The winter of 2014-15, unbelievably, was even colder than the year before. It took a lot of mental energy to cope, but we’re finally here. The snow is gone, some trees are budding, and about 50 die-hard geeks from all across Ontario make the drive to the small town of Acton to usher in the spring and blink in the sunrise.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Acton is always a two-day trek, with the first day being my chance to let the dust fly behind my car as I make my way westward in the most interesting way possible (to me, anyway). My usual geeking buddy, Eric Vettoretti, was stuck at home with some non-negotiable family commitments, so my companions on the journey were me, myself and I.
I awoke to my alarm at four o’clock on Saturday morning, having gone to bed early the night before. I’ve never before gotten up that early to make it to Acton – no need, as the meet doesn’t start until Sunday – but I wanted to try a new strategy. Usually, when Eric and I have chosen a route to the GTA from Ottawa, we’ve selected differently each year in the hope that we’ll stumble on
“Big Bob’s 24 Hour Licence Plate Shack” in some dinky town that we’ve never visited, and score big-time on plates for our collections. But that’s not ever really happened to us again, ever since we took Highway 2 ten years ago and split the pair of 1939 doctor plates we found in Deseronto. We’ve tried Highways 7, 60, 401, and a strings of east-west county roads in the gaps between those major highways. This year, I wanted to explore Hamilton and points westward – lots of shops there in the Hamilton antique district alone. So I got up at four and floored it toward Toronto, with the idea that I’d get there around ten, and could take my time checking out shops that I’d never checked out before. How did it go? Read on, my friends.
The westbound 401 was deserted and I neither passed nor was passed by any vehicle for a stretch of close to half an hour. The highway went down to one lane for work on a small unimportant bridge over a minor tributary that doesn’t even have a name on Google Maps, but I cruised right through it with no other vehicles in sight. I was glad it was so early in the morning—something like that would cause havoc during the high day.
I arrived at the Roadshow Antiques market in Pickering, right at the stroke of 9 o’clock, which is the opening hour on the weekend. I took my sweet time going up and down the rows of stalls, which was a nice change. Usually when I’m there, I’m on a schedule and have to hurry. I found a decent set of 1958 YOM candidates, but they needed full restoration and I already have a few of those, so I passed on them—which was really hard because I liked the somewhat repetitive number – 221-011.
I didn’t buy anything and moved on to Hamilton. Traffic volume was building, but it was still early enough in the morning that I zipped through the 401 / 427 / QEW without seeing any brake lights. I arrived at the Ottawa Street antique district just before eleven o’clock on a beautiful cool morning. This area seemed ideal for finding plates—it was close to the steel plant, with a lot of older, run-down storefronts that wouldn’t merely be selling Granny’s fartsy china.
I came for plates, and I did find them—but the whole district was a wasteland of 1972 car plates or March-73 trailer plates. I must have seen hundreds of them. Every time I would stumble on a box of plates, they were white with blue, and used sometime in ‘72. I simply can’t believe that so many of them survive. I guess a local guy horded them from the local issue offices after they were turned in, and the remnants are still floating around. I did find an old Macintosh II computer in one shop, complete with keyboard and mouse—just like the one my old girlfriend used in university to crank out her essays. It was priced at $375 for the true Macintosh connoisseur.
The most non-72 plates I found were in the old Avon Theatre, where the Remember When Antique Emporium has opened up. The inside has been gutted and re-purposed into an open-concept area, but you can still see the scars in the floor tiles where the box office and toilets were located. The vendor there, who posts on Kijiji, had a bunch of plates hanging precariously from pegboard. They were hanging four or five to a hook, so I had to carefully look in behind each plate without knocking any of the glass bottles that were located right beside the plates. I wonder how much of this vendor’s business is comprised of the “You-broke-it, you-bought-it” variety. Ultimately, I found no plates of interest, although I did find a fairly wild-looking Muskoka district road marker.
