Pennsylvania personal vehicle license plate

Rick Kretschmer's License Plate Archives 

Pennsylvania personal vehicle license plate

A Pictorial History of Pennsylvania License Plates

Miscellaneous personal vehicle plates dated 1931 to present

 

This page covers the various types of Pennsylvania license plates typically issued for personal vehicles that are not otherwise addressed on their own pages. 

Latest noteworthy updates to this page
  • November 27, 2017  –  Upgraded my format 7 1964 suburban (station wagon) plate. 
  • October 23, 2017  –  Added a format 8 1964 suburban (station wagon) plate. 

Introduction

On this page I address various types of Pennsylvania license plates typically issued for personal vehicles, mostly from 1956 to the present day.  However, please note that this page does not cover all types of 1956-present Pennsylvania personal vehicle plates.  Passenger car plates are addressed on a separate page.  Motorcycle plates and truck plates of all types are covered on separate pages as well.  Go to the Pennsylvania index page for links to these other pages.  Special interest plates, organizational member plates, and clearly-identified plates issued to government officials for their personal vehicles are future projects that will eventually be addressed on separate pages. 

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.  Please note that all plates shown that are credited to another person are plates that I am still seeking for my own collection. 

Pennsylvania amateur radio operator plates

This section will be added at a future date. 

Pennsylvania antique, classic, collectible, and street rod vehicle plates

Because most of these types of plates are undated and unstickered, and they've generally had only subtle variations over several decades, it's difficult to know definitively when most of the variations took place. 

Antique motor vehicle plates, 1950s-present

An antique motor vehicle is defined by the state of Pennsylvania as having been manufactured more than 25 years prior to the current model year, and which is substantially in conformance with manufaturer specificaitons and appearance.  Antique vehicle plates are permanent and are issued for the life of the vehicle while it is owned by the same owner, and therefore do not use expiration stickers.  However, they're only valid for occaisional use. 

antique historic car
Antique vehicle version 1a

antique historic car
Antique vehicle version 2a
Antique historic cars

Non-motorcycle antique vehicle plates colored  white on purple , with distinctive football jersey-style serial dies and bearing the plate type legend Antique Historic Car, were issued from apparently some time in the 1950s until 2005, and are still valid for use.  However, even the oldest of these plates have the 6 inch by 12 inch dimensions and 7 inch horiztonal bolt hole spacing consistent with 1956 and newer Pennsylvania plates.  Antique historic car plates exposed to the elements for extended periods have tended to fade from purple to light blue. 

Despite the word "car" stamped on the plate, these plates are used on all types of antique motor vehicles other than motorcycles.  Serial numbers 1 through 9999 were issued first, and then progressed through alphanumeric formats x000, 000x, xx00, and 00xx.  The biggest design change during the life of this base was the addition of a white border starting at plate number CA00.  I believe the white elements on the plate became reflective at the same time the border was added. 

This plate design ceased being issued in early 2005, in favor of the graphic Antique Vehicle plate, described immediately below, but the purple plates continue to be valid. 

antique vehicle
Antique vehicle version 3a

antique vehicle
Antique vehicle version 4
(plate in actual use)
Antique vehicles

Starting in early 2005, newly registered non-motorcycle antique vehicles were issued this graphic plate made on the standard tri-color solid band base.  The car shown on the plate is reportedly an early 1920s Oldsmobile.  The words Antique Vehicle are screened along the bottom of the plate.  Serial format was initially x00x; when this format was exhausted in mid-year 2012, a second format 0xx0 was introduced.  Antique vehicle registrations are permanent, and so, desipite the sticker well in the upper left corner, expiration stickers are not used on these plates. 

In mid-year 2013, newly-issued antique vehicle plates were revised to replace the graphic image of the Oldsmobile with the words PA Antique Historic Vehicle stacked one above another on the left side of the plate, similar to the words used on the previous white-on-purple plates.  I guess maybe enough people complained about having a picture of someone else's antique car on their plate.  The state name remains at the top of the plate, and the words Antique Vehicle remain at the bottom, making the new text mostly redundant. 

antique motorcycle
Antique motorcycle
version 3d
(McDevitt photo of
plate in actual use)


antique motorcycle
Antique motorcycle
version 3e
(plate in actual use)
Antique motorcycles

Antique motorcycle plates were introduced in the late 1960s or very early 1970s.  Like full-sized antique vehicle plates, they had very few changes made over the years, until recently.  Antique motorcycle plates issued through mid-year 2013 were always 4 1/2 inches by 8 inches, had the state map outline, colored  white on purple , had the legend Antique running vertically down the left side of the plate, and had the very small legends Penna and Motorcycle at either the top or bottom edges of the plate.  Serials numbers were never more than three characters.  Serial formats, according to fellow plate historian John McDevitt, were issued in this sequence:  x00, 00x, 0x0, xx0, and x0x.  The bolt holes were moved further apart somewhere in the middle of the x00 series.  Bolt holes on regular motorcycle plates were moved further apart some time in the mid-1980s, so likely this happened on antique motorcycle plates then as well. 

Like the full-sized antique plates in 2005, antique motorcycle plates began to be issued on the tri-color solid band base beginning in about May 2013.  These new antique motorcycle plates use a five-digit numeric serial format, reportedly starting at 01000, and have the words Antique MC screened along the bottom of the plate.  On this base, vanity plate numbers are allowed. 

