INSET LICENSE PLATES
A necessary evil, the license plate requires deft placement in order not to distract from the lines of the restyled job. Recessing is one long-used method.
Inset license plates has been a very popular Custom Restyling technique from the 1930’s up into the later part of the 1940’s. For a long period it was a technique that was on nearly everybody’s To-Do lists to get a cool looking ride. It was a Restyling technique to enable the “necessary evil” of having to use the “ugly” license plate in a more elegant way other than just putting it on the bumper as done on most factory stock cars from that era.
The Inset License plate restyling was used mostly on cars that had relatively thin bumpers ranging from 1934 to some models in 1948. After 1948 the bumpers on the cars became heavier and most of the time had integrated bumper guards and license plate surround. This made the Inset license plate styling more or less obsolete for the newer cars.
Beautiful sample of a well done inset license plate behind glass on a 1940 Mercury convertible photographed in 1945. The shape has nice radius corners that fit the shape of the car really well and the plate is nicely recessed, but not to deep. The “ugly” license plate becomes one with the cars design, and the beautiful shaped bumper remains uncluttered.
Inset License plate design
As with a lot of the styles used in the traditional Custom Restyling, the Inset License plates also originates from the Coachbuilding and design proposals from the major car companies. The early/mid 1930’s car designers tried to find a good way to incorporate the large license plated into the beautiful designs they came up with. Rather than seeing it as the necessary evil, they tried to make it look good.
Art Ross Duesenberg Concept illustration shows a set in license plate on the lower portion of a three window coupe he designed around 1934.
This Duesenberg (# J212-2234) was originally built as 4-door bodies car in 1932 and later sold to Dr. Seeley Mudd. He had Bohman & Schwartz create a new body. The new car was finished in 1936-37 and included a black leather like covered body which included a set in license plate with glass cover.
According the Motor Life May 1955 Ocee Ritch “When it became a Custom” article it was Frank Kurtis who created the first inset license plate in 1936.
Custom Restyling Technique
The Custom Restyling technique of recessing the license plate into the rear valance or trunk of a car became a very popular feature on the early California Custom Car. Later this technique was being used across the US, and after that world-wide, but it all started, like the rest of Custom Restyling in California. The technique has several different names, it is known as “Inset license plates“, “Set-In License Plates“, “Recessed License Plates”, “Glass Covered Plates“, and possibly a few more variants on this. Besides the variations in the names used for this styling method, there were also several different styles developed over the years. There are basically three different styles, and sometimes we saw some variations on these styles.
- 1 Near flush behind glass This style had a hole cut out in the trunk or rear valance with the edges filed smooth. A glass cover was installed from the inside sitting body metal thickness deeper than the outside of the body. The license plate was mounted with tabs behind the glass plate. Rubber seals were used to prevent water from coming in, and the glass from braking. This method gave the rear of the car an very smooth, almost flush fitting appearance. The method was not used a lot. As far as I have been able to see there was no way to illuminate the plate at night using this method.
- 2 Inset behind glass This was the most popular method of this restyling technique. For this a nice shaped hole with round corners, slightly smaller than the actual license plate was cut out in the trunk or rear valance. The edge was neatly folded inwards, or round rod, or a shaped metal edge was used to create an depth of about half an inch. Inside an box slightly larger than the license plate was created in such a way it could be clipped or bolted to the inside. A glass cover was placed in between the the opening and the box. Rubber seals made sure no water could leak inside. Usually the box had one or more small light bulbs installed, hidden from direct view, that would illuminate the plate at night.
- 2a Inset Same as above, but without the glass cover. Not the way it was supposed to be, but we have seen man samples of this in old photos. Possibly the work was done by a less experience body man, or by the owner himself. Disadvantage of this method was that water would leak inside. Advantage of this method was that the cops could not write a ticket for having the plate covered behind glass.
