Classic plates poised for comeback

If you’re into California, and you’re into cars, then you’re well aware of the license plate culture in the Golden State.

More than one million cars in California have swerved down the vanity plate route since the state pioneered the concept in 1970. And to many, more important than the letters on the plate is the color scheme of the plate itself.

Anybody can splash a whale tail or Olympic rings across their back bumper for a fee. But the exclusive black-and-yellow and blue-and-yellow plates — standard issue in the ’60s and ’70s — have become sure signs of original, vintage California automobiles.

Before 1963, all cars in California got a new plate every year, or every few years. Beginning the year the Beatles released their debut album, California switched to a permanent plate meant to last the life of the car.

The life of the car indeed. Plenty of cars from the 1960s and earlier are still rolling on California roads, many now in collectible or restorable condition.

The black plates from 1963 to 1970 — and to a lesser degree, the blue plates from 1970 to 1982 — establish a pedigree for a car and set it apart for its heritage and longevity, if nothing else.

That pedigree could be soon be taking a big visual watering-down, as a new bill introduced last month by Assemblyman Mike Gatto (D-Los Angeles) wants to make black-, blue- and even yellow-background plates a paid “special interest” plate just like Lake Tahoe and Yosemite.

The proposed “Legacy License Plate program” would match the color scheme of their actually-old counterparts, yet be modern interpretations including reflective lettering and a printed, not stamped “CALIFORNIA” across the top.

In an interesting twist on civic participation, the legacy plates would only be issued if 2,500 Californians take the plunge between the time the law is enacted and Jan. 1, 2014.

The state would charge the same $50 fee to issue the plates plus $40 for renewal each year as most of the other myriad of special interest plates available to California drivers.

The bill is scheduled to for an assembly vote on April 9.