Classic motor vehicle plates, 1970s-present

A classic motor vehicle is defined by the state of Pennsylvania as having been manufactured more than 10 years prior to the current model year and, because of discontinued production and limited availability, determined by the state to be a model or make of significant value to collectors or exhibitors, and which is substantially in conformity with manufacturer specificaitons and appearance.  Classic vehicle plates are also permanent and issued for the life of the vehicle while it is owned by the same owner, and therefore do not use expiration stickers.  Likewise, they're only valid for occaisional use. 

classic car
Classic car version 1

classic car
Classic car version 3a

classic car
Classic car version 3b
(plate in actual use)
Classic cars

Classic car plate colors are  purple on white , opposite from the traditional colors of antique historic car plates.  Classic car plates were also made using the same football jersey-style serial dies as did the traditional antique plates.  That is, they usually were made that way.  A small quantity of classic car plates numbered in the low 20000 series were stamped using normal Pennsylvania serial dies. 

I'm not sure when this plate type made its debut, but it was sometime between 1971 and 1983; by one account it was in 1977.  Changes to this plate type have been few over the years.  Originally, the state name was at the top of the plate and the plate type Classic Car was at the bottom, but these were switched to their present positions somwhere in the 30000 series, then briefly back to their original locations only in the low 50000 series, then back to stay in their present positions.  After plate number 99999 was issued in approximately 2004, numbering started over again, but this time with a "C" prefix letter.  By the way, these plates were not limited only to cars, despite the word "car" on the plate.  Although these are no longer issued, they remain valid for use. 

Classic vehicles

In the fall of 2013, classic vehicle plates made their debut.  These are now issued instead of the previous purple-on-white classic car plates.  Classic vehicle plates are similar in appearance to the latest version antique vehicle plates, shown in the preceding subsection.  The new classic vehicle plates are made on the tri-color stripe base plate, and have the words Classic Vehicle across the bottom of the plate, as well as the words Pa Classic Vehicle on the left side of the plate.  Plate numbering continues from the previous classic car plates in format C00000, starting at about C28000, but now using regular Pennsylvania serial dies. 

classic motorcycle
Classic motorcycle
(McDevitt plate)
Classic motorcycles

Classic motorcycle plates have only been issued within the past few decades.  They were apparently not yet being issued in 1986.  These plates have been essentially unchanged since their introduction.  They've always been 4 1/2 inches by 8 inches, had the state map outline, colored  purple on white , had the legend Classic running vertically down the right side of the plate, and had the very small legends Motorcycle and Penna at the top and bottom edges of the plate, respectively.  The only serial format used to date is C/L0000

Sometime between 2013 and 2015, classic motorcycle plates also began to be issued on the tri-color solid band base.  These new classic motorcycle plates are 4 inches by 7 inches in size, and have the words Classic MC screened along the bottom of the plate.  The numbering format continued and numbering was uninterrupted from the previous base, starting at about plate number C/L0900.  On this base, vanity plate numbers are allowed, but, so I've been told, the C/L prefix letters must remain. 

Collectible motor vehicle plates, 1990s-present

(no picture available)

A collectible motor vehicle is defined by the state of Pennsylvania as a reconstructed or modified motor vehicle, substantially modified from the manufacturer's original specifications and appearance, and maintained in a collectible condition.  Classic vehicle plates are also permanent and issued for the life of the vehicle while it is owned by the same owner, and therefore do not use expiration stickers.  Likewise, they're only valid for occaisional use. 

Collectible vehicles

Non-motorcycle collectible vehicle plates came out in the mid-1990s or so, and have remained unchanged during this time.  They're plain, fully-embossed plates, colored  yellow on black , with the legend Collectible across the top of the plate and the full state name across the bottom.  There's a sticker well in the bottom left corner, though this plate type does not use expiration stickers.  This plate type uses normal Pennsylvania serial dies rather than the big, block-shaped dies used on the antique and classic vehicle plates.  Serial format is CV 0000

Collectible motorcycles

Collectible motorcycle plates were introduced in 2000, and have remained unchanged during this time.  They're 4 1/2 inches by 8 inches in size, have the state map outline, are colored  yellow on black , and had the very small legends Collectible and Penna at the top and bottom edges of the plate, respectively.  The only serial format used to date is CM000

Street rod plates, 1980s-present

(no picture available)

A street rod is defined by the state of Pennsylvania as a model year 1948 or older motor vehicle with a gross weight not over 9,000 pounds, or a reproduction of such a vehicle, which has been materially altered or modified by the removal, addition, or substitution of essential parts.  Street rod registration fees are paid annually and are actually greater than regular passenger cars fees; therefore street rod plates display expiraiton stickers and do not have usage restrictions. 

Full-sized street rod plates were introduced no later than 1986.  They've got the state name at the top of the plate, a graphic image of a street rod and the words Street Rod on the left side of the plate, and two horizontal stripes along the bottom, with all of these elements screened in red on a white background.  The serial number is in format 0000 S/R, and is embossed using normal dies and painted blue.  The street rod plates I've seen don't have a debossed sticker well, but nevertheless expiration stickers are required.  Without a sticker well to provide guidance, street rodders do not place their expiration stickers in a consistent location on these plates. 

Street rod plates apparently may be requested with reserved numbers, if desired, at an additional cost.  I'm not sure how one could distinguish a reserved number from a sequential number; I'm guessing that the reserved numbers are very low numbers, say 0000 to 0099, or 0000 to 0999, or something along those lines. 

There is no street rod motorcycle plate type. 

