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Pre-States

Pre-state license plates are defined as those plates which were either (a) issued by, or mandated for use prior to the Territory of New Mexico becoming a state, or (b) issued by, or mandated for use by a county or municipality after statehood, but before the state government itself began issuing or mandating the use of license plates. New Mexico achieved statehood on January 6, 1912, and began issuing license plates on August 16, 1912.

Contrary to completely erroneous stories which have appeared over the years in any number of magazines, books, newspapers and other publications, the New Mexico Territorial government never required the licensing of motor vehicles and therefore never issued license plates. Several cities did, however, require such licensing. These were:

Albuquerque passed an ordinance in 1910 requiring automobiles and motorcycles to be licensed. A license number was issued, which had to be displayed on the rear of the vehicle, but the ordinance said nothing about providing plates to the motorists. Presumably, then, these were all homemade or kit-made plates, or even just numbers painted on the vehicle.

Las Vegas passed a similar ordinance, effective August 13, 1910, affecting both automobiles and motorcycles. A license plate was supplied by the City Clerk which bore the license number and the letters “L.V.” 

Santa Fe also passed a motor vehicle licensing ordinance in 1910, effective November 11. No plate was supplied, but the owner was required to display, on both the front and the rear of the vehicle, the license number along with the letters “S.F.” A period photograph of a vehicle bearing such a plate appears on this page.

Raton was the last municipality mandating the licensing of motor vehicles (both automobiles and motorcycles), passing an ordinance which took effect February 7, 1911. The City Clerk provided a registration receipt with a registration number ending with the letter “R.” The motorist was required to provide his own plate displaying this number (including the “R”) on the rear of the vehicle.

Curiously, an article appeared on page 15 of the December 1934 issue of New Mexico Magazine wherein a gentlemen by the name of W.A. “Chip” Chapman claimed to have had the first license plate ever issued in New Mexico. But Chapman’s story was bogus, as Albuquerque, Santa Fe, and Las Vegas had all required the use of motor vehicle license plates long before Chapman had his own. Nonetheless, Chapman successfully bamboozled the magazine editors with a hoax which to this day—more than eight decades later—has never been corrected by the magazine. Chapman’s plate was, however, the first to appear in Raton, and both it and his registration card survive today. Photographs of both appear on this page, along with two other Raton pre-states.

 
    
 
Photo Credits: #100R plate courtesy Joanna Wood Ray, #100R registration certificate courtesy Marty Mayfield Photography, Santa Fe pre-state courtesy NMSRCA.  All others by Bill Johnston.

 

 

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