I went through a few more stores, some of which were easier to browse, but found nothing to buy. The most interesting “keeper” plate of the day that I saw was mounted to a parked 3-wheel motorcycle outside the Bikers’ Church. It had a serially-numbered handicap sticker affixed to the plate—the same type of sticker I once saw a few years ago, but I couldn’t get a legible picture at the time. The bikers were all inside worshipping, so I knelt down undisturbed and shot a picture. There was no question of the sticker’s authenticity—it was reflective, numbered with a printer, and the sticker was of the same dimensions as a typical Ontario expiry sticker, right down to the little curve in the upper right. Moreover, the motorcycle had a sort of access ramp attached to it on the left side, maybe for a wheeled walker or something.
I found myself at the corner of Ottawa and Dunsmure—the location of Tim Horton’s number 1. I went in to order a doughnut and a chocolate milk (I’d already had three coffees by this time). It’s a new two-storey building that features a little museum inside, and a bronze statue outside of big Tim himself in his Leafs uniform.
I’d spent about 90 minutes in Hamilton, and I had finished the Ottawa Street district, so I walked back to the car (thanks Walmart) and drove northward to Clappison’s Corners, where Highways 5 and 6 meet. It has an antique market I’d never tried, so I went in and wandered around. There was a lot of rustic wooden furniture and some old petroliana signage, so I kept my eye out for plates. I found some in wooden boxes, and they weren’t the 72 or 73 variety, either! I rummaged through the boxes and re-matched a few separated pairs that would make good YOM candidates. There were no prices on them. I brought them to the cash register and showed the proprietor. His brow furrowed.
“Ah, Gee,” he said. “Some guy brought those in just a few days ago and we still haven’t been able to price them. These are worth something, ya know, so I want to be fair to you, but I want to be fair to me, too.”
I shrugged. The ball was still in his court. He pulled out his phone to do a Google search, since he wasn’t sure of value. He pulled the oldest pair from the pile (1933) and typed into Google, “1933 Ontario License Plate”. The very first search result was the refinished 1933 plate that I’ve got for sale on my business site, Ontplates.com. Ever since I rebuilt my site last fall, I’ve been posting prices to make it easier for customers to figure if they’re interested or not before the send a message. Of course, the risk in doing so is that people will take one look at my 1933 pair, see that it’s posted for $95, and assume that theirs is worth the same. I decided to lay my cards on the table, literally.
“Oh, Ontplates.com? Yeah, that’s the business that I run.” I gave him a card and described briefly that the listed price was for a refinished plate intended for registration. We discussed back and forth for a few minutes, and I described what my ballpark was for finding raw materials for YOM. The problem was, my ballpark is pretty much a flat price for most pairs (a couple of years excluded, but none of those years were in the pile I was trying to buy). Essentially, older plates are rarer, but the rarity is offset by lower resale demand, so I generally pay the same ballpark for a restorable set, whether it’s 1933 or 1967. But some antique dealers insist that the older stuff should be worth more, so when he wanted close to $50 for the 1933 set, I passed on them and zeroed in on the more recent stuff, which wasn’t worth as much to him, and would probably sell faster once restored anyway. We came to a mutually acceptable deal for the more recent stuff. Paydirt, and finally!
It was still only 1:30, and I had plenty of time, so I headed northwest along Highways 5 and 8 until I came to Cambridge. All these places are within 20 minutes of each other. Ottawa (as in my city, not the antique street in Hamilton) is so isolated in comparison—fewer shops, and much further to drive between them, especially if you go rural. I headed to Southworks Antiques on the Grand River. It was labeled as the largest antique mall in Canada. I figured it was worth a look.
When I got there, my jaw dropped. It was stall-style vendors in absentia, but it went on for what seemed like hundreds of metres. It was located in a re-purposed factory that had been carefully restored, and was very clean— a building like that could easily operate as a fancy banquet hall for weddings. There was plenty for a geek like me to find—plates, petroliana, an old Darley four-direction traffic signal, and even Beetle parts (shined up and made to look appealing in an antique market). I came very close to buying an old red fire alarm cabinet, because it was begging me to restore it, but I couldn’t figure out what I’d do with it if I brought it home. I spent over an hour in there, and I found some cool doctor pairs from the 1930s and 1940s, but they were priced a little too high to be worthwhile. I did pick up a YOM pair elsewhere in the market, but that’s all.
It was still early enough that I decided to push even further west and head all the way to Woodstock, well within the fields of southwestern Ontario. I spent four years living in London in the 1990s, and there’s a certain “feel” the region has when I go back, which isn’t very often. With so many farms and small towns, there tends to be more to find in terms of plates or old car stuff than in eastern Ontario.
