THE SECOND WAVE OF PRE-STATES: MOTORCYCLE PLATES
Like passenger pre-state plates, motorcycle pre-states exist in a wide variety of formats and materials. The usage of what we now define as pre-state motorcycle plates resulted generally from one of five scenarios, or sets of circumstances, depending on how the state laws were written and when they were passed. While many pre-state issues ran concurrently with their passenger counterparts, and in many instances were one and the same series, entirely indistinguishable from one another, what sets this particular class of motorized vehicles apart are two factors: 1.) The need for smaller-size plates, often vertically oriented to fit on the fender, and 2.) The substantially later time period when the first wave of popularity of motorcycles occurred.
A classic example is the state of Ohio, which began the issuance of state-issued passenger plates in 1908, supplanting the many city plates used previously. Yet, state law did not provide for the licensing of motorcycles until 1914, leaving the option of local registration to the cities for another six years! So, after the first wave of local pre-states, 1901-08, Ohio had its second wave of motorcycle pre-states in 1908-13.
The five scenarios, which are summarized in Table 1 along with the states categorized in each, illustrate the varied practices of this early era in effectively regulating two-wheeled machines. The key to categorizing each state is determining exactly when motorcycle registration was required at the state level, and then establishing whether compliance with the law was shown by a regular state-issued plate, a smaller-size state plate designed for cycles, an owner-provided plate of certain specifications, or a disc or certificate only. Therefore, for motorcycles, we had to pin down two crucial dates: Earliest registration requirement, and first motorcycle plate issuance. If these did not match, then we had to establish how registration was handled in the intervening years. For more elaboration and description of each of the scenarios, see the paragraphs below.
TABLE 1: BASIC SCENARIOS OF MOTORCYCLE REGISTRATION AND PLATE ISSUANCE
This is the simplest, most straight-forward, circumstance of motorcycle registration and plate introduction. In states such as Alabama, Kansas and Maine, miniature versions of state-issued automobile plates were issued from the outset - end of story. Any pre-states from states in this category would be limited to city plates specifically designated for motorcycles, such as Wichita, Kansas. For states which began with owner-provided plates, like Arizona and Florida, motorcycle pre-states exist but would appear identical to automobile plates. The only way to positively identify a pre-state plate as a motorcycle plate is to match the number from an original registration list that includes the names of vehicle makes.
When state registration laws were first passed in these states, they simply contained no provision or requirement for registering motorcycles. Therefore, cities filled the void by passing motorcycle registration ordinances, or extending existing ordinances, which had previously covered automobiles, to include motorcycles. In states such as Ohio and Wyoming, the result was city-issued motorcycle plates issued for the same years as state-issued automobile plates. In cases like California and Utah, city-issued cycle plates ran side-by-side with owner-provided state automobile plates. All are still pre-states, just of very different stripes!
A few states required motorcycles to be registered from the outset, but merely forgot that large, unwieldly automobile plates wouldn't fit well on the narrow fenders of most motorcycles. The result was that it took a couple of years, or legislative sessions, to correct the oversight, allowing smaller-size plates to be manufactured for motorcycles. This didn't necessarily result in pre-states, unless state automobile plates were owner-provided, such as in Michigan before 1910. Some states left the dilemma of fitting appropriate-sized plates to motorcycles up to their owners, even though state-issued passenger plates were assigned to automobiles. Connecticut continued this practice all the way through 1911, even though passenger plates had been issued by the state since mid-1905.
These states are interesting in that they began with state-issued motorcycle plates, but abandoned them due to how poorly the easily-chipped porcelain plates were holding up on ever-vibrating cycles. Massachusetts, which had been the first in the U.S. to issue motorcycle plates, quickly stopped issuance in 1904. Cycle owners in these states were plunged into an owner-provided pre-state plate era which they'd never had before. It is hard to get used to the concept that some pre-states are from long after state issues - New Hampshire and Rhode Island didn't resume cycle plate issuance until 1918.
In perhaps the most interesting case of all, New York state registration began in 1901, which included motorcycles as well as automobiles. But when the new registration law of 1910 was passed, providing for state-issued automobile plates and annual renewal of registrations, lawmakers were in such a hurry to push it through the House and Senate that they ran out of time to formulate the clause relating to motorcycles. The result was that the law passed, but motorcycles were completely exempt from state registration! Some of the major cities quickly picked up on this and passed ordinances to require cycles to register with city plates, which lasted from 1910 to 1915.