Pennsylvania handicapped / disabled person plates

Handicapped person plates, 1965-1970

(no picture available)

Special license plates for use by handicapped persons were introduced in Pennsylvania in either 1965 or early 1966.  The familiar wheelchair logo (officially named the "International Symbol of Access") used on current handicapped license plates and parking spaces would not be invented until 1968, and so the state made do with the letters "HP" inside of an outline graphic shaped like a fat plus sign on its handicapped plates.  I presume that "HP" stood for "handicapped person". 

The plates themselves were of the same state map outline design also used for regular passenger car plates.  Plate numbers were four digits and began at 1000.  A small embossed keystone separated the plus sign graphic and the four-digit serial number. 

Handicapped person plates, 1971-1976 (Bicentennial base)
1976 handicapped
(Sells photo / plate)

Like passenger car plates, the previous design handicapped plates with the state map outline were replaced in March 1971 with new yellow-on-blue plates bearing the text Bicentennial State '76 along the bottom of the plate.  The fat plus sign graphic containing the prefix letters "HP" continued, but the small keystone separator disappeared and plate numbers went to five digits, starting at 10000.  Apparently this plate design was only produced until some time in 1975 or so, when new yellow handicapped plates with a wheelchair graphic began to be issued to new registrants. 

I haven't completely figured it all out, but it appears that at least some of these blue Bicentennial State handicapped plates were replaced as their 1975 stickers expired with new yellow Keystone State handicapped plates (see below) bearing the same plate number.  This was a year earlier than the general replacement of passenger car plates.  But some blue handicapped plates were apparently revalidated for 1976, including the plate shown at left. 

Handicapped person plates, 1975-2000 (yellow base)
1976 handicapped
(Sells photo / plate)

1981 handicapped
1981 handicapped

In the mid-1970s, Pennsylvania adopted the use of the now-ubiquitous wheelchair graphic on its handicapped plates.  These new plates were colored blue-on-yellow and had the slogan Keystone State at the bottom of the plate.  This design is consistent with passenger car plates introduced in March 1977, but these yellow handicapped plates were clearly issued a couple of years prior, apparently sometime in 1975.  They can often be found with 1975, 1976, and even 1977 year stickers affixed.  The prefix letters "H" and "P" were located to either side of the head of the person seated in the wheelchair.  Newly-issued plates had serial numbers beyond the highest-numbered plate on the previous base. 

It appears that the blue Bicentennial State handicapped plates were replaced in at least some cases, as their 1975 stickers expired in March 1976, with yellow Keystone State handicapped plates bearing the same number.  These lower-numbered plates had natural 1976 registration stickers, while the higher-numbered plates could have natural 1975 registration stickers. 

Handicapped person plates, 1984-2002 (blue base)

During the mid-1980s, Pennsylvania stopped issuing yellow-background plates for most vehicle types, and instead issued blue-background plates.  Blue-background passenger car plates came out in 1984, and all others except for a few low-volume plate types followed suit within a year or two.  Blue-background handicapped and hearing impaired plates were issued until 2000, and were taken off the road during the 2000-2002 general replacement. 

1992 handicapped
(plate seen on a golf cart)

2000 handicapped
Handicapped person / Person with disability

I'm not exactly sure when blue-background handicapped plates came out, but it was sometime between 1984 and 1986.  As on most other plate types, the state name was moved to the bottom, and a single sticker well in the lower left corner replaced the two sticker wells in the upper corners.  What's interesting and unusual about these plates is that there was never a version with the "You've Got a Friend in" slogan that was used on passenger car plates made over a four-year period in the mid-1980s.  Apparently, the Keystone State slogan was used from the very start of the blue-background handicapped plates. 

Initially, the numbering format continued unchanged from the previous yellow base as Hwheelchair graphicP 00000, and the numbering continued uninterrupted as well, at about 90600.  After 99999 was reached, subsequent numbering formats Hwheelchair graphicP 0000, 0000 Hwheelchair graphicP, 00000 Hwheelchair graphicP, and Hwheelchair graphicP x0000 were pressed into service.  Then, the small letters above the wheelchair graphic were changed from "H P" to "P D", and subsequent plates were issued in format Pwheelchair graphicD 00000 on this base.  "P D" apparently stands for "person with disabilty", and I presume the state considers this term to be more politically correct than "handicapped person". 

2000 hearing impaired
(Kunsman plate)
Hearing impaired

Hearing impaired plates were introduced on the blue-background base, according to one report in the late 1980s.  Rather few of these were issued, because there was no requirement that hearing impaired drivers use these plates, and no benefit to them if they did.  The purpose of these plates seems to be merely informational, so that a driver behind such a vehicle might know that its driver may not be able to hear horns, sirens, or other auditory signals.  The serial format for these plates was HE-00000, with the caption Hearing Impaired embossed at the top. 

Handicapped person plates, 2000-present (tri-color bases)

Tri-color fade band plates were introduced in 1999 with 2000 expiration dates, and continued to be manufactured until the mid-2000s.  In late 2004, the state tweaked the plate design to have solid blue and yellow bands of color, rather than color bands that faded to white.  Various plate types began to be issued with the new design over the next few years as inventory of the old design was used up, so I'm not exactly sure when solid band person with disability plates hit the street.  Both designs continue to be valid, however.  Hearing impaired plates apparently are still being issued in the fade band design even today. 

2008 person with disability

2015 person with disability
Person with disability

On the fade band base, person with disabilty plates were issued only in format Pwheelchair graphicD 0000x, where the P and D prefix letters are constant and the variable part of the plate number ranged from 0000A to 9999Y, with the suffix letter changing last.  In other words, plate number 0000A was followed by 0001A, 0002A, to 9999A; then came 0000B, 0001B, 0002B, etc.  Solid band plates originally used this same format, and began with plate number 0000Z.  Once plate number 9999Z was reached, the format changed to 00000 Pwheelchair graphicD and started at that actual number.  Both versions of person with disability plates have the same web site addresses at the bottom of the plate as do regular passenger car plates. 

