CA Department of Motor Vehicles History of CA DMV

Just before the turn of the century a new mode of transportation was seen and heard on the California landscape. It made an enormous racket like a rapidly popping string of firecrackers. It spewed smoke and stirred giant clouds of dust. It thrilled youngsters of the day and frightened animals. Some referred to it as a "horseless carriage." Others called it an "automobile."

It was to have a more profound and greater impact upon the state than any other single invention. It would eventually intrude into all California life causing deep and lasting changes.

Initially, the automobile was an instrument of adventure. A one-hour-and-five minute "scorch" over the 24 miles between Oroville and Chico was hailed in the motoring column of the July 16, 1904, San Francisco News Letter as a "remarkable feat." Earlier, the San Francisco Town Talk of January 1901 described a 2,000-mile Northern California motor trip in which a W.L. Rockett encountered "bottomless sand and mud." Dr. David Starr Jordan, in his autobiography, "The Days of a Man," tells of a motoring trip through Santa Clara Valley and up Mount Hamilton in the fall of 1899.

The early day "motor wagon" was also considered a dangerous instrument. Several California counties passed ordinances requiring motorists to pull to the side of the road and remain standing when horse drawn vehicles approached. One court decision characterized the new contraptions as "highly dangerous" when used on county roads. Ordinances prohibited operations of the horseless carriage at night.

It was not long before restrictive legislation, designed to protect horse and mule traffic from the noisy horseless carriage, faded into the past. Speedy and convenient individual transit was welcomed as a benefit to mankind. Soon the muffled throb of the family auto and the rumble of the heavy duty truck lost their novelty. Elegant, stylish motor car advertisements soon dominated periodicals.

California's first half century of automobile legislation portrays a people striving to understand and to cope with their new motor car environment. Evidence abounds of legislation by intuition, of false starts and shifting emphasis, of experiments and of progress.

Essentially, Californians were anxious to police motorists and protect themselves with a formidable barrier of "rules of the road."

Initial Licensing

State statutes of 1901 authorized cities and counties to license bicycles, tricycles, automobile carriages, carts, and similar wheeled vehicles.

The secretary of state was empowered in 1905 to register and license motor vehicles. This took the task from the counties and provided a uniform statewide registration system. Owners paid a $2 fee and were issued a circular tag. Later, tags were either octagonal or had scalloped edges. Owners had to conspicuously display tags in the vehicle. In addition, they had to display the license number on the rear of the vehicle in 3-inch-high black letters on a white background. Some owners also painted numbers on headlamp lenses. Vehicle registration prerequisites included satisfactory lamps, good brakes, and either a bell or a horn.

The first vehicle to be registered under state law was a White Steamer owned by John D. Spreckels of San Francisco. His, however, was not the first automobile in California. The San Francisco Sunday Call, of May 11, 1902, recorded there were 117 motor vehicles in use in the city on that date. Six years earlier, the same paper reported that Charles L. Fir had owned the city's only horseless carriage. By 1905, registered vehicles in California totaled 17,015.

The secretary of state handled vehicle registrations from 1905 until 1913 when the legislature gave the task to the state treasurer. At the same time, the Engineering Department (predecessor of the Department of Public Works and forerunner of today's Department of Transportation) became custodian of vehicle records.