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The Museum of Swiss Bicycle License Plates displays the world's largest and most complete collection of embossed bicycle license plates, issued by the Swiss authorities between 1892 and 1988.
The Museum of Swiss Bicycle License Plates is, in terms of the number of objects shown, the largest virtual museum in Europe (as of January 2013). The collection includes over 2,500 pictures, made accessible to the public on the internet.
What are “Year Initials”?
There is more to Switzerland than just clocks, chocolate and yodelling people. We are also a country of researchers, we have the world’s longest tunnel and were the first to introduce obligatory bicycle license plates, Year Initials or Velonummern in Swiss.
Bicycles were only licensed for use on public roads with the obligatory third-party liability insurance. To this end a new licence plate had to be purchased each year and attached to the bicycle. The first plates were issued in 1892, the last in 1988.
“Year Initials” are considerably rarer than stamps, coins or enamel advertising signs, and some of the older license plates have been lost forever. It is probably the case that there are no more than 500 copies available for any single canton, including the most recent plates. There are only five notable collections worldwide. The Museum of Swiss Bicycle License Plates presents the largest and most complete.
Each “Year Initials” is an original item and contains the following information:
- Year (some exceptions apply prior to 1935)
- Canton (normally as initials)
- Serial number (makes each plate unique).
What has been a matter of course for us in Switzerland for almost 100 years is a concept that is difficult to grasp in the rest of the world. License plates for bikes - that too is Swissness!
Donation to the Swiss Museum of Transport
Of course the Swiss Museum of Transport in Lucerne, known the world over, also has a bicycle licence plate collection. However, it is considerably smaller than ours. Our founder, Marco Fritz, donated more than 300 plates that were missing from the museum’s collection. We take pride in the fact that our donation has played a small part in Switzerland’s most visited museum. http://www.verkehrshaus.ch/en/
From an article of daily use to a cult item
From 1934 each “Year Initials” was valid for one year. Hardly anyone took the trouble to keep the plates. We assume that more than 98% of the manufactured plates were thrown away or melted down. As soon as the Swiss authorities decided not to manufacture new licenses after 1988, Marco Fritz, founder of the Museum of Swiss Bicycle License Plates, tried to salvage some of the last “Year Initials” before they were destroyed. Although we now have the world’s largest “Year Initials” collection, it runs to just 8,000 items. There is not a single plate of which we have more than 30 copies. That means each plate is a rarity.
The embossed year makes “Year Initials” a personal birthday gift. Its rarity renders it a sought-after collector’s item, while the legendary design and creative variety make it a topic for designers and art historians. Workshops make fashion accessories out of them, while bike fans see them as a cool “cherry on the top” for their best horse in the stable. The seemingly rather peculiar idea of their founders in 1892 and the associated Swissness have turned the former basic commodity into a unique souvenir and a cult object.
The original – a genuine piece of Switzerland
Are you looking for a really special recollection of Switzerland and its past? “Year Initials” are one of the last genuine souvenirs associated with real life in Switzerland. Each plate, and its respective bicycle, has discovered a part of Switzerland, and has its individual history and its own little secret.
Bicycle license plates (Year Initials) were also obligatory in the Netherlands and Belgium, but the initiators of this exotic invention were the Swiss already in 1892.
No other country has developed such a creative variety in respect of designing bicycle licence plates. In line with typical Swiss tradition, each canton exercised its autonomy to the full in this area too, which gave rise to a colourful and extremely interesting range of forms, sizes, colours, fonts, systems, materials and finishes. The canton of Lucerne (LU) issued the first plates as early as 1892. The canton of Basel-Stadt (BS) followed in 1894. These early versions were valid for several years. From 1906 “Year Initials” were introduced throughout Switzerland. The canton of Jura (JU), established at a later date, is special in that it issued the first plates for 1980 and was the first canton to change to stickers as early as 1987.
“Year Initials” are not license plates as in the case of cars, but rather obligatory third-party liability insurance. The plates normally had to be purchased from the district authorities or at a police station. The keeper, brand and bicycle frame number were registered by way of the appertaining insurance card. This enabled stolen bicycles to be identified for example.
Up until 1959 most of the cantons adopted their own style in respect of designing their “Year Initials”. This was also the most interesting period in terms of design. In addition to rectangular (wide and high), round and oval plates were manufactured as well as plates in the form of a trapeze or a coat of arms. Some cantons manufactured clasps made of sheet metal that were attached to the bicycle frame. The choice of materials knew no bounds either. In addition to aluminium, enamel, copper, iron and even riveted sheet metal were used. Plates were pressed, embossed, riveted and enamelled. Some cantons restricted designs to one background and one font colour, while the particularly creative cantons used up to four.
Some cantons remained true to their designs over decades, while others changed the form or colours every year. Even the font varied, whereby the canton of Ticino (TI), above all, used the plate as a tribute to the canton. Unfortunately, hardly any have survived to the present.
In 1960 the era of unlimited design options unfortunately came to an end, probably for economical reasons. The canton of Appenzell Ausserrhoden (AR) was the last to change to the rectangular form (high) made of aluminium. Merely the cantons Basel-Land (BL) and Thurgau (TG) differed up until 1961 in respect of the size of their plates compared with other cantons. From 1962 all plates had a red background and the same format 5 cm x 8 cm (1.97 x 3.15 in).
Thereafter the design option was restricted from year to year and ultimately only the font colour could be changed. While for example Aargau (AG) and Basel-Stadt (BS) used five different colours, Zürich (ZH) alternated between two colours and cantons such as Bern (BE) and Neuchâtel (NE) used just a single colour. The canton of Bern (BE) stood out during this period by using writing forms in the same year. The plates were probably embossed by different manufacturers.
The last “Year Initials” were embossed in 1988. Subsequently instead of a plate just a sticker was issued that was stuck directly onto the bicycle. Registering the keeper etc. was waived. The new feature of these stickers included the fact that they were available from post offices, railway stations and supermarkets etc. In September 2010 parliament decided to abolish these stickers throughout Switzerland. The conclusion drawn was that more than 90% of the population already had private third-party liability insurance, and the stickers therefore resulted in an inappropriate double cover for the same risk. October 5, 2011 the government (Federal Council) decided to repeal the vignette at the end of 2011 definitely.
Federal operations such as post offices, railways, customs and the army were unique in that they had official bicycles that used uniform plates throughout Switzerland that were valid without restrictions, and in part were labelled with a Swiss cross.
The Principality of Lichtenstein (FL) is located on the eastern boarder of Switzerland. The small state had already adopted the Swiss franc as its currency, and the “Year Initials” were used according to the same norms as those in Switzerland. This explains why there are not 26 (number of Swiss cantons) but 27 different initials.