2010 handicapped motorcycle
(McDevitt photo of
plate in actual use)
Person with disability motorcycle

This plate type was introduced in late 2007 on the tri-color solid band base.  The plate has the wheelchair symbol screened on the left side of the plate, with the very small letters "P" and "D" above and on either side of the wheelchair symbol.  The serial format is P00x.  What's odd about this plate type is that it has the word Motorcycle screened at the bottom of the plate, rather than the embossed letters "MC" found on regular motorcycle plates. 

Prior to the introduction of this plate type, a handicapped motorcyclist would have used a regular motorcycle plate with a state-issued wheelchair symbol sticker affixed to the lower right corner of the plate.  I don't know when these stickers first came out. 

2004 hearing impaired
(McDevitt plate)
Hearing impaired

The numbering format of hearing impaired plates continued unchanged from the previous blue-background base.  One report states that numbering on the fade band base began at HE-03000, which was presumably higher than the highest-issued blue-background plate.  To date, hearing impaired plates have not yet been seen on the newer solid band base. 

Disabled veteran plates, circa 1977-present

Disabled veteran plates don't fit neatly into the chronological ranges of the regular handicapped / disabled plates, so I'll address them separately here.  As best I can tell, disabled veteran plates were in use by the late 1970s, but it's possible that they were actually introduced some time earlier in the 1970s.  The changes to these plates have been very minor over the years, and apparently even the very earliest disabled veteran plates are still valid for use. 

Disabled veteran plates all have a white background, with the plate number and the state name in blue, and with the words Disabled Veteran in red.  The serial format is always either DV-0000 or DV-00000 with full-sized prefix letters, or D/V 00000 with small prefix letters stacked one above the other.  Some of these plates have a reflective white background, while others have a painted white background. 

There seem to be two distinct types of disabled veteran plates, those with the wheelchair graphic and those without.  I presume that the Department of Defense criteria for declaring a veteran to be disabled are more liberal than the state criteria for parking in a designated handicapped parking space.  So, apparently, those disabled veterans who also qualify to park in handicapped spaces get the wheelchair on their plates, and those who do not, do not.  However, since both types have the word "disabled" on the plate, I'll address them both in this section. 

1979 disabled veteran without wheelchair
1979 disabled veteran, no
wheelchair, version 1a

1998 disabled veteran without wheelchair
1998 disabled veteran, no
wheelchair, version 5
Disabled veteran without handicapped parking privileges

The oldest version of this plate type has two sticker wells in the upper corners and the state name across the top, consistent with the yellow plates issued 1977-1984.  These are known with both serial formats DV-0000 and DV-00000.  Numbering on the five-digit plates with two sticker wells at the top began at 10000 and went up to the upper 10000s or lower 20000s, but for reasons unknown, there are also plates in this early version numbered in the lower 40000s. 

Subsequently, the top sticker wells disappeared and a single sticker well sprouted in the bottom left corner, but the state name briefly remained at the top of the plate.  Shortly afterwards, the state name followed the sticker well to the bottom of the plate, consistent with the blue plates issued 1984-2001.  All of these versions had the words Disabled Veteran between the bolt holes either at the top or bottom of the plate, opposite the state name.  More recently, wider dies were used for the words Disabled Veteran so that they span across the entire top of the plate.  A small batch of the plates with the wide Disabled Veteran dies were made with the prefix letters small and stacked one above the other. 

1988 disabled veteran with wheelchair
1988 disabled veteran, with
wheelchair, version 1
Disabled veteran with handicapped parking privileges

I believe the disabled veteran plates with a wheelchair graphic came out several years after the non-wheelchair type, in the mid-1980s, as there does not seem to be a version of the wheelchair type with two sticker wells at the top.  The earliest version has the state name embossed at the top and Disabled Veteran embossed at the bottom, with a sticker well in the lower left corner.  The second version has the state name and plate type name moved to the opposite edges of the plate, consistent with the blue plates issued 1984-2001.  I'm not aware of a version with the words Disabled Veteran spanning the entire width of the plate.  However, the most recent version of the wheelchair plates has the state name screened at the top and a single sticker well at the upper left corner, consistent with tri-color plates issued since 1999.  On these plates, the words Disabled Veteran are screened at the bottom between the bolt holes.  Disabled veteran plates with the wheelchair graphic are always numbered in the 80000 and 90000 series. 

Pennsylvania house car and motor home plates

If you're not familiar with the term "house car", you're not alone.  Lots of people have scratched their heads over "house car" plates issued by Pennsylvania and a few other states.  It turns out that "house car" is just an outdated term that means the same thing as "motor home". Both terms have appeared on Pennsylvania license plates issued to motor homes. 

House car plates, 1977-2000 (yellow base)
1983 house car
1983 house car (motor home)
House cars

Pennsylvania introduced the house car plate type in 1977 on the reflective yellow-background base plate introduced that year for some plate types.  Prior to that, motor homes had been issued passenger car plates.  House car plates used serial format HC-00000, with a dash separator and the plate type caption House Car along the bottom of the plate.  These were issued until the mid-1980s, but could continue to be renewed until all yellow-background plates were replaced in 1999-2000. 

