History of California License Plates | Black Gold

Yes…it’s an SOS California blog. You know what we’re talking about when we say BLACK GOLD. We’re talking about…license plates.

The California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) instituted a program to distribute Legacy License Plates. Legislation introduced the California Legacy License Plate program offering vehicle owners the opportunity to purchase replicas of California license plates similar to those issued in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. Only the 1960s plate reached the required 7,500 minimum orders before January 1, 2015. The Press Release in June 2015 stated that the plates were released so, “California drivers can relive those nostalgic memories from the 1960s with Legacy License Plates.”

1960s California nostalgia…how fun! Surfing, woodies, Beach Boys…what great memories and the pure definition of California culture for the rest of the country and even the world. But is that the full history of the black and gold license plate? How did license plates come to include color schemes, and how did California become associated with black and gold?

A Los Angeles Magazine article provides some background. New York was the first state to require automobiles have license plates, beginning in 1901. At the time, individual owners were expected to make their own plates. In 1956, the U.S. government came to an agreement with the Automobile Manufacturers Association that fixed the size for license plates for automobiles. From 1963 to 1969, California-issued license plates featured gold numbers on a black non-reflective paint with an embossed state name.

Gary Richards, the author of an article about the plate’s return in The Mercury News, said that these retro plates are popular, “Because they look so cool. For me, they recall the fun days of watching Edd Byrnes play “Cookie,” a protégé to private eye Efrem Zimbalist Jr. in “77 Sunset Strip.” That was a weekly must-watch when I was a kid.”

The resurrection of legacy plates was first introduced by CA Assemblyman Mike Gatto. He was quoted in Newswire as saying “Aside from not salting our roads, California doesn’t often do much for automobile enthusiasts. This is an easy way for the state to enable everyone from the backyard restorer to the nostalgic, to the purchaser of a retro-styled automobile to add that extra bit of detail for those of us who appreciate the classic era of automobile design.”California Black License Plate

Mr Gatto’s legislative director Aaron Moreno told Hemmings Daily that “The molds were just sitting there in Folsom prison. And when the people at the prison heard we were trying to get this program started, they dusted the molds off and saw that they could still be used.”

All this is very interesting, but what about the connection to California’s other Black Gold? Well, that’s turning out to be a much more difficult thing to pin down. Could it be that Californians are now hesitant to admit that a part of their history celebrated the importance of oil and gas production?

Economic Benefits of Oil 

Oil and gas production surely is California’s black gold. The Paleontological Research Institution points out that many people may be surprised to learn that one of Southern California’s chief exports over the last 100 years, besides motion pictures, has been oil. Like oil reservoirs in Texas, Louisiana, and Pennsylvania, a hint of what lay beneath the surface could be seen in the many above ground oil seeps. These seeps had been known by Native Americans for thousands of years. In 1900, the state of California produced 4 million barrels. In 1910, this had jumped to 77 million barrels. In spite of this increased production, many of the fields were beginning to see slowdowns in their production rates in the late 1910’s, and Californians wondered if their oil boom was reaching an end. But before that would happen, 3 major fields were discovered in rapid succession – Huntington Beach (1920), Santa Fe Springs (1921), and the biggest of them all, the Signal Hill, or Long Beach, Field in 1921.

Because of the abundance of this natural resource, Black Gold in California has meant literally…gold. Oil exploration and production has, throughout our history, provided funding for so many aspects of the lifestyle we enjoy. To quote Jeff Wing, from his article in the Sentinel where he points out that oil money funded Alice Keck Park Memorial Garden, “There is oil money all over the place driving scientific discovery and public curiosity about the larger world. Think of it as a different kind of spill.” The spill he discusses in the March 10th issue of the Sentinel started with Alice Keck Park’s father, William Myron Keck, who was the founder of Superior Oil Company. You might notice that most National Public Radio (NPR) programs begin by acknowledging funding from the W.M. Keck Foundation. Interesting. Other beneficiaries include the University of Southern California (USC) Keck School of Medicine and the W.M. Keck Observatory in Moana Key, Hawaii.

Positive Outcomes of Oil Production in California

But we’re keeping it local. Revenues from oil and gas produced in Santa Barbara County were even used to build – the Santa Barbara County Courthouse!! According to the National Park Service, fortuitous petroleum strikes occurred at Ellwood along the coastline of southern Santa Barbara County in 1928. Tax revenues from the oil-bearing lands were transferred to the courthouse fund allowing construction to proceed nonstop until completion in March 1929.

Then there is the Coastal Resource Enhancement Fund (CREF), administered by the County of Santa Barbara. The County established CREF in 1987 to consolidate permit conditions for each of the County-approved offshore oil and gas projects, namely the Point Arguello, Santa Ynez Unit, Point Pedernales, Gaviota Terminal, and Molino Gas projects. Each project pays into CREF as project mitigation, and the County awards grants to enhance coastal aesthetics, coastal recreation, coastal tourism, and environmentally sensitive coastal resources. Santa Barbara County has awarded 297 grants for a total of approximately $22.4 million for projects, as follows:

• A little less than half: to acquire coastal properties or conservation easements. For example, CREF helped purchase key bluff-top properties, such as the Carpinteria Bluffs, the Douglas property in the city of Santa Barbara, Santa Barbara Shores in Ellwood, and Point Sal near Guadalupe. It also helped to acquire properties that protect environmentally sensitive coastal habitats, such as Burton Mesa chaparral near Lompoc, Monarch butterfly foraging habitat in Ellwood, and the Carpinteria Salt Marsh.

• The second largest amount: to develop or improve coastal parks and other coastal-related facilities such as the Cabrillo Aquarium near Lompoc, the Dunes Center in Guadalupe, and the Watershed Resource Center at Arroyo Burro Beach.

Why are Legacy Plates Black and Gold?

So it wouldn’t be a surprise to learn that the state had honored this history in the color scheme of the Black Gold license plate, and celebrated the return of this legacy. A Santa Barbara local told us, “I believe California in the 50s came out with the black and gold because of the OIL we have–Black Gold!–which has built our state and communities. The new plates are very popular, you see them everywhere and they look nice. But I wonder if any of these people with the new plates actually like local oil production and realize they’re acknowledging its value in this way?”

What an excellent question! Hey blog readers… what do you know about the Black Gold plates? Where are our classic car enthusiasts? We know you follow this topic, especially for your favorite-era vehicles. How about all you surfers, even those who did not grow up listening to the Beach Boys? We would LOVE to hear from all of you about California’s black gold…send us your stories!

With regard to Santa Barbara’s natural seeps, we at SOS think it’s too bad they don’t provide license to drill.Muscle Car with Black & Gold Plate