Early Hawaiian automobile licensing is a fascinating and complicated story. The territory first issued dashboard disks (automobile tags) starting in 1912. Then the largest two counties (Honolulu and Hawaii) started issuing standardized plates beginning in 1915. Only in 1922 did the Territory issue its first regular plates and ceased issuing dashboard discs. Below I have provided some information to help better understand this complex story of early Hawaiian licensing from the run of territorial tags that were issued from 1912-1921 to the county numbering system used on the territorial plates beginning in 1922.
Automobile Tags were dashboard discs issued by the Territory of Hawaii from 1912 to 1921. The first of these was a round aluminum disc which was followed in later years by brass tags of various shapes, some very distinctive (see special Photo Gallery). A few motorcycle discs are also known as early as 1919 and may well have been issued in prior years. These tags were separate from the homemade or standardized county license plates that were also required during this time period. In three of the four Hawaiian counties (Hawaii, Kauai, and Maui), these tags never had any direct association with the plates. Honolulu followed suit all the way up to 1917, but beginning in 1918, this one county decided to manufacture plates with a space on them for the Territorial Automobile Tag to be mounted right on the plate, although there does not seem to be any relationship between the numbers on the tags and the plates. Honolulu County continued with this unique method through 1921 when the Automobile Tags were discontinued. Honolulu County motorcycle plates during these four years similarly had Motorcycle Tags mounted on them.
At least as far back as 1915, these Territory of Hawaii automobile tags can be identified as to which county they were used in. 1915 discs actually spelled out the county name while other years seem to have a distinct county numbering system. In 1920 and 1921, the number on the tag is actually preceded by a letter representing the county.
If you want to see some examples of these Automobile Tags, please click HERE to visit a special Photo Gallery. Don't forget to click on the photos for larger images where the detail of the tags is more readable.
Pre-Territorial County Plates
Prior to 1922 when the Territory of Hawaii first began issuing standardized license plates, each county was left to decide the issue of license plates on its own. Because so few cars were being licensed at the time, counties simply issued numbers and instructed owners to make their own plates. Thus, all of these plates were homemade, regardless of county, through 1914. Then in 1915, the two largest counties (Honolulu and Hawaii) realized that they had enough people driving cars in their respective counties that some sort of standardized plate was needed. Thus, beginning this year, each of these two counties started the trend of issuing their own unique plates to residents. Both counties continued this practice each year all the way up to 1922. Notably, these plates are so scarce in the hands of collectors that not all years are even known. In contrast to these two large counties, Maui and Kauai Counties never had enough drivers to warrant the decision to issue standardized plates at any time during the entire pre-Territorial period up through 1921. Therefore, all plates from these two counties continued to be homemade. Only one example of a pre-Territorial plate from one of these two smaller counties is known in collectors' hands - a wooden Kauai County plate (#1642K), probably issued in 1921 (See Photo Gallery).
Both Honolulu and Hawaii County issued passenger porcelain plates in 1915 and 1916 and embossed metal plates from 1917 through 1921. In the case of Honolulu County, as discussed above, the Territorial Automobile Tags were mounted right on the plates from 1918 through 1921. In addition, double-sided porcelain motorcycle plates are known from Hawaii County in 1918 (See Photo Gallery), as well as an undated porcelain cycle plate from Honolulu County with a 1921 territorial tag attached. Undoubtedly there were other motorcycle plates issued from both counties, but none have surfaced as yet.
Territorial Issued Plates Beginning in 1922
While the pre-Territorial period of Hawaiian automobile licensing was now over and Hawaiian plates were now standardized in terms of appearance regardless of county, the plates issued by each of the four counties are still identifiable based on the number. Starting in 1922 and going through 1925, plates from 1,001 to 19,999 were assigned to Honolulu County. Hawaii County had the 20,000 series, Maui County the 30,000 series, and Kauai the 40,000 series. By 1926, however, Honolulu County realized it needed more than the original amount of numbers assigned to them. Thus, beginning this year, Honolulu was assigned all plates from 50,000 and up and all plates below 20,000 (which was the old Honolulu numbering system) were discontinued. The other counties maintained their original numbering systems. This lasted through 1939, after which all passenger cars had license plates with a combination of letters and numbers.
Dealer plates were presumably issued from the earliest years but are extremely scarce. These are thought to have matched the standard color scheme of the passenger plates and would have identified the full name of the county on them. Motorcycle plates presumably existed all the way back to 1922, again mimicking the colors of the passenger plates. These cycle plates would have been identifiable by county based on their number. Other scarce types such as wagons, county government plates, and territorial government plates also existed. Finally, trucks never had a distinctive identification prior to 1940 although it is presumed that some of the high numbers from each county may well have been trucks. Beginning in 1940, trucks were assigned five digit numbers (but no letters), identifiable by county based on the number. Any plates from 1940 on with an all numeric sequence are trucks.