California License Plate Paint Color Law

By Patrick Gleeson, Ph. D., - Updated June 05, 2017
Classic car California number plate, close-up

You can order many different California license plate styles. Some even reproduce the original colors of other eras. But you can't paint the plate yourself and you can't order your own preferred color.

No Do-It-Yourself Alterations

California offers many different license plates in several colors. Some plates have qualification requirements; others all you have to do is order a design you like and pay the required fees.

One thing you can't do is create your own design, which includes changing the color. California's law states that "No person shall display upon a vehicle a license plate altered from its original markings."

Other Eras, Other Colors

A 2014 Los Angeles Magazine article on California's colorful license plate history includes photographs of plates from different eras, including plates with white lettering on a bright red background (1914); white on black (1920); black on yellow (1934); black on orange (1956); gold on flat black (1963); yellow on blue (1969); and various shades of blue lettering on backgrounds ranging from a very light grey through light cream to bright white (1982 to the present).

California Legacy Plates

California license plates issued from 1963 to 1969 have been popular among car buffs, particularly owners of the various Detroit muscle cars of that era. One California Department of Motor Vehicles program, the 2014 Legacy Plates program, invited California residents to vote on legacy plate designs from the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. Only the muscle car era's 1960s plate, with its heavily embossed gold letters and numbers on a flat blackground, received enough votes for the department to make these plates an available option.

The Legacy Plate program has no restrictions on the kinds or model years of vehicles eligible for a 1960s era plate. For instance, you can order the 60's-era black plate and put it on your Prius. Additional fees apply for ordering the plate, along with an increased annual renewal charge.

California's Year of Manufacturer Plate Program

California also offers a Year of Manufacturer Plate, or YOM Program for vehicles built in 1980 or before.

The program has several qualifying requirements, all of them listed on the California Department of Motor Vehicle's YOM application form. The essential requirements are:

  • You may not use facsimile plates, although you can restore authentic DMV plates from the vehicle's year of manufacture.
  • You must use two plates, except for cars manufactured in 1945 and 1946, when the DMV issued only one plate per vehicle.
  • The original plate number cannot conflict with a current plate configuration.
  • The usual prohibitions against distasteful and offensive plate lettering apply.
  • For cars manufactured from 1963 to 1980, the plate configuration must be compatible with the vehicle. For instance, you can't use 1965 truck plates on an automobile.

The YOM application lists the colors and design details for various years of manufacture. Additional fees apply and are listed on the application.

Custom Plates

California offers also many special interest plates and personalized plate options. These are described, and can be ordered, through the DMV Special Interest and Personalized Plates Application.

About the Author

I am a retired Registered Investment Advisor with 12 years experience as head of an investment management firm. I also have a Ph.D. in English and have written more than 4,000 articles for regional and national publications.

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