It’s been 14 years since the Kentucky legislature gave the Transportation Cabinet special permission to speed up the issuance of “Unbridled Spirit” license plates to replace what many Kentuckians dubbed the “Mr. Smiley” or “Teletubbies” license plate — a design that depicted a smiling, rising sun and the slogan “Kentucky: It’s that friendly.”
The design, which debuted in December 2002, was so unpopular that some drivers defaced or covered up the happy sun while others opted to pay more for specialty plates. In fact, sales of the Kentucky Horse Council license plate rose from around 3,000 in 2002 to more than 25,000 the following year because its image of a horse was preferable to the smiling sun.
But the lessons learned from that fiasco must still resonate with top officials, who unveiled a new, simpler state license plate on Friday.
Much like the current license plate, the new design gradually fades from white at the top to blue at the bottom and features an outline of the state in blue, but on the left rather than between the letters and numbers.
Noticeably gone is the Denver Bronco-lookalike horse head, and the words “Kentucky Unbridled Spirit” written in script have been replaced with “Bluegrass State” in smaller letters above “Kentucky” in all caps.
Another major difference is that the license plates will be produced digitally on flat aluminum rather than embossed metal with raised letters and numbers.
Not only is the new license plate a welcome change from its predecessors, but the state will also save money because the plates will be printed as needed rather than mass produced — meaning KYTC won’t need to worry about or pay for unused inventory or storage space.
Under the current process, KYTC must account, store and handle hundreds of license plate types at more than 145 locations and two warehouses. The new technology will allow the requested number of plates to be shipped directly to county clerks’ offices.
The updated license plates, which are being printed at Intellectual Technologies Inc.’s Fort Wayne, Indiana, plant after outbreaks of COVID-19 at the Kentucky State Reformatory forced the temporary shutdown of production, will gradually replace the older plates.
The procedure to purchase license plates at county clerks’ offices will remain unchanged, as will the fees and lineup of available special plates.