Maryland sample license plate

Rick Kretschmer's License Plate Archives 

Maryland sample license plate

A Pictorial History of Maryland License Plates

Samples and Other State-Made Pseudo-License Plates


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. 

Latest noteworthy updates to this page
  • June 21, 2023  –  Added 1940 and 1948 samples. 
  • February 11, 2023  –  Added a paper 1959 sample. 
  • August 23, 2022  –  Added 1943, 1955, 1958, 1961, and 1965 passenger samples.  Added a 1984 expiration eight-year trailer sample.  Added an apparently unique personalized Combat Wounded state-made souvenir plate.  Upgraded metal Bicentennial passeenger sample. 


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. 

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. 

Maryland sample plates

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. 

Maryland sample plates through 1953

1940 sample 1942 sample 1947 sample 1948 sample likely 1952 passenger sample
1940 passenger sample; 1942 passenger sample (Kovach plate); 1947 passenger sample (amateur repaint; YOM plate in actual use); 1948 passenger sample; possible 1952 passenger sample (YOM plate in actual use)

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 may also be a sample; it's either a sample or else the lowest-numbered passenger car plate issued that year.  Passenger car plate numbers began at either 30-000 or 30-001, but I'm not certain which. 

Maryland sample plates 1954-1970

1955 passenger sample 1957 passenger sample 1958 mixed-type sample 1959 passenger sample 1961 passenger sample 1965 passenger sample
Metal samples:  1955, 1957, 1959, 1961, and 1965 passenger car samples.  The 1958 sample is an error plate sending mixed messages whether it's a passenger or non-passenger sample. 

paper 1959 passenger sample paper 1970 passenger sample
Paper samples:  1959 and 1970 passenger car samples. 

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; I was not aware of the state issuing paper samples prior to the 1970 plate until I found the 1959 paper sample in January 2023.  I have no reason to think it's not legitimate. 

The 1958 sample is an apparent error that's sending mixed messages regarding its type.  The numbering format is that of a passenger car plate, but the April 30 expiration date was only used for non-passenger plate types. 

Maryland sample plates 1971-1975

1971 passenger sample paper 1971 passenger sample
Metal and paper 1971 passenger car samples

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. 

Maryland sample plates 1976-1987
Sample passenger plates

1976 passenger sample 1977 Bicentennial passenger sample 1981 passenger sample 1984 350th Anniversary passenger sample
Metal sample plates:  1976 standard passenger car sample, 1977 Bicentennial passenger car sample, 1981 standard passenger car sample; 1984 350th Anniversary passenger car sample

paper 1976 passenger sample paper 1976 passenger sample paper 1976 Bicentennial passenger sample
Paper sample plates:  1976 standard passenger car samples without and with MVA legend, 1976 Bicentennial passenger car sample

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 sample plates

1981 generic sample 1984 350th Anniversary generic sample
1981 generic sample; 1984 350th Anniversary generic 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. 

The 1981 base plate with serial SAMPLE is a bit of a mystery.  First, it has a 1976 base sticker box border, so it's unlike just about any actually-issued 1981 base plate.  Second, it's more beat up than the photo would appear, and the damage is consistent with use on a vehicle.  Usually, sample plates are either in mint condition, or only show damage from improper storage.  I've only ever seen one other plate like this, and it also appeared to have been used on a vehicle.  So were they two halves of a pair of vanity plates before the state used the letters SAMPLE on actual sample plates?  Perhaps, but the sticker box makes me think this might have been a prototype, and not either a sample or a vanity. 

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. 

Sample non-passenger plates

1976 motorcycle dealer sample 1984 expir. Maryland 8-year trailer sample
1976 motorcycle dealer sample (Harbold plate); 1976-84 8-year fleet trailer sample. 

1981 AL member truck sample 1981 DAV member truck sample 1981 VFW member truck sample 1981 farm trailer sample 1981 farm truck tractor sample 1988 expir. Maryland 8-year trailer sample 1981 van pool sample
Various 1981 base non-passenger samples (Childs plates):  American Legion member truck, Disabled American Veterans member personal truck, Veterans of Foreign Wars member personal truck, farm trailer, farm truck tractor, 1980-88 8-year fleet trailer, and van pool. 

Maryland non-passenger samples are far less common than passenger samples and generic samples, as they weren't typically distributed to the general public.  Still, resourceful plate collectors have found ways to acquire them nevertheless.  As a bonus, all of the non-passenger types shown here are pretty uncommon types even as sequentially-numbered, actually issued plates. 

Maryland sample plates 1986-present
Sample passenger plates

1986 base passenger sample 1986 base passenger sample 1986 base passenger sample War of 1812 passenger sample
Metal sample plates:  Three "shield" base passenger car samples in format issued 1986-2004 (NAA*000:  O'Connor photo / plate); War of 1812 base passenger car sample in format issued 2010-present (Ellis photo)

paper 1986 base passenger sample
Paper "shield" base passenger car sample in format issued 1986-2004. 

When the current, reflective black-on-white standard base came out in 1986, sample plates were initially distributed 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.  I've heard conflicting information regarding whether plate number NAA*001 was also actually issued as a real plate, but other low-numbered NAA-series plates are known to have been issued and used. 