- 3 Recessed This style had a hole cut out in the trunk or rear valance that was slightly wider than the license plate. An box was created that was also slightly larger than the license plate and welded inside the holw. The edges were nicely body worked, and holes drilled for the license plate to be mounted. A small light bulb was added hidden in the top portion that would illuminate the plate at night. The depth of the box would vary, from very shallow for a near flush fitting recessed plate, to half and inch or more for a more recessed appearance.
- Surrounds On all these styles we have seen variations of chrome surrounds being used. Most of the times the surrounds were custom made and appeared flush with the body. But there are also some photos that show aftermarket surrounds fitted inside the recessed openings.
We have heard from some of the people who where there in the early 1940’s that the inset license plates were a very popular Custom Restyling method. The technique was on the top of the To-Do lists if you wanted to have a good looking car. We were also told that three were quite a few cops that did not like the license plates to be covered with glass. And that the the Inset License plates was a good reason for them to stop a Customs for further scrutinizing.
The technique was used mostly on Custom Cars, but we have also come across some early 1940’s Hot Rods that had inset license plates.
As with most of the early Custom Restyling techniques, the inset license plate restyling originates in California. During the time this technique was popular and used the standard sizes of the California license plates changed a few times. This makes that some of the early samples have different shaped holes, and also explains why sometimes the restored original customs that use more modern plates have what appears ill fitting license plates in the inset surrounds.
- 1929 – 1939 License plates were 14” x 6 1/8”
- 1940 – 1955 License plates were 13 7/8” x 6 1/8” with rounded corners
- 1956 and up A national standard for auto license plate size of 12” x 6” (except motorcycles, which are smaller) This size was established in 1956 and continues currently.
The builder of this Al Marx / Wes Collin’s 1934 Ford roadster Custom is unknown. But he did a very nice job recessing the rear license plate into the rear valance and covering it with glass. This set up looks really great with the use of the Lincoln bumper. Late 1940’s photo.
Neil Emory (later co-owner of the famous Valley Custom Shop) created a double inset license plate behind glass on his 1938 Dodge Convertible. The right one for a Throttle Stompers club plaque and the one on the left for the license plate.
Jimmy Summers and Bob Fairman created this full fade away fenders 1936 Ford Coupe for Bob Fairman in the early 1940’s. They cut a hole in the rear valance, filed the edges, and placed the license plate behind glass. The color photos of the unrestored coupe the simple inset plate hole they created for this car. The advantage of this method was that the glass cover was only recessed the thickness of the metal body and the reflections of the glass made it look almost flush with the body.
1942 photo of a dark padded topped 1937 Ford Convertible shows an inset plate that was finished as nice as some of the others show in this article. The edge of the hole was rounded, but not nicely finished by either folded edges or added round rod edges. The plate itself sits very deep inside the body leaving a lot of shadow. There was not glass to cover the plate on this one.
Creating the Inset license plates in the late 1930’s and 1940’s could be, and was done by any good body-shop. Some time after the style became popular the first real Custom Body Shops started to appear, and the Inset License plates was one of the on the list items that became very popular for the shops. Although I have not been able to find any evidence for it, I assume that some of the shop did so many of these inset plates that they more than likely had templates and perhaps special jigs that helped them speed up the process. The technique was done by a large number of shops, but I like to highlight the work done by Harry Westergard and the Barris brothers, since I feel that these two shops had a big part in the popularity of the style.
Harry Westergard Inset License Plates
Frank Kurtis gets the credits of being the first body man to create an inset incense plate on a Custom Car in 1936, but another Custom Car Pioneer, Harry Westergard played a big roll in making the style really popular. Although Westergards work was done mostly on NorCal Bay area cars, the style was most likely picked up by others seeing the many Westergard Customs outfitted with these inset license plates. It was most likely Harry Westergard who influenced a young George Barris to use the technique on his own personal 1936 Ford. In the early 1940’s Harry had already installed many of the behind glass inset license plates. And the once he had created looked very nice, with beautiful finished round edges.
