Illinois passenger car license plate

Rick Kretschmer's License Plate Archives 

Illinois passenger car license plate

A Pictorial History of Illinois License Plates

Passenger car plates dated 1911 to 1978


This page presents the history of Illinois passenger car license plates, from 1911 through 1978. 

Latest noteworthy updates to this page
  • September 2, 2023  –  Added discussion of numbering format xxx 000 plates issued starting in 1974. 
  • January 7, 2023  –  Added a version 1 1956 plate.  Upgraded my 1962 plate.  Revised discussion of the inconsistent use of a half space separator on seven-digit 1956 through 1959 plates. 
  • November 14, 2022  –  Added a five-character 1976 plate. 


This page addresses sequentially-numbered Illinois passenger car plates dated from 1911 to 1978.  From 1912 until 1978, Illinois license plates were issued annually and displayed the year of issuance.  Though the plates tecnically expired on December 31, motorists were given a 45-day grace period, and so plates were actually valid through February 14 of the following year.  The last non-staggered passenger car registrations were dated 1978 and could be used through February 14, 1979.  Staggered registrations were introduced at the start of 1979, with the earliest expirations at the end of September 1979.  Illinois has always issued passenger plates in pairs. 

So why do I even have Illinois plate pages on my web site?  Well, I spent four months in Illinois in 1982 on a temporary work assignment, and met my wife while there.  She's an Illinois native and her family still lives there, so I've been returning to Illinois on a regular basis ever since.  Also, there's not a whole lot of detailed information already on the web regarding Illinois license plate history.  And so, while I make no claim of being an expert on Illinois plates, I do feel like I can make a contribution by documenting what I do know.  I sincerely hope that you find this information useful. 

If you find an error or have additional information, please send me an e-mail.  If you have, or can take, a digital photo of a plate from a year not shown below, send it to me in an e-mail attachment.  I'll add it to this page, and will credit you for submitting it.  For any plates dated 1955 or earlier, please also provide me with the dimensions of the plate, so that I may make the size of the image in proportion to the others. 

Illinois passenger car plates, 1911-1915

1911 1912 1913 1914 1915
The 1911 plate (which is undated) is badly discolored; it should have a white background.  The 1912, 1913, and 1914 plates have been repainted.  1911: Cochran photo / plate; 1912 and 1914: Likar photos / plates; 1915: – Podlesak photo / plate. 

Vehicle registration plates were required by state law effective July 1, 1910, but were not issued by the state until July 1, 1911.  During that first 12 month period, motorists had to provide their own single plate to be mounted on the rear of the vehicle.  The initial state-issued plates, referred to as 1911 plates, were actually undated and were used only during the second half of 1911.  The 1911 plates were issued in pairs, and the front and rear plates were identical.  They consisted of an embossed front piece attached to a flat back piece.

Front plates back then usually were mounted to the vehicle in front of the radiator, and the state received complaints about the front plates blocking the flow of air to the radiator and causing engines to overheat.  In response to this, the 1912 through 1918 plate pairs all had a solid rear rear plate and a front plate that allowed air to pass through in some way.  1912 front plates were made of steel mesh, 1913 front plates were essentially stencils, and 1914 through 1918 front plates had slots between the serial number digits.  The 1913 and 1914 plates shown above are front plates. 

All of the 1911 through 1915 plates were 7 to 7-1/2 inches tall, significantly larger than modern plates.  Plate widths varied depending on the number of characters in the plate number through 1955, except for 1914 and 1915 plates.  All passenger car plate numbers were all-numeric through 1960, again with the exception of the 1914 and 1915 plates.  The five-digit numeric format was exhausted in 1914, but the 1914 and 1915 plates were limited to only five serial characters.  Therefore, various, seemingly random letters were used as serial prefixes on 1914 and 1915 passenger car plates after plate number 99999. 

