Museo Svizzero di Targhe per Biciclette

The Museum of Swiss Bicycle License Plates is a non-profit association according to Swiss law.

Our Collection / Your Online-Shop

The collection of our museum is not for sale.

But our online shop provides over 6000 original vintage doublets for sale. The proceeds from the sale of the duplicates will be used by the non-profit association to maintain this website and to complete the documentation.

The Museum

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 1893 and 1988.

The aim of our museum is to provide the public with the most complete documentation possible of Swiss bicycle license plates. A virtual museum is particularly suitable for this. It is accessible to interested parties from all over the world, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

The completeness of the documentation of over 98% of all plates is only possible thanks to the support of various collectors and archives, who continuously contribute photos of missing plates. To date they have provided over 700 pictures of missing bike license plates. These collectors are mentioned on each of their plates. Thank you for supporting our project to Christian Vontobel, Stefan Hotan, Christoph Zemp, Daniel Hediger, Stefan Mathis, Michael Hess, Christian Lang, Georg Meier,  Michael Mahler and Louis Fierens.

If you have a plate that is not included in our documentation, we would appreciate it if you could provide us with a good photo of it. Feel free to contact us.

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 bicycle license plates (year initials)?

There is more to Switzerland than just clocks, chocolate and yodelling people. We are also a country of research, the world’s longest tunnel and the 120-year history of bicycle license plates, “year initials” or “Velonummern” in Swiss.

In the beginning, the bicycle license plates had the function of a license plate, like in cars. From the early 1920s, in the first cantons, bicycles were only permitted on public roads with compulsory liability insurance, which was included in the license plate fee. For this purpose, a new license plate had to be bought and attached to the bike every year. Before that, there were plates that were partially valid for several years. The first plates were issued from 1894, the last in 1988.

Bicycle license plates 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 plate, including the most recent ones. There are only five notable collections worldwide. The Museum of Swiss Bicycle License Plates presents the largest and most complete.

Each bicycle license plates 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. The Museum of Swiss Bicycle License Plates donated more than 500 plates that were missing from the Museum of Transport’s collection. We take pride in the fact that our donation has played a small part in Switzerland’s most visited museum.

From 2014 to 2017 we had the honor to present a small special exhibition with selected plates from our collection in the Swiss Museum of Transport in Lucerne.

In 2020, we decided to ship our own collection to the safe haven of the Swiss Museum of Transport in Lucerne so that the preservation of the bicycle license plates does not depend on the fate of a few people. This transfer will be completed by 2025.

From an article of daily use to a cult item

From 1934 each bicycle license plate 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, the Museum of Swiss Bicycle License Plates tried to salvage some of the last bicycle license plates before they were destroyed. Although we now have the world’s largest bicycle license plate 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 bicycle license plates (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 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? Bicycle license plates (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.

History (summary)

Here is a summary. This is the link to the detailed history of Swiss bicycle license plates.

For years, Switzerland has been the country with the highest average number of patent applications (per million inhabitants). This value is regarded as the ultimate indicator of a country’s innovative power. That’s why the question of the well-known advertising slogan for Ricola herbal sweets “Who invented it?” is of intrinsic importance in Switzerland.

There were also compulsory bicycle license plates in Austria, the Netherlands and France, for example. Our story deals in detail with the interesting and not entirely simple question of who invented the bicycle license plate. In any case, Switzerland can claim that no other country in the world has developed such a creative diversity in the design of bicycle license plates and that in no other country in the world have bicycle license plates caused such a stir politically.

Typically Swiss, each canton lived out its autonomy to the full in this area as well, which led to a colorful and extremely interesting range of shapes, sizes, colors, fonts, systems, materials and finishes. The first official regulations regarding bicycles and bicycle license plates were issued in Switzerland after 1892. Basel-Stadt was the first canton to introduce bicycle license plates in 1894. Graubünden was the last canton to issue bicycle license plates in 1923.

First there were plates for bicycles and only then for cars, since there were hardly any cars on the road before 1900. In the early years, the bicycle license plates served as real license plates, just like in cars; to identify the owners, as a permit and as proof of the payment of the fees. Only from the early 1920ies the bicycle license plate was linked gradually by the Cantons to the compulsory liability insurance. The plates usually had to be bought from the municipality or a police station. The holder as well as the brand and frame number of the bicycle were registered with the associated cyclist ID (cyclist card). In this way, e.g., a stolen bicycle could also be identified.

Up until the early 1950s, most cantons had their own style when it came to designing bicycle license plates. This was the most interesting period from a design point of view. In addition to rectangular plates, round and oval plates as well as trapezoidal and heart-shaped plates were produced. The largest plates were up to 13 cm large. There were also hardly any limits to the choice of materials. In addition to aluminum, enamel, copper, iron and riveted sheet metal etc. were used. It has been pressed, stamped, riveted, painted and enameled. Some cantons limited themselves to one background color and one font color, while the particularly creative ones used up to four colors. Some cantons stayed true to their design for decades, while others changed shape or colors every year. Even the font was varied in some cantons.

In several steps and for each canton at its own pace, the era of unlimited design options unfortunately came to an end with the federal law of 1958. From 1962 onwards, all plates then had a tomato-red, reflective background, the same graphic layout and the upright format of 5 x 8 cm.

After that, from year to year, the design options were limited to the color of the font. Even after that, however, some cantons tried to use the barely available, unregulated scope to differ in small details from the design of the other cantons. The canton of Ticino in particular, caused a stir with its creative protest actions by official bodies, even outside of the legal regulations.

In the detailed documentation of history, we will get a surprisingly clear impression of how Switzerland and its Swiss people “ticked” at that time using the insignificant example of a small, prescribed commodity. We have scattered chronologically between them the political, legal and social developments that have had a decisive influence on the history and design of bicycle license plates and, in their interaction, on the design of legislation to a surprising extent; first in individual cantons, then in associations of several cantons (concordats) and finally at federal level. We will see how the federal court was called upon for the first time in 1902, how a wide variety of interest groups form around the bicycle license plate and how underestimated movements become political heavyweights. We will experience how the Confederation and cantons communicate with each other; how interests are weighted, taken into account or ignored; how the political pendulum swings back and forth; how good and less good Swiss compromises emerge; how the Federal Council and Parliament are dealt a heavy defeat; how a vacuum is being created in federal legislation due to referendum policy considerations; how the cantons with their bicycle license plates violated federal law for decades, first hidden, then openly, and why this impertinence is tolerated. In the 27-year dispute over the interpretation sovereignty of the applicable federal law, we will get to know the various exponents and their points of view.

The last bicycle license plates were minted in 1988. Afterwards, instead of a plate, only a self-adhesive vignette was handed out, which on could stick directly on the bike. The registration of the owner and the bicycle was also dispensed with. These stickers were also sold via the post office, federal railways, supermarkets, etc. At the end of 2011 the vignette was also abolished. This marked the end of the eventful 120-year history of Swiss bicycle license plates.

A special feature was the federal enterprises such as the post office, the railways, customs and the army. They had service bicycles which used uniform plates for the whole of Switzerland, which were valid for an unlimited period and in some cases were marked with a Swiss cross.

The Principality of Lichtenstein (FL) lies on the eastern border with Switzerland. Since the small state has already adopted the Swiss franc as its currency, the bicycle license plates were also used according to the same standards as in Switzerland. For this reason, there are not 26 (number of Swiss cantons) but 27 different initials. However, the history in the Principality of Liechtenstein differs significantly from that in Switzerland.