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DMV History

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DMV History

Berkeley Field Office 1938

How it all Started

Just before the turn of the century, a new mode of transportation was seen and heard in California. It made an enormous racket like a rapidly popping string of firecrackers. It spewed smoke and stirred giant clouds of dust. It thrilled youngsters and frightened animals. Some referred to this machine as a "horseless carriage," otherwise known as the "automobile."

It had a more profound and greater impact upon the state than any other invention and would eventually become incorporated into all aspects of California life. The introduction of the automobile created challenges on how the state would manage this new environment. So, the first half-century of automobile legislation was focused on developing the “rules of the road.”

Initial Registration & Licensing 

In 1901, California laws authorized cities and counties to license bicycles, tricycles, automobile carriages, carts, and similar wheeled vehicles.  By 1905, this task was transferred to the Secretary of State to establish a more statewide and uniform vehicle registration system. 

Owners paid a $2 fee and were issued a circular tag that had to be conspicuously displayed on 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 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 to today's Department of Transportation) became the custodian of vehicle records.

The Department of Motor Vehicles was created in 1915 with the enactment of Senator E.S. Birdsall's "Vehicle Act of 1915." Vehicle registrations that year had climbed to 191,000.

In 1921, the powers and duties of the Department of Motor Vehicles were transferred to the Division of Motor Vehicles, part of the newly created Department of Finance. The move reflected recognition of the division's revenue producing status.

In 1931, the DMV became a stand-alone state department.

 

 
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