In Utah license plates, black is the new cool

Dec 19, 2023, 10:10 AM

Sen. Lincoln Fillmore, R-South Jordan, is pictured in Murray on Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2023. It was Fil...

Sen. Lincoln Fillmore, R-South Jordan, is pictured in Murray on Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2023. It was Fillmore’s bill that introduced the retro black Utah license plates. The Legacy plate costs $25 a year and supports the Utah State Historical Society. (Laura Seitz, Deseret News)

(Laura Seitz, Deseret News)

When he turned 49 this past October, Lincoln Fillmore, the state senator representing South Jordan, opened his wife’s gift and found a single sheet of paper inside.

It was a picture of a black Utah license plate with white lettering.

Cheryl Fillmore had ordered the plates weeks earlier, but there was a backlog on the state’s end. The picture was what his plates would look like when they arrived, which they finally did in mid-November.

So even the creator had to stand in line.

* * *

By his own admission, Lincoln Fillmore is no fashion guru. He is a substance over style kind of guy. Cheryl has to sometimes tell him if his shirt matches his pants.

But he knows cool when he sees it, and five years ago, when he first started seeing vehicles with black Utah license plates, he saw cool.

There weren’t many of them. Just a few zipping around town, noticeable because they stood out.

They were also, as it turned out, illegal. Lincoln learned that people were acquiring their black plates from a private manufacturer. They would go online, enter their license plate number, and get their custom plates delivered to them in the mail.

All would be fine until a cop stopped them. Driving with unauthorized plates is subject to a fine and removal of the plates.

When a handful of constituents complained, Lincoln knew he could do something to help. Since the legislature oversees license plates, he could introduce a bill making black plates legal.

A Legacy license plate is pictured in Murray on Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2023. A bill by Sen. Lincoln Fillmore, R-South Jordan, introduced the retro black Utah license plates. This plate is a special group plate that benefits the Historical Society of Utah. (Laura Seitz, Deseret News)

He did so in the 2019 session. He proposed legislation — or “ran a bill,” as the lawmakers say — that authorized a black plate with white letters, similar to plates issued in the 1960s. Since there was a historic aspect to it, and since Lincoln is a history buff, he chose the Utah State Historical Society to be the organization that would receive the $25 per-plate surcharge mandated for specialized plates.

In his presentation, Sen. Fillmore predicted that “this will be the most popular special edition plate in Utah because it just looks really cool.”

The bill passed without dissent and was signed by the governor.

That’s when the simple turned complicated. It turned out that the company that manufactures Utah’s license plates didn’t have reflective black paint (and neither did anyone else, since black is the only color that doesn’t reflect light). This meant that the cameras used by the Highway Patrol and others wouldn’t be able to read the plates.

That was a deal killer. As a possible Plan B, it was suggested that Utah instead go to purple plates, “a really dark purple,” says Fillmore, “in the right light it looks black, but if you change your angle it looks like eggplant.”

For 312 years there was an impasse, until in the summer of 2022 Fillmore’s friend John Valentine, head of the Utah State Tax Commission, had another suggestion: Fillmore should run a new bill, this one exempting the black paint from the reflectivity standard as long as the white paint used in the numbering and lettering was legally reflective.

The bill sailed through the 2023 legislative session and the governor’s office. This past May, the legal black plates finally became available.

Sen. Lincoln Fillmore, R-South Jordan, is pictured in Murray on Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2023. It was Fillmore’s bill that introduced the retro black Utah license plates. The Legacy plate costs $25 a year and supports the Utah State Historical Society. (Laura Seitz, Deseret News)

Demand quickly exceeded supply. By early summer, there was an online line. Black plates were as popular as the “Eras Tour” — well, maybe not that popular, but to this day there continues to be about a two-week wait.

By the end of November, 67,531 black plates had been ordered through the DMV, an average of 375 per day.

Lincoln’s “this will be the most popular plate in Utah” prediction is proving to be spot on.

“Let’s be honest, the reason to have these plates is because they’re cool,” he says. “I think if you ask anybody who got them they would answer yes, I got them because they look cool on my car.”

To the Utah Historical Society, black is beyond cool. At $25 per plate, the organization has already received $1.7 million.

“Huge,” is how Jennifer Ortiz, the society’s director, describes the impact of the plates. The money, she said, will “support the new Museum of Utah project and future related programming.”

She added, “We are thrilled to see such turnout for the black license plates and grateful for the legislation that supports this avenue of funding.”

“It would be nice if the (designated) charity was my reelection fund — I’d be sitting pretty,” Lincoln jokes, “but no luck.”

Mostly, his role goes unknown; he’s just another citizen with black plates. Although just the other day he was passing some pickleball players who recognized him, one shouting out, “Hey, this is the guy who did the black license plate.”

Everyone cheered.

“We’re living in a time when so much of what we talk about we disagree, there’s so much vitriol,” says the senator from South Jordan. “But this is one of those things that transcends that. Democrats and Republicans both like the plates, and they’re all happy to support the historical society. Who’s going to argue with that?”

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In Utah license plates, black is the new cool