Gene Garrett’s 1936 Ford in the early 1940’s. Styling is typical for the time, ribbed 1937 DeSoto bumpers, simple teardrop taillights (38-39 Ford in this case), shaved trunk with inset behind glass plate.
Harry Werstergard create this beautifully done inset plate on Max Ferris / Vern Simon’s 1936 Ford Roadster. The photo was taken in 1945-46 and shows what we now call the typical Harry Westergard style. The car is still around today, but sadly along the road the inset plate hole was filled in.
Harry Westergard added the inset plate very low in the long trunk on Leroy Semas his 1938 Chevy Coupe. Oddly the 1937 DeSoto ribbed bumper used on the car is outfitted with a ’49 Chevy license plate cover. Inside the cover is the Thunderbolts Car Club plaque from the club Leroy belonged to. The photo was taken in 1950.
Another sample of Harry Westergards great skills was on this 1939 Ford convertible he restyled for Mel Falconer. The car was later owned by Bruce Glen when Harry did the removable metal top for it. Harry created this super smooth rear end of the car by removing all the chrome, welding the trunk lid solid and setting in the plate behind glass.
This is what Rod & Custom magazine wrote about the license plate installment on the Bruce Glen 1939 Ford in 1954. By then the inset plates were out of fashion, but apparently still appreciated on the older build cars.
Harry Westergard also did the inset plate on Al Lauer’s 1941 Cadillac convertible. The car has been faithfully restored by a team of experts conducted by Kurt McCormick. The inset plate looks really amazing added to the lower section of the long trunk on this Caddy.
Close up shows the very nice done rounded edges. Compared to the Max Ferris 1936 Ford inset plate, the shape of this one has much sharped corners. This photo also shows how much the size of the plated from the 1940’s differ from the more modern plates.
The set in license plate on the Westergard 1932 Ford Roadster was done more primitive than the other samples we have found Westergard did on the Custom Cars. We have no date when Westergard did this Customized hot Rod, but most likely it pre-dates the customs he did included in this article, hence the simple hole cut into the body for the set in license plate. It does show that the set in plated were done on some of the 1940’s Hot Rods.
Buddy ohanesian had his 1940 Mercury four door convertible restyled by Harry Westergard and later by Dick Bertolucci. We are not sure if the set in license plate he had on his Mercury was done by Westergard or by Bertolucci. This photo shows the Mercury with Dick Bertolucci as his body shop in the early 1950’s.
Barris Inset License Plates
George Barris most likely learned how to do the inset license plated while working with Harry Westergard. When George moved to Los Angeles in 1942-43 he started to work for the Jones Body, Fender & paint Shop. This was a regular body shop, were George introduced Custom Restyling. One of the things he started going for the shop was the inset License Plates for customer cars. When the Barris brothers George and Sam moved to a new location on Compton Avenue in Los Angeles in 1946 the Inset license plates were a very popular restyling technique. In fact it was so popular that the Barrises even put it on their shop wall as one of the shops specialities. During their stay in this shop, from 1946-1949 they created many inset license plates for their customers. George Barris possibly did his first inset plate on his own personal 1936 Ford convertible when he was working with Harry Westergard in Sacramento in the early 1940’s. When Barris published their printed Price-List around late 1953-early 1954, the Inset or recessed license plate was not even mentioned anymore. It showed that this styling technique had become outdated by then.
This might possibly the first inset license plate George Barris created. It was done on his own personal 1936 Ford convertible he build in the early 1940’s when he was still living in Sacramento and working and learning from Harry Westergard. The work looks to be rough and unfinished in this 1942-43 photo.
Created around 1946-47 for owner Dick Fowler the Barris Inset the license pate in this well proportioned 1938 Ford Coupe. The car is currently (2016) owned by Custom Car Historian and collector Curt McCormick and undergoing a full restoration. This photo was taken at the 2011 Customs Then & Now exhibit at the GNRS in Pomona California.