House car and motor home plates, 1984-2002 (blue base)

During the mid-1980s, Pennsylvania stopped issuing yellow-background plates for most vehicle types, and instead issued blue-background plates.  Blue-background passenger car plates came out in 1984, and all others except for a few low-volume plate types followed suit within a year or two.  I'm not exactly sure when blue house car plates came out, but it was sometime during that transition period.  As on most other plate types, the state name was moved to the bottom, and a single sticker well in the lower left corner replaced the two sticker wells in the upper corners.  Blue-background motor home plates were issued until 2000, and were taken off the road during the 2000-2002 general replacement. 

1993 house car
1993 house car (motor home)
House cars

Blue-background house car plates had the plate type caption House Car at the top of the plate, and used serial format HD-00000.  These were issued up to somewhere in the lower HD-40000 series in the late 1980s. 

2002 motor home
Motor homes

In the late 1980s, the state decided that the "house car" designation had to go, and began issuing plates that actually said Motor Home across the top.  This change occured somewhere in the early HD-40000 series.  Otherwise, motor home plates were identical to house car plates.  Serial format HD-00000 was completed, and then motor home plates continued with serial format HF-00000.  The HE series wasn't used for motor homes, because that letter combination was already in use on hearing impaired plates. 

Motor home plates, 2000-present (tri-color bases)
2003 motor home

2008 motor home

Motor home plates on the tri-color fade band base were introduced in 1999 with 2000 expiration dates, and continued to be issued until the mid-2000s.  In late 2004, the state tweaked the plate design to have solid blue and yellow bands of color, rather than color bands that faded to white.  Various plate types began to be issued with the new design over the next few years as inventory of the old design was used up, so I'm not exactly sure when solid band motor home plates hit the street.  Both designs continue to be valid, however. 

On both the fade band and solid band plates, the state name and sticker well were moved back to the top of the plate, and the caption Motor Home was moved back to the bottom.  On the fade band plate, the serial format is HG-00000 with a dash separator; on the solid band plate, the serial format is HH-00000 with a keystone separator. 

Pennsylvania press photographer plates

This section will be added at a future date. 

Pennsylvania reserved number and personalized plates

This section covers various types of plates on which motorists can choose their own plate numbers or be assigned desirable plate numbers.  In general, reserved number plates include standard format, sequentially-numbered plates with desirable numbers that have been set aside or reserved for specific motorists, and also sequentially-numbered plates in a distinct format reserved for government officials, political patrons, and other VIPs.  Personalized plates are those made by request with specific letters and/or numbers not in a format used on sequentially-numbered plates. 

There are several sub-types of personalized plates that have been issued and used in Pennsylvania.  There are also types of plates that may appear to be personalized plates to the casual observer, but have specific purposes.  These are each addressed in turn below.  Please note that the Pennsylvania DMV may use different terminology for these various types of plates than do I. 

Plates that clearly are for government officials I'm not going to address here, but those that just have low plate numbers or particular plate number letter prefixes or suffixes reserved for government officials, VIPs, or other groups other than the general public, I'm including in this section, since by all appearances they would seem to be reserved number or personalized plates. 

Reserved number and personalized plates, 1931-1935

(no picture available)

I expect that low-numbered, all-numeric passenger car plates were reserved numbers for government officials and VIPs long before 1931, and continuing even to the present day.  Hoewver, I can provide no details about this practice until the 1960s. 

Beginning with the 1930 plates, Pennsylvania introduced some new serial formats for sequentially-numbered passenger car plates, among which included plates with one variable letter or two adjacent variable letters.  These letter plates could also have one or more numeric digits, or could just have the letters without any numeric digits.  On the plates with both letters and numbers, the letters could be in various positions within the plate number.  Anyway, these letter-only plates and letter(s)-with-short-number(s) plates were apparently issued sequentially to random motorists in 1930, but well-heeled and well-connected people noticed these plates and wanted certain plate numbers reserved for them in 1931. 

I don't know whether it was done as a formal program, or informally through the old-boy network, but apparently the state did in fact reserve many desirable sequential plate numbers for certain individuals starting in 1931. 

Plates with only one or two serial characters were only issued through 1935. 

Reserved number and personalized plates, 1936-1957
1955 special number
1955 special number
(Wilkinson photo / plate)
Reserved number and personalized license plates

Effective in 1936, one- and two-character plate numbers were no longer available.  I'm speculating that three-character, alphanumeric plate numbers became "special number" plates, which were apparently available only to people with political connections.  In any case, they do exist, but they're more rare than they would be if they were issued as sequentially-numbered plates.  The general public was issued plates with four or five serial characters (or six numeric digits in 1957).  It was apparently possible to reserve four- and five-character plate numbers, but usually there's no way to tell a given number was reserved unless you see a run of plates from multiple years all with the same number.  Motorists with unreserved plate numbers did not get the same plate number year after year. 

1950s novelty plate
1950s novelty plate –
NOT a real license plate!
State-made novelty plates, circa 1952-1955 – NOT real license plates

Pennsylvania stopped making most types of plates in pairs after 1951.  In subsequent years, it seems that people must have missed having front plates, and there was demand for novelty plates that could be mounted where front plates once were.  All of this would be largely irrelevant to the discussion of actual license plates.  However, it appears that the Pennsylvania state license plate manufacturing facility made novelty plates that closely resemble and are frequently mistaken for real license plates, specifically real vanity plates. 

