What would lead to the need for license plates began in 1891 when the Second Legislative Assembly passed an act establishing taxation on all property in the state (with exceptions). In 1913, the Legislature recognized motor vehicles as property and in 1919 provided for the specific classification of automobiles, motor trucks, and other power-driven vehicles.
Taxation on motor vehicles was put into effect in 1913 for the purpose of raising revenue for the construction, maintenance, and improvement of public highways. A license fee of $5 to $20 was charged depending on the horsepower of the vehicle.
Registration of vehicles, including all identifying features of the vehicle and the name and address of the owner, was also put into effect in 1913. A Registrar of Motor Vehicles was designated and it became his responsibility to assign a distinctive number to be displayed on the front and rear of each vehicle. These numbers were issued in numerical sequence as the registrations were received. Since the state was not yet providing a license plate, many vehicle owners would inscribe the registration number on a piece of leather or other article and attach it to their vehicle.
Montana began issuing license plates in 1914. The first plate displayed only the plate number. The 1915-1916 plates displayed “MON,” the year, and the plate number. A prefix number was assigned in 1926, which designated population centers as they existed in 1914. The first prison-made plates were issued in 1928, and “MONTANA” was spelled out; plates prior to 1928 were manufactured out of state. Approximately 127,215 plates were manufactured in 1928. In 1933, the prefix number was revised to designate the county in which that vehicle was registered. The words “PRISON MADE” were stamped into plates during the years 1939-1957.
The state map, which outlines the standard issue license plate of today, was first found on the 1933 orange and maroon plate, and the bison skull was first added for a single year in 1938.
The “Treasure State” slogan was first used in 1950 and changed to the popular “Big Sky Country” slogan in 1967. That would be used until 2010 when “Treasure State” was reintroduced.
During 1944, license plates were manufactured from pressed soybean fiberboard due to a shortage of steel caused by the war. Goats, cows, and mice reportedly enjoyed the taste of these plates, with some vehicle owners losing their plates to a snack for the animals.
Steel was replaced by aluminum in 1960. New resources initiated another change in 1967 when reflectorized materials were introduced. Adhesive registration decals were first used in 1968, replacing the metal insert tags dating to 1954.
Montana offered its first alternate license plate, the Amateur Radio Operator plate, in 1958. Personalized (vanity) license plates were first issued in 1974.
The red, white, and blue bicentennial plates were presented in 1976 for the nation’s 200th birthday, and validation stickers were used until 1991. National Guard and Disabled Veteran plates were introduced with the coming of the bicentennial plates in 1976. Ex-POW and disabled plates were introduced in 1983. Military reserve plates became available in the bicentennial format in 1985. 1987 brought the Montana centennial plate into use in conjunction with the bicentennial plate to celebrate Montana’s 100 years of statehood (1889). These plates were in use through 1996.
In 1991, the colorful “New Issue” plate was introduced and featured a gradient blue background with yellow, orange, and brown striped mountain silhouettes and “Big Sky” emblazoned on the bottom with a bison skull. This design remained in use through the ’90s.
Collegiate plates that included all of Montana’s colleges and universities also became available in 1991, as did the new Purple Heart Recipient plate and the Pearl Harbor Survivor plate, and veteran plates for all divisions of the military.
The 1999 Legislature passed a bill requiring that new license plates be issued every four years, beginning in the year 2000. The standard issue plate design for 2000 contained key characteristics that make Montanans so proud of their state – rugged mountains, vast plains and the rich purple and gold colors associated with both.
In 2001, the 57th Montana Legislature passed the Generic Specialty License Plate Act, allowing the Department of Justice to issue specialty license plates sponsored by qualified organizations or governmental bodies. These plates are specially designed with distinctive backgrounds, colors or phrases that identify the sponsoring organization. The number format differs from the standard issue plate in that it has three letters and three numbers without a county designator. Under the Act, the Motor Vehicle Division determines if an organization or governmental body is qualified as a specialty plate sponsor and sets guidelines that govern the appearance of any specialty plate. Prior to the Act, the approval of license plates was left to the Legislature with the body voting on every group, mainly military groups, that wanted to offer plates. In 2002, the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial and Glacier National Park plates were the first specialty plates offered to the public.
The standard issue 2006 license plate design featured Montana’s sky in a rich blue-green with “Montana” written in gold old-west lettering across the top, with the “Big Sky Country” slogan under it. Along the bottom, mountain ridges and forest transitioned to foothills then prairies in an image that echoed the state’s geography. The “dot” between the county prefix and the plate number brought back the bison skull silhouette for the first time since 1938, and the numbers were black instead of dark blue. Unlike tab placement on standard 2000 plates, tabs for 2006 plates were placed in the upper right hand corner of the rear plate. Also in 2006, new formats were defined for small permanent plates (for motorcycles and trailers), registration tabs, and decals.
The 2006 plate was the first standard issue plate to be printed on, rather than stamped in, metal. The printing process, used to create specialty plates, is faster than stamping.
The blue “retro” plate was issued beginning in January 2010. Each design element echoes Montana’s classic license plates. The white Montana outline on a solid blue background harkens back to the plates of the ’70s, and the “Treasure State” slogan along the top was used in the ’50s and ’60s. The clear-cut, white lettering for the state name and plate number is also a classic look, and makes it easier to read the plate from a distance. The “10” after Montana is for the issue year of the design, a feature that was used through the ’80s. The separator between the county prefix and the plate number is the familiar silhouette of a bison skull.
Gold Star Family license plates were also introduced in 2010 for family members of members of the U.S. Armed Forces who lost their lives in combat.
Four retired plate designs became available again in 2012. As an alternative to the 2010 standard-issue blue “retro” plate, vehicle owners could choose the 1989 state centennial design or the standard designs from 1991, 2000, or 2006.
Standard issue plate designs are chosen by a committee of representatives from the Department of Corrections, which manufactures the plates, Travel Montana (Department of Commerce), and the Highway Patrol and the Motor Vehicle Division (Department of Justice). For information about license plate manufacturing, visit the Montana Correctional Enterprises website at www.cor.mt.gov/MCE.