License plates have always interested me. When I was a kid in Ontario in the late 1970s and early 1980s, I remember paying attention to the plate numbers of my family and our neighbours.
One sunny summer evening in 1984, I was playing with my friends when I saw a license plate just sitting at the edge of a front lawn, by the curb. I snatched it up and ran home. It found a place on the wall of my bedroom. It didn't occur to me to look for other plates... I just wanted something cool to hang in my room, and that was that.
To The Dump
Later that summer, my sister and I were out at the family cottage. Mom and Dad were busy doing repairs, and we kids were pretty bored. Our neighbour from the next lot over, a fantastic guy named Larry Smith, mentioned that he was heading into nearby Searchmont for the afternoon, and he brought us along for the ride to show us some neat things in the nearby area. We explored an old footbridge crossing the Goulais River, saw the recently-burned-out general store, and went to the remains of the old Whitman Dam.
On our way back, we stopped at the area dump to throw away some garbage. I walked over to a pile of junked cars, and there, looking me in the eye, from the front of an avocado-green 1969 Ford station wagon, was a license plate. Ontario. JMB-624. That's when it happened. I had to have it, but alas, we didn't have any tools. It wasn’t until weeks later when I coaxed my dad into making a trip back there. With his help, I retrieved the plate I saw, plus two others.
Through the rest of the 1980s, the Searchmont dump remained my only conventional source of license plates. In the picture above, at centre, my sister and I can be seen are searching the Searchmont wrecks for plates to add to my collection. I would pull every plate I could find, no matter how crumpled or rusty. I experienced a deep feeling of euphoric victory every time I was able to find a plate during my dump runs, which could only occur when my dad had renovation debris to haul away. At that rate, I went only once every few months, and while I was there, I had only five or ten minutes before dad would start honking and pretending to drive away. My collection consisted almost entirely of stuff that would be graded no more than "fair" by ALPCA standards, and all of it was just common Ontario cars and trucks from the 70's and 80's. They were all gold to me.
When I started university in London, Ontario, in 1993, I took my bike for a ride across town to go exploring. I found a tiny urban flea market open on that Sunday morning, so I went in, seeing how nothing else had been open. I found a stall with a great pair of 1938 Ontario plates. The vendor sold them to me for $15. Those 38s were a staple in my collection. I still have the better of the two.
In my summers, I had to work in the day during the weekends, so I got into the habit of waking at the crack of dawn on Saturday and enjoying the early morning. I encountered a few garage sales on those mornings. Sometimes I would explore antique shops in the surrounding towns. At one such shop in Grand Bend, I found my 1962 Ontario diplomat plate for an easy $4. Another time, a restaurant was closing down and was selling all its antique decor. All the old folks there wanted the milk cans. I nailed a box of plates that day for $10, which contained one of my collection's crown jewels: A Canadian Forces in Germany plate issued to a Commanding Officer.
I continued, of course, to go junkyarding in Northern Ontario to find plates whenever the opportunity presented itself. In those days, motorists from the north didn't pay an annual fee to renew their plates. There was no incentive to take them off junked vehicles and turn them in, as there wouldn't be a refund. Thus, there were lots of plates to find on the derelict vehicles in the area.
In June of 1995, I was surfing the internet (sorta), using what I had available at the time-- it was all a series of DOS screens containing text menus linked to Gopher servers at universities across North America. You could do a search for something and it would search through posted documents. One interesting selection came up. It was a transcript of an article from the newspaper of Ohio State University-- The Lantern. It was about a guy named Joe Koldys who collected plates actively, which was very interesting to hear.
Not only was I not alone, but the article mentioned swap meets, and a real-live club full of people who collected license plates! I e-mailed the guy who posted the article, who put me in touch with the journalist who wrote it, who gave me Joe Koldys' mailing address. I wrote to him and asked him about his club. He replied with everything I needed to know to join, which I did right away. In August 1995 I became the 7135th member of the Automobile License Plate Collectors' Association.
My first ALPCA Convention was in 1996 in Peoria. The heat wave during that week seemed to suck the energy out of me, but I spent my time doing the rounds from open to close. It was overwhelming-- I felt like I’d reached the promised land. I had been completely alone beforehand, and suddenly, I was in a convention centre with 500 other collectors, with tables of plates filling the hall in all directions. Wow!
In 1997, I decided that I wanted to make a web site about license plates, so I scrounged around for money to cover the cost of the HTML classes. I learned how to write HTML, and on September 17, 1997, this website was born. I programmed the HTML manually for 20 years before finally rebuilding the site as you see it now.
In the spring of 2002, I created a prototype image of a motorcade plate for the Queen's Jubilee Tour in Ontario later on in the year. I submitted it to the Ontario government, and I had to write to a few different offices... it was hard to track down the person responsible for such a minor detail. Anyway, over the months, I found the right person, who liked the design and appreciated that motorcade plates would be a nice touch. In the end, they manufactured some motorcade plates, and incorporated part of my design. In acknowledgement of my contribution, I received an invitation to greet the Queen at the Festival of Ontario, in October of 2002, which I happily accepted. I also received nice thank-you letters from two different government offices, and they even sent me one of the plates made for the motorcade.
In 2003, I began restoring and selling pairs of Ontario plates to classic car owners for registration under the province’s then-new Year of Manufacture program. I checked the numbers beforehand to ensure they were usable, and then sold them with a guarantee. It took a few years to build up some steam, but eventually I registered as a small business and took the name Ontplates.com. It funds my plate-collecting, plus it’s great fun to go to car shows and see classic cars driving around with registered vintage plates that I restored by hand.
I enjoy attending the spring licence plate swap meet in Acton, as well as the fall meet in Grimsby, on a regular basis. I haven’t made many ALPCA Conventions recently, but I hope to do so more regularly now that my kids are old enough to tag along. I assembled a fun display of Ontario passenger plates at the Erie ALPCA Convention in 2009, which won a first-place award, although it was missing a couple of the rare oldies. However, I was able to improve my collection substantially a few years later, and so I went for broke with the first complete Ontario passenger plate run to displayed at an ALPCA Convention (Rochester 2014). I substituted short trailer plates for the 1944 and 1952 window stickers, but that's because I’m a plate guy, first and foremost.
I’m always sniffing out unusual Ontario plates, or trying to load up on stock for my business. If you have something that may be of interest, drop me a line!