A close up of the Fowler coupe inset plate shows that the opening has rather sharp edges. Since there are no known original photos of this car showing the back we do not know if the original installment of the plate was behind glass or not.
The inset plate the George Barris created for John Vera, in this photo owned by Johnny Zaro, was done really perfect. The shape of the opening, the way the edges are rounded, the depth of the plate and the fact it was behind glass make this a very beautiful sample.
Fortunately the Vera/Zaro Ford has survived and has been restored so this allows us to get a really good look at this set up. Notice how the rounded edges matches the edges of the body and the curve used to mold the splash pan to the body. The restored car uses a 1949 Plymouth bumper instead of the original 1946 Ford unit.
Inset plates with surrounds.
As mentioned in the list of different styles for the Inset License plates one one of the versions that was used was the inset with a nice chrome plated surround around the opening.
It appears that this chrome surround is actually inside the hole cut into the trunk of this 1939 Ford convertible sedan. The chrome trim ring sits flush with the body, which is a nice detail, but the shadow shows that the plate is sitting rather deep behind the actual opening, which shows the installment was perhaps not as refined as others.
Another variant on the chrome surrounded version is that a custom made chrome plated surround sits on top of the body holding the glass. This option gives the car a very nice, luxurious feel.
While most of the inset plates we have seen are placed behind a smaller than the actual plate size opening from inside the trunk. We have also found a few plates that are actually placed inside a recessed panel that is the same size, or perhaps slightly larger than the actual plate size. This way the complete license plate can be seen, but is sitting inside an recessed section of the body, giving it a nice finished look. The plus for this method it that the complete plate is visible, and most likely not a reason for cops to have a better look, and a possible ticket.
Thomas Douglas of Miami, Florida had a Sports Custom created by Doray Inc also from Miami. They incorporated a recessed license plate including fancy chrome plated surround. They even made the unit to hinge to give access to the hidden gas filler pipe mounted in the center behind the license plate.
The end of an era…
Later in the 1940’s the bumper designs became heavier to which it was much easier to add the license plates to without ruining the overall design of the car/bumpers. Also more and more cars came with integrated license plate surrounds, or the ’49 Chevy plate surround was adapted to be able to integrate the plates with the bumpers from the cars that did not have this option. The need to find a more attractive solution to add the license plates to a car became less and less on the late 1940’s and up cars. In the late 1940 and 1950’s very few inset license plates were created. Later, towards the end of the 1950’s, when the car shows, and scoring points at these shows became very important, the inset plates became more popular once again. This time it was the recessed version that was used on quite a few show cars. License plates recessed into heavily modified rear panels, or recessed with an molded in surround. Usually the used of the recessed plated during these later years was combined with a roll pan, or split bumpers.
There are also some production cars from the 1950’s that used the inset license plates. The 1953 and up Corvettes are probably the best known samples of this. The production car even came with a glass cover over the recess.
In more recent years the Mini Truck crowd is using the recessed plate designs on their cars a lot again. You can buy complete license plate recess kits today that allows you to recess the license plates into the pick up bed, or any flat surface on the back of your car. Some kits include hidden light options. Often the license plates on these Mini Trucks are mounted on an odd angle… It makes me wonder how many of the people who use these kits know its original designs dates back to the early 1930’s.
Gil Ayala created a recessed license plate in the custom roll pan on his Personal Custom T-Bird. It is good sample of the custom restyling using inset or recessed plates in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s.
Special thanks to David E.Zivot, Craig Wise, Ed Jenson, Tim Cunha, George Barris, Ron Brooks, Billy Crewl, Mark Murray and others for helping with information and the many photos used in this article.
More info on the CCC-Forum
If you want to know more about the Inset License Plate, how they have to be created, or the different styled being created by the CCC-Members, then check out the CCC-Forum Sunken Number Plate Trunks or the License Plate Behind Glass threads for more info, or to discuss the subject.
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