Illinois sample license plate

Rick Kretschmer's License Plate Archives 

Illinois sample license plate

A Pictorial History of Illinois License Plates

Samples and Other State-Made Pseudo-License Plates


This page covers various types of Illinois plates manufactured in the Illinois license plate facility and/or distributed by the Illinois motor vehicle agency, but which are not actual license plates.  For the most part, these look like license plates, but were never intended to be used as such. 

Latest noteworthy updates to this page
  • September 5, 2021  –  Brand new page! 


My "Pictorial History" pages are intended to be a supplement to the information found in the ALPCA Archives.  I am providing additional details and additional photos not found in the archives, and clarifying information when appropriate.  When the ALPCA archives cover a subject in great detail, I do not repeat that detail here.  I sincerely hope that you find this information useful.  If you find an error or have additional information, or can provide a plate or a photo of a plate that I'm missing, please send me an e-mail.  There's a link to my e-mail address at the bottom of every page. 

In the case of my pages covering Illinois non-passenger plate types, of which this is the first, I don't have extensive knowledge like I do in some of the other states I cover.  Illinois is my wife's home state.  I spent four months there in 1982, and have gone there to visit my wife's family almost ever since, but those visits are limited in frequency, duration, and geography.  I can only report on what I do know, and so the thoroughness and level of detail found on my other pages may be lacking here.  For example, there are probably a lot variations of Illinois sample plates than I show or discuss on this page.  As I learn of them, I'll add that information to this page, but in the meantime, please realize that just because something isn't addressed here doesn't mean it doesn't exist. 

Mouse over any image to see a description of the plate.  Click on any image to see an enlarged version. 

Illinois sample plates

Like the motor vehicle departments in most states, the Illinois Office of the Secretary of State produces sample license plates to provide examples of what real plates look like.  Mostly these are used internally by the SoS and by law enforcement agencies.  However, in Illinois, some of sample plates are available for sale to the public.  Obviously these are not valid plates for use on a vehicle. 

The most common sample plates are those made to represent passenger car plates, and have plate numbers in a passenger car format.  Until the mid-1960s, that usually meant plate numbers consisting of only zeros, and from then untli the early 1970s, letters followed by only zeros.  After then, sample plate numbers have varied considerably. 

Samples were and are also made for various non-passenger plate types and special event plate types.  Some of these, such as the sample truck and motorcycle plates shown on this page, are easy to obtain.  Others were and are made in very small quantities, are not offereed to the general public, and are not normally used by law enforcement, and so they can be nearly impossible to obtain. 

Illinois sample plates through 1966

1963 sample 1964 sample
1963 and 1964 passenger car samples

I know of sample passenger plates in styles actually issued from as early as 1925.  As far as I know, the serial number was usually (maybe even always) 000 000 through 1965.  Some 1966 plates were also made with this number.  Likely non-passenger samples were also created, but they would be far less common and I can't recall actually having seen any. 

Illinois sample plates 1966-1975

1973 passenger sample version 1 1973 passenger sample version 2 1974 passenger sample version 1 1974 passenger sample version 2 paper 1975 generic sample
1973 passenger car samples made during the terms of John Lewis and Michael Howlett, respectively; two different formats of 1974 passenger car samples; paper 1975 generic sample. 

These were the "Secretary of State" years.  Illinois doesn't have an agency called the DMV or anything similar.  Rather, license plates are issued by the Illinois Office of the Secretary of State.  Paul Powell became Secretary of State in January 1965, and soon decided that Illinois sample plates should bear his initials PP, followed by four zeros.  Illinois passenger car plates with two-letter serial prefixes were introduced in 1961, so the format worked as an example of a passenger plate number.  I don't think any 1965 sample plates were made this way, but some were in 1966, and starting 1967 all or nearly all were. 

Powell died in office in October 1970, after a good number of 1971 sample plates had already been made with his initials.  He was replaced in a matter of days by John Lewis, who also put his initals on sample plates starting with 1971 plates made after he took office.  The 1971 JL plates were followed by four zeros, but starting in 1972, they were instead followed by four dashes representing numeric positions.  Lewis completed Powell's term and then left office in January 1973, with many 1973 samples made with his initials before his departure. 

Next up was Michael J. Howlett, who likewise had 1973 sample plates made with his initials MH once he took office.  Starting in 1974, a limited number of passenger car plates were made with three-letter prefixes, and 1974 sample plates were made with both prefixes MH and MJH (but not on the same plate, of course).  For some reason, most if not all 1975 samples were made of paper, and typically had prefix letters MJH.  Although Howlett was Secretary of State until January 1977, as far as I know, 1975 samples were the last to bear his initials. 

I should mention that during the Secretary of State years, while most sample plates bore their initials, sample passenger car plates were made with a variety of numbering formats.  The 1975 plate with all dashes is such an example of this.  Samples of various non-passenger plate types were also made during this time. 

Illinois sample plates 1976-1978

1976 passenger sample "collector" 1977 generic sample 1978 passenger sample
1976 Collector passenger car sample; 1977 generic sample; 1978 passenger car sample. 

The state anticipated a huge demand from the general public for samples of its 1976 passenger car plates.  The graphic design was a first for Illinois and a vast improvement visually over its previous plates.  Besides that, Bicentennial fever had swept the nation, and people were collecting and even hoarding anything and everything with a Bicentennial theme, thinking those items would someday become valuable collectibles.  The only problem was, so many people had the same idea that Bicentennial memorabilia never became valuable.  But I digress. 