1911 –  black on white  1913 –  white on medium blue  1915 –  black on yellow 
1912 –  white on black  1914 –  green on white 

Illinois passenger car plates, 1916-1921

1916 1917 1918 1919 1920 1921
The 1916, 1917, and 1918 plates have been repainted.  The 1916 has been repainted with red primer paint; the correct background color is silver.  The shades of the 1918 plate are quite different than the original paint.  1917: Brower plate and photo.  1918: Podlesak plate and photo. 

1916 through 1921 plates were reduced in height, and I believe were all 5-5/8 high.  The 1917 and 1918 plates look taller because those pics were submitted by others and I had what I now believe may be incorrect information regarding their dimensions.  Plate numbers returned to being all-numeric, and could be up to six digits.  Front plates continued to be slotted between the digits through 1918; after that, front and rear plates were identical. 

1916 –  black on silver  1918 –  dark blue on light gray  1920 –  black on orange 
1917 –  white on black  1919 –  white on reddish-brown  1921 –  white on black 

Illinois passenger car plates, 1922-1933

1922 1923 1924 1925 1926 1927 1928 1929 1930 1931 1932 1933
The 1923 and 1930 plates have been repainted.  1923: Podlesak plate and photo. 

During this twelve year period, Illinois plates were quite long and narrow.  Or short and wide, depending on your perspective.  Well, the ones with six or seven digits were, anyway.  Plate widths continued to vary depending on the number of digits in the plate number.  Plate numbers first reached seven digits starting in 1925. 

The 1927 plates were distinctive in that the state abbrevation and year were inside an embossed state shape.  It's a mystery why that attractive feature was only used for one year.  In most years, the plate number dies were quite squared-off, but for three years, 1928 through 1930, the dies were much more rounded.  Also in most years, the middle letter in the state abbreviation ILL was lower in the other two; in 1927 the letters were successively higher, and in 1932 and 1933, they were successively lower. 

1922 –  black on light gray  1926 –  white on navy blue  1930 –  white on black 
1923 –  white on dark green  1927 –  black on orange  1931 –  black on mint green 
1924 –  dark yellow on black  1928 –  white on dark burgundy  1932 –  dark yellow on black 
1925 –  white on brown  1929 –  red on black  1933 –  white on navy blue 

Illinois passenger car plates, 1934-1937

1934 1935 1936 1937

Starting in 1934, Illinois plates took on what we would consider to be more "normal" dimensions.  At least the six-character plates did; plate widths continued to vary based on the number of digits in the plate number.  Also, the practice of alternating the location of the state name and registration year between the top and bottom of the plate began in 1934.  The plate number dies were shaped like traditional football jersey numbers during these years.  The year was split into two parts, located in the corners, only in 1937. 

1935 was a particularly bad paint year; it's difficult to find a 1935 plate where the background paint hasn't turned to a dark gray or brown color. 

1934 –  dark yellow on black  1936 –  white on black 
1935 –  blue on white  1937 –  black on yellow 

Illinois passenger car plates, 1938-1942

1938 1939 1940 1941 1942

In 1938 Illinois began using plate number dies with more rounded characters.  Also, the previous short dash separators gave way to just a space spearator between the hundreds and thousands digits.  The century was omitted from the year for two years but then returned starting in 1940. 

1938 –  white on dark green  1940 –  white on brown  1942 –  dark yellow on black 
1939 –  dark yellow on black  1941 –  black on dark yellow 

Illinois passenger car plates, 1943-1948

1943 1944 1945 1946 1947 1948

Metal was in high demand for military purposes during World War II, and was difficult to come by for civilian purposes.  States who were accustomed to annually issuing motorists new pairs of metal license plates had to get creative, and employed a variety of stopgap measures and/or substitutes.  In Illinois' case, they instead issued fiberboard license plates with the plate number and other features printed on, starting with the 1943 plates.  Notice that they seemed to have difficulty getting the digits of the plate number to line up properly.  I'm not sure why the state continued to issue fiberboard plates for several years after World War II ended; most other states reverted back to annual metal plates starting in 1946. 