I got to Woodstock at about 4 o’clock, and headed to a huge antique mall housed in yet another old factory—but this building was quite a bit more run down. Still, it was the type of place that was likely to have old plates for me, so I went in, and I was astonished to discover that there were three floors, and not just one. The total sale area in this place would probably refute the Southworks claim of being the biggest in the country, but I was too excited to hunt for goodies to accuse anyone of false advertising. I did my best to be thorough, but I ran out of time before I could really be satisfied at having a good look everywhere. The store closed at five o’clock. I was on the fence about a couple of plates, but ultimately left them be. What a great store, though! I’d driven quite a bit out of my way, but even though I came away empty-handed, I was glad I made the extension on my journey.
I stopped in Kitchener to pick up more plates – what else – which I had agreed to buy from a classified ad. I then headed up to Caledon, which was probably the longest continuous time I’d been in the car since the morning. A former collector and attendee of Acton had become too ill to maintain his collection, and I was contacted by the family to see the plates and maybe make an offer for resale. There were mostly US and international plates in the collection, which filled a storage bin, and contained Cuban, Mexican, overseas and US tribal issues. The combined value was high enough that I suggested she make the short drive to Acton the following morning to sell them herself. I did my best to separate the plates into price tiers, to make things easier on her end, and to help her realize a more accurate value for the whole batch of plates. She was grateful for the help, and with that, I left all the plates with her, and drove into the sunset toward Acton.
Given that I was traveling alone, I wanted to stay someplace inexpensive, and I chose the Cedar Springs Motel on Highway 7 between Georgetown and Acton. I neither paid much for the room, nor received much in the way of comfort. My door locked with a single flimsy knob, so I wedged a chair under it for added security. The night was uneventful. I don’t imagine I’ll stay there again unless I have to.
When I arrived in the parking lot at about a quarter past seven, one car was already there. It was Terry Ellsworth, who had gotten up at about four o'clock and driven from Prince Edward County. As we chatted, another person pulled up. He was a first-timer to Acton and had brought automotive hood ornaments, as well as plates. Soon, Bill Thoman and Dave Steckley arrived, and Joe Sallmen, and Louis Balogh, and Mike Franks, and on and on.
As social media becomes more prevalent on the Internet, more and more of us are discovering Facebook. Out of the blue, Dave Grant asked me how my kids were. Mike’s fiancée Alannah asked me how my “day teaching from a wheelchair” worked out a week before. I joked with Norm Ratcliffe about his daughter’s new G1 driver’s licence. I teased Jim Becksted about forgetting the Queen’s birthday. These are wonderful conversations to have with people in our hobby. We’ve become more of a social group of friends, as opposed to a one-track-mind hobbyist group. Every year I attend Acton, there seems to be more of the social aspect to enjoy, with an ever-widening group of outstanding people. The fact that we have only four hours to buy-and-sell, as well as socialize, means that there’s never a second put to waste when I’m there.
Dave had booked the curling pad again. It's a bit chilly, but we have double the space at half the cost. Dave, a considerate host, polled us and asked if we would rather use the curling rink, or the warmer shuffleboard room as we had done in most past years. The vote was pretty much unanimous to book the curling rink going forward.
Terry Ellsworth didn't bring traders this year, but he did bring an impressive array of plates for show-and-tell. He had low-numbered, two-digit motorcycle plates, number 42 from 1940 and number 18 from 1943. Terry also had a really weird ’73 Ontario “Keep It Beautiful” plate, which featured the word “CAMP”, located off-centre, with big splotches of blue roller paint on either side. The plate appears to have been slightly bent when it was fed through the roller machine, and those bends were still evident. Terry’s best info says that the plate was originally a decoration on the Millbrook prison shop wall where the plates were made, and it probably was smuggled out of the prison. It’s definitely an oddball, since all own-choice vanity plates through the 1970s were restricted to a three-letter, three-number format. Ontario didn’t allow the creative freedom to order words on plates until the 1980s, so for a 1973 plate to have a word on it with no numbers is highly irregular.