All of these apparent state-made novelty plates I've seen strongly resemble real Pennsylvania license plates made between late 1952 and 1955.  Both yellow-on-blue and blue-on-yellow versions exist, corresponding to real plate colors in even-numbered and odd-numbered years, respectively.  The plate "numbers" can be first names, such as "FRANK" or "DON", two- and three-letter combinations that appear to be initials, words, other odd combinations of letters that appear to be acronyms, and even single letters.  I've seen some of these plates that employed spaces or dash seperators between letters, but I don't recall seeing any with numeric digits.  Due to the size of the plates themselves and the dies used the stamp the letters, these plates could not accommodate more than five characters, including spaces and other separators.  Besides the impossible plate "numbers", the most obvious difference between these and real plates is the lack of a year or expiration date. 

However, now that I've added one to my collection, I've noticed a few other minor variations between these novelty plates and real 1952-1955 Pennsylvania plates.  One is the height of the letters in the plate "number". They're the same size as numbers but much taller than letters on real plates.  The other is that the plates are slightly shorter, width-wise, than real plates from this period.  My novelty plate is ten inches across, while my real plates from this period are 10-1/4 or 10-1/2 inches.  However, Pennsylvaia did issue ten-inch-wide plates through 1944.  All of the other charicteristics of my novelty plate precisely match those of real plates.  I'm thinking these differences aren't significant enough to sway me from believing they were made in the state license plate shop. 

Reserved number and personalized plates, 1958-1964
1958 special number
1958 special number

1964 special number
1964 special number
(Lybarger photo / plate)

1964 special number
1964 special number
(Phillip P. photo / plate)

Beginning in 1958, I believe that three-character, alphanumeric special number plates were done away with, and also believe that four- and five-character passenger car plates might not have been sequentially-issued plates issued to the public at large.  Instead, the general public was now issued plates with six serial characters, which had been introduced in 1957.  I believe that the four- and five-character plates became special number plates, that is, available by request only.  However, they were apparently readily available and did not require political connections or extra fees to obtain.  A good number of people probably kept their previous four- and five-character plate numbers by requesting them as special number plates.  That would especially be likely if the previous plates had reserved numbers. 

These 1958-base special number plates were not available in all serial formats issued previously.  They could be all-numeric, or could have one letter or two adjacent letters only at the beginning or end of the plate number.  Unlike 1930-1957 plates, letters were not allowed in the middle of the plate number.  It should be mentioned that while six-character passenger car plates had an embossed keystone separator between the third and fourth serial characters, plates with five or fewer characters had no separator. 

I don't recall ever seeing a three-character plate on the 1958 base, whether all-numeric or including one or more letters.  I suspect, however, that all-numeric plate numbers with three digits or fewer were assigned to various government officials and other VIPs. 

I believe plates with prefix or suffix letters "HR" were issued to elected members of the state House of Representatives, and plates with prefix or suffix letters "PA" were issued to state senators.  Otherwise regular-looking plates with prefix letters "PP" were issued to press photographers through 1963.  However, starting in 1964, press photographer plates were redesigned with a distinct appearance that would not be confused with regular plates.  It's possible that other letter codes also had special uses and were not available on special numbered plates requested by the public. 

Reserved number and personalized plates, 1965-1976

Special number plates, which the state referred to as "special passenger" plates in a 1966 DMV document, became extra-cost plates starting in 1965, and became much less common.  The rules for allowed number/letter combinations were relaxed somewhat.  Between three and five total characters were allowed, with up to three letters either at the beginning or end of the plate number, and with at least one numeric digit.  Four-digit and five-digit all-numeric plate numbers were also considered to be special numbers. 

Some plates that would seem to be special number plates were actually reserved number plates assigned to political office holders and VIPs.  All-numeric plates numbered 1 to 999 were reserved for the governor (plate number 1), lieutenant governor (plate number 2), state cabinet members (plate numbers 3-23), and other, unspecified "state officials and dignitaries" (plate numbers 24-999).  Prefix or suffix letters HR, MC, PA, and US or USS were used for various elected state and federal legislators, specifically for elected members of the state House of Representatives, U.S. House of Representatives, state Senate, and U.S. Senate, respectively. 

1966 special number
1966 special number
(Francis plate)

1970 special number
1970 special number
1965-1970

Special number plates on the 1965 base were of a similar, but slightly different design than were sequentially-numbered passenger car plates.  On special number plates, the state map shape was slightly smaller and more realistically shaped, making for a thicker blue border around the edges of the plate.  A keystone separator was used on 1965 base plates between any letters and numbers.  No separator was used on all-numeric plate numbers, at least with those up to four digits.  I'm not sure if five-digit, all-numeric plate numbers used a separator or not. 

I've seen some versions of legislative plates on the 1965 base with small letters inside of an embossed keystone, making them distintive political plates, and others with full-sized letters, making them look like ordinary special number plates.  I'm not sure why both were issued, but my guess is that they were initally issued as regular-looking plates and later became distinctive. 

1976 VIP
1976 state cabinet member
(Sells photo / plate)

1976 special number
1976 special number
1971-1976

The large liberty bell separator was used between letters and numbers on the 1971 base.  No separator was used on all-numeric plate numbers, at least with those up to four digits.  I'm not sure if five-digit, all-numeric plate numbers used a separator or not. 

Reserved number and personalized plates, 1977-2002

In 1977, true vanity plates, where the motorist could pretty much have any combination of letters and/or numbers they wished, became available for the first time.  What were previously "special number plates" were now also considered to be vanity plates. 

2000 yellow-base vanity
2000 vanity with what was
previously a special number

1999 yellow-base vanity
1999 vanity

1998 blue-base vanity
1998 vanity
Standard base passenger vanity plates

Vanity plates were issued on the same standard-issue bases as were regular passenger car plates.  Plates manufactured between 1977 and mid-year 1983 had yellow backgrounds with the caption Keystone State across the bottom; those made between mid-year 1983 and mid-year 1987 had blue backgrounds with the caption You've Got A Friend In across the top; those made between mid-year 1987 and early 2000 had blue backgrounds with the caption Keystone State across the top. 

