Reviews & Guides
Automobile License Plate Buying Guide
By: licpl8s ( 23197Feedback score is 10,000 to 24,999)   Top 5000 Reviewer
200 out of 208 people found this guide helpful.

           Do interesting and unusual license plates catch your eye? Hanging license plates on a garage or barn wall after their expiration has long been a causal collecting habit for many.  License plate collectors love the automotive, United States, and World History that parallels specific plates.  Others appreciate the nostalgia, the number sequences, or the attractiveness of specific plates.  Whether you are looking for a birth year plate for yourself or something as a unique gift, or you are searching for the plates needed to complete a plate collection from every country or state, you will find what you are looking for on eBay.

Discover Collectible License Plates

     With a large variety of license plates available, from recently expired ones to rare early ones, your collecting interests may focus on a few of the following categories: 

     U.S. License Plates:  In the early days of collecting, it was common to collect a plate from every state for every year.  That was no easy task fifty years ago. Now collecting goals tend to be less broad, concentrating on the plates of a particular state or other jurisdiction, particular types of plates, and birth year plates, for example.  Others collect a plate or tag, as they are sometimes called,  from every county in a state.  Finding all of the different types of plates, passenger and nonpassenger, from a state is a larger undertaking. 

     World License Plates:  Gathering plates from a certain country, island grouping, or continent is a common collecting interest.  It is not too difficult to put together a set of most Canadian or European number plates, the international term for license plates.  It is more difficult to collect all of the types or the years of plates from a specific country.  Population, remoteness, political climate, and automotive history of the country are factors that contribute to the difficulty in collecting plates from other countries. 

     Particular License Plates:   The large variety of plates now available allows for endless collecting possibilities.  A collection can be as varied and as large as you care to make it.  Many collectors concentrate on particular types of plates.  These include the older pre-state and porcelain plates, various types of nonpassenger plates, or plates with slogans, for example.  The proliferation of new plates has created many collecting interest, such as military related, environmental, centennial, personalized, special events, animals, inverts, or plates with errors, or even plates of a particular favorite color.

Determine License Plate Value

     The value of a particular license plate is not as straight forward as valuing a coin, for example.  Like coins, condition plays a major factor in the value.  Extra holes, dents, scratches, bends, and other damage detract from the value.  Older or rarer plates that have lost their original paint are often repainted.  Repaints are not as valuable as a plate with original paint, and the value of the repainted plate varies depending upon the quality of the restoration. 

     While there are license plate pricing guides, these are rough guides at best and apply only to passenger plates.  Passenger plates are most commonly collected, and are usually more valuable than nonpassenger plates such as truck, trailer, etc. plates for a given state and year.  Motorcycle plates have become more popular in recent years and can have more value than passenger plates.

     Within a given year and type, other factors can affect value.  A low number plate, particularly a number 1 plate, will carry a premium.  Plates from less populous counties can be more valuable, and even geography can play a factor.  For example, Colorado plates will trade better at a plate meet in New York than they would in Colorado, because there are fewer of them available in New York compared to Colorado. 

License Plate Grading:

Mint - A plate that was never used. There are no flaws aside from those of the manufacturer.

Excellent - Minor flaws from use, such as marks at the bolt holes.

Very Good - Minor paint or surface fading, scratches, and the like from honest use. There are no extra holes or rust on the front of the plate.

Good - Plate is very displayable, but there can be some minor surfact deterioration and obvious signs of use. There are no tears or other serious metal damage.

Fair - Plate has moderate to severe fading and light or modeate rust, but the colors of the paint are still visible. Bolt holes can be torn or damaged.

Poor - Plate is very well used with considerable damage and/or rust.  Most of  the original paint is gone.

History of License Plates

     The earliest possible references to vehicle registration and possibly license plates date back to ancient Rome at the time of Julius Caesar, 102 - 44 B.C. There are references to the licensing of chariots, but whether a number was marked on the chariot itself or onto an attachment to the vehicle is not known.

