What’s with all those black license plates in Colorado?

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4min 17sec
Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
License plate collector Tom Boyd’s garage is a veritable archive of vintage Colorado license plates, and plates from all over the country and world as well. The yellow-on-black plates here represent every county for his birth year of 1946.

If you’ve driven around Colorado lately, you’ve surely seen them. Black license plates with white letters and numbers. Their ubiquity has a lot of Coloradans wondering, as part of CPR’s Colorado Wonders series, what’s up with them — and where can I get one?

We put that question, and a bunch of others about license plates, to Chris Hochmuth, who manages license plate inventory for Colorado's Department of Revenue.

Turns out, those black license plates are a reissue of ones issued in 1945 and popular from the 1950s. Purchase of the latest iteration of these license plates benefits people with disabilities.

“This came out of a bill last year. They brought back the black, red and blue backgrounds along with the green plate with the white mountains,” Hochmuth said. “So the green plate with the white mountains came first in 2022 and then the red, black and blue came (in) January of 2023.”

So how do you get one, and can you get one if your registration is still active? 

Yes, Hochmuth said, just go to the DMV. The fees are prorated — it’s $25 annually to have the plates — and you can switch your plates out right away. 

So aren’t people going to miss the mountains on the regular Colorado license plates?

“We did think about it a little bit, but the bill was very specific about the background,” Hochmuth said. “So we just reached back into the archives and pulled out the black and white plate, the red and white plate, the blue and white plate, and tweaked up the colors and issued them.”

New license plate designs have to be approved by the state legislature.

“Usually what happens in case of a special license plate … a group of people who have a particular interest or a nonprofit get together. They submit the paperwork to the department. They run a petition and collect about 3,000 signatures to demonstrate interest,” he said. “They run a bill through the state legislature. Once they've approved it, the governor signs off on it. We issue their plate.” 

Speaking of those mountains, though, you might be wondering if they represent a specific set of mountains in Colorado, and if you can go see them. Nope, Hochmuth said.  

“They're just a representation,” he said. “You can’t line it up and make it match any set anywhere. It was just a drawing by the folks who help us design plates and it just made a good representation of the beautiful Colorado Mountains.”