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An Enthusiast's Guide to Accommodating a Front License Plate

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author photo by Chris O'Neill September 2017

Right now, about 30 states plus DC require vehicles to display a front license plate, and the rest do not. This poses a problem for a lot of different parties: Car dealers, law enforcement and car enthusiasts are wary of poking holes in their front bumper for an unattractive license plate that breaks up a car's front-end design.

With this in mind, some automakers have engineered front plate mounts that conveniently fit into the openings in a vehicle's bumper -- a 'non-invasive' solution that eliminates the need to drill unsightly holes through the body. Others have integrated the front plate mount into the actual design of the vehicle -- certain Audi models, for example, feature a removable plastic piece integrated into the grille design that can be swapped out for a license plate mount if necessary. Again: no need to plow screws through the front bumper of your new $65,000 S5.

For most vehicle designs, the front plate is an afterthought, forcing owners and dealers to take matters into their own hands and drill holes into the front of a new car.

This has always driven me crazy as a car enthusiast. What if I don't want an ugly license plate slapped on the front of my vehicle? What if I live in a state that doesn't require a front plate, but I buy my car from a state that does? What if I buy my car used and the previous owner used a hammer and nails to affix the front plate? Fancying myself as a non-conformist, I've always done just about everything I could to avoid the standard methods of affixing a front plate. Apparently, I'm not alone in this thinking, as society has developed a few of its own solutions to this issue, all with varying levels of ingenuity. In an effort to cut down on this barbaric practice, I've outlined a few of the common alternatives below.

  1. Don't use one. In some places you might get away with this -- but in others, it isn't worth the risk. Here in Utah, about one out of every five Utah-plated cars seems to skip the front plate with little consequence. When I lived in Northern Virginia, however, I was quickly hit with a $125 fine for not displaying a front plate. One hundred. Twenty five. Dollars. Now, Virginia is a rare case -- a state that sustains its existence in part with excessive taxes and fines -- but no matter where you live, you're always risking a ticket if you forego the front plate altogether. Whether this is a risk worth taking in order to preserve the carefully sculpted lines of your vehicle is up to you.

  1. The Dashboard Method. Essentially, this consists of wedging your plate into the space between your dashboard and your windshield and calling it a day. This is problematic for a few reasons. First, it still technically isn't legal, so it's hardly worth bothering. Second, it obstructs your view -- you've got a big metallic rectangle in your field of vision at all times. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, in the event of an accident, this otherwise harmless plate turns into a sharp, flying, metal projectile. In my opinion (and in that of most law enforcement entities), license plates are best left on the outside of the vehicle.

  1. A tow hook mount. This is a clever little invention that I reluctantly adopted when I lived in Virginia in order to get compliant after my ticket. Just about every vehicle has a recovery tow point built into the front. These exist so that if you slide into a ditch, a tow truck can have something sturdy to latch on to, in order to pull you out. You'll notice a little cut-out circle in the front bumper of most cars: pry this out with a flat object and you'll expose a threaded hole, into which a heavy-duty hook can be screwed. A tow-hook plate mount utilizes this hole as a mount. Does it look a little 'boy racer' for some tastes? Sure. Is it an even bigger liability in a car wash than a standard front-mounted plate? It absolutely is. But does it keep your $125 in your pocket and preserve the front of your car from unnecessary holes? You bet it does.

  2. Rare earth magnets. This one, I haven't tried -- but apparently, rare earth magnets are pretty strong, and if you glue a few behind your bumper and then to the backside of your plate, the hold should be enough to withstand most forces, eliminating the need for extra mounts and hardware. I'm still a little hesitant to fully trust this one. Best case scenario, there's still the possibility of scratching your paint; worst case scenario, your front plate flies off on the highway and is lost forever. Both are things I'd prefer to avoid.  
  3. Vehicle-specific solutions. I've used VW Golf-based vehicles for examples here, and I know of at least one 3D-printed mount offered by a member of one of the enthusiast forums.

While there are pluses and minuses to every solution, the above should provide a few worthy alternatives to mindlessly plowing a drill-bit through the front of your new vehicle ... that is, if you can get ahold of it before the dealership does.

I'd love to hear about other solutions to this predicament -- if you've come up with any of your own, please share them in the comments below.

Chris O'Neill grew up in the rust belt and now lives in Salt Lake City, Utah. He managed to work in the auto industry for a while without once crashing a corporate fleet vehicle. On Instagram, he is the @MountainWestCarSpotter.

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This image is a stock photo and is not an exact representation of any vehicle offered for sale. Advertised vehicles of this model may have styling, trim levels, colors and optional equipment that differ from the stock photo.
An Enthusiast's Guide to Accommodating a Front License Plate - Autotrader