Bill Thoman brought another small display to show, as well: An interesting sampling of older Ontario non-passenger types, including 1921 and 1936 trucks, a 1930 doctor pair, and a few really rare, 1940s-era plate toppers from the Windsor area. I’ve become a little more interested in toppers ever since I decorated my display with them last year at the ALPCA convention in Rochester, but I prefer toppers from smaller cities in which I’ve lived, such as Sault Ste. Marie or North Bay or London. Now I’m an Ottawa resident, and Ottawa toppers are interesting as well, but most of them just say “Canada” instead of making reference to the city or province. Leave it to me to be looking for only a certain kind of needle in a haystack.
Speaking of needles in haystacks, I was pleased to be the conduit for a trade between Matt Embro and Eric, who couldn’t make the meet. Going to Matt was a brand-new Ontario plate with the French slogan, “Tant à découvrir,” and coming back to Eric was a brand-new plate featuring the logo of the new CFL team, the Ottawa Redblacks. Good luck finding those elsewhere!
My fellow teaching buddy (now retired), Bob Cornelius, surprised me by bringing a 1973 Ontario plate with the serial BOB-303. We posed for a picture with Dave Grant, and I wished I’d known he was bringing that plate, because I own JON-098, and it would have made for a great picture. I know Bob reads these things, so here’s an open request to Bob to please bring BOB-303 to Grimsby in the fall—I’ll bring JON-098 and we can snap a picture for the ages.
Paul Cafarella brought his stunning collection of old Prince Edward Island plates to sell. His interests have changed a bit over the years, so the plates were up for grabs. They’re very rare, and priced appropriately. Most of us hunt for plates from closer to home, so unfortunately, Paul didn’t move them. I suggested using eBay or putting an ad in the ALPCA magazine. The plates are of such high quality that there is likely to be an ALPCA member somewhere who would be thrilled to upgrade a substantial portion of their collection with Paul’s plates.
I divided my own table into three sections. Half the table was devoted to my Ontplates.com YOM business, complete with banner featuring my new, self-designed logo. The other half of the table featured my collectible traders. I used tape and signage to clearly demarcate between the two, and it worked quite well. I even sold a 1934 YOM pair, which was one of a few things that happened to make my day.
We took the group picture at around 10:30, even though Mike wouldn’t take off his clown hat with the Montreal Canadiens logo, and before I knew it, the arena clock had advanced to past 11, and some folks were beginning to wind down, as is typically the case. By 11:30, Mike, Alannah and Dave Grant were ready to head out and invited me to lunch. I asked them to hold on for five extra minutes so I could pack up, and I got busy taking my table down and hastily boxing up my plates. I needed more like 15 extra minutes, but they waited. But by the time I got my plates to the car, with Mike’s help, he had a new trade brewing with Joe Sallmen, who also had a trade brewing with one other person, so we waited for those situations to conclude themselves. Dave and I decided to browse through more plates to pass the time… what better thing to do, really?
Mike finished up with Joe and we headed out for lunch by 12:30 at a pub down the street. Before long, we had parted ways, and I was once again on the road. My GPS warned me of a traffic delay on the 401 at Yonge, so I used the 407 and 404 to get around it with smooth sailing throughout. The only delay on the way home was just after Belleville, where the paint test strips are. Traffic slowed to a stop due to construction ahead that closed the left lane. It was stop-and-go for about ten minutes, until the traffic reached the merging point, at which time I passed over a tiny bridge across that unnamed tributary that I encountered 32 hours before, in the early morning on Saturday. Having passed the bottleneck, eastbound traffic quickly resumed top speed, and I was doing a comfortable 120 km/h again. The oncoming westbound traffic was tied up on its approach to the bridge, but the backup went on… and on… and on... for 14 kilometres—all the way to the Highway 49 off-ramp. Those people returning to Toronto on Sunday who didn’t escape the snarl at Highway 49 would be waiting for at least two hours to get past a farty little one-lane bridge. I was grateful I was heading in the other direction.
I got home just in time for the puck drop of game six between the Montreal Canadiens and the Ottawa Senators. The Sens would fall 1-0 and be eliminated, in the only game the entire year where they would fail to score a goal. An unreviewable refereeing error was entirely to blame for the game not going to overtime in a 1-all tie. Fate giveth, and fate taketh away.