I have unhappy news to share, and I find this column particularly difficult to write. The Ontario plate-collecting community has lost a talented artist and an enlightened historian. Bill Thoman of Kingston, formerly of Windsor-Essex, passed away on Monday, January 24, 2022, a few months shy of his 80th birthday.
Bill had collected old things for a while, including licence plates, and he joined ALPCA as member #9369 in the late summer of 2002. He missed that year's Convention in nearby Niagara Falls by just a few weeks. But he made up for it by attending pretty much all of our local Ontario swap meets. He and I lived in opposite corners of the province, but we’d meet in the middle each spring in Acton, and each fall in Grimsby. I got to know Bill quite well over the years, partly as a result of writing these columns. I’ve been churning them out for 24½ years now, and there have been times when I felt as though I was just talking to myself. However, Bill was a regular reader. We developed a rapport by chatting about things I’d written.
My YOM side-business kept me busy, giving me lots of practice in the restoration of old plates for the classic car crowd. Bill enjoyed perusing my work because he liked to restore plates as well; he wanted to compare notes. Or, perhaps more accurately, he wanted to show me a thing or two. Little did I know, he was already a master.
Bill graduated from Windsor's W. D. Lowe Technical School in 1963, majoring in art. The caption of his grad picture foretold what he’d be doing in another ten years: “Painting signs.” True to his prediction, he worked as a professional sign maker: Designing, manufacturing, lighting, and repairing signs of all kinds. Bill spent all 32 years of his career working for Acme Neon Signs in Windsor. Early on, Bill designed the marquee for the Palace Theatre on Ouellette Avenue. The theatre operated in various forms until about 2012, when the Windsor Star newspaper renovated the building for use as its headquarters. The sign was taken down, but it was saved and repurposed as an interior decoration. Bill attended an open house at the building in 2013, and he was delighted to find his old creation decked out with new lights.
As part of his job, Bill had extensive experience in the lettering of signs. He painted them by hand, whether they were on office doors, hulls of boats, or the sides of business vans and trucks. Hand-lettering has become a lost art. Few sign workers could paint letters by hand like Bill could.
This skill translated easily to the lettering of licence plates. Bill enjoyed breathing new life into hopelessly-rusted plates with a steady hand. I was never trained to do it, so my own learning curve involved a lot of trial and error. I couldn’t hold a quill or brush steady enough, so I turned to making stamping blocks. For a short while, I tried using a silicone roller. Bill told me that practice made perfect, and that I should just master the method that I liked the best. My gut told me to dispense with the brushes and just use my fingers. I taped little foam pieces to the pads of my fingers and applied the paint sparingly to the raised edges of my plates. While that made a mess of my fingers, it was also the first method that worked reliably. Eventually, I developed enough muscle memory that I felt comfortable using applicators and brushes instead of finger-painting.
Bill began bringing his restoration tools to our swap meets for me to see. One year he extolled the virtues of 1-Shot paint, which he used extensively in his own lettering. It’s hard to find, fairly expensive, and has toxic fumes, but it spreads better than any rust paint that I was using. Another year, he brought an assorted bunch of hand tools. He had a couple of old hammers, and he showed me a trick that I still use to this day: To straighten dents within embossed numbers, find an old hammer with a broken hardwood handle (Bill would buy them for next to nothing at flea markets and garage sales). Next, use a coping saw to cut notches out of the handle until a squared-off nub remained. Then, file that nub down to the same thickness as the embossed characters, and it can be used to pound out those dents within the characters. Bill suggested that I not use wood exclusively. He told me to save small hand tools like punches, paintbrush handles, and dulled chisels. The wooden ones can be cut to the perfect size, while the metal ones might find unexpected use in straightening edges and borders.
Bill was a wealth of knowledge in the history department, too. He loved antique cars, and he was still in his teens when he joined the Historic Vehicle Society of Ontario (now the Canadian Transportation Museum & Heritage Village). He was acknowledged as a supporter of the landmark 1974 book Cars of Canada: A Craven Foundation History. He enjoyed researching the history of old car companies, as well as the cars themselves, all the way down to the plates that were strapped to the brass-framed radiators. Bill's interest in Canadian transportation didn’t stop there. He was also interested in classic CCM bicycles. He would rebuild them from original parts, refinish the bodies, and paint the pinstriping by hand. He kept two of his restored bicycles: One from his birth year of 1942, and the other from 1959.