Eventually, 1986 base passenger car plates rolled back around to the A series.  However, I don't believe the AAA*000 sample plate above was meant to reflect that.  It appears to actually be a prototype made prior to the production of the 1986 base, although it accurately depicts the 1986 base plate design.  I believe it's a prototype because, unlike every other 1986 base plate I've ever seen, it has no holograms embedded in the reflective material.  It also has the shield graphic affixed to the plate, not actually printed on or in the reflective sheeting.  These characteristics are consistent with the 1984 350th Anniversary base. 

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. 

Generic sample plates

1986 base generic sample version 1 1986 base generic sample version 2 current standard base sample type 5 current standard base sample type 6 War of 1812 generic sample "Maryland Proud" sample
Standard base generic sample plates ( plate with shield – on display at the Maryland MVA main office; plate without shield – Childs plate)

Chesapeake generation 1 sample version 1 Chesapeake generation 1 sample version 1 error Chesapeake generation 1 sample version 2 Our Farms sample Chesapeake generation 2 sample
Special interest generic sample plates

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. 

Sample motorcycle plates

1986 base regualr motorcycle sample type 3 current motorcycle sample type 4
Regular motorcycle and generic motorcycle sample plates

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. 

Sample organizational plates

Orioles sample Association of Realtors sample
Baltmore Orioles Charitable Foundation sample plate; Maryland Association of Realtors sample 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. 

However, that seems to have changed in the fall of 2016.  The MVA had a supply of Orioles organizational sample plates, one of which I was able to obtain, and, so I've been told, Ravens organizational sample plates, which are for a charitable organzation associated with the Baltimore Ravens NFL team.  I was not able to obtain one of those, unfortunately.  (Just as well, I suppose.  I'm a lifelong Orioles fan, but moved away from Maryland before the Ravens arrived, and my football loyalties remain with the Redskins.) 

Sample non-passenger plates

local government vehicle sample
Local government vehicle sample plate

Sample non-passenger plates on the 1986 base are virtually unheard of among plate collectors.  Such plates were never distributed to the public.  I assume that a small number were made for internal MVA use.  I was fortunate to be able to acquire the local government vehicle sample shown above and add it to my collection. 

Maryland prototype and test plates

1943 sample 1986 shield base Knights of Columbus prototype War of 1812 prototype with non-Maryland dies
1943 expiration prototype; 1986-era Knights of Columbus prototype; War of 1812 base prototype stamped with non-Maryland dies. 

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 are a prototype of a Knights of Columbus organizational member plate, and a prototype of 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.) 

It's debatable whether the 1943 expiration plate should be considered a sample or a prototype.  It was intended to be a sample, but no 1943 expiration plates were ever issued.  They were being made when the U.S. entered World War II in December 1941, resulting in metal shortages.  The state instead issued 1943 expiration tabs to be placed on the 1942 expiration plates, and also issued 1944 tabs.  The 1943 expiration plates that had been made and stored away were restamped with 1945 expiration dates and were issued that way. 

Maryland blank plates

1986 shield base blank

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. 

Maryland state-made souvenir plates

1931 Maryland "Good Roads" plate 1988 C.A.R.E. souvenir plate 1988 Intl. Assn. of Chiefs of Police souvenir plate undated Maryland COMTO souvenir plate 2008 Maryland Roads 100th Anniversary souvenir plate undated Maryland Combat Wounded plate "JOHN"
1931 "Good Roads" plate (Willard plate), 1988 C.A.R.E. national conference souvenir plate (Sallmen photo / plate), 1988 International Assoication of Chiefs of Police regional conference souvenir plate (Sallmen photo / plate), undated (late 1990s) Conference of Minority Transportation Officials souvenir plate, 2008 Maryland Roads 100th Anniversary souvenir plate (Childs plate), undated Combat Wounded (Purple Heart) plate possibly made as a political favor

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. 

Regarding the "JOHN" Purple Heart plate, Maryland does not make organizational or military service plates with vanity plate numbers.  This plate should not exist, yet here it is.  It was part of a group of Maryland plates that included samples, prototypes, and the two state-made movie prop plates in the next section, which leads me to believe that it's a one-off that was made for an MVA insider. 

Maryland state-made movie prop plates

movie prop 1954 Maryland passenger car plate movie prop 1954 Maryland passenger car plate
Metal movie prop plates dated 1954 from the 1990 movie Cry Baby, made from real Maryland 1981 base blanks. 

The two plates shown above were used in the 1990 movie Cry Baby, which was set in the 1950s; it starred Johnny Depp and was directed by Baltimore native John Waters.  One scene takes place inside a Maryland prison license plate manufacturing shop, and quite a few of these prop plates were shown supposedly drying after having being painted.  You can find this scene in the plate shop on YouTube.  These prop plates are intended to be 1954 Maryland passenger car plates; they're unusual for prop plates because they're made of metal.  In fact, they're made from real Maryland 1981 base blanks and were stamped using real post-1974 Maryland dies.  I assume they were actually made in the real state prison plate shop using leftover blanks. 

Related links

Page credits

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 permission. 
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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