This calendar year, 2015, marks the 31st year that I have been a collector of old plates. It also marks the 20th anniversary of my membership in the Automobile License Plate Collectors' Association. Moreover, 2015 marks the 61st anniversary of the ALPCA.
I have recently been thinking about the evolution of the plate collecting hobby from a care-free hunting and gathering exercise to a profit-driven cycle of buying and selling . Even though collecting as a hobby had begun its commercial transformation by the 1980s, I was, at that time, a 10 year old hunter-gatherer who enjoyed what few moments I could spend in the dumps while acquiring abandoned plates for free.
The last time I tried the junkyard route, it was around ten years ago and practically no one was interested in letting me in to gather plates. Free plates, to me, are a thing of the past. Every plate I now acquire has to either be swapped or paid for. But today, I was reading my copy of the Cecil George letter... The mimeographed letter that was sent out to as many other collectors as possible back in the fall of 1954. How times have changed.
A few states identified themselves as willing to contribute old plates to collectors, including New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Manitoba, North Carolina, Wisconsin and Arizona. My home province of Ontario was one of the stingy ones, indicating that it was not able to supply any specimens to any collectors. However, the number of mint left over and turned-in plates through the 1960s would seem to indicate that the various individual Ontario motor offices were marching to the beat of their own drummers. I just can't imagine being a collector during a time when you could simply go to your local motor vehicle office to pick up boxes upon boxes of obsolete plates.
The George letter also presented a series of ideas that one could use to expand or improve upon one's collection. It was suggested that you could ask your garbage man, insurance salesman, laundry driver, bakery peddler, grain dealer, or radio/TV repair man. You could even offer your dump caretaker one cent for every plate he is able to save for you. Another idea was to leave an empty barrel downtown in a conspicuous place after everyone's annual plates expire and post a sign on the barrel asking for used plates. I can't imagine that might have worked, even in the era of annual plate issuance. For collecting-by-barrel to be a conceivable means of expanding ones collection? It just blows my mind.
Before I joined ALPCA, I had acquired most of the plates that were in my collection by means of scavenging. By the time I was ready to leave for university, I had discovered that certain antique shops or flea markets might have plates for sale. The first plate I ever purchased was a 1967 Ontario passenger plate at the long-defunct "Liberty" junk shop in Sault Ste. Marie. The plate was in good condition, but not great, and cost me a whopping $5, which was just over my hourly salary. I don't have the plate any longer, but it would make my own personal "Hall of Fame" if I had one. Weeks later, after moving to London, I was taking the day off to spare myself from the ennui of my frosh week activities, and stumbled on an inner-city antique market. One of the vendors had a nice 1938 Ontario pair available. I negotiated him down to $15 from $25, and hung the pair in my room. I still have the better plate in my Ontario passenger run.
By the time I joined ALPCA in 1995, I had a car, and I'd been able to find other shops around London that sold old plates. I was buying $2 plates for $5 each, but I knew nothing of their value. I wouldn't amass a trade stock for another few years, so pricing plates was very much a new thing to me. So was trading, for that matter. In the fall of 1995, I received a letter from a suspended ALPCAn named Norm D'Amico, who inquired as to what I had to trade. I listed all nine or so plates from my collection, and politely inquired as to the reason behind his suspension from the club. He replied with a vague conspiracy theory, and went on to say that he had a "very nice" 1953 Ontario plate that he would swap for all nine plates I had listed. At the time, I was pretty green, being a new member of the club, and I figured that some plates were worth more than others. But a 9:1 trade ratio seemed unreasonable to me, and I proceeded no further. My decision was sound-- the individual with whom I had been corresponding, I heard later, was well-known for making predatory trade offers to inexperienced collectors. I could only assume he rejoined the club under a pseudonym in order to mine the newsletter for addresses of new members.
But let's not dwell on one bad apple. My 20 years in ALPCA have provided some dear friends of impeccable honesty and outstanding character. One of my earliest ALPCA friends was the late Ernie Wilson, former ALPCA president from 1967-68. He lived in my end of the Sault and I would visit him whenever I was back in town. He gave me a big pile of plates for a pittance of money, on more than one occasion. I ended up finishing my quarterly truck run thanks to Ernie, with lots of extras that I could swap to other collectors. The late Bill Verbakel showed similar generosity when I went to visit him in Sarnia. I acquired from him a 1974 NWT passenger bear to give to my father as a Christmas present. It still hangs proudly after all these years. Around the same time, I befriended the late "Sam" Samis, who was living in the small city of St. Thomas. We gabbed about plates all afternoon on the day that I met him, and he would continue to be a joy to know until his passing a few years ago.
Ontario is a hard jurisdiction to collect when it comes to unusual plates, and that's the direction my tastes have taken me. I first learned of the existence of the yellow Papal motorcade plates and the red Royal visit plates when I saw a photo of them at Bill Verbakel's house, and those are multi-hundred dollar plates, when they can even be found. Rather than spend my savings on these kinds of goodies, I sensed an opportunity to make my own hobby nest-egg when the Ontario YOM program made its debut. My good friend Andy Pang had planted the seed in my mind of making ones hobby self-funding, and YOM seemed to be the avenue. Fast forward a decade and change, and I now run my own YOM niche business. It does exactly what I had hoped... It keeps my hobby self-funding. Money is spent on restorable stock, and even more money comes in via sales (some of which goes back to the taxman).
Although I now engage in plate-related commerce, I sometimes get wistful for the days when I would see a crappy truck plate at the dump and my heart would skip a beat. I often wonder what it must have been like to go on a road trip and come home with a trunk full of last year's plates, all free, from courthouses or DMV offices. The only time I did something like that successfully, it was '97 and I brought back about 25 plates from a drive across northern Ontario-- Enough plates to carry with one arm. When I look at the old snapshot Ernie gave me of an effortless road haul in the mid-sixties, I just can't believe how easy collecting was. It's no wonder that nobody bought or sold plates... They were everywhere to be found, and swapping was natural.
These days, eBay seems to be the best game in town to find goodies for ones collection, but the sentimental side of me prefers to save up my duplicates and offer them to the crowd that attends the next local swap meet. After all, for an Ontario boy like me, I spend 363 days a year looking forward to either the spring meet in Acton, or the fall meet in Grimsby (the other two days are spent buzzing around the Acton / Grimsby meet halls themselves). So, let it be known that if I happen to have an extra Royal motorcade plate lying around, I'd rather show it at a swap meet and try to make a deal there. Supporting your local swap meet, to me, involves bringing trade goodies that people will remember.
So, over sixty years after Cecil George wrote his letter, I'm but one of thousands of collectors world wide, just counting the days until the next swap meet. Acton is a month away. Bring your traders... And if you want a rare Royal motorcade plate, bring money!