Acton 2005 was fun. As usual, it was a great spring thaw that coaxed we plate collectors from our winter hibernation. There were a few notable absences, and not quite as many trade tables were open for business this spring as there were last fall in St. Catharines, but no one’s complaining. Not even me!
It seemed to me that walk-in traffic was up, so I guess word is spreading among new collectors that the drive to #Acton is worthwhile. Even if you’re coming from Ottawa, like I do.
I teamed up with Eric Vettoretti this time, and we made the drive to Acton on Saturday, the day before the meet. We left in the morning and had lots of time to stop and poke around in the antique shops and flea markets of various small towns. Two guys antiquing together raised some eyebrows among the locals, but we’re past the point of caring about what other people think. We’re just looking for plates, whether we’re stepping carefully through an antique shop or getting our hands dirty amongst the auto parts in a scrapyard.
We stopped in the Prince Edward county village of Deseronto, because there’s a grungy flea market there. The grungier, the better, as far as plate-hunting goes. We found a stack of old 1970s plates, but there was nothing worth getting. We decided to scout for other shops in town, and we came across an antique place with pop bottles in the window. If they sell stuff like pop bottles, we figured, they’d probably sell license plates, too. So we went in.
We were greeted by a crummy 1930 plate hanging on the wall with a ghastly price tag of $70, so our hopes of finding something good sank. However, the store was divided into areas for different vendors, so there was an outside chance that we’d find plates for a more reasonable price. We wound our way through the back before spotting some half-decent Ontario plates on a wall rack close to the floor. We crouched down to see them.
They were doctor’s plates. A small run of them, mostly pairs, going from 1935 to 1940, and to our shock, they included a pair of 1939s. The 1939 Ontario doctor plate, for those who don’t know, was treated with beaded reflective glass on the raised numbers. It was done as a test, only on doctor plates (D prefix series), and it’s the very first Canadian license plate issued to have any kind of reflective treatment. The 1939 pair was in pretty good shape, and to make matters even better, they were affordable. Very affordable. We bought those and split the pair. While we were at it, we bought a low-number doctor pair from 1935 (D-27) and a multipurpose (station wagon) plate from 1935 also. We decided to leave the rest behind… the doctor’s pairs from 1936-38 and a single from 1940 still remained.
We knew we were fortunate to find the doctor plates, but they were still pretty dirty, and had about 60 years of grime that needed to come off. We stopped at Crappy Tire to get some CLR and cotton pads to clean the plates, and we started scrubbing them down after we arrived at our hotel. We spent about half an hour cleaning the plates and watching old episodes of Wayne and Shuster on TV. The plates cleaned up magnificently, which made the fact that we found them all the more exciting. Eric and I couldn’t believe our luck!
We arrived at the swap meet about ten minutes early, and the doors were already open. We shook the standard hands and opened up shop in the middle of the hall. Joe Sallmen, having left his motorcycle at home, had filled his new car to the brim with traders, and his stock was already set up, occupying three entire tables. Much of it was new meat: Plates that hadn’t previously appeared on his trade table. Eric, myself, and a growing number of arriving collectors buzzed around his tables and slobbered over his trade stock. Diplomats, dealers, some doctors, VIP plates, Prime Minister plates… he even had one of the seldom-seen quarterly bus plates I’ve been needing for ten years. I found the mate to several notable plates in my collection, most notably the 1960 plate numbered 2000 that belonged to John Diefenbaker. I held back, though——my priority was to make new acquisitions, and not to reunite old pairs.
Through the course of Acton, I made several sales to several collectors, some of whom I’ve known for years, and some of whom are just starting out. I’m quite humbled when a person I’ve never met before knows who I am because I write this column… it happened a couple of times over the course of the morning. I didn’t actually make any purchases, which is the first time I’ve ever allowed that to happen. That’s not to say I didn’t take anything new home… I just did it in the form of trades and three-way deals.
Mike Franks, a young collector on a tight budget, was hemming and hawing over a pair of wheelchair plates. The price tag was steep at $35. Mike asked me if he should go for the pair, or a single, cheaper plate in lesser condition that was also available. I looked at the pair. Even the front plate was in nice shape and would upgrade the one in my own collection back home. I said, “Take the pair over to Joe and ask if he’ll take $30 for them. If he says yes, I’ll split the pair with you and let you choose which one you want.”
