As hard as it is to picture life in California without dealing with
the DMV, the department didn't always exist. Prior to the invention of
the automobile, there was no need for the California DMV. After all,
there was no license required to drive a horse-drawn carriage.
However, as the automobile became an inescapable fixture of modern
life, it was clear that the new contraption would have to be regulated.
In first few years of the 20th century, this function was handled by
city and county governments, who also licensed other wheeled vehicles
such as bicycles. In 1905, this job was moved up to the state level and
was handled by the secretary of state. In order to legally drive a car,
the owner first had to register it with the secretary of state, who
would insure that it was in good working order and safe to drive. Back
in those days, it only cost $2.00 to register your car!
At the beginning of the automobile era, it appears that the state had
no idea who should handle keeping track of the cars that were appearing
on California roads in ever-increasing numbers. Just 8 years after the
secretary of state began registering cars, the task was transferred to
the state treasurer. After December 31, 1913, not only did cars have to
be licensed, but drivers did, too. A few short years later in 1915, the
California DMV was born and took over the functions of licensing and
According to the DMV's website, in 1905 there were 17,015 registered
automobiles in the entire state of California. By 1915, when the
Department was created, there were 191,000 vehicles. With such a huge
increase in car ownership in just one decade, it's easy to see why the
state needed an entire department dedicated to the automobile!
In 1921, the DMV became part of the Division of Motor Vehicles, part of
California's finance department. However, 10 years later, in 1931, it
became an independent government entity once more. In 1923, the police
arm of the DMV, the California Highway Patrol, was created as part of
the California Vehicle Act. In 1935, the California Vehicle Code was
enacted so that whole state of California would be on the same page
when it came to the rules of the road. The DMV is still responsible for
enforcing the Vehicle Code and keeping records of violations.