Initially, the maximum number of characters was six, with either one dash or space separator also allowed in addition.  Sometime in the late 1980s or 1990s, the maximum number of characters was increased to seven.  I wouldn't be surprised if that change occurred in 1991, when seven-character passenger car plates were introduced.  The keystone separator used on passenger cars was not available on vanity plates. 

Firefighter vanity plates

The first organizational member plates issued by Pennsylvania, and the only ones made on the yellow-background 1977 base plate, were firefighter plates.  These had the letters "FF" inside of a maltese cross emblem, and the words Fire Fighter [sic] at the bottom of the plate.  These yellow firefighter plates were also the only organizational plates to be offered with vanity registarations.  Firefighter vanity plates were only issued for a brief period in the mid-1980s, but were allowed to be renewed up through the 1999-2000 general replacement of all yellow-background plates. 

1991 motorcycle vanity
1992 motorcycle vanity
(Phillp P. photo / plate)
Motorcycle vanity plates

Motorcycle vanity plates were not offered on the yellow-background 1977 base plate.  They were only introduced after the blue-background base plates began to be issued in the mid-1980s.  Motorcycle vanity plates may have up to five numbers and letters, and also either a space or a dash separator if desired. 

1996 state-made novelty plate
State-made Flagship Niagara
novelty plate –
NOT a real license plate!
State-made and privately-made Flagship Niagara novelty plates – NOT real license plates

The Flagship Niagara plate was an actual special interest license plate briefly issued between late 1995 and early 1997.  It was issued only as a sequentially-numbered plate, and always had the stacked prefix letters "F/N" preceding the sequential plate number.  This plate had some significant legiblity issues due to the white serial characters on a light-colored background, and was discontinued, though plates already issued were and still are allowed to remain in use.  To reiterate, there were no Flagship Niagara plates ever made or issued as real vanity license plates. 

In any case, the state had a lot of leftover reflective sheeting with the Flagship Niagara plate design that it could not use.  They decided to use it up by making and selling novelty plates.  These novelty plates were not made to order, but rather were made with maybe a dozen or two various stock words and acronyms, most of them nautical in nature.  Also, Flagship Niagara novelty plates were made with the plate number 1813.  Novelty plates, of course, are not valid license plates.  However, since they closely resembled real license plates, all of these state-made novelty plates had the expiration date Exp 6-96 embossed in the lower left corner of the plate. 

Apparently, the state couldn't sell enough of these novelty plates to use up all the reflective sheeting, either, and ended up selling in bulk quantities either blank plates with the Flagship Niagara sheeting applied, or just the sheeting itself.  One or more enterprising people then made and sold their own novelty plates by stamping their own words, acroynms, and numbers (including the number 1813) onto Flagship Niagara plates.  These privately-made novelty plates were stamped with non-Pennsylvania dies, and so the plate numbers and/or letters are shaped differently than those on state-made plates.  The privately-made plates also do not have any expiration date stamped on them. 

Reserved number and personalized plates, 2000-present
2003 vanity remake of old passenger number
2003 vanity remake of old
passenger car number
(O'Connor photo / plate)

2013 fade band vanity
2013 vanity made 1999-2004
(plate in actual use)

2010 solid band vanity
2010 low number
made since 2004
(plate in actual use)

2016 solid band vanity
2016 vanity made since 2004
(plate in actual use)
Standard base passenger vanity plates

Vanity plates are available for cars, light-duty trucks, and light motor homes on the same standard-issue bases with the web site at the bottom.  There's nothing on the plate that indicates the vehicle type.  The maximum number of characters is seven, and either one dash or space separator is also allowed.  Plates manufactured between 1999 and mid-year 2004 are of the older, fade band design, while plates made since mid-year 2004 have solid bands of blue and yellow. 

People who wanted to keep their old sequential plate numbers from the 1977, 1983, or 1987 bases were allowed to order those numbers as vanity plates on the 1999 fade band base.  Usually, vanity plates with previous-base sequential numbers have a dash separator, while current-base sequential numbers have a keystone separator, but the occasional vanity remake can be seen with a keystone separator. 

It's become unclear whether any low-numbered plates are still reserved for VIPs, or whether all numbers are up for grabs.  A good number of plates with even just a single numeric digit or a single letter have been spotted in use.  Unless I receive information to the contrary, I'm going to work on the assumption that these are all vanity plates available to the general public. 

Firefighter vanity plates (tri-color fade base)

Those motorists who had been issued yellow firefighter vanity plates in the 1980s were allowed to keep their vanity plate numbers when the yellow plates were replaced with tri-color fade band plates during the 1999-2000 replate.  No new firefighter vanity plates were issued on this base. 

2005 motorcycle vanity
2005 motorcycle vanity
made 1999-2004
(Bodie plate)
Motorcycle vanity plates

Motorcycle vanity plates manufactured between 1999 and sometime in 2004 or 2005 are of the fade band design, while plates made since then have solid bands of blue and yellow.  Motorcycle vanity plates may have up to five numbers and letters, and also either a space or a dash separator if desired.  Five-character plates without a space or dash separator are sometimes offset to the right (apparently to provide room for the expiration sticker), and sometimes are centered, necessitating the sticker to be affixed in one of the bottom corners of the plate. 