The 1976 sample plates that were made available to the public all had plate number USA 200, and lest anyone be confused that this might be a valid plate number, the word Collector was screened vertically down both sides of these plates.  Real 1976 plates did not have this text.  I suppose it could be debated whether these plates were truly samples or were sounvenir plates.  1976 passenger car samples were also made with several other numbering schemes; these were not offered to the public and did have the word Collector on them. 

Most 1977 sample plates had the characters SAM-PLE where the plate number would be, offering no clue about what numbering format(s) were actually used on real plates, or even whether the sample was supposed to represent a passenger car plate or was more generic and represented multiple plate types.  This was consistent with how a lot of other states made their sample plates.  However, most if not all 1977 non-passenger plate types had a raised border around the edge of the plate, painted to match the plate number, state name, etc.  Passenger car plates did not have this raised border, and vanity and personalized plates did not yet exist. 

Making sample plates like other states did only lasted the one year.  For 1978, Illinois went back to using dashes to indicate numeric positions.  However, now, instead of using the Secretary of State's personal initials as a prefix, the state began consistently using the state abbreviations IL and ILL for that purpose.  This practice continues to the present day. 

Illinois sample plates 1979-1986

1979 passenger sample
Unstickered 1979 base passenger car sample

The 1979 base was Illinois' first multi-year passenger car plate design.  It was issued simultaneously with the start of staggered expiration dates, and so, despite the screened year "79", the rear plate was never used without a sticker indicating both the month and year of expiration.  Front plates didn't get expiration stickers, and so those issued in 1979 had the screened "79" exposed, even in subsequent years.  In the early 1980s, newly-issued plates on this base did not have a screened year on them.  So, this sample resembles a front passenger car plate issued in 1979. 

Some sample passenger car plates were distributed with sample expiration stickers affixed, and some were probably made without the screened "79".  Samples of various non-passenger types were also made during this period. 

Illinois sample plates 1983-2002
Sample passenger plates

1990s passenger sample
Undated circa 1990s passenger car sample. 

This plate design was issued to passenger cars between 1983 and 2001 and was valid through 2002.  Early issues had text in the sticker well indicating where the 1983 through 1986 stickers were to be placed.  This text was removed from newly-made plates in the late 1980s.  All standard plates initally had a max of six serial characters and were stamped with large dies.  Standard plates with seven serial characters and stamped with narrow dies came out in the late 1990s.  This sample plate omits the text in the sticker well and uses the narrow serial dies, so it would appear to have been made in the late 1990s or so. 

Sample non-passenger plates

1990s B truck sample
Undated circa 1990s B-class truck sample. 

1990s motorcycle sample
Undated circa 1990s motorcycle sample. 

B-class trucks are the lightest weight class of truck, and are typically half-ton pickup trucks.  Both commericial and personal-use trucks get the same plates.  Trucks continued to be issued new plates each year for several years after passenger car plates.  This three-stripe multi-year base was introduced in June 1984 and initially had a screened June 1985 expiration date in the sticker well.  Later issues such as the plate shown had no text in the sticker well.  This plate's serial number format, ILL ---, with the dashes representing numeric digits, would be impossible on an actual truck plate.  Illinois requires most non-passenger plate types, including trucks, to have plate numbers with all numeric digits before any letters. 

Illinois motorcycle plates on the three-stripe base were introduced in 1986 with 1987 expiration dates.  I don't know if there was ever any text in the sticker well on these, since ordinarily it would always be covered by an expiration sticker.  Similar to the truck sample above, this numbering format MCY --- was not used on real motorcycle plates.  On this base, real plate numbers could be all-numeric or have a single prefix letter. 

Illinois sample plates 2001-present
Sample passenger plates

2001 base passenger sample
2001 base passenger sample.

The "Abe" passenger car base was issued from 2001 to 2017 and is still in use, though they're currently in the process of being phased out.  To the best of my knowledge, sample plates all bear the plate number IL 2001, regardless of when the sample plate was actually made. 

Initially this base had a dark blue band at the bottom, and a couple of years after its introduction the blue band was lightened up to improve legibility.  The easiest way to distinguish between the two is to look at Abe's collar under his right ear.  If there's a clear edge between the top of the white colar and the blue background, it's the older, darker version; if the top of the collar sort of blends into the background, it's the newer, lighter version.  This sample plate is one of the latter, so the background sheeting was made in 2003 or later. 

Sample non-passenger plates

2002 base B truck sample
2002 base B-class truck sample. 

2000s motorcycle sample
Undated circa 2000s-2010s motorcycle sample. 

The B truck version of the "Abe" base was introduced in... wait for it... 2002.  This time the B truck sample plate actually conformed to one of the numbering formats used on B truck plates.  This design was issued between 2002 and 2019 and is still in use, but is in the process of being gradually replaced. 

The "Abe" motorcycle base apparently came out in 2004 and to the best of my knowledge is still being issued in 2021.  It's basically a miniature version of the 2001 passenger car base.  Plate number MCY ---, still an invalid format for motorcycle plates, continues as the sample plate number.  On this base, motorcycle plate numbers can now have two-letter prefixes, but three-letter prefixes are not a standard format. 

Illinois sample plates 2017-present
Sample passenger plates

2017 base passenger sample
2017 base passenger sample.

What I'll call the "half Abe" passenger car base came was rolled out in... yes, 2017.  However, it was soon realized that there were some legibility issues, particularly with seven-character plates, which most were.  One of the factors contributing to these issues was the dark color of Abe's jacket.  So, about a year later, Abe and in particular his jacket were lightened up to a light gray color, so much so that he now looks like a ghost.  So, naturally, I call that revised design the "Abe's ghost" base.  Anyway, the sample plate shown is one of the former, with the dark-colored jacket.  I've also seen them with the light-colored jacket, still with the same plate number IL 2017. 

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