County Prefixes

Pre-County Number      47 County Number      48 County Number
New Mexico’s law enforcement officials had long wanted a license plate numbering system by which they could tell at a glance what part of the state any given vehicle was from. This finally came about with the 1947 plates, which at that time were being manufactured at the New Mexico State Penitentiary.

State prison warden Howell Gage announced in October 1946 that county number prefixes would be included on New Mexico’s license plates beginning with the 1947 tags. Santa Fe County, the location of the state capitol, would get number 1, whereas all the rest would be assigned numbers according to their rank in total sales of license plates. The sales numbers were based on the most recent year for which complete sales figures were available, i.e., those for 1945.

The same system of assigning county numbers was to be used for 1948, again applying the most recent sales figures, which were now the figures for 1946. Not unexpectedly, the sales rankings had changed during the intervening year, and most of the county number assignments had to be changed.

Fortunately, someone realized that changing the county number prefixes each year was not only counterproductive, but doing so defeated the entire purpose of having them in the first place. Consequently, a decision was later made to leave the numbers permanently in the order they stood in 1948.

Nonetheless, from a historical standpoint, we are left with two different sets of county numbers to contend with, one for 1947 and another for 1948-1971. These are shown in the table below.

Los Alamos County, which was created in 1949 by carving out of portions of Sandoval and Santa Fe Counties, was added to the end of the list as number 32, without disrupting the other assignments. The numbers then stayed this way until they were discontinued entirely in 1972. (Truck plates kept the county prefixes through 1974.) Cibola County, created by lopping off the western portion of Valencia County, came into being in 1981 and was therefore never a part of the county prefix system.

     W.J. McInnes, a wealthy banker in the Roswell area (Chaves County) had New Mexico license plate #3 from 1926 through the early 1950s. When the county number prefixes were introduced in 1947, Chaves was assigned county #3, and McInnes’ plate number became 3-3. The following year, and all years thereafter, Chaves was assigned county #4, and the McInnes plates were #4-3 from then on (see images at top of this page).
NM county numbers

The New Mexico County Numbers that Never Happened

Not long after county numbers were introduced in 1947 for New Mexico’s license plates officials in Mora County became apoplectic over their county’s assignment dead last in the list at #31. The existing numbering method was based on the number of motor vehicles registered in each county during the most recent year for which complete figures were available.

The replacement method proposed by Mora officials would have renumbered the counties according to the dates they were created, and they prevailed upon the state legislature to pass a bill which would have changed the numbering method accordingly. Then-Governor Thomas J. Mabry, however, refused to sign the bill, thus leaving the existing system in place. [Carlsbad Current-Argus, March 26, 1947, p4]

But to see what the proposed system of numbering by county creation date would have looked like had bill become law, click here.
County Name Stickers
From roughly late 1976 to 2001, New Mexico’s license plates were manufactured with a depression centered on the top edge of the plate. Within this “sticker box” was placed a self-adhesive label bearing the name of the county in which the plate was issued. There was no legal requirement that the stickers be displayed, however, and often they were not. Ultimately, the sticker box was done away with, but county-name stickers can usually still be obtained at some Motor Vehicle Division offices. The county names on these stickers were originally printed in red block letters but in recent years an “italics” style font has been used. (Red legislative plates were given stickers with yellow lettering for readability.)
For much more information on county number prefixes and the allocation of license plates to the counties, please see the book Early New Mexico License Plates.