Like most states, Colorado offers a standard plate (the "mountain range" issue) and a wide variety of extra-cost optional plates. But the ones most people tend to be mystified by are the ones with three-letter codes along the left edge. These codes all denote a specific type of registration - sometimes it's easy to figure out the abbreviations, but for those outside the state (or for plate collectors trying to understand what they're buying) it can be like deciphering runes.
These "code" plates come in three different colors depending on their intended use, with the green varieties being the most common. We'll explore those green plates here, and I'll give a few pointers for those who engage in the fun sport of plate-spotting.
CCL / Commercial Call Letter.These plates arrived at some point during the 1970s (the ALPCA Archives aren't entirely clear on when), as TV and radio stations began to request plates with specific call letters on them for their mobile broadcasting trucks. Colorado had previously issued add-on tags to licensed broadcasters with the call letters included, but these were intended for use along with a standard passenger or truck plate. My theory: At some point, the state decided it would be easier to just make regular-size plates with the stations' call numbers on them and save the cost of issuing the add-on plates as well. (Even so, the add-on plates didn't fully disappear until at least the late 1980s.) For plate-spotting purposes, find a TV or radio truck of any kind (they tend to be pretty visible) and you might see one - but not always. Stations do use regular passenger plates as well, so it's sometimes hit-or-miss. The serial number is usually the four call letters plus a serial number, such as "KKTV-11" or similar. Like all of Colorado's current personalized plates, these are only made in flat styles.
FTK / Farm Truck. In the old days, these used to be green and simply said "FARM" on them. After 2000, when Colorado redesigned all of their plates, they switched to a standardized graphic background and created this new abbreviation. FTK plates are available only for light trucks, and only to registrants who own a farm and can prove it via tax or business records. If you're plate-spotting...well, get out of the city! Then search for pickup trucks that look like they've put in some work. The eastern plains counties are a good place to start. These can be personalized up to seven characters, and will be flat if that's the case.
FTR / Farm Tractor. Similar to the lighter-duty FTK plates, but intended for heavy-duty truck-tractors (to pull semi trailers) or traditional agricultural tractors (to pull balers, spreaders, plows, tillers, sprayers, wagons, and everything else). These can also be personalized up to seven characters. Truck-tractors used on farms are required to carry one of these or a more common red TVW plate, but it's a voluntary option for ag tractors (with the usual safety triangle for slow-moving vehicles being sufficient for road use in most cases).
GVT / Government. Colorado's older government plate system was, while interesting for the latter-day collector, a mess in terms of categorization. Plates were split into three different types: State, County, or City. Theoretically, there were then differences in the serial numbers to denote what kind of vehicle was being registered (be they cars, trucks, or trailers). Come 2000, the state scrapped all that in favor of one simple "GVT" plate to be used by any government entity and vehicle regardless of size or type. (Older vehicles may still carry one of the 1990s-style gray plates, but they are rapidly disappearing as cities and counties upgrade their fleets to newer models.) GVT plates generally do not carry expiration stickers, at least in the larger counties and cities, but this may vary depending on your location. For plate-spotting, your best bet is to find a city or county police vehicle. These are the only vehicles pretty much guaranteed to carry GVT plates, as other types like service trucks or school buses may not always be government-owned and will sometimes carry standard passenger plates.
RTK / Recreational Truck. Starting in the 1970s, when usage of pickup trucks for more than just commercial purposes began to become more common, Colorado had the bright idea to register this growing number of non-commercial pickups in a separate class. They created a distinctive plate with "REC. TRUCK" designators and a bold gold-on-green color scheme, which made it easy to tell the "work" trucks from the "play" trucks. In practice, most pickups of any type still carried standard "TRUCK" plates on the off chance that they might be used for working purposes. When Colorado redesigned their plates for the new millennium, the "REC. TRUCK" notation was shortened to "RTK" and the distinctive colors disappeared. Finally, in 2005 or so, the state made the decision to remove "TRK" plates from general issuance - thus making RTK plates the only type specifically designated for non-commercial pickups. If you're plate-spotting, look for pickups and look closely. These can also be personalized up to seven characters, and will be made as flat plates if that's the case.
SCL / Social Call Letter. These would be known in most other states as amateur radio plates. Up until 2000, Colorado's amateur radio plates were effectively a special vanity plate, carrying nothing to distinguish them other than the probability of a crossed-out "0" (zero) character if the registrant's call letters included it. (Most of these plates will use that character, as Colorado is within zone "0" according to North American radio licensing rules.) Like a vanity plate, it is flat and allows up to seven characters, which safely covers all the possible combinations currently being issued by the FCC. If you're plate-spotting, look for vehicles carrying large antennae, and you might see one of these.
SMM / Special Mobile Machine. As Colorado defines it, these plates are for "a vehicle or equipment that is not designed primarily for the transportation of persons or cargo over the public highways" - in essence, for stuff like construction equipment. In plate form, this is a class that's beginning to decline somewhat, as the state has begun to issue SMM decals instead as of this year. (The decals are most commonly used when a piece of equipment has been attached to a standard vehicle like a pickup, thus allowing the pickup to be separately registered with a regular plate.) You'll most commonly find SMM plates on dedicated machinery like cranes, bulldozers or loaders.
SMX / Special Mobile Machine Exemption. This is a motorcycle-sized add-on plate for truly oddball machinery, the kind that doesn't lend itself to compliance with regular highway lighting requirements. These are not very common; to spot one in the wild you'd first have to find a vehicle with an SMM plate or sticker, then see if it's got one of these attached as well. I've never actually seen a real one myself!
TRK / Special-Use Truck. There's a long story here, just to warn you in advance. These used to be everywhere on the roads, being the standard plate issued to light trucks and cargo vans. But as the number of people buying pickup trucks for personal use increased dramatically during the 1990s and 2000s, the state decided to save some money in production costs by issuing regular passenger plates to trucks going forward. So, after 2005 or so, these TRK plates began to be relegated to what the state defines as "special-use" trucks. Any TRK plate you see on a regular pickup truck or cargo van is one that's been grandfathered in - when that vehicle is sold and registered to a new owner, it'll lose the TRK plate. Hence, these are rapidly disappearing from common usage. For plate-spotting purposes, this is the list of trucks allowed to carry these plates:
- Concrete trucks (either pumpers or mixers)
- Beverage trucks (only those with roll-up sides)
- Trash trucks (either with a compactor or a winch for roll-off bins)
- Recycling trucks (either collector or roll-off types)
- Mobile veterinary trucks
- Vehicles transporting race horses
- Recovery trucks (tow trucks or wreckers)
- Mobile medical trucks (blood bank or rolling clinic)
Good luck finding some of those - the "race horse transport truck" in particular doesn't seem like it would be a common sight on the roads. In any case, the plate will be the same type no matter what. My theory is that the state will continue to register the limited of number of qualifying vehicles this way until their remaining stock of TRK plates finally runs out.
TRL / Trailer. Colorado, unlike some states, requires every single trailer in the state (even the itty-bitty ones) to have a license plate. This particular type is more commonly found on light trailers, while larger semi-trailers more often carry apportioned-type plates. These can be personalized up to seven characters, and will be made as a flat plate if that's the case.
In the next installment, I'll explain the various types of "red" plates.