier plates and the bolt-on tag.
In the proposed Indiana law, it was noted that both one and two plates would be legal, depending on which system was used in the year the car was built. Of course, if your car is from a two-plate year, you will need a set of matching plates. You can’t have one number showing on the front of your car and another on the rear.
In all states, the numbers on the YOM plates can’t already be in use. Years ago in many states, new plates were issued annually. If someone has already registered a certain number for their 1938 car and your 1936 plates have the same number, you’re out of luck. The same holds true if the plate number matches that of a currently registered motorcycle. You should clear the number with the DMV or Secretary of State before buying expensive old plates at a swap meet.
All YOM laws specify that the number on the vintage plate can’t be one that is duplicated on a more modern plate (sometimes even if the modern plate has been cancelled). In Ontario , for example, a collector discovered that it was possible to buy a pair of 1960s license plates with a number that was reused in the 1980s.
In several states, YOM plates are allowed “for display only” and regular or antique plates must be kept in the vehicle as well. This is the case in Illinois , which permits YOM plates from any state as long as the regular plates in the car are Illinois plates.
To display YOM plates, you must file the proper applications with your state DMV or Secretary of State. Some states charge an additional fee for the use of YOM plates. In other states, you’ll pay for your regular or antique plates, but the YOM application is free. However, you’re required to carry all the paperwork for both types of plates in the car with you.
If you’re interested in using YOM license plates on your collector vehicle, you should find out about the specific rules that apply in your state. Start by using an Internet search engine like Yahoo! or Google and typing in key words like “Year of Manufacture license plate” or “YOM license plate” plus the name of your state. But remember that laws are frequently revised, so it’s best to check with your local DMV or Secretary of State office to verify the accuracy of the information you find on the Internet.
John “Gunner” Gunnell is the automotive books editor at Krause Publications in Iola , Wis., and former editor of Old Cars Weekly and Old Cars Price Guide.