This page covers various types of plates manufactured in the Maryland license plate facility and/or distributed by the Maryland 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.
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This page started out as just a page for Maryland sample plates. Then I decided that it would makes sense to include protoype and test plates on it as well, since it's sometimes hard to tell the difference. Blank plates make sense to include here as well.
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.
Mouse over any image to see a description of the plate. Click on any image to see an enlarged version.
Like most states, the Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration produces sample license plates to provide examples of what real plates look like. Mostly these are used internally by the MVA and by law enforcement agencies. However, in Maryland, some types of sample plates are given out to anyone who requests them, free of charge. Obviously these are not valid plates for use on a vehicle.
However, most MVA employees don't seem to know about sample plates. When I've tried to get free sample plates, my e-mail and hard copy written requests for these were ignored, and I was told over the phone that the MVA did not give out sample plates, period. I knew this information was incorrect, so I didn't give up. The first time I went in person to the MVA headquarters in Glen Burnie, I was given the runaround by several well-meaning but clueless employees who knew nothing about sample plates, until I finally ended up at the Customer Relations office. There, they knew all about sample plates and even had a whole filing cabinet full of them ready to give out to anyone who walked in. However, during subsequent visits, more often than not, they have not had any sample plates in stock and I've left empty-handed.
Despite my unsuccessful efforts to obtain sample plates from the MVA, others have reported success in their pursuit of Maryland sample plates, so give it a try if you're so inclined.
The most common sample plates through about 1990 were made to represent passenger car plates, and had serial numbers in a passenger car format, but usually with the numeric digits all zeroes, and the serial letters, if any, all "A". Since about 1990, the common, freely-issued sample plates have been made more generic, so that they don't just represent passenger car plates. Since then, the serial characters on these plates have spelled the word SAMPLE. Motorcycle sample plates were made in a regular motorcycle serial format containing zeroes in the numeric positions until about 2000; now these are also made with the serial SAMPLE.
In the past at least, samples were also made for various non-passenger plate types, and today they are made for various organizational plate types. However, these were and are made in very small quantities, are not given out to the general public by the MVA, and are not normally used by law enforcement, and so they're nearly impossible to obtain. These samples typically have the serial formats, legends, and graphics appropriate for the plate type, but with all numeric serial digits zeroes.
Sample plates from the 1910s with all zero serial numbers differed from real plates and were probably prototypes or samples used by salesmen trying to win a contract from the state to manufacture license plates.
Sample passenger plates in styles actually issued have been observed as early as 1923. The serial number was (nearly) always 00-000 through 1953. Likely non-passenger samples were also created, but I've never actually seen any. I believe that the 1952 plate above is also a sample; it's either a sample or possibly the lowest-numbered passenger car plate issued that year. I believe passenger car plate numbers began at 30-001, not 30-000.
Sample passenger plates are known on 1954-1964 plates with the serial AA-00-00, and occasionally also AB-00-00. On the 1965-1969 plates, sample passenger plates are known only with the serial AA-0000, and on the 1970 plates, only AA 0000. Metal samples exist for all of these years; paper samples were made for at least the 1970 plate.
Sample passenger plates on the 1971 base are known only with the serial AA 0000. Both metal and paper samples exist; metal plates may be stamped with either the 1957-1974 serial dies or the 1974-present serial dies.
Sample passenger plates on the standard red-on-white and black-on-white metal bases have serial AAA 000. Sample passenger plates on the optional-issue Bicentennial and 350th Anniversary bases have serials 000 AAA and 000*AAA, respectively.
Paper versions of the red-on-white, black-on-white, and Bicentennial passenger plates were also produced. The paper red-on-white plate was made with both serials AAA 000 and AAA 101. Only serial AAA 000 is known on the black-on-white paper sample, and only 000 AAA is known on the Bicentennial paper sample.
"Generic" samples are those that aren't samples of a specific plate type, such as a passenger car plate or truck plate. They essentially can serve as samples of multiple plate types. I suppose it's debatable whether the 350th Anniversary plate with serial SAM*PLE is a passenger sample or a generic sample, since, even though the plate number format isn't specific, the shield graphic was only used on passenger car plates. A truly generic sample plate with the serial SAMPLE was produced on at least the red-on-white 1976 base.
When the current, reflective black-on-white standard base came out in 1986, sample plates were initially made with serials NAA*000 and NAA*001, with the asterisk indicating the location of the shield. Both metal and paper versions are known to exist.
Why the "NAA" prefix, and not "AAA" or "ABC" or "SAM"? Because real passenger car plates on this base were first issued beginning in the N series, to not conflict with the serial numbers of the previous base that were still on the road. Apparently NAA*001 was not actually issued as a real plate, but other low-numbered NAA-series plates are known to have been issued and used.
