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In the framework of the allied forces’ after-war relief effort, the Soviet Union received a couple of old US forms for manufacturing imprinted plates. At the beginning of 1930s, this technology was breakthrough both in manufacture and distribution. The rapid increase in numbers of automobiles and the responsibility to distribute license plates to hundreds and thousands of cars a day meant that they needed to be manufactured in large numbers in order to be readily supplied. Soviets liked the total control this method imposed on both manufacture and distribution. One of the forms made it to Czechoslovakia, where it was improved by Czech engineers. Thus, the new plates made in Czechoslovakia were much better than those made in the Soviet Union and matched the latest American ones. Most notable was the type of lettering used. Its unknown authors made a basic typeface set with each letter 74 × 40 mm large, with stroke width of 10 mm, all on a plate 490 × 100 mm large when single-lined and 320 × 200 mm when double-lined, with bevel corners, used (in a scaled-down version), for tractors and motorcycles. This elementary typeface was slightly modified over the years (such as the change of proportions carried out between 1986 and 1994), but it prevails up to these days. It is one of the rare elements of our everyday visual reality which remains unchanged, documenting the skills of those who designed it. Is there any other symbol of Czech national identity which remained unchanged over 54 years, and which could be seen in several millions of instances every day?

SPZ — the State License Plate
Let’s go back to the 1950s, however. The lettering was standardised, the said standard was labelled as top secret, and the embossed plates received their name, widespread up to these days — SPZ. This way, it was clear where things stood, who had which right and what duty. However, the plates did not aid recognition at all, because the welltried regional system with alphanumerical coding was replaced by a so-called American one, tailored after a Soviet example. The plates featured two letters and a set of numbers: PP-99-99, where the first two letters did not indicate anything about the origin of the vehicle and in which region it was registered (this could have been a genious plot devised to confuse the imperialist enemy). The default version of the plate had white background, black rim and black lettering. Military vehicles had yellow plates with black numbers and no letters: 99-99-99, and up to the end of 1960s, they were not embossed, but hand-painted with stencils. In the same way, the black and white plates of police and security forces were made, which were, up to 1994, easily distinguished from all the others with their original coding B 99999, dating back to the late 1940s. A sad fact in the history of Czech license plates is that starting in 1960, they were made solely by prisoners in a closed-off factory unit of Strojsmalt near Bardejov, Slovakia. All civilian vehicles which could be used by the armed forces, that is, all utility vehicles, buses, tractors and trailers, had yellow plates with standard, civilian encoding. In case of mobilisation, these vehicles were to be immediately available at the disposal of armed forces. This, however, did not concern diplomats, foreign embassies‘ employees, and foreigners with permanent residency in Czechoslovakia, whose special license plates also had yellow background, but red lettering. Although the quality of these embossed license plates could not be compared to today’s ones, visually, they were much more advanced than those used in some of the most developed countries of Europe. Up until the beginning of 1960, similarly to the Soviet custom, the license code of utility vehicles was also painted onto the body of the truck with large white letters, possibly to aid visual control in low visibility.

Author: Petr Marinov, Translate: Olga Neumanová
Published by TYPO (typography · graphic design · visual communication)
TYPO.28 - August 2007