The Biggest Fails in License Plate History

While vintage plates have grown popular, these older iterations show where officials got it wrong

Idaho Liscense Plate.jpg
© Automobile License Plate Collectors Association

In 2015, California reintroduced its yellow-and-black “legacy license plates,” available for a small fee, which hadn’t been issued since 1970; they quickly became the most frequently issued specialty design in the state, generating money for environmental causes. Now, Michigan and New Jersey have followed suit, and legislators in Colorado are debating whether to revive that state’s vintage motifs. But there is such a thing as going too far, as these examples suggest.

The One that Got Away – Massachusetts 1928-29

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(© Automobile License Plate Collectors Association)
A small fish on Massachusetts plates caused an uproar when the 1928 trawling season went bust. That year’s tag featured a guppy-shaped icon that bore little resemblance to the invaluable cod or dashing game fish just offshore. Worse, some superstitious mariners said, the fish in that initial rendering was swimming away from the state name, suggesting (or portending) a weak haul. The state tried to reverse the bad omen the next year by featuring a more authentic-looking cod—and by switching the placement of the year and name, so the fish was moving toward “MASS” (above). No luck. After another bleak fishing season in 1929, the state eliminated the finned flourish altogether.

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This article is a selection from the November/December issue of Smithsonian magazine

Escape from the Bronx Zoo – Alaska 1976-1981

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(© Automobile License Plate Collectors Association)
In 1976, Alaska adopted an illustration of a brown bear from the Complete Book of Hunting. Curiously, officials did not obtain permission from the artist, Douglas Allen, who had never been to Alaska and had sketched the creature at the Bronx Zoo. While some loved the design, an Anchorage Daily News columnist reported that others thought the bear looked like a “fat guy in a fur coat” or “a bad taxidermy job.” Some called it the “flasher grizzly.” Alaska retired the bear in 1981 but restored it in 2015.

Bombs Away – Florida 1935

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(© Automobile License Plate Collectors Association)
Florida added some pizzazz in 1935 by embellishing that year’s tags with a grapefruit in each of the upper corners. Because of the black paint used in production, some Floridians thought the stemmed citrus orbs looked more like ominous antique bombs, complete with cartoonish fuses. On some occasions, artistic car owners punched up the ill-conceived design, hand-painting the grapefruits in orange or green. The incendiary fruit motifs were nixed the following year.

Whose Freedom? New Hampshire 1971-present

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(© Automobile License Plate Collectors Association)
New Hampshire’s “Live Free or Die” motto, coined by Revolutionary War hero John Stark, appeared on plates starting in 1971. George and Maxine Maynard, a married couple, objected to the phrase on religious grounds as Jehovah’s Witnesses. George began covering the motto on their vehicles with tape. In 1974, local police began repeatedly citing him; George refused to pay the resulting fines and received jail time. His case went to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1977, where the Maynards prevailed on First Amendment grounds: Though New Hampshire still issues plates with the maxim, residents are now legally allowed to cover it up.

Air Grievance – North Carolina and Ohio 1998-present

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(© Automobile License Plate Collectors Association)
The Wright brothers conceived their famous flying machine in Ohio but first piloted it on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. On the 80th anniversary of the Wrights’ pioneering feat, North Carolina issued plates with the slogan, “First in Flight.” Ohio, the home of Orville and Wilbur Wright—and famous as the birthplace of aces and astronauts like Eddie Rickenbacker, John Glenn and Neil Armstrong—was affronted, and it countered by changing its slogan to “Birthplace of Aviation” 15 years later. Both states still carry these slogans on many of their plates today.

Native Sun – New Mexico 1932-1949

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(© Automobile License Plate Collectors Association)
New Mexico was the original Sunshine State, proudly plastering the epithet on its 1932 license plates. But after New Mexico abandoned the tagline for “The Land of Enchantment,” Florida eventually moved in to usurp the term. “Sunshine State” began appearing on Florida tags in 1949 and has adorned most versions of Florida’s license plates ever since.

Tuber, or Not Tuber – Idaho 1928

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(© Automobile License Plate Collectors Association)
The first plates in the nation with a large image appeared in the Gem State. According to prolific Idaho author Rick Just, residents derided the strangely elongated potato as a stale cliché and objected to serving as traveling publicity for local agriculture. Meanwhile, out-of-state visitors kept stealing the tags as souvenirs. The state eschewed the spud after just one year.