Brief History of DMV


Just before the turn of the century a new mode of transportation was
seen and heard on the California landscape. It made an enormous racket
like a rapidly popping string of firecrackers. It spewed smoke and
stirred giant clouds of dust. It thrilled youngsters of the day and
frightened animals. Some referred to it as a “horseless carriage.” Others
called it an “automobile.”

It was to have a more profound and greater impact upon the state than
any other single invention. It would eventually intrude into all
California life causing deep and lasting changes.

Initially, the automobile was an instrument of adventure. A
one-hour-and-five minute “scorch” over the 24 miles between Oroville and
Chico was hailed in the motoring column of the July 16, 1904, San
Francisco News Letter as a “remarkable feat.” Earlier, the San Francisco
Town Talk of January 1901 described a 2,000-mile Northern California
motor trip in which a W.L. Rockett encountered “bottomless sand and mud.”
Dr. David Starr Jordan, in his autobiography, “The Days of a Man,” tells
of a motoring trip through Santa Clara Valley and up Mount Hamilton in
the fall of 1899.

The early day “motor wagon” was also considered a dangerous
instrument. Several California counties passed ordinances requiring
motorists to pull to the side of the road and remain standing when horse
drawn vehicles approached. One court decision characterized the new
contraptions as “highly dangerous” when used on county roads. Ordinances
prohibited operations of the horseless carriage at night.

It was not long before restrictive legislation, designed to protect
horse and mule traffic from the noisy horseless carriage, faded into the
past. Speedy and convenient individual transit was welcomed as a benefit
to mankind. Soon the muffled throb of the family auto and the rumble of
the heavy duty truck lost their novelty. Elegant, stylish motor car
advertisements soon dominated periodicals.

California’s first half century of automobile legislation portrays a
people striving to understand and to cope with their new motor car
environment. Evidence abounds of legislation by intuition, of false
starts and shifting emphasis, of experiments and of progress.

Essentially, Californians were anxious to police motorists and protect
themselves with a formidable barrier of “rules of the road.”


State statutes of 1901 authorized cities and counties to license
bicycles, tricycles, automobile carriages, carts, and similar wheeled

The secretary of state was empowered in 1905 to register and license
motor vehicles. This took the task from the counties and provided a
uniform statewide registration system. Owners paid a $2 fee and were
issued a circular tag. Later, tags were either octagonal or had scalloped
edges. Owners had to conspicuously display tags in 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 first vehicle to be registered under state law was a White Steamer
owned by John D. Spreckels of San Francisco. His, however, was not the
first automobile in California. The San Francisco Sunday Call, of May 11,
1902, recorded there were 117 motor vehicles in use in the city on that
date. Six years earlier, the same paper reported that Charles L. Fir had
owned the city’s only horseless carriage. By 1905, registered vehicles in
California totaled 17,015.

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 of today’s Department of Transportation)
became custodian of vehicle records.


The first Department of Motor Vehicles was created in 1915 with
enactment of Senator F.S. Birdsell’s “Vehicle Act of 1915.” Vehicle
registrations that year had climbed to 191,000.

In 1914, the state began issuing its first permanent license plates
upon original registration of vehicles. The system was confirmed by the
legislature in 1915. During the next four years, metal validating tags
had to be bolted to the 1915 license plates. The tags had a bear in 1916;
a poppy in 1917; a liberty bell in 1918; and a star in 1919. Amended in
1919, the permanent license plate law required annual issuance of plates
starting in 1920.

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.

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