This piece recently appeared in the BAMA newsletter, and since I got such a large volume of response, I figured I'd post it in my blog too...with a few notes to address the most common questions. If you don't live in California, look away now...
Everywhere you look you'll find a new acronym; often it seems like you're the only person who doesn't know what it means. I recently had the…shall we say…"experience"…of finding out about the Department of Motor Vehicles' YOM program, and I can tell you it's not a chore I'll forget any time soon. Put simply, YOM stands for Year of Manufacture, and it's the name the California DMV has assigned to the newly-legal transfer of original license plates to classic vehicles. In mustang terms, this includes the original cars up to the end of the 1969 model year - if your 1970 Mustang Sidewinder Special has a modern plate, you're stuck with it for the time being at least.
So, while a lot of California mustangs have their original plates, a good many do not. I bought my '68 coupe in Kansas, so registering it in California (within 10 days of arrival, or you're in trouble!) earned me a boring modern white plate with a random sequence of letters and numbers. To start with it didn't bother me too much, but it really looked wrong in photos of my car. So I thought about buying some vintage license plates instead. It's not quite that simple, but if you know the DMV requirements, you can overcome the obstacles.
First you need some plates - two the same in fact. eBay is a great place to look, although prices of vintage California plates have soared since the YOM program started. In 1963 the black plate with yellow characters was introduced. Plates were stamped "63" in the top right corner. These plates were used through 1970 when the background color changed to blue.
In the later years, the "63" was covered with a year-appropriate sticker - and here's the key point: When you show up at the DMV with your pair of black and yellow plates, you better have a sticker from the same year as your car - in 1968 the sticker was pink with black text. You can acquire near-mint condition original stickers on eBay for around 15 dollars, or you can try peeling one off of a plate yourself (tip: first use warm water to soften the adhesive), but you must have a unique serial number on your sticker.
The DMV will photocopy your plate with the sticker, and if the serial# is already in their database, your YOM transfer will be rejected. You also have to fill out the usual DMV paperwork, but it is pretty easy and the forms can be downloaded from their website at dmv.ca.gov. One other thing: the fee for the YOM transfer is currently 45 dollars - it's likely that the DMV officer will ask you for 35, and you can get away with what appears to be saving ten bucks, but it is a false economy - your application will be delayed by 6-8 weeks whereupon a letter from Sacramento will arrive demanding the extra green within five days or your application will be thrown out - ask me how I know! Eventually you get a new title in the mail and you're set to go…
When you do receive your new title, It comes with two additional stickers and a pair of aluminum tags (below). The idea is you place these stickers on the tags and secure them above the license plate...and then your pristine "68" sticker can also be seen. The major implication of this is that you will always be able to tell a YOM car from a car sporting its original plate. I go to a lot of car shows, not just Mustangs, and I've never seen a obvious YOM registered car. I'm guessing that most people toss the extra tags in the trash, and stick the current 201X sticker over the top of the 68....that's right, over the top of the sticker that you just paid out good money to get! Of course if you do this then the car looks just as it would with a plate that's been there for 40+ years. Strictly speaking, this isn't legal, but the chances of getting a ticket, even from a clued-up traffic cop, would have to be slim.
Answers to some questions that came up:
I still have my original plates, which I changed for some reason, and now I want to swap them back...but the 68 (or whatever year) sticker is buried below a pile of later stickers...what now?
The simple answer is that if you're going to put the plates back on the car then the 68 has to be the top sticker when your plates are registered at the DMV. You could try peeling off the additional stickers, but probably you're best and quickest solution is to pony up (!) for a replacement 68 sticker.
I want to put some older plates back on my car, but I also want to keep the plates that are on it now...the DMV wants to take them off me. What gives?
It seems odd that the DMV cares enough to keep plates that will no longer be used - it's not as if they will re-issue them - but right now that's the law, so if you really want the newer plate you can either keep it on the car or transfer it to another vehicle first.