2016 "In God We Trust" vanity
2016 In God We Trust
specialty plate vanity
(plate in actual use)
Other vanity plate types (tri-color stripe base)

Beginning in July 2014, it seems that just about all plate types made on the standard tri-color strip base are now available with vanity plate numbers.  This includes, but is not limited to, handicapped plates, special fund and organizational member plates, and various non-passenger plate types used on commercial vehicles.  In some cases, vanity plates are required to also have prefix or suffix letters that correspond to the plate type. 

Pennsylvania suburban (station wagon) plates

During the years 1960 to 1964, Pennsylvania issued license plates to station wagons and other similar passenger vehicles (which today we would call SUVs and mini-vans) that were distinct from normal passenger car plates.  Before 1960 and after 1964, station wagons and similar vehicles were issued passenger car plates.  Anyway, these station wagon plates were embossed with the legend Pa Suburban 60 across the top.  "Pa" of course is the state abbreviation, and "60" is the first year of issuance.  "Suburban" does not mean the vehicle owner lived in the suburbs, nor does it mean that the vehicle it was assigned to was necessarily a Chevy Suburban.  Rather, "suburban" is an archaic term for station wagon. 

(Incidentally, this is where the Chevy Suburban got its name.  Originally, "Chevy suburban" just simply meant "Chevy station wagon", but gradually as people stopped using the term "suburban" in the generic sense, it came to be used as an actual model name.  But I digress.) 

1960 suburban

1961 suburban

1963 suburban

1964 suburban
Regular suburban plates

Suburban license plate serial number formats always included the letter "Q" as the first or only letter, although its position varied.  Initially, suburban plates had the letter Q with between three and five numeric digits, with the Q initally in position 1, then positions 2 through 6 in order.  When these formats were exhausted, the letter Q was returned to position 1, followed by a second adjacent letter.  This additional format was also exhausted, and then a split format was begun, with the Q in position 1 and another letter in position 3. 

No stickers were used in 1960, since the year was already embossed on the plate.  The embossed year "60" was stamped on all suburban plates issued 1960 through 1964.  Stickers for 1961 throuh 1964 were of unique colors not used for other plate types; the stickers were placed in the upper left corner, the only flat place on the plate with enough room on six-character plates. 

As far as I know, there was nothing special about the suburban plates with only four or five serial characters, I think they were just issued sequentially along with six-character plates.  Only six-character plates have a keystone separator between the third and fourth characters. 

For some unknown reason, a good number of suburban plates have 1964 stickers with serial number PA0000 placed over top of 1963 stickers.  Stickers with this serial number ordinarily indicate a new registration, so you should not see them placed over top of other stickers.  I'm guessing someone at the DMV got carried away and applied 1963 stickers to too many plates, and those that weren't issued in 1963 then had a 1964 sticker applied over the 1963 sticker before they were issued.  I've never seen an older-issue (pre-1963) suburban plate with a 1964 sticker with serial PA0000. 

Summary of suburban plate serial formats
Suburban format Q000 Suburban format Q00-000 Suburban format 0Q0-000 Suburban format 00Q00 Suburban format 000-0Q0 Suburban format 000-00Q Suburban format Qx0-000 Suburban format Q0x-000
  1. Q in position 1, followed only by numeric digits; 4, 5, or 6 characters
  2. Q in position 2; 4, 5, or 6 characters
  3. Q in position 3; 4, 5, or 6 characters (Lybarger photo / plate)
  4. Q in position 4; 4, 5, or 6 characters (not shown)
  5. Q in position 5; 5 or 6 characters
  6. Q in position 6
  7. Q in position 1, with a variable letter in position 2
  8. Q in position 1, with a variable letter in position 3
 
Combination suburban plate types

Besides seqentially-numbered suburban plates, the state also made amateur radio suburban plates and press photographer suburban plates.  Both had the text Pa Suburban 60 at the top of the plate.  Amateur radio suburban plate numbers were the radio operator's call letters assigned by the Federal Communications Commission, just like regular amateur radio plates.  Press photographer suburban plate numbers used prefix letters "PP" followed by numeric digits, just like regular press photographer plates. 

1960 station wagon base plate sticker colors and natural serial number ranges
1960 –  no sticker  Natural serials: Q in positions 1, 2, and 3 with numbers in other positions; Q in position 4 (lower first digit). 
1961 –  yellow-on-green sticker   Natural serials: Q in position 4 (middle to upper first digit); Q in position 5 (lower first digit). 
1962 –  green-on-yellow sticker   Natural serials: Q in position 5 (middle to upper first digit); Q in position 6 (lower to middle first digit). 
1963 –  black-on-orange sticker   Natural serials: Q in position 6 (upper first digit); Q in position 1 with variable letter in position 2 (early to middle alphabet). 
1964 –  green-on-yellow sticker   Natural serials: Q in position 1 with variable letter in position 2 (late alphabet); Q in position 1 with variable letter in position 3. 

Related links

Page credits

Thanks to those who have directly contributed to the information on this page:  Ed Lybarger, John McDevitt, George Kunsman, Phillip P., and Dave Wilkinson. 

O'Connor photograph © copyright by Tim O'Connor.  All rights reserved.  Used with permission. 
Lybarger, McDevitt, Phillip P., Sells, and Wilkinson photographs are presumed to be copyrighted by Ed Lybarger, John McDevitt, Phillip P., Mike Sells, and Dave Wilkinson, respectively, and are used with permission.  McDevitt, Kunsman, and Bodie plates are from the collections of John McDevitt, George Kunsman, and Lou Bodie, respectively. 


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