As far as I know, the War of 1812 sample plate with a passenger car plate numbering format was made only for internal MVA use; I don't know that any of these are yet in the hands of plate collectors.
In recent years, Maryland has only distributed generic sample plates with the serials SAM*PLE or SAMPLE. So now, the use of all letters on the sample plate doesn't necessarily indicate where letters would go versus numbers on real plates. That way, the sample plates "work" for the various passenger car serial formats, vanity plates, truck plates, taxi plates, etc., etc.
One interesting generic sample variation is the first-generation Treasure the Chesapeake plate with the bird graphic in the center of the plate, where the serial letter M was stamped using an upside-down W die, shown above. This would probably be considered an error plate more than a legitimate sample plate.
Samples of standard-issue motorcycle plates were originally made with serials 00000D, 0000D0, and 000D00, as the real plates progressed through these formats. Subsequently, generic sample motorcycle plates are being issued with serial SAMPLE. Similar to the full-sized generic sample plates, the generic motorcycle sample doesn't show where letters versus numbers go, and so can be used as a sample for standard-issue motorcycle plates regardless of the serial format used, and also as a sample of a vanity motorcycle plate.
I've been told that for each of the 700+ types of organizational plate types, the MVA makes only two sample plates, with all of the numeric digits zeroes. The MVA keeps one for internal use, and gives the other to the person in that organization who coordinates the promotion and distribution of the organizational plates to its members. This enables the coordinator to use an image of the sample plate in promotional materials. Only a small number of these organizational sample plates have found their way into the hands of plate collectors.
Like all states, Maryland at times makes prototypes of proposed designs, and also makes plates to test the manufacturing process and the materials used in making the plate, for such purposes as to actually see what the finished product will look like, and to conduct durability and visibility tests. Not many of these see the light of day outside of the MVA. Shown above is prototype of a fleet trailer plate design that was never put into production, and a War of 1812 prototype stamped with unknown dies not used on actual Maryland plates. (Notice the difference in the size and shape of the stamped letters, particularly the letter "S", compared to the sample plates above.)
A blank plate is one that, for whatever reason, does not have any plate number stamped or printed on it. This one was obviously pulled from the production line due to the wrinkles in the vinyl sheeting used for the background of the plate.
On occasion, the state of Maryland produces souvenir plates to commemorate state-related anniversaries or to distribute to participants of state-sponsored events or to visiting dignataries. These differ from ordinary booster plates in that they are made on state-owned license plate manufacturing lines, they use some of the same materials used for real license plates, they're not made available to the general public, and they're not intended to be used on vehicles, since Maryland requires actual license plates on the front of nearly all vehicles. Shown above are a few such souvenir plates. There are certainly others.
The 1931 Special plate requires some explanation. In the early 20th century, one Charles H. "Carl" Davis, of South Yarmouth, Mass., made it his life's work to promote a national system of highways and "good roads everywhere". It's my understanding that Mr. Davis had been issued Massachusetts license plate number 25 for his car. Mr. Davis traveled throughout the country to promote his ideas. According to biographer Ted Frothingham,
To get around the country on his speaking tours Carl Davis had two entirely unique automobiles. To publicize National Highways and Good Roads everywhere he got all the states in the union to issue him license plate number 25. His ancient Hudson bore all these license tags. The other car, that always went along in case of a breakdown so Carl could be sure to be on time for his scheduled meetings, was plastered with the insignia of all the automobile societies in the country. Taken together these vehicles were an imposing sight and certainly got the general public to come to the alert and question just what this all stood for. Carl was always eager to make a speech and spread the word, and distribute literature to the assembled crowds.
Maryland chose not to issue Mr. Davis plate number 25 for his car, as that would have been a bus plate number at that time. Also, it wouldn't have been proper for Maryland to issue real license plates to a resident of Massachusetts. So instead, Maryland created a special plate type just for Mr. Davis called, approrpiately enough, Special. This plate type used an "X" serial prefix, and, as far as I know, had only a single plate number, number 25, ever issued. Maryland produced these plates for a number of years; I'm not sure when they began or ended, but I suspect there were such plates issued during most or all of the 1920s.
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Thanks to those who have directly contributed to the information on this page: "Tiger" Joe Sallmen, Jim Childs, Jeff Ellis, and John Willard.
O'Connor photograph © copyright by Tim O'Connor. All rights reserved. Used with
Sallmen and Ellis photographs are presumed to be copyrighted by "Tiger" Joe Sallmen and Jeff Ellis, respectively, and are used with permission. Harbold, Childs, Kovach, and Willard plates are from the collections of Harold Harbold, Jim Childs, Gap Kovach, and John Willard, respectively.
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