1943 with state seal decal
1943 with state seal decal

The 1943 plates were the only one of these to use a two-digit year.  Some 1943 plates, including the one shown at right, were distinctive in that they had a decal bearing the state seal affixed to the bottom center.  The decal was apparently only present on plates in the 100 000 series, while plates with lower and higher plate numbers were plain.  I can offer no explanation for this inconsistency.  The font used for the plate number digits appears to be the same or at least very similar to the 1938-1942 serial dies, but in 1948 a new font was introduced; this is most noticeable by comparing the digits "5" and "9" with those on earlier fiberboard plates. 

1943 –  white on green  1945 –  orange on black  1947 –  white on dark green 
1944 –  white on dark brown  1946 –  white on dark red  1948 –  black on orange 

Illinois passenger car plates, 1949-1953

1949 1950 1951 1952 1953

Metal plates resumed in 1949.  The 1949 plate is rather similar in design to the 1938-1942 plates, except that it uses number dies similar to the 1948 fiberboard plate font, and the same as on the 1950 and later year plates. 

The early 1950s Illinois plates were a noticebable design departure from either of the 1940s designs.  The same design was used for all four years 1950-1953, with variations consisting of the colors and the location of the state abbreviation and year at either the top or bottom of the plate, depending on the year.  The state abbreviation "ILL", without a period, was used on all passenger car plates regardless of the number of digits and length of the plate.  The plates had a debossed area between the state abbreviation and year, and a longer debossed area between the bolt holes on the opposite edge.  The background of the 1951 plates was unpainted aluminum.  Plate numbers remained all-numeric with a variable number of digits up to seven digits. 

1949 –  cream on dark blue  1951 –  maroon on aluminum  1953 –  dark red on cream 
1950 –  dark green on white  1952 –  black on muted orange 
Passenger car plates, 1954-1965

1954 1955 1956 small dies 1956 large dies 1957 1958 small dies 1958 large dies 1959 large dies 1959 small dies 1960 1961 1962 1963 1964 1965
Two 1956 and 1958 plates are shown, each with and without a half space separator, respectively.  Two 1959 plates are shown, with large and small dies, respectively. 

Starting in 1954, Illinois plates began consistently using the unabbreviated state name, and also began the practice of including the state slogan Land of Lincoln on nearly all plates.  I wouldn't be surprised if the state was tired of getting complaints about the abbreviation ILL on its license plates.  The state continued to alternate the position of the state name and year, but now switching it with the state slogan each year.  The slogan was located at the top of the plates in even years and at the bottom in odd years, and the state name and year were the opposite. 

The 1954 plates used attractive italicized mixed-case dies for the state slogan, but those were abandoned after only one year in favor of italicized all-caps dies for the slogan.  The 1954 and 1955 plates continued to be of varying sizes based on the number of digits in the plate number, but for 1956, Illinois adopted the new North American standard dimensions of 12 inches by 6 inches for all plates regardless of the number of digits.  Starting in 1961, Illinois eliminated seven-digit passenger car plate numbers and instead began using two numbering formats for passenger cars; one still all-numeric with up to six digits, and the other consisting of two letters followed by four digits.  On alpha-prefix plates, the numbers started at 1000 from 1961 through 1966. 

On the 1956, 1957, and 1958 plates, seven-digit plates in the 1 million series had a half space between the hundreds and thousands digits, but those in the 2 million series and above did not.  One of each of these is shown above for both 1956 and 1958.  On the 1959 plates, almost all seven-digit plates, including the 1 million series, omitted the half space.  However, a small number of late-issue 1959 plates were stamped with smaller dies and included the half space separator.  The smaller dies began at about plate number 3200 000, which isn't far from the highest number issued that year.  Again, one of each of these are shown above.  All 1960 plates were made with these smaller dies, and all seven-digit 1960 plates do have the half space separator. 

