I was already thinking about taking my son on a road trip, when I suddenly received a phone call from a guy named John in London. He was involved in the dispersal of an estate. He said that he was in possession of a 60-year collection that was owned by a recently-deceased, 95-year-old man. He said there were roughly 20 banana boxes full of plates. Would I be interested in having a look?
I agreed to come by in a few days, and so, I made London the destination of my road trip. My sister lives there, and I enjoy visiting her and my nieces. It wouldn't be the first time my plate hobby had been parlayed into a trip toward the southwest. Besides, the Bothwell car show would be happening that coming weekend. I last visited Bothwell eight years before, and the car show was really something to see.
I arrived in London three days later and went directly to the north-end address where the plates were. It was good that he gave specific directions, or I wouldn’t have known where to go. He said to enter the driveway, right off one of the main London arterial roads, where there was a Brady-Bunch-era bungalow. The driveway continued behind the house and emptied into a gravel lot at the rear. As I rounded the corner of the house, I saw a curious, decrepit, multi-bay garage. It looked like it might have been built in the 1940s. It had been whitewashed many years ago, but years of weather and neglect had given the greyed walls an air of abandonment. The garage looked as though it could have been transplanted from a collection of abandoned outbuildings, leaning and blackened on a lonely northern stretch of the Trans-Canada Highway. I reasoned that it must have been built when this area was still rural, before the post-war housing boom that would ultimately bloat the size of the city by several square miles.
My correspondent was in front of the garage, organizing a group of large boxes of plates, set on tables. I greeted him and he gave me the “lay of the land”. There were seven boxes of Ontario plates, plus maybe another ten boxes of various US states. Inside what used to be the office of the garage were even more boxes, all piled on shelves. By my count, there were about 25 more boxes of plates in that small room. His initial estimate of twenty boxes paled in comparison to the 43 boxes I had counted. I would never be able to buy this quantity and remove it in one shot, unless I rented a trailer. But I had to slow myself down——first things first——and see if these plates were interesting enough to buy. So I started with the Ontario boxes.
The Ontario plates ran from the late teens to about 1980. There were scarcely any pairs, which was a major disappointment. The more pairs I can restore and sell to the YOM market, the better I can do on my offer. Several of the pairs I did see had fallen victim to snip-outs, rust perforation, or had been riddled with so many nail holes that it wasn’t worth the effort to restore. I found only three potentially useable pairs, and none of them were lucrative. I shifted my focus toward looking for valuable off-type plates, like dual-purpose or trucks (or if I really hit paydirt, truck dealers). But the only displayable plates were just common passenger plates. There were some truck and trailer plates, but many of them were heavily stained with grease, or splattered in thick tar. It would be a very long and slow clean-up job, probably using solvents, which would almost certainly ruin the underlying paint. As I flipped past the 1950s, the condition of most of the plates had improved, but they were basically dirty singles… The kind of plates I’d be washing and then selling for less than $5 each. It would be a lot of effort to clean up. I decided that I probably wouldn’t take them on, unless there was something better in the other Canadian boxes. I went to the back room to have a look.
The quantity was staggering. To give myself an estimate, I counted out fifty plates, put them against my finger, and used the length as a benchmark. I laid my finger across the boxes and counted each “finger’s worth” of fifty plates. By my guess, there were more than a thousand Canadian plates in front of me. However, there was nothing any older than 1960 for any of the provinces, and 1970 for either of the territories. I dug through to get a better feel for what was there. It seemed to be an even mix of trucks and passenger plates for most provinces, and the condition was OK, rust-wise. However, these plates were filthy. Many of them looked like they had been sprayed long ago with WD-40, and some of them had tar splatter. It would be a monumental clean-up job.
With time not being on my side, I narrowed my focus to the more valuable jurisdictions: Newfoundland, and the two territories. There were no hidden gems. The condition of the Newfie plates improved through the 1970s, but the orange 1976 bases aren’t especially hard to find, so it didn’t matter that much. There was nothing of note for the earlier years-- either bent, peeling, faded, or coated with hard gunk. I moved to the NWT section, but found nothing. The seller had removed them and put them in a rack on the wall. There were only five bear plates. Decent ones, but most were non-passenger. As for the Yukon plates, they were all from the late 1970s, scraped, and nothing to write home about. If I made an offer for just the Canadian portion, there were no hidden surprises to help out, value-wise. There was one low-number Forces in Germany plate, but nothing huge. I also found an interesting home-made booster plate with the Canadian flag painted on it in a sort of day-glow orange. I couldn’t tell if the flag was painted on, or was a vinyl decal. It was an interesting curiosity.