Well, Mike must have a “respect your elders” thing going on, because he was politely hesitant to take first choice. I insisted, and narrowly managed to avoid an unnecessary coin toss. Joe accepted the $30 offer and I split the plates with Mike, happily taking the front plate. Mike, who reads this column, still asked me if I wanted the better of the two. I almost swatted his head with my plate for asking so many times, but I held back because I didn’t want to damage it (my plate that is, not Mike’s head). It was my pleasure to help out, and it was win-win, anyway.
I traded an old sample plate to Joe Sallmen for the bus plates I needed, and Gary Edwards did me a major-league favour by letting his new moped plate go to me in exchange for a run-of-the-mill passenger plate and a wad of cash (technically, it’s a trade because plates were exchanged both ways).
The meet was winding down, with the clock pushing noon. A few collectors had packed up and left, but they missed the trump card of the day, which made a fashionably late appearance, courtesy of Mike Stevely. Mike brought a 1932 Imperial Economic Conference plate, #41, with an accompanying Canadian coat-of-arms made of steel that was also mounted to the conference vehicle. It’s a heavy, flat plate, with the numbers painted on. The 'arms had intricate paint along its shield and banners also. Quite a rare pair indeed. One that I knew Joe Sallmen would want very, very badly-- as I found out much later, he already knew Mike had them, and Joe had been hoping to acquire them that morning.
Joe had some payback coming to him for a stunt he pulled on me about 8 or 9 years ago. He told me the story of how he had gone into a decades-old motorcycle dealership in Toronto, and inquired about old cycle plates. He was taken into the basement where there were greasy boxes, all full of cycle and cycle dealer plates from the 1920s on up. He went on to say that the dealership didn’t know they were there and had no interest in keeping them. Naturally, I frothed at the mouth and asked how many there were, how many Joe had taken, what the oldest plates were, and the other standard questions. Of course, he was pulling the wool over my eyes... but he didn’t admit it until I had fallen for the story, hook line and sinker.
Back to the present: I borrowed Mike’s conference plate and shield, and started carrying them around casually. I went up to Joe’s table and started pawing through some plates, with the conference goodies in plain view. Joe noticed them after a few seconds and his eyes popped out of his head.
“That definitely looks most interesting. Where did you get it?”
”Oh, this?” I held the plate and shield up casually, like I didn’t really care about them. “I found them in a box over there. Picked them both up for five bucks.”
Joe's eyes popped out further. “Five dollars!?” he exclaimed.
Maybe I’m a bad liar, or maybe it was because Mike Stevely was standing next to him snickering, but the ruse didn’t last long and Joe caught on that I had not, in fact, beaten him to the day's big prize. Mike came forward, and suddenly it was Joe’s turn to make our eyes pop out. He offered a rather handsome sum of cash for the plate and shield together. I won’t publicize the exact figure, but as plate deals in Ontario go, this was going to be a blockbuster.
Given the fact that Eric and I had a six-hour drive home from Acton, we packed our stuff up and said goodbye to the thinning group of collectors who remained. It was Eric’s first meet and he had a great time, meeting the fellas and building up his collection. He picked up a lot of new plates, but was pleasantly surprised to see that his sales pretty much equaled his purchases. I myself was still in the black by about 30 dollars.
We drove home to Ottawa up the 115 to Peterborough and then along highway 7, which is a scenic drive and has a couple of junky places to stop. Along 115, we stopped at an antique dealer, but there were no plates. However, across the road from the store, there were a couple of old cars, just rusting away beneath a grove of trees. One of them had a 1971 Historic Vehicle plate still attached. It seemed like an unfortunate waste to let a previously historic car just rot away. It made for a cool picture, though.
We also stopped at the hubcap guy’s place in Kaladar (if you’ve been through Kaladar, you’ll know). He’s got some old plates, but nothing we were going to buy. I always consider buying a road sign from him, but I’ve never picked one up. He also had a rare curiosity… a very old King’s Highway shield of the small variety that was used in the first half of the 20th century. There was no paint left on it, but I could see where the number 33 used to be.
Shortly after Kaladar, I spotted an old TTC bus rusting in the woods, so I made Eric stop the car. I hiked over to try and find an old plate, or rollsign, but alas, there were none to be found. I recorded the bus’ serial number and later found out, by looking it up, that it was built in 1964 or 1965. It still had a quarterly windshield sticker on it from March 1983. I estimated that it was retired from service in the late eighties. By the look of the bus, which has no engine, is missing wheels and has half its windows shattered, it’s been sitting there for about 20 years.
It got dark shortly afterward, and we just hightailed it home. My wife feared that I might have spent too much money, but she was relieved to find out how little the amount of new tin was that I brought home. Me too-- it means I can spend more in Barrie later this spring!