On the alpha-prefix plates starting in 1961, the letter dies were noticeably taller than the numeric dies on the same plate, but also, the numeric dies were wider than those used on all-numeric plates.  I have no idea why they used different number dies for the two numbering formats; it certainly wasn't due to space limitations. 

1954 –  white on dark green  1958 –  purple on white  1962 –  white on orange 
1955 –  orange on black  1959 –  white on dark brown  1963 –  yellow on green 
1956 –  dark green on white  1960 –  orange on dark blue  1964 –  white on purple 
1957 –  white on red  1961 –  white on red  1965 –  dark green on white 


Passenger car plates, 1966-1978

1966 1967 1968 1969 1970 1971 1972 1973 1974 1975 1976 1977 1978

1973 four-digit

1976 four-character

1976 five-character

1978 four-character
Various four- and five-
character passenger car

The basic design of the plates remained unchanged, but the 1966 and subsequent plates differed from those of previous years in that the backgrounds were made of reflective vinyl sheeting rather than painted.  In order to be legible at night, reflective-background plates must have dark characters on a light-colored background.  This is because, regardless of the actual color or shade, the reflective material appears to be white when a light is shined on it.  If the plate had white characters on a dark reflective background, it would appear to be white-on-white at night.  In any case, the reflective background limited the state's ability to be creative with the annual color changes. 

The two numbering formats – all-numeric and two-letter prefixes followed by numbers – continued throughout this time.  However, the number of digits following the two-alpha prefixes became variable starting in 1967.  From 1961 to 1966, alpha-prefixed plates always had four-digit numbers; in 1967, they could have three or four digits; and starting in 1968 they could have anywhere from one to four digits.  Leading zeroes were not used. 

A third numbering format with three serial prefix letters was issued in 1974 in limited quantities, consisting of only approximately the first half of the Axx series.  These all had three-digit numbers following the letters, with numbering starting at 100 in each series.  This three-letter format was apparently created only to provide a legal basis for allowing pseudo-personalized plate numbers with three letters.  Three-letter prefix plates with numbers 99 and lower are such pseudo-personalized plates issued on request, not regular passenger car plates.  Same thing with three-letter prefixes in the second half of the Axx series or higher, at least until about 1983 or so. 

The prefix letters continued to be noticeably taller than the numbers through 1975, then were the same size as the numbers in 1976 and 1977, and were again taller in 1978.  It appears that the narrow digits used on all-numeric plates were eliminated starting in 1970.  The plates had raised, painted borders from 1970 to 1975 and again in 1978.  The Land of Lincoln slogan continued to be at the top of the plates in even years and at the bottom in odd years, and the state name and year were the opposite, with the 1976 plates being an exception. 

There were two years during this period with some design deviations, for the purpose of celebrating the state's and country's anniversaries.  The 1968 had a very modest change, with small numbers "18" in the two upper corners.  Together, these represented the year 1818, which is Illinois' year of statehood, and so the 1968 plates were 150th statehood anniversary plates.  The 1976 plates celebrated the bicentennial, or 200th anniversary, of the U.S.A., and were a major design departure from any previous Illinois plates. 

The 1978s were the last single-year passenger car plates in Illinois.  Starting in 1979, multi-year plates were issued and were validated with expiration stickers. 

1966 –  red on reflective white  1971 –  black on reflective white  1976 –  blue on reflective white 
1967 –  black on reflective white  1972 –  blue on reflective white  1977 –  green on reflective white 
1968 –  red on reflective white  1973 –  green on reflective white  1978 –  black on reflective white 
1969 –  black on reflective muted orange  1974 –  red on reflective white 
1970 –  red on reflective yellow  1975 –  black on reflective yellow 

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Page credits

Thanks to those who have directly contributed to the information on this page:  David Brower, Howard and Marilyn Podlesak, Eric Cochran, and Dan Likar. 

Brower, Podlesak, Cochran, and Likar photos are presumed to be copyrighted by David Brower, Howard and Marilyn Podlesak, Eric Cochran, and Dan Likar, respectively, and are used with permission. 

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