I wasn’t really interested in the US plates, but I looked at them just the same. As with Canada, there was very little older than 1960. I found a couple of minor interesting items, and I kept them in mind, just in case. The coolest plate I found was a District of Columbia police plate, number 207, of the base that was used from 1950 to 1973.
I reasoned that I could fit the Canadian boxes into my car, so I started doing some calculations. The seller said that, on selling the Ontario plates, he would want to cherry-pick one of each year, just to keep for his own. That would mean removing 60 of the 320 or so Ontario plates that were there. Of course, he would be picking the nicer ones, so that would reduce the value of the remainder. I would have to err on the low side, value-wise. There was enough going on with the other provinces that I could probably sell the bad ones for a buck a plate, and then make some coin on the small number of interesting plates that remained. But it would take forever to clean them, and time is money.
I called him over after an hour of looking and made a cash offer of $2000 for all the Canadian plates, and briefly explained my rationale: Nearly nothing YOMable (he already knew I’m in the YOM business), common types, and substantial time needed to clean them of grease and tar. He initially thought I wanted to take just the Ontario plates for $2000——and didn’t even seem excited by that——and said he’d have to talk it over with his wife, who was off-site. He also said that if we didn’t agree to that, He’d still sell a few to me a-la-carte at $5 per plate, which is what he said “he had been getting.” That was unexpected to hear, as he said it was from an estate, and he claimed I was the first person he had called. There were a few plates there that I would be happy to buy at that price for my own collection: Just a few minor quarterly truck upgraders. I said I’d come back tomorrow regardless to buy some singles if a deal wasn’t reached on the Canadian plates overall. He agreed to that. I also had a couple of names in mind of people who routinely buy plates in bulk (provided he wasn’t expecting to get $5 per plate for the whole works).
The following morning, I called the guy, and sure enough, his wife didn’t like my offer. He said he’d be back on-site from eleven to noon, and I could come back then to buy a few at $5 each (except for the NWT bears and Yukons). That was fine with me.
I went out for breakfast and went to a local museum with my son and my sister. We were finished at about 11:45, and we were quite close to the plate hoard. I called ahead, just to let John know I was on my way.
He waffled over the phone. “Oh— Well— You see, I’m— I’m not there anymore. I just left.”
I was nonplussed. “You’re gone? I’m rather surprised to hear that, because you told me to come between eleven and twelve.”
“Well, I figured you weren’t coming,” He replied. “I have other things to do today.”
That didn’t make sense. I was still within the time window, and he had my number to call me in case of a change in plans. “I did tell you I would be there, John, and I’m just a couple of minutes away,” I countered.
“I said I was available between eleven and twelve,” he maintained.
“It’s 11:50,” I deadpanned.
“Oh, well, I had to go,” he said blithely.
“There are some plates I’m interested in buying for $5 or $10, like you mentioned earlier. Will you be available later today?”
“Actually— My wife and I have decided that we would really rather sell them all together in one lot after all,” he said.
This was stupid. “Can I not buy a few from you today, like you said? Considering the distance I’ve travelled, in the time since you contacted me?”
“No, we’re going to—”
I didn’t let him finish. “OK, good luck, thank you.” I hung up on him.
I don’t swear at people when I talk to them. It’s not my way. But this guy was a real ass. It’s one thing to disagree on a value; that happens all the time and shouldn't be taken personally. But to deke me out like this——after inviting me to come by, knowing how far I had travelled——was egregiously disrespectful. The whole exercise was a complete waste of my time.
However, I hadn’t counted on buying plates from him. I would get to spend some family time with my sister, and to make things even better, the Bothwell car show was coming in a couple of days. There would be lots of neat things to see and do. That afternoon, we went for an early dinner at Spageddy Eddy’s. It’s a downtown restaurant that has a healthy selection of licence plates as its decor. I discovered it over 25 years ago by accident, when I was just starting university. I wasn’t yet aware of ALPCA, and from my point of view, I was the only plate collector in the world. I had never seen a June quarterly truck plate before, and I could only theorize about their existence. And then, as I walked up to the