One weekend morning, I was having breakfast with my collecting pal and neighbour Dave Grant. Sometimes we bring show-and-tell items, and sometimes we just sit, eat and talk about you. One time, Dave brought a pair of Ontario road maps. Just modern road maps… the kind you buy from the gas station. He unfurled one of them and flattened it on the table while we were waiting for our eggs.
Dave’s main collecting interest is 1973 Ontario plates. That year, for the first time, renewable three-letter / three-number serial numbers were issued. The records survive as to which communities were issued which serial blocs (I transcribed these records to The Back Bumper many years ago). One day, Dave decided to map out the issuance locations for the different serial blocs, to more easily show the geographical distribution of the then-new 1973 plates. And the result was the map that Dave had just unrolled across the table.
It’s quite interesting. All of the plates starting with A were issued to the Toronto area; but of course, they weren’t all issued from the same office. It looks like they started downtown, then swung eastward, and then westward. The B series started in the west end and went through Etobicoke, Mississauga, Oakville and Burlington, before being exhausted. The C series made its debut in Hamilton and continued along the south shore of Lake Ontario before hitting the border at Niagara. Distribution turned southward and went through Fort Erie before continuing westward along the north shore of Lake Erie.
Things progressed evenly along the rest of the Erie shore before hitting the border again in Windsor. By that point, distribution was in the CR and CS blocs. The issuance again turned easterly toward London, where the C series was eventually exhausted. The D series continued for a short distance eastward, serving Woodstock and communities toward Brantford. But once Brantford received its plates, ending with DDA, an Ouroborosian dilemma emerged: The head of the proverbial serpent was about to devour its own body.
The most logical location to issue next, it seemed, was a bit of a jump westward to Strathroy, west of London, where plates were issued starting with DDB.
Download a full-resolution JPG of the Southern Ontario map. (3.1 MB)
From there, the Ontario powers-that-be set their course through an entertaining and creative series of loop-de-loops and hops-skips-and-jumps, thereby serving a large swath of southwestern Ontario before returning to the northern reaches of the greater Toronto area, and exhausting the D series in Oshawa. Next up: The E series.
It’s a happy coincidence that the letter E was issued only within eastern Ontario. The pattern of issuance was a bit less complicated, too: Rural Eastern Ontario is more sparsely populated than its western counterpart, so the pattern just progressed in a large counter-clockwise loop, with only a couple of isolated jogs northward to serve towns like Petawawa, Bancroft, and Deep River. By the time Peterborough was being served, it was the end of the E series, and onto F.
The F series was the final series issued during the initial 1973 rollout. The larger centres in the southern reaches of the province had been served, so F-series plates were assigned to a large number of small towns further north. Dave’s map shows the distribution front making a pass through Lindsay and Bradford before swinging sharply to the west and serving all the small farm towns near the Bruce Peninsula that were “forgotten” when the D series was issued. From there, the front curled around Georgian Bay and northward through Muskokan cottage country toward North Bay.
Algonquin Park is a “dead zone” throughout all of this, as there are no issuing offices throughout its greater-than 7650 square kilometres of area. Just north of Algonquin, and just south of the Quebec border, is a narrow corridor of land with some very isolated communities. It was necessary to proceed eastward from North Bay toward two of these communities, Bonfield and Mattawa, to supply them with plates in the FNJ to FNL series. While there are communities even further eastward than Mattawa, it’s too remote to put issuing offices in the area, meaning that people who lived between Mattawa and the previously-allocated Deep River—a distance of 100 km along the highway—would have to pick their poison and choose the closer of the two.
After serving Mattawa, the distribution front made a U-turn and a very long jump all the way to Sturgeon Falls, about 100 km to the west. It followed the north shore of Lake Huron and served Sudbury, Blind River, and Sault Ste. Marie, as well as smaller centres in between. I grew up in the Soo and I remember that many of the plates began with FS and FT, and as a youngster, I always wondered why. If only I had Dave’s map back in those days.
Download a full-resolution JPG of the Northern Ontario map. (2.0 MB)
Dave’s issuance patterns for Northern Ontario were inked on a separate map, which was a wise decision, given that magic marker easily soaks through the porous paper. Dave’s map shows an interesting back-and-forth pattern was used to double back to the northeast. The tiny town of Wawa, north of the Soo, was given all of FTS, and just the first 600 plates in the FTT series. The next town to be served was Cobalt, on the shore of Lake Temiskaming, which is nearly 400 km to the east! Why this happened is a mystery: The town of Chapleau is right along the way to Cobalt, but it was omitted, even though it had an issuing office (to be continued).
From Cobalt, the distribution followed the Highway 11 corridor, serving places like Kirkland Lake, Timmins, and Hearst, before skipping westward to serve the area around Lake Nipigon. Once the actual town of Nipigon was done, rather than move westward to Thunder Bay, the front moved east along the north shore of Lake Superior in order to supply the towns of Marathon, Terrace Bay and Manitouwadge with plates, going up to the FWD series.
It was at this point, presumably, that someone figured out that Chapleau had been left out, and so it was sent the entire thousand-plate allotment of the FWE series, seemingly as an afterthought. And after skipping several hundreds of kilometres backwards to serve Chapleau, the distribution front then skipped right back, another several hundred kilometres, to Thunder Bay (its twin issuing offices still known by the names of the former twin cities of Port Arthur and Fort William). From there, the front moved in a rough S pattern, in order to serve the extreme northwest communities, including Sioux Lookout, Dryden, Red Lake, Kenora, Fort Frances and finally Rainy River, which received FZF-999.
Any plates after that cutoff, starting with FZH-001 and going to HER-999, were denoted as reserve plates, and we have no information on where they eventually ended up. I presume they were simply issued to any community that requested more plates on an as-needed basis.
A similar situation likely happened in 1980 when the quarterly truck plate system moved to a permanent renewable plate. All these communities would have required an initial supply of truck plates, but any distribution pattern used by the Ministry of Transportation has not been made known to collectors. So, we would need some now-old observations from plate collectors across Ontario, plus some consistent photographic evidence, in order to approximate these patterns for 1980 truck plates. Maybe that could be Dave’s new project?