Pennsylvania sample license plate

Rick Kretschmer's License Plate Archives 

Pennsylvania sample license plate

A Pictorial History of Pennsylvania License Plates

Samples and Other State-Made Pseudo-License Plates


This page covers various types of plates manufactured in the Pennsylvania license plate facility and/or distributed by the Pennsylvania motor vehicle agency, but which are not actual vehicle registration 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 14, 2023  –  Added photo and description of a 1980s state-made souvenir plate with the plate number KPB-87.  Revised discussion of apparent state-made 1950s novelty plates. 
  • December 4, 2021  –  Added a photo of a graphic Preserve Our Heritage special fund sample plate, submitted by a visitor to this site.  Minor text updates. 


This page is not just a page for Pennsylvania sample plates.  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.  Then there are state-made souvenir plates, which are also sometimes hard to distinguish from sample plates. 

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. 

Pennsylvania sample passenger car plates

Like most states, Pennsylvania Driver and Vehicle Services produces sample license plates to provide examples of what real plates look like.  Mostly these are used internally by PennDOT and by law enforcement agencies.  However, in Pennsylvania, sample plates have also been made available to the general public.  In particular, they were offered for sale to the general public for approximately 20 years between the mid-1980s and the mid-2000s.  Obviously these are not valid plates for use on a vehicle. 

The most common sample plates through about the mid-1980s were made to represent passenger car plates, and often had plate numbers in a passenger car numbering format, but usually with the numeric digits all zeroes.  The letters, if any, were usually "PA".  Between the mid-1960s and mid-1980s, however, the serial characters on these plates usually spelled the word SAMPLE.  Starting in the mid-1980s, the word SAMPLE was usually embossed in small letters arranged vertically, taking the place of the last numeric digit in the plate number. 

Pennsylvania sample plates through 1930

(no picture available)

Sample passenger plates are known from as early as 1924.  The plate number was always or nearly always 000 through 1930.  Possibly non-passenger samples were also created, but I've never actually seen any. 

Pennsylvania sample plates 1931-1955

1941 passenger sample 1953 passenger sample
1941 passenger sample (Kovach plate); 1953 passenger sample. 

As far as I know, sample passenger car plates always bore plate number PA00 between 1931 and 1955.  Plate numbers with two letters followed by two numbers were issued as sequentially-numbered plates during those years, as well as in 1930, but never with all zeroes. 

Pennsylvania sample plates 1956-1964

1958 base unfinished passenger sample
1958 base unfinished passenger sample.  The raised areas weren't painted yellow like they should have been. 

I believe in 1956 and 1957, Pennsylvania's sample passenger plate number was PA000, and between 1958 and 1964 it was PA0-000.  The former was a valid passenger plate format, except for the all-zero numeric portion.  Two letters weren't used on 1958-64 six-character passenger car plates.  The 1958 base sample plates were issued with and without subsequent year stickers affixed; these stickers usually had S-A-M-P-L-E in place of a serial number.  Stickers with the number PA0000 aren't sample stickers; these were actually issued to new registrants to be used on real license plates.  However, they're sometimes also seen on sample plates as well. 

Pennsylvania sample plates 1965-1983

1970 passenger sample 1971 passenger sample 1972 passenger sample 1973 passenger sample 1975 passenger sample 1981 passenger sample 1983 base passenger sample
1970 through 1973, 1975, and 1981 passenger car samples; a really blurry photo of an undated 1987 base passenger car sample (plate collector unknown)

Starting in 1965 andd continuing into the mid-1980s on the You've Got a Friend base, passenger samples usually bore plate number SAM-PLE.  The Bicentennial plate with plate number 000-000 is obviously an exception to this rule. 

Pennsylvania sample plates 1987-present

1987 base passenger sample 1999 base passenger sample
1987 base and 1999 base passenger car samples

Beginning with the 1987 Keystone State base, Pennsylvania abandoned using the word "SAMPLE" as the plate number, and began issuing sample plates with various letters, zeroes, and the word "SAMPLE" vertically in place of the last zero.  There were a variety of prefix letters used on sample plates from this era.  At about the time that the solid band tri-color plate was introduced in 2004, Pennsylvania stopped selling sample plates to the general public, and so there are far fewer sample plates on this base available to collectors. 

Pennsylvania sample non-passenger and specialty plates

1962 motorboat sample undated Medal of Honor sample 1990s Geneva College sample undated "Preserve Our Heritage" sample 2000s circus-carnival truck sample
1962 motorboat sample; undated Congressional Medal of Honor sample (plate previously in my trade box); circa 1990s Geneva College organizational member sample; undated Preserve Our Heritage special fund sample (Bill photo and plate); circa 2000s circus-carnival truck sample. 

Pennsylvania also routinely made samples of non-passenger and specialty plate designs, especially during the twenty year period between the mid-1980s and the mid-2000s.  There were many hundreds of varieties of sample plates made during this twenty year period, and in relatively large numbers, too.  I'm not even going to try to collect all of these; I have a few examples, but am more interested in obtaining older, less common non-passenger samples such as the purple 1962 motorboat sample plate shown above. 