     What may have continued over the centuries is a mystery until Victorian England in the 1880s.  In The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson are found unsuccessfully trying to catch a public hansom cab.  Holmes, however, got close enough to the cab to spot its license number, which became a major clue in cracking the case.

     As automobiles became more common in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, a need for their registration arose.  Prior to universal licensing at the state level, cities and counties issued their own license plates.  Although actual plates were sometimes provided, more often than not these so-called pre-states were homemade -- commonly metal house numbers attached to a leather pad.

     By action of its Legislature, New York became the first state to require vehicle registration as of April 25, 1901, and California followed suit later that year.  The first New York issues were homemade plates, bearing the initials of the owner without any numbers.  Massachusetts was the first state to actually issue plates, beginning in 1903.  By 1918, all 48 of the contiguous United States were issuing license plate.  Although they were territories at the time, Alaska and Hawaii began issuing plates in 1921 and 1922, respectively.

     License plates have changed significantly over the years.  Early plates were not fancy -- just the state name or abbreviation, a registration number, and, more often than not, the year.  Fancy lettering, reflectorization, slogans, county names, illustrations or logos peculiar to a particular state became more common as time passed.  Since the American Bicentennial, the states have begun issuing graphic plates having scenes, slogans, or elaborate devices silk-screened onto the plates.  For many years plates had the numbers and letters embossed or stamped into the metal and painted.  Now the trend is toward flat, unembossed plates.

     Beginning in 1957, most types of North American plates have been a standard size, six by twelve inches.  Prior to that, different sizes and shapes were not uncommon.  Plates were normally rectangular, but oval, square, round, and triangular shapes were used.  For a number of years, Kansas and Tennessee cut their plates to match the shaped of the state itself.  The distinction for the most unusually shaped plates goes to Northwest Territories and Nunavut in Canada, which have their plates cut in the shape of a bear.

     A wide variety of materials has been used for license plates.  Metal is most commonly used, with steel and aluminum leading the way.  Tin, copper, and brass have been used as well.  Early plates for many states were porcelain covered steel, but these soon proved to be too expensive to produce in the quantity needed.  Wood, rubber, pressed soybean meal, cardboard, and plastic have been used in lieu of metal or when metal supplies were limited, as was the case during World War II.  Windshield stickers, or metal tabs or stickers attached to the plates themselves have been employed for the renewal of plates.

     License plate collecting as a hobby has gained in popularity over recent years.  The Automobile License Plate Collectors Association, or ALPCA, was founded in 1954 and now boasts over 3000 members world wide.  There are many local license plate clubs, many of which are regional chapters chartered within ALPCA.

License Plate Talk:  Some Common Terms

ALPCA - Automobile License Plate Collectors Association.  ALPCA is the primary license plate collectors club, founded in 1954 with over 3000 active members world wide.

License plate - A device usually made of metal bearing numbers and/or letters to identify and provide official registration for a vehicle.

Tag - Alternative term for plate, heard more commonly in specific parts of the United States.

Number plate - Alternative term for plate, heard more commonly outside North America.

Passenger plate - A plate used to register an automobile designed for transporting people.  This type of plate is the most widely collected type of plate.

Non-passenger plate - A plate used to register vehicles other than automobiles, including trucks, trailers, motorcycles and the like.

Pre-state - A plate, very often homemade, used in the time before states and provinces officially produced and issued their own plates.

Porcelain - In the early days many plates were made of porcelain, basically glass melted on to a steel backing.

Embossed - Describes a plate made of metal with the characters stamped into the metal.

Reflectorization - The process that makes the plates shine in the dark when light is shone upon them.

Graphic - A plate made by any of several processes with a design, picture or other colorful image as the background.  The numbering may or may not be embossed on such plates.

Personalized  plate - A plate having numbers or letters of the vehicle owner's own choosing.  The rules regarding what is allowed on personalized or vanity plates varies among jurisdictions.

Guide ID: 10000000001212896Guide created: 07/24/06 (updated 04/15/14)

Was this guide helpful? Report this guide

Ready to share your knowledge with others? Write a guide

Write a Guide

Share your automotive expertise with the eBay community.