THIS WEEK IN HISTORY 1967
Red-hot centennial licence plates cause chaos for the government mere years before system retooled, letters and decals brought in
“Who says alcohol and automobiles don’t mix?” So read a Vancouver Sun story a day after the B.C. government began selling red and white licence plates on Jan. 3, 1967. Apparently the red on white plates, which were rolled out to commemorate Canada’s centennial, were so popular the motor vehicles branch had to “call in extra men from the government liquor store staff” to cope with a rush. The branch said 3,000 vehicle owners stormed the office at 1740 West Georgia to buy the centennial plates. It was the first colour change for B.C. plates since 1963, when blue and white replaced the questionable combination of maroon and pink. The old plates looked much different than today’s model, sporting only numbers instead of a combination of letters and numbers. But that would soon change, as concern mounted over the number of drivers in B.C. — then 700,000 licensed vehicles — and the fact that the province would need a new system before the number reached 999,999. That led to B.C.’s superintendent of motor vehicles at the time, Ray Hadfield, to announce that by 1970 B.C. plates would carry a combination of letters and numbers. An interesting part of that discussion, and forward thinking for the mid-1960s, was that they wanted a system that could be easily handled by computers. When these plates of the future were unveiled in August 1969, a photo published in The Sun showed “pretty Lynne Miles” of Victoria holding up the new plates — blue letters and numbers on a white background. The new plates had three letters followed by three numbers. Also that year, the government made plates that were good for three years, with future plans to issue five-year plates. As an editorial in The Sun noted, retooling the plates every year cost the government nearly $600,000 in manufacturing and administration costs. “Every April, tons of perfectly good enamelled metal were turfed into the garbage,” the 1969 article said, and drivers had to “queue like cattle before motor vehicle branch clerks who never were in sufficient supply.” Instead of new plates, drivers in 1971 were issued a red reflecting plastic decal to place over the old blue decal to show their licence had been renewed. Licence plates can be traced back to 1904, when the provincial government passed the first act to regulate the speed and operation of motor vehicles, even though there were only 32 vehicles in B.C., according to Penticton author and licenceplate collector Chris Garrish, who wrote Tales from the Back Bumper: A Century of B.C. Licence Plates. At that time, drivers paid $2 to local police for a licence and motorists were expected to display their receipt on the back of the vehicle, using a variety of materials including wood, canvas, metal and, most commonly, leather. By 1911, however, the number of registered vehicles had jumped to 4,250 and the responsibility for the production and distribution of licence plates was taken over by the provincial government, effective 1913. The cost for a licence also increased to $10. From that point on, Garrish explains, plates would be issued annually, display different colours, include an expiry date and be mounted on both the front and rear of the vehicle.