I’ve always loved license plates. I love that they’re carefully calculated little 11.44-inch by 5.44-in advertisements for each the 50 states. And I have to think a lot of thoughtful planning goes into each design — from colors, to imagery, to the use of state slogans and symbolism. This is something so succinctly American (although Canada has some great ones, too). I’ve been collecting them — or trying to, at least — from every state I’ve visited over the past few years. Here are some of my favorites.
Montana — Big Sky: 1991-2000, 2012-Present
Montana has quite the array of unique license plates to offer its residents, including options for "Montana Quilters," and, I’m not making this up, "Wrestling." But nothing is more ’90s Montana than the Big Sky license plate. I could wax poetic about Montana and it’s "Big Sky Country" slogan for hours, but I’ll save that for another time. This plate with its faded pastel hues is one of the all-time greats. I bought one off the wall of a souvenir shop in Jackson Hole, which isn’t quite in Montana, but nobody’s perfect.
Utah — Ski Utah!: 1985-2007
Any time I see an old "Ski Utah!" plate, I can’t help but visualize an old Range Rover with skis on its roof, headed over a mountain pass in a snowstorm with this plate mounted on its bumper. It won an award for "Plate of the Year" from the Automobile License Plate Collectors Association when it debuted in 1986. I wish I could still buy one for my 90s Land Cruiser — but alas, Utah did away with the "Ski Utah" plate in 2007.
D.C. — Taxation Without Representation: 2000-Present
Not the most exciting design, but I love the passive aggression here. D.C. residents pay federal taxes, but receive no representation in Congress. Hence, the play on the revolutionary-era decree: "No taxation without representation!" The District putting the slogan on its license plate takes things to a new level.
Vermont — Green Mountain State: 1985-Present
Vermont’s plate is subtle, has a tree on it and, most importantly, is green and serene. Just like Vermont.
New Mexico: 2010-2016
New Mexico already has a great standard plate, mimicking the yellow and red design of its state flag. But this plate, introduced in 2010 ahead of New Mexico’s 2012 Centennial, takes that design and adds turquoise, after the stone and color for which New Mexico is known. The plate was so popular that it was changed slightly and made a permanent alternative plate in 2016.
Honorable Mention: Northwest Territories — A POLAR BEAR: 1970-Present
I wanted to limit this list to U.S. plates, but I had to make an exception here because the license plate of Canada’s Northwest Territories is SHAPED LIKE A FREAKING POLAR BEAR. This is the only non-rectangular license plate in service anywhere in the world (I think). I’ve never actually seen one on a car, but I have seen them on occasion hung up around bars and restaurants, and I can assure you, there is no cooler piece of memorabilia. Why yes, I would like to someday "Explore Canada’s Arctic," if only just to get one of these for my collection.
Chris O’Neill grew up in the rust belt and now lives in Salt Lake City, Utah. He worked in the auto industry for a while, helping Germans design cars for Americans. On Instagram, he is the @MountainWestCarSpotter.