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Washington, D.C. Rental Car License Plates


This special series of license plates for use exclusively on rental cars is thought to have been introduced in 1927. The type existed through the 1954 registration year and then appears to have been abandoned, only to resurface in April 1964. Plates of the 1984 ("A Capital City") base appear to have been issued for about 30 years, through mid-2103 when flat plates in the style then being made for other vehicle types were first observed.


1931 Rental plate no. R-11952 Rental plate no. R-99

1965 (exp. 3-31-66) Rental plate no. RC-8531966 (undated, exp. 3-31-67) Rental plate no. RD-996 validated for 1967 (exp. 3-31-68)1968 (undated, exp. 3-31-69) Rental plate no. RA-2950


Rental Car Multi-Year Baseplates Issued Since 1974

1974 base Rental Car plate no. R-162
1974 Baseplate This baseplate was likely issued for rental cars during the same period that it was issued for passenger vehicles, that being April 1974 through March 1978. We also assume that R-101 was the first number issued because 101 is the known starting point for other types on this base. Only R-160 and R-162 have been observed.
1978 base Rental Car plate no. R-3755
  1978 Baseplate This base was probably issued only for new registrations from April 1978 through Sept. 1984, as was the case with auto plates of the same design. The lowest and highest numbers observed on this base are R-3755 and R-6267.
1984 Rental Car plate no. R-14367
1984 Baseplate This base was likely introduced in Oct. 1984 or shortly thereafter, and was issued for about 30 years. The lowest and highest numbers observed on this base are R-9299 and R-27200.
2013 Rental Car plate no. R-30710
2013 Baseplate This base was first observed in use in late June 2013. The lowest and highest numbers observed on this base, all of which are made in the flat format, are R-30027 and R-30982.
2014 Rental Car plate no. R-31265
2014 Baseplate This base, with DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA at the top instead of WASHINGTON, D.C., was first observed in use in mid-March 2014. The lowest number reported thus far is R-31014.


Rental Car Plate Numbering

Before 1935. Whether special plates were issued for vehicles offered for rent prior to 1927 is unknown, although we believe that this registration type was among several created for that year. In a Dec. 1932 D.C. government memo, the type and its numbering are referenced as "R-1 to R-9999 for passenger motor vehicles for hire where driver is not furnished." Rental car plates numbered sequentially beginning at R-1 were issued annually through 1934.

1935 Through 1947 ("3-31-47" with "48" tab). Like plates of other non-passenger types issued during this period, rental car plates featured all-numeric combinations and the type name embossed. A 1939 plate with registration number 11-050 and RENTAL at the bottom has been observed.

1948 Through 1954 ("3-31-54" with "55" tab). Rental plates of this era are numbered as they were prior to 1935, with an R prefix followed by a serial number.

1955 ("3-31-56") Through 1963 ("3-31-64"). Documents are at hand in which plates of 1948 through 1966 are described. These memoranda were typically drafted about one year before the start of the registration year for which the plates being described were to be issued, and in most cases they include a list of non-passenger plates and how they would be marked. For example, a Feb. 17, 1948, memo in which plates to be used during the registration year to begin April 1, 1949, are described includes a list of plate types and numbers, including "R-1 to R-9999 - Rental cars."

The last (until 1963) memo in which this type is included is dated May 1, 1952, and describes the green-on-white 1953 plates (marked "3-31-54") to be introduced eleven months later. The notation is as follows: "R - rental cars." The 1953 plate was used for two years, so the next plate issue called for in one of these DMV memos is that of 1955 ("3-31-56").

1955 and 1956. The May 21, 1954, document in which 1955 plates are described includes a list of non-passenger types and their letter prefix, but R is conspicuous in its absence. General-issue auto plates of these years are numbered in an AB-12-34 format and begin only with the letters A and E. We have seen no plates of either year that begin with an R, but if any are found it could safely be assumed that they are rental car plates. However, because any reference to R-series plates is absent from both the 1955 and 1956 plate memos, we believe it is likely that it was purposely removed and that special plates ceased to be made and issued for use on rental cars effective with the 1955 registration year.

1957 Through 1963. Although DMV memos in which plates of these registration years are described omit R from the list of non-passenger prefix letters, plates with an R prefix are known for each of the years. Some of them have numbers as high as the Z series, such as a 1963 plate number RZ-104. If the entire R series was used and assigned only to rental vehicles, this would mean that there were almost 20,000 registrations of this type, which is highly unlikely. Therefore, it appears that R-series plates of this era were indeed issued for private passenger use. It is possible that vehicles owned by rental car companies were purposely registered only with R-series plates, but that series certainly does not appear to have been limited to this registration type.

1964 ("3-31-65") and 1965 ("3-31-66"). The apparent reintroduction of distinctive plates for rental cars came simultaneously with the shift away from an AB-123 format for private cars. Because rental plates of these years retained that configuration, they are noticeable. At the end of October 1963, the order calling for 1964 plates was amended so that "tags RA-100 to RA-999 inclusive, RB-100 to RB-999 inclusive, and RC-100 to RC-999 inclusive shall be issued to automobile rental agencies." For 1965, the allocation was expanded to seven series, namely RA-100 through RG-999, an example of which is pictured above. Having distinctive plates for rental cars was suggested in the interest of their being "desirable as an aid to enforcement authorities."

1966-1973. Confusion exists about rental car plates of this period, as it does for plates of most non-passenger types, for several reasons. Many non-passenger plates of this era are undated, they were not replaced simultaneously and validated in a consistent manner, and many held by collectors today are unissued leftover stock. Unissued plates are not always representative of plates that were used, and therefore can lead us to inaccurate conclusions about the style of plates that were issued.

One might expect the appearance, numbering, and replacement schedule of rental car plates of this period to be similar to hire (taxi) plates, a similar public service type, but this does not appear to be the case. We simply have not observed enough used 1966-73 rental plates to know how they appeared and were numbered. The examples shown above, numbers RD-996 (which was issued and used) and RA-2950 (which was not) are the only plate styles known. With such limited information we are left to assume that the appearance and replacement cycle of rental car plates of this era are consistent with general-issue passenger car plates, which is to say that the 1966 base (such as number RD-996) was used for two years, and the undated 1968 base (such as number RA-2950) was used for six, revalidated annually with stickers. As for numbering, it appears that the 1966 base was numbered consistently with or similar to the 1965 base. Regarding the 1968 base, a DMV memo dated Aug. 15, 1967, directs that the block of numbers set aside for this type be expanded to RA-001 through RZ-9999 "to provide for more tag numbers in the rental category to accommodate the increased demand in this series."

Since 1974. R-prefix plates were issued on the 1974 ("BICENTENNIAL"), 1978 ("NATION'S CAPITAL"), 1984 ("A Capital City") bases, and current ("TAXATION WITHOUT REPRESENTATION") baseplates. Numbers began at R-101 in 1974 and progressed sequentially. As of early 2014 it is unclear whether all numbers from 27200 through 29999 were issued on the 1984 base but numbers on the 2013 base are thought to have begun at R-30000.


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