The History of the Department of Motor Vehicles

Winding Road Street Sign

More than any other invention, the automobile has had a significant impact on all aspects of life in California. Initially referred to as a “horseless carriage,” the automobile presented many challenges for the state, and the first 50 years of automobile legislation were focused on creating laws, rules, and guidelines to help ensure that all Californians would be safe on the roads.

Initial Registration & Licensing

In 1901, California laws authorized all cities and counties to give licenses for bicycles, tricycles, automobiles, horse carriages, and similar wheeled vehicles. By 1905, it became clear that California should issue a state-wide vehicle registration system, so the task was referred to the Secretary of State (SOS).

The SOS handled vehicle registrations from 1905 until 1915, at which time Senator E. Birdsall enacted the official Vehicle Act of 1915 and created an official DMV. By that year, vehicle registrations had climbed to 191,000 in the state of California alone.

In 1921, the powers and duties of DMV were transferred to the Division of Motor Vehicles, which was actually part of the Department of Finance. This move showed that the government was beginning to notice that DMV could produce revenue.

By 1931, DMV had become a standalone department.

The California Vehicle Code (CVC)

The California Vehicle Act of 1914 created laws governing all things related to driving and vehicles. Year by year, new laws were created and existing laws were amended to manage the growing number of vehicles hitting California roads each year.

  • In 1923, the Act was amended to create the California Highway Patrol (CHP). It authorized the chief of the Division of Motor Vehicles to appoint state inspectors and traffic officers to enforce vehicle laws.
  • In 1935, the act was codified and officially became the CVC.
  • In 1959, the CVC was re-codified and re-enacted by legislation, and the CVC remains the same today.

While the CVC was originally a thin booklet of very few pages, it now fills over 1,000 pages and sets all the rules and regulations for licensing drivers and registering and selling vehicles. The CVC also establishes the rules of the road and states penalties for not obeying these laws.

The California legislation continues to amend and add new laws to the CVC every year.

History of the California License Plate

  • California began issuing permanent license plates in 1914. The first license plates were made from porcelain and were painted brick red with white lettering.
  • In 1916, the State of California began using a variety of unique tags to show proof of vehicle registration. These tags were attached to a white metal license plate with blue lettering.
  • From 1920-1941, the state annually issued new plates that displayed the registration year.
  • In 1942, due to United States (U.S.) involvement in World War II, metal became a precious commodity because it was needed for the war effort. Because of this, DMV began to issue long steel strips that displayed the registration year so vehicle owners could attach them to their existing license plates.
  • Personalized license plates made their debut in 1972, and vehicles manufactured after 1922 that were 25 years or older qualified for the new Historical Vehicle License Plates.
  • In 1987, a new reflective coating was used on all new license plates to make them easier to see at night or in poor weather conditions.
  • For California’s 150th birthday, DMV issued special license plates inscribed with “Sesquicentennial – 150 years” (available from 1998-2000).
  • DMV’s website address was added to new license plates beginning in 2011.