This past summer, when I assembled the display that I brought to the ALPCA Convention in Rochester, I did my best to restore confidence in Ontario as a jurisdiction whose plates are worth collecting and displaying. I wanted to show folks how interesting Ontario plates can be, because the newer ones have been getting a lot of bad press over the past year or two. Unless you’ve never been to Ontario, or if you live here under a big rock, you probably know that newer Ontario plates have become notorious for losing their reflective sheeting… it’s just peeling away, all by itself. They look like pieces of trash bolted to our vehicles. It’s pathetic.
About five years ago, all I had to put up with was “bubbling” or “blistering,” where the reflective sheeting lifts away from the aluminum, but this only happens in isolated spots next to a sharp embossed die strike, and as long as the sheeting doesn’t tear in these spots, it’s hardly noticeable. Some “bubbled” plates, after years of use, develop fissures where these blisters are, resulting in dark gray lines around the numbers. Ugly, but at least it’s still legible. But that’s nothing compared to what we see today.
Plates between the BBAA and the BLZZ series have reflective sheeting from 3M. Something in the adhesive is causing general discolouration from white to a drab gray, even if the plates are kept in a collection indoors. There's a 2009 Ontario plate in my collection that used to be basically mint, but now, it's the same pewter gray as a 1929 or 1932 plate.
BHFT: A normally-appearing Ontario plate, with proper white background.
BCLE: A nearly unused Ontario plate, five years old, with graying background. Note the difference in brightness between the background and the white portions of the expiry sticker.
BHDN: This plate shows uneven discolouration. Note the wrinkles on the background, which has begun to peel away from the metal.
I do wonder if the discolouration is related to off gassing. My ’09 plate was basically stored at room temperature in a plastic bag, sandwiched tightly between other adjacent bagged plates. None of the plates in the box – even the neighbouring 2008 and 2010 plates – suffered any discolouration. I wonder the stinky odour that comes out of the 2009, somehow stays trapped within the bag and changes the colour of the background. I don’t have enough of these stinky / darkening plates to establish a pattern (fortunately), although other collectors have wondered whether humidity is a factor.
But the plates that stay in warm, dry collections fare much better than their brethren that are bolted to Ontario vehicles to be exposed to the elements. These plates not only turn dark, but they also peel as moisture seems to work its way under the background. Sometimes the background lifts in one section of the plate first, and other times the lifting is a gradual event that occurs over the entire face of the plate simultaneously. I remember when I first began noticing this effect on plates with dealership frames. The wrinkles throughout the face of the plate had the look of wet paper, and it was clear that the background had fully separated, with the frame being the only reason it hadn’t fallen right off. At first, I figured it was an isolated defect, but I began noticing more framed plates showing the same symptom. All of these plates had graying reflective sheeting.
BBVB: The background of this plate has fully separated from the metal. Only the frame is keeping it from falling off.
BDXE: A plate with no frame which has lost some of its peeled background.
BEFX: What's left of the reflective backing is just flapping in the breeze like a ribbon.
Of course, as time went on, I began to notice plates with bare metal here and there on the numbers, with the backing having actually peeled off. But as another winter passed, and another summer, I began to see plates with home-made paint repairs, and others that were completely stripped bare. Some vehicle owners had taken to printing the province name in magic marker. The problem began showing up in the local news, but soon enough CBC and CTV had covered the problem in the national news.
When the MTO was reached for comment, a spokesperson said something to the effect that Ontario plates have a service life of five years before they need replacing, which is absolute hogwash. Ontario hasn’t withdrawn and re-issued its passenger auto plates since 1973, so there are some older steel plates out there, still in use, that are over 40 years old! There has never been a life expectancy before, and only when the problem was featured in the news did the MTO weakly offer the life-expectancy explanation. But other reflective aluminum plates issued in the late 1990s are still going strong, so the issue here would clearly seem to be a recent trend toward poor quality. Whether that’s accidental, or the result of using inferior materials to cut production costs, is known only by the suits in the ivory tower.
What’s worse is that the MTO has no way to check the condition of one’s plate at the time of renewal. When we buy our renewal stickers at the counter in Ontario, we don’t have to bring the plate in to show anyone. Stickers can also be purchased online. It would seem that many people don’t want to pay the $20 fee for a replacement set of plates, because there’s no incentive to do so (unless having an eyesore on your vehicle drives you nuts and you voluntarily replace them). The only enforcement would seem to come from the OPP, although whether they’ll ticket a vehicle for using an illegible government license of inferior quality is probably a matter of officer’s discretion.
310: The peeling isn't limited to just car plates. This plate was photographed in use on a municipal transit bus.
LONESR: At $251.65, and $90 to re-order, vanity plates are not cheap in Ontario. This motorist has used blue tape to restore the legibility of the plates. This is likely an older set of vanity plates made before the current round of Peel-O-Matics, as the discolouration surrounds the numbers only, and there's no peeling... but still lousy product quality.
BESR: "Yours to Discover" and the embossed serial number handwritten with a marker.
It’s past time for Ontario to do a general re-issue. There are too many rusty and stripped plates out there. Other jurisdictions switch designs of general-issue plates every few years for exactly this reason. Even if the MTO doesn’t wish to redesign the plates, it wouldn’t be that hard to require vehicle owners to show their plates at the counter every few years. That won’t solve every single situation, and it would probably annoy some people, but the way I see it, there needs to be a solution to this problem. You shouldn’t be able to drive with illegible plates and get away with it, regardless of whether they’re ancient or poorly-made. Think of the hit-and-run possibilities: Eventually, someone with these plates will flee the scene of an accident, and not be identified because their plates are invisible.