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What’s driving Colorado’s obsession with the new retro black license plates?

Joe Duran first saw the strange new license plate on his Arvada neighbor’s car and thought it was fake.

Though Colorado has a sizable collection of specialty license plates — as alternatives to its standard green-sky, white-mountains design — Duran had never seen this one before: black plate, white letters.

His first sighting was in early 2023, shortly after a series of previously retired plates were released to the public as retro options. Now, a year after their triumphant return, the “blackout” plates are seemingly everywhere, catching on at a pace that surprised state officials and left records in their dust — while the extra $25 annual fee charged for them has raised millions of dollars to help Coloradans with disabilities.

Just shy of 170,000 vehicle owners have snapped up the black plates, according to state figures.

That has far outpaced the two designs for Colorado’s 150th anniversary plates, which went on sale in August and had been snapped up by nearly 16,000 owners as of last month. One of those, dubbed “Pikes Peak or Bust,” briefly sold at a record pace, but it’s been no match for the black plate.

Why are drivers abandoning Colorado’s roadway mainstay, the classic green-and-white plates that, for decades, have reliably set our bumpers apart from the comparatively lame plates of our neighbors?

“Probably because it’s cool,” Duran said.

“I can’t tell you the number of cars in my neighborhood — it seems like a lot of people,” he said.

He’s now among them: After some internet sleuthing confirmed that his neighbor’s plate was real, Duran decided to pick up a pair for his white Tesla.

They looked sleek and were different from the plates everybody else had — at least then. Now they’re so ubiquitous that his 5-year-old daughter calls out fellow black-plated travelers from the backseat.

Scores of drivers — more than 200 — gushed about the plates to The Denver Post after it asked about the appeal last month. They used words including “simple,” “phenomenal” and “sleek.”

“My inner goth teenage-self needed them,” one reader wrote. “Classy and stylish, especially on all-black cars,” another said. One reader included the excited-eyeballs emoji in an email to The Post.

Another said the plates looked like something a 1950s detective would have — which is just about on the money, since Colorado first released the original blackout plate in 1945.

A year in, “the black license plate has been the fastest and most popular plate ever,” Lt. Gov. Dianne Primavera said. Daniel Carr, a spokesman for the state Department of Revenue, said uptake of the plates “demolished” state officials’ estimates that 6,000 to 7,000 of the plates would be sold in 2023.

The coolness was the point for state officials, who, with the legislature’s help, re-released retired black, red and blue plates in January 2023. Drivers can also get a fourth plate called the “Greenie,” which is a reverse of the current standard green-and-white plate, with green mountains, and was the state’s standard from 1962 to 1999.

The other three have solid backgrounds with white letters and numbers. The blue and red plates date to 1914 and 1915, respectively. Apart from the runaway success of the black plate, the historic options each have sold 6,000 to 7,000 sets, about in line with what the state had expected.

The all-black, all-red, all-blue and the retired green-and-white license plates are among those Colorado began offering in 2023, allowing people to choose from among four historic license plates, with fee revenue benefiting the Colorado Disability Funding Committee. (Images provided by the Colorado Department of Revenue)
The all-black, all-red, all-blue and the retired green-and-white license plates were among those Colorado began offering in 2023, allowing people to choose from among four historic license plates, with fee revenue benefiting the Colorado Disability Funding Committee. (Images provided by the Colorado Department of Revenue)

The $25 annual fee charged for the plates, on top of the usual upfront license plate costs, goes to support the Colorado Disability Funding Committee. The more popular the plates, the more money that fundraises.

It has awarded grants to organizations that support Coloradans with disabilities, including groups that help families communicate with deaf and blind children and organizations that create adaptive pinball machine controllers, Primavera said.

The fund previously had auctioned off personalized license plates to raise money. There was a Casa Bonita fundraiser, in which a plate emblazoned with “Butters” — a sheepish “South Park” character — sold for $3,550. The state’s first cannabis-themed auction raked in $45,000, Primavera said, and the state has since sold other marijuana-inspired vanity plates emblazoned with “420” or “MJ.”

Officials with the fund decided on the black plates (and its blue and red cousins) because similar plates in other states were popular. California’s got a legacy black plate with yellow lettering. A member of the disability community suggested Colorado bring the retired plates back.

Tim Jackson, the longtime CEO of the Colorado Automobile Dealers Association who’s now an industry consultant, said he was “fascinated” by the plate’s exploding popularity.

He, like Duran’s daughter, has caught himself counting how many of the plates he sees (11 on a recent day). Jackson has noticed them on black, white and gray cars in particular. In messages to The Post, while readers described adorning cars of a variety of colors and models with the new plates, black and white vehicles were predominant.

“I think their popularity is coming purely from a vanity standpoint,” Jackson said. “Instead of putting the green and white — the traditional Colorado plate colors — on a black car or a white car or a gray car, (drivers) are seeing the black plate as a vanity statement on that vehicle.”

If it’s indeed vanity driving the plate’s popularity, the sales are having a broader positive impact: as of early December, the black plate has raised $4.2 million for the disability fund, out of $4.7 million for all four retro designs.

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