For a better Kansas license plate design, we need a history lesson and maybe a bit of tape

When the governor rolled out the new Kansas license plate redesign just before Thanksgiving, she said the design “promotes the state and our sense of optimism as Kansans travel near and far.”

But most folks recognized the new plate for what it was — a turkey.

No wonder Gov. Laura Kelly scrapped the new plates a week later.

The design, with a string of seven dark blue characters against a pumpkin background, didn’t promote anything so much as somebody’s attempt to make a license plate into a kind of vehicle barcode. Functional, and easy for Orwellian surveillance cameras to read, but lacking any human touch save the cheerful “to the stars” in script at the bottom.

But even the “stars” reference was weak, sounding more like an old Jackie Gleason bit about threatening to smack Alice than any homage to our state motto. “Ad astra per aspera” cannot be improved on, and not mentioning the difficulty part is cheating.

Curious about the history of license plates in Kansas, I rang up Tom Allen, a Topeka collector who has some 10,000 tags, 85% of which are from Kansas. He also collects plates issued by World War II military bases. Allen sells some plates to other collectors and to car owners whose vehicles are registered as antiques. He said he got the collecting bug after attending a swap meet with a friend of his parents’ who was an antique car collector.

“Kansas has a long history of their plate designs not being well received,” Allen told me.

The oldest Kansas plate in Allen’s collection was issued in 1908 by the city of Atchison. It’s made of leather and, in the days before cars had bumpers, was slung from the axle, the radiator, or another spot. Such tags are called “pre-state plates” because they were made before Kansas required vehicle registration and instead left it up to cities, which sometimes provided the plates for free.

“They’re the rarest plate you can get from Kansas,” he said. “They go for upwards of $1,000.”

In 1913, the state began requiring registration, charging $2 for each vehicle. The plates were metal, black on white, and in the right side had the letters KAN. The numbers started at 1 and went to 39,000, Allen said.

The first graphic appeared on a Kansas plate in 1942, with sunflowers on the lower left and right sides. From 1951 to 1955, license plates were the shape of the state of Kansas, with the bevel notched in the upper right to resemble the Missouri River. In 1956, that notch was filled in because license plates nationwide were standardized to 6 by 12 inches, dimensions still used today.

From 1928 to 1975, Allen said, the state’s metal license plates were stamped by juvenile offenders at the Hutchinson Reformatory. Then the state privatized license plate production, he said, and since 1975 the tags have been made at Center Industries in Wichita, employing workers with disabilities.

There were no more graphics until 1981, when three stalks of wheat were introduced in the upper left corner.

“It was controversial because the Highway Patrol complained they couldn’t read the county designation and month of expiration,” Allen said. “After a year they quit issuing that design.”

The wheat stalks were kept but moved to the center of the plate.

In 1989, Kansas came up with another dud.

Collectors call it the “Pacman plate,” Allen said, because of the stylized, blocky design. “The public didn’t care for it, so the state redesigned it and made the font more traditional.”

The 1989 plate was one those I actually like, because I thought the font resembled that of the progressive rock band “Kansas.” Car nut alert: That style of plate graced my black Mustang GT with the four-speed shifter, factory aluminum intake and four-barrel Holley carb. Carry on, wayward son.

So, what did expert Allen think of the latest redesign?

“As a plate collector, I know a lot of people will look at that design and it does remind them of a previously issued New York plate. Not the one currently in use, but the old one is still in people’s minds,” he said. “But when I saw it I immediately thought Missouri Tiger colors, so it didn’t appeal to me in that regard. It is very legible, but aesthetically I don’t think it’s very pleasing.”

A good plate design, Allen explained, must balance the need between art and functionality. It’s a tricky thing because many Kansans, like motorists in other states, are passionate about their cars and want their license plates to convey a sense of identity.

Does Allen have a favorite Kansas tag?

It’s difficult, he said, because so many are special.

“One of my favorites is a porcelain Wichita plate from 1912,” he said.

While porcelain may not sound like a great material for a car tag, it was fairly common for the era, and surprisingly rugged because the porcelain was baked onto a metal frame, like a sink.

It is unlikely the Kansas reboot will be made of porcelain, but the thought is amusing. No, the public will be offered a choice among a few designs conforming to “the needs of law enforcement and best practices established by the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators,” according to the governor’s news release.

I’ve never heard of the AAMVA before, but I imagine they have some wild conferences. Their “best practices” require seven digits, slogans placed at the bottom of the plate, graphics to be on the right or left side of the number, and graphics or backgrounds that don’t interfere with the ability for human beings or HAL 9000 to read the numbers.

Personally, I can’t wait to see what the Kansas Department of Revenue, with an assist by the tourism department, might come up with. The whole car tag fracas has been a bonanza for opinion writers.

As for a graphic, we’ve already used up the best ones: wheat, the Statehouse, the starry portion of the state seal. What other icons say Kansas? The world’s largest ball of twine in Cawker City might be a contender. “To the stars through twine.”

The tourism department might like that.

The colors? How about dividing the background into two-thirds red and the rest blue. You could have some fun with those seven digits: KS2STEP or LILDOG2. The slogan? How about, “To the stars, no Tigers.”

Putting the state motto on license plates has been controversial in New Hampshire, where the aggressive “Live Free or Die” was challenged in court by a disenfranchised Jehovah’s Witness who didn’t feel free and believed his faith granted him everlasting light. George Maynard was repeatedly cited by police for placing electrical tape over the motto and, later, used shears to cut it away completely.

In 1976 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 6-3 it is unconstitutional for a state to force a citizen to use their private vehicle as a mobile billboard for an ideological message. The ruling was considering a landmark First Amendment win. While the motto still adorns New Hampshire’s plates, residents are free to tape it over — or write their own slogan, if they like.

And so are we.

I dislike “To the stars” without difficulty so much that if the public votes to keep that slogan, I’m going to tape it over and scrawl the correct “Ad Astra” over it. Or, I might change the motto as the mood strikes me. Lines from favorite songs could be a choice — Carry On! or Dance beneath the diamond sky! — or a line from a favorite book: Call me Ishmael. Clocks were striking 13. A screaming comes across the sky. We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold. Well, I probably wouldn’t have enough room for the last one, unless I wrote illegibly small.

But all of that seems labor intensive. If only there were a ready-made message that could be handily affixed over the bottom of the plate. Something short, easy to understand and summing up the feeling of most Kansans.

Expand Medicaid!

Max McCoy is an award-winning author and journalist. Through its opinion section, the Kansas Reflector works to amplify the voices of people who are affected by public policies or excluded from public debate. Find information, including how to submit your own commentary, here.