Pennsylvania prototype and test plates

1952 three-axle truck test plate 1958 base unfinished prototype 1958 base suburban prototype 1959 motorcycle prototype undated prototype, circa late 1950s-60s undated prototype, circa late 1980s-90s
1952 three-axle heavy truck test plate (Burr photo / plate); 1958 base unfinished prototype, yellow without contrasting paint on raised areas; 1958 base suburban prototype; 1959 motorcycle prototype; undated prototype, circa late 1950s or 1960s; undated Fire Fighter prototype, circa late 1980s-1990s. 

Like all states, Pennsylvania 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 PennDOT. 

The 1952 truck plate above may appear to be an actual license plate with a sequential number, but trust me, it's not.  It's one of a whole series of non-passenger test plates made to see how the plates would look on the shorter 10-1/4 inch blanks introduced mid-year 1952.  It bears a May 31 expiration date, but real truck plates had March 31 expiration dates up to and including the 1952 plate, and didn't have May 31 expiration dates until the 1953 plate. 

The 1958 suburban plate above seems reasonably accurate, but it differs from real suburban plates in two ways.  One is the plate number; the number SPL 58 isn't remotely correct for a suburban plate, but that by itself doesn't make a plate a prototype and not a sample.  The real reason this is a prototype is the stamped year "58" at the top of the plate.  All real suburban plates had the year "60" stamped at the top; until this one came along, I had never seen nor heard of any suburban plates with anything other than "60" stamped on them.  By the way, in case you were wondering, "suburban" is an archaic term for a station wagon, and such plates were issued to station wagons between 1960 and 1964. 

The other plates shown above are unlike any actually-issued real license plate. 

Pennsylvania blank plates

1960s-70s two-sided blank (yellow side) 1960s-70s two-sided blank (blue side)

A blank plate is one that, for whatever reason, does not have any plate number stamped or printed on it.  From the mid-1960s to mid-1970s, Pennsylvania made their plates yellow on one side and blue on the other.  From 1965 to 1967, and in 1971, this allowed them to easily make passenger car plates in one color and non-passenger plates in another.  It also allowed them to not be stuck with unusable blank plates after a reissue where the plate colors were changed.  Show above are the two sides of a single blank plate from this era. 

Pennsylvania state-made novelty and souvenir plates

1985 "Valley Forge Council B.S.A." souvenir or special event plate 1987 "Keep Pennsylvania Beautiful" souvenir plate 1996 "Flagship Niagara" novelty plate
1985 Valley Forge Council, Boy Scouts of America plate commemorating their 75 anniversary special event or souvenir plate; 1987 "Keep Pennsylvania Beautiful" campaign souvenir plate; 1996 Flagship Niagara novelty plate

On occasion, the state of Pennsylvania produces novelty plates for various reasons, and souvenir plates, often 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 the same materials used for real license plates, and they're not intended to be used on vehicles.  Some of these were made available to the general public, and others were not.  Shown above are a few such plates.  There are many others. 

I'm not sure if the Valley Forge Council B.S.A. plate was a street-legal special event plate or just a numbered souvenir plate.  Pennsylvania doesn't routinely issue either.  In any case, it's clear that this plate was made in the Pennsylvania license plate manufacturing facility – the dies used to stamp the state name are unmistakable.  At least a few hundred of these plates were made, all with sequential plate numbers.  The plate would seem to be for a weekend event commemorating the 75th anniversary of the Boy Scouts of America, founded in February 1910, or of the Valley Forge Council, founded in 1911, or both. 

The KPB-87 plate says it's a sample plate, but it has a strange plate number for a sample.  It actually stands for "Keep Pennsylvania Beautiful 1987", which I believe was a state anti-littering campaign.  I gather that these plates were given out by the state as thank you gifts or souvenirs to people and/or organizations involved with the campaign. 

The Flagship Niagara design was briefly issued as a real special interest license plate 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. 

As a result, 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.  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. 

Other plates often mistaken for state-made novelty and souvenir plates
NOT a state-made plate!

personalized novelty plate circa 1952-55
1950s-era novelty plate intended for use as a front plate

The "FRANK" plate is one of many made during the 1950s with various names, initials, and other cryptic messages.  These were apparently made after the state stopped issuing real license plates in pairs in 1952.  It would seem that people must have missed having front plates, and there was demand for novelty plates that could be mounted where front plates once were.  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.  However, there are a few other minor variations between these novelty plates and real 1952-1955 Pennsylvania plates.  Besides the impossible plate "numbers", the most obvious difference between these and real plates is the lack of a year or expiration date. 

It turns out that these were commercially mass-produced with popular first names and sold in auto parts stores.  They could also be special-ordered with uncommon names, initials, or other text.  Whether they were made using Pennysylvania blanks, dies, and other materials, I can't say one way or the other, but it's certainly possible. 

Related links

Page credits

Thanks to those who have directly contributed to the information on this page:  Ed Burr, "Bedford County Bill". 

Burr and Bill photographs are presumed to be copyrighted by Ed Burr and "Bedford County Bill", respectively, and are used with permission.  Burr, Kovach, and Bill plates are/were from the collections of Ed Burr, Gap Kovach, and "Bedford County Bill", respectively. 

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