Bill didn’t just read about antique cars… He restored and owned them, too. He had a 1921 Grey Dort touring car in his younger days. Bill later became interested in MGs. For a time he owned a 1952 TF and a 1954 TD, as well as a 1978 MGB. His wife Lynda recalls their first date: Bill made his entrance by pulling up in a 1928 Nash sedan. He must have made a good impression!
Around 2010, Bill acquired a 1911 porcelain Ontario dealer plate. It had been buried and unearthed in Windsor. The previous owner was part of a work crew removing a paved parking lot at the Windsor Ford factory, when they discovered a cache of about 30 buried license plates. At the end of the work day, he brought this one home. It featured the initials “EMF” where the number would ordinarily go.
At the time Bill acquired the EMF tag, Ontario collectors at large were still piecing together the early history of Ontario plates. No one knew why this porcelain plate had letters. There was nothing else like it. Bill did his homework, and realized that the plate bore the initials of a defunct automobile company, founded by Barney Everett, William Metzger, and Walter Flanders.
EMF produced cars from 1909 to 1912, at which time the company was bought out by Studebaker. Bill proudly displayed his unique plate at our Grimsby and Acton meets, and he shared his findings with everyone by writing an article in ALPCA's Plates magazine. Thanks to further research by Eric Vettoretti, we now know that these initialed plates were indeed issued to manufacturers, making them precursors to what we know as dealer plates.
Speaking of displaying plates and sharing info, Bill used his expertise as a signmaker to produce several impressive displays over the years, which he brought to Grimsby or Acton. He wasn’t content to use the typical plywood or pegboard. He would cut a sheet of aluminum to size, mount a selection of plates carefully with machine screws, and use professionally-cut vinyl decals to title his creations. Bill was all about quality over quantity. His displays were small enough to carry under his arm, yet he chose the most eye-popping plates. He showed us some incredible early motorcycle plates one year. Another year, it was short plates and repeating numbers. Another year still, he brought pump permits, advertising permits and bicycle plates. And yet another year, it was a mix of 1920s and 30s non-passengers, toppers and booster plates.
Bill and I would email back and forth periodically to share pictures and interesting info. He noticed, from my posts on The Back Bumper, that I like old public transit buses. I can’t collect buses themselves because I can’t repair, store or drive them. But I do collect trinkets from buses, such as plates, ownerships, destination rollsigns, and I even have a “next stop” bell installed in my basement so I can hear someone ringing at the door. Bill caught wind of that. He brought me two artifacts from a former London Transit Commission bus: The rollsign and the maker’s plaque. The bus was a 1963 model TDH4519—an example of the iconic GM "fishbowl" or "new look" bus (think of what Sandra Bullock drove in the movie Speed). The plaque indicated it was coach number 007, which was the first bus added to the newly-renamed London Transit Commission. The LTC restarted its fleet numbering system at the same time, so this bus was designated number 1. When the bus was retired in the 1980s, Bill's car club acquired it. It's still parked somewhere in Essex County.
The most memorable favour that Bill did for me came in 2012. That was the year Bill put me in touch with a friend and “collector of old things” who had discovered a curious numbered artifact in an estate auction. The object was just pulled out of a box like all the other bygone relics before it. The auctioneer had not done his homework, and hastily concluded it was some kind of horse tag. It was very old, shield-shaped, made of leather, and was adorned with three cast aluminum numerals. Bill’s friend bought it for $70.
The man who bought it was not an expert on early auto memorabilia. He brought the object to Bill, to see if maybe it was an actual automobile licence plate. It seemed to be the real deal. But there are many fakes out there, so Bill got in touch with me. He knew I had been collecting info on leather plates. I had pictures of two of them, plus a tracing of one with the exact dimensions labelled. He sent a picture, and I sent him all the measurements. They were an exact match. This was a heretofore-unknown survivor of a first-issue Ontario leather plate!
Bill promptly put me in touch with the man who bought it, so I could have a shot at acquiring the plate. I was floored that Bill didn’t pursue it for his own, after his decades of researching Ontario’s automotive history. Bill simply passed the puck to me. It was as though Wayne Gretzky had an easy shot at a record-breaking 1000th goal, but rather than taking that shot, he passed it to a rookie defenseman. From that moment, I knew I would always be indebted to Bill. Long story short, I was able to acquire the plate for fair market value. But Bill did all the legwork on my behalf. He and Lynda even met me in Kingston to give it to me by hand. Why he would do this, I can only attribute to altruistic kindness. That’s the Bill Thoman that I remember, now and always.
I knew I would see Bill and Lynda every six months at our meets in Acton and Grimsby; they never seemed to miss one. Every so often, he’d uncover some interesting item with the help of his car club buddies. One year he showed me a fare box from a Windsor trolley. Another year it was a mini-run of low-number Ontario plates, issued to Charles McNaughton, the MPP for Huron County from 1958-1973. Bill would call me over, almost apologetically, during our meets in Acton and Grimsby, to show or tell me something new. Then he’d chat with other folks to show them, too. Lynda would help at the admission table and take the group photos for us almost every year. She developed friendships with just as many people as Bill did. The Thomans were a vital part of the “family” feeling that would come over many of us during those gatherings.
In early 2019, Bill began to lose his balance, and tests revealed an aneurysm had formed in his brain. It was operable, but the surgery would be life-altering, with a long recovery. Bill opted for the surgery, which happened in the late winter of that year. Bill had also developed lung fibrosis, and he required bottled oxygen. He persuaded his family to bring him to the 2019 meet in Acton, although he was resigned to the fact that he would be seated much of the time. With the help of Lynda, he was able to use his walker to make brief trips around the hall. Just the previous fall, Bill was strolling around and chatting people up. It was frustrating to him to have that independence gone so suddenly. When the fall of 2019 rolled around, Bill insisted on coming to Grimsby to join in the fun once again. We made sure that he had a table with lots of room to move around with his walker, and a power outlet nearby for his oxygen system.
Bill went through physical therapy to strengthen his body, and he returned to an activity that not many of his plate friends know about: Painting. Not signs, or licence plates—but on wood and canvas, with oils or watercolours. Bill had developed a steady hand from his decades of lettering signage, and not even his surgery could take that from him. He loved painting birds and old buildings, with perhaps the occasional old car.
Bill and Lynda moved from the Windsor area to Kingston around this time, to have their son Grant close by during Bill’s recovery. Unfortunately, the start of the COVID pandemic meant that Bill didn’t get out much. Due to pandemic shutdowns, he missed out on a significant portion of the therapy that he was supposed to have. The swap meets in 2020 were cancelled, which was a big disappointment to all of us, but especially Bill. There was, however, one upside: With the Thomans now living in Kingston, it was possible for me to go and visit, which I hadn’t been able to do before. I brought my son Greg to Kingston for an afternoon with Bill and Lynda. It was there that Lynda fed Greg copious amounts of chocolate, and I first learned about Bill’s self-framed artwork. A bit of plate-dealing happened on the side, and Bill kindly lent me his Craven Foundation Cars of Canada book (which weighs something like 40 pounds).
2021 wasn’t looking much better for swap meets to resume. Bill had cooled his jets for a year, and was even more deeply disappointed to hear that Acton would be cancelled yet again. His health wasn’t getting any better, either. I wanted to do something to raise his spirits. I found out from Lynda that his birthday was in July. I found the nicest 1942 plate I could find—Bill’s birth year—and organized a mailing chain among some collector friends and allies who knew Bill well. Each person signed the plate, enclosed a letter, and forwarded the package to the next person on the list. It took three months for the package to pass through everyone’s hands, but it was ready by the middle of May. I bundled it together with Bill’s Craven Foundation book, and mailed them off to Kingston. Bill gratefully received his 79th birthday present a few weeks early, and sent back a picture posing with his ‘42 plate.
Bill gave me a phone call before the Christmas holidays, just to say hello. He asked how Greg was doing, and we chatted about the leather plate that he had helped me acquire nearly ten years before. I told him how truly grateful I was for what he’d done. I still think about it often: Not so much the plate itself, but rather, Bill’s role in the story as it unfolded. He replied by telling me why he passed the puck, instead of taking that shot himself. I’m not the crying type, although I wish I were. A tear came to my eye, and then another. All I could say in return was “thank you.”
I knew that Bill’s health was in decline, but I didn’t know that this would be our last conversation. It wasn’t a goodbye… or at least, it didn’t seem that way at the time. I was looking forward to going to Acton in the spring, and maybe offering a ride to the Thomans if it would make Bill happy.
I’ll miss our chats, our trades, and learning from him. When our gatherings resume, they won’t be quite the same. I imagine Bill in heaven reconnecting with his car and plate friends who departed over the years… maybe even chatting up Henry Ford!
Rest in peace, Bill. What a great guy you were. Thanks for everything.