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West Virginia "Map" Bases: A Primer, 1976-1995

For nearly twenty years motorists from the state of West Virginia could be identified by blue, gold, and white license plates marked by a distinctive outline image of the state. From their unusual and complicated introduction to the various changes that marked the base during its subsequent years, the story of this license plate issue is a bit more lengthy than you might expect!

First, a little background information...

[West Virginia license plate OA-2010]

Upon the expiration of the 1970-dated annual license plate issue in July of that year, West Virginia introduced a pair of changes to license plates that would pave the way for things to come. First of all, it issued a new base to all passenger registrants intended to be validated with stickers for multi-year use. Similar in appearance to earlier annual issues, the issue was blue on gold in color, fully embossed, and featured the "Mountain State" slogan introduced in 1964 (following the state's centennial) at top. Second of all, the state began to stagger passenger car registrations throughout the year to reduce the risk of long lineups at registration offices produced by multitudes of people renewing at the same time. Rather than indicating the month of expiration by a sticker or stamped abbreviation, a fairly unique code was devised instead consisting of the first character of the plate number; still used today. License plates expired on the first day of any given month:

Enter the Map

The multi-year blue-on-gold plate sufficed for nearly six years, until a number of influences culminated in a new design and reissue. First of all, new manufacturing processes and techniques popularized by 3M of Minnesota had begun to be employed by a growing number of states and the District of Columbia allowing for graphic designs to be silk-screened on reflective sheeting in multiple colors, dramatically increasing the aesthetic potential in license plate design. The U.S. Bicentennial was imminent, providing with it the opportunity for new license plates to tie into a commemorative theme. Finally, the initiation of a reissue provided a convenient time for non-passenger registrations (such as truck and trailer) to be shifted from annual to multi-year plates as well.

[West Virginia license plate 1A-3432]

The new base began being issued in December 1975 both to new registrants and existing motorists as they came up for renewal in 1976. West Virginia's "bicentennial" plate was very much a new and visually-ambitious affair; marked by a yellow-filled map outline of the state behind the serial; a new slogan ("Wild, Wonderful West Virginia"), and a prominent "76" designation in the sticker area at bottom right. Although many other states used the year as an opportunity to employ explicitly bicentennial-themed designs with copious use of "1776-1976" notations and red, white, and blue, West Virginia's plate was relatively understated in theme by comparison: Perhaps because the state realized the Bicentennial would soon be over and a number of years would eclipse by necessity before license plates would be reissued again, a "timeless" design was desirable.

The earliest recipients of the map base (coinciding with expirations that year from "1" through "7") received plates like the one above. These plates were manufactured at the West Virginia State Prison in Moundsville, and carried the same serial dies as most West Virginia license plates before and since.

This is where things began to get complicated. Ordinarily, it would take one year for all license plates of an old design to be replaced in conjunction with a staggered registration system: By that measure, some blue-on-gold plates should have remained in use until December 1976. Governor Arch Moore, however, had other ideas, and specifically requested partially into the year that all remaining blue-on-gold plates be replaced before the Bicentennial observance in July. All existing registrants in expiration months from "8" through "D" received their new plates by mail in one bunch in June; anywhere from one to five months before their gold plates were due to expire. To ease the transition, the new plates were manufactured with the same serials as the old ones, and motorists' existing 1976 registration cards were allowed to carry over to the graphic replacement plates until time came for renewal. Although this plan was hardly a model of efficiency...allegedly, reports of plates being mailed out to people who didn't own a car weren't unheard of...carrying it out allowed for all vehicles in the state to carry graphic license plates dated "76" on July 4th of the year.

Polyvend steps in

[West Virginia license plate 8M-6928]

The number of license plates that needed to be produced in a very short time was more than the West Virginia State Prison could accomodate, so the state elected to have these plates for "8" through "D" expirations be manufactured by an outside supplier. The supplier turned out to be the Metal Stamping Corporation, an Arkansas-based entity (most famous for Polyvend vending machines) that made license plates under contract for several other states as well. The resulting plates carried dies substantially different from those used on other West Virginia plates: Features such as 6s and 9s were open rather than closed in form, and the rectangular surface upon which the serial was embossed was raised slightly in relation to the rest of the plate as well. The serial dies and stamping elements of these plates were absolutely identical to those on the license plates of Illinois from the same year. All new plate production reverted to in-state by the next year, although leftover Polyvend plates were given out to some new registrants for a little while beyond that.

West Virginia license plate envelope West Virginia license plate envelope

I was recently fortunate enough to obtain an unused example of one of these license plates, still in its original DMV envelope. The elements of literature enclosed provide a fascinating glimpse of the circumstances surrounding the base's introduction.

The card pocket on the envelopes of these Polyvend-produced replacement plates was left empty by design: Since a motorist's existing registration remained valid until its expiration later in the year (August 1976, in this case), there was no need to include a new one. Since the same envelopes were used for these license plates plates as all other West Virginia plates of the period, the "License Plate Manufactured at the West Virginia State Prison" statement was retained outside in print if not in fact.

[Message from governor] [Letter from DMV commissioner]

Messages from the governor and DMV commissioner, respectively, containing interesting information on the new license plate and the way it was being introduced. Note how the $1.00 plate replacement fee is implied as being optional: I wonder how many people bothered to pay it when they received their new license plate in June 1976!

By the fourth of July, all vehicles in West Virginia (save a few special classes) carried the new graphic plates. The introduction of renewals introduced a special problem, however: The "76" plates issued earlier in the year for months from "1" to "7" actually expired in 1977, while the Polyvend-made plates for the last five months of the year expired in 1976. When the "8" through "D" plates came up for renewal, they received a red, white, and blue sticker containing the Bicentennial-themed "W.Va. 1976" logo (making an appearance on the honor-system payment envelope enclosed with the replacement plates as well). Including the yellow-and-green "1976" sticker used on the prior gold plates, that leaves three distinct 1976 issues for West of which expired in 1976, one of which expired in 1977, and one of which could conceivably expire in either!

Later years

A bit of stability returned to West Virginia license plates once 1976 was over, though not necessarily for long. The 1977-expiring "76" plates were renewed with a 1978 sticker, and with the exception of the year after that (more on that below...) the validation sticker indicated the year of expiration with minimal fudging for every year on. The remaining stock of leftover Polyvend plates was soon used up, and the state returned to producing plates in Moundsville for all twelve months of the year.

[West Virginia license plate 5BH-662]

The force of change in license plates manifested itself once again in 1981 to rectify practical concerns. On the original 1976 base design, the yellow map behind the serial was outlined in blue; a feature that often interfered with and adversely affected the legibility of the first three characters of the serial at a distance. Furthermore, the existing serial format of one letter and four numbers following the month code (i.e., 1A-1234) was dangerously close to being depleted.

In response, the blue-outlined map graphic was replaced by a newly-drawn graphic with a thin yellow border not likely to interfere with the serial. The definition of the image was improved, as well: The new map was more detailed and geographically accurate than the old in form. In response to the serial overflow problem, the format of the plates was changed to two letters and three numbers following the month code (1AB-123), allowing for approximately 476,000 new combinations for each series. (Since all month series switched to the new format simultaneously, it is possible that the highest 1A-1234 format combinations for some months went unused.)

One final detail of the new yellow-border plates was the large block "82" designation in the lower-right corner (similar to the "76" in the same location on older issues), economizing the number of 1982 validation stickers needing to be printed. This detail of the plate turned out to be the final major graphical detail to be changed during the base's run: Three years later, the designation was changed to "85."

It's a bit of a mystery why West Virginia produced an "85"-dated version of the base: No other graphical changes occurred. It didn't have much effect on sticker economization, either: The state spent most of 1984 issuing "82"-dated bases with 1985 stickers, and few, if any "85"-dated passenger plates actually saw use that year with no sticker.

Since the block year designation on the 1982- and 1985-dated plates is nearly always covered by a sticker and the base designs were nearly identical otherwise, it can be quite difficult at times to distinguish between the two. There are several clues and details that may be checked, however, with the help of a magnifying glass: On every 1982-type plate I've seen, the fine strokes of the "Wild, Wonderful" slogan along the top are very clear and distinct. 1985-type plates, by contrast, lend a slight transfer or copy quality to the screened elements: The finer strokes and letter tips in the slogan are blurred almost to the point of obliteration.

Comparison of Wild, Wonderful slogans

Slightly easier clues to consult are the "ensure images" embedded in the reflective sheeting...hologram-like devices running down the center of the plate that are visible when viewed at an angle. On all 1982-type and the earliest 1985-type bases, these elements will be absent. The ensure images originally consisted of the year of manufacture enclosed within an outline of the state (the earliest year I've personally seen is "85"), which was changed in 1991 to a small state outline, cryptic alphanumeric code, and abbreviation "WV" all within a circle. In this later code, second letters of "C," "O," "M," and "P" indicate sheeting production years of 1991, 1992, 1993, and 1994.

A split alphabet system

[West Virginia license plate 5RC-456]

Serials proceeded in a fashion that was not always alphabetically chronological or easy to follow, with each coded month having its own series. Briefly shifting our attention back to the beginning, the original numbering configuration began at xA-1000 (or was it 1001?) and proceeded through the end of the run of blue-bordered map plates in 1981. Logically enough, the subsequent yellow-border plates began at xAA-100 (or was it 101?).

It's here where strict alphabetical chronology breaks down. After xAM-999, the numbering skipped over to xBA-100. After BM came CA, after CM came DA, and so on continuing through the alphabet. Once xZM-999 was finally reached—and several month series did reach this point by 1992—the series would roll over to xAN-100, proceeding alphabetically from there but this time employing only the letters N to Z in the third position. After AZ came BN, after BZ came CN, and so on until the end of the series. (The highest letter block I've personally confirmed so far is "6FY" on a natural 1995-expiring plate.) This convoluted system (which I had difficulty understanding myself until fellow collector Joe Sallmen of Fairmont explained it to me) places West Virginia in the same ranks as jurisdictions like Utah and British Columbia known for using "split" alphabet systems, although West Virginia's system is neither as obvious nor as often discussed. If nothing else, this explains the "low" serial blocks found on many plates of the early-to-mid '90s, and also explains why a seemingly higher plate number like 6GL-385 was issued ten years before 6FS-462.

[West Virginia license plate 5DR-791]

Validation stickers

From the 1978 expiration year on, all map bases were validated with annual stickers expiring in the year indicated; the primary exceptions being early examples of the 1982- and 1985-dated varieties, which were presumably valid through the appropriate month in the year indicated without stickers. The one exception, supposedly resulting entirely as a mistake by a DMV employee or printer, was the green 1979-expiring sticker, which carried the date of "1978" just like the red-colored sticker expiring the year in question. (Note that many of these stickers have very high serial numbers, leading me to surmise that even the serialization may have been a continuation of the "other" 1978 sticker from the year before.) The red, white, and blue sticker used to renew Polyvend-made plates in late 1976 also carried a year other than that of expiration.

1976 1978 1978 1980 1981
1982 1983 1984 1985 1986
87 88 89 90 91
92 93 94 95


West Virginia license plate 6GL-385 West Virginia license plate NKF-340

All map bases for passenger cars and most non-passenger classes issued between 1976 and 1994 (with the exception of "B"-prefixed truck plates originally issued to light trucks, as referenced on the non-passenger plate page) remained valid until their expirations between January and December 1995, when they were replaced with the style of plate used today. There were exceptions, however: Personalized, amateur radio, and handicapped plates on the map base were routinely validated through 1996 before being replaced. A few personalized plates sneaked by after that (perhaps illicitly!) as well...some even to the present day. Other classes of plates on the map base that survived beyond 1995 include Disabled Veteran plates with red-painted serials (still valid, in fact, today) and Antique Car plates, both of which had been issued long-term "July 2005" expirations starting in 1994. Allegedly, some older National Guard plates were until recently still valid as well. These license plates are also starting to reappear on classic cars, thanks to "year-of-manufacture" registrations for vehicles 25 or more years old.

By the time they were replaced, many of the older map bases in use had deteriorated badly in condition, and I recall that a few of the oldest plates had weathered to the point of having blue characters on a plain aluminum background by the early '90s, with no reflectivity or even indication to what state they were from! While I find the design of the current issue to be a bit dull by comparison, to the credit of the state these newer license plates are very legible and have held up longer and better to the elements than many of the earlier-produced map bases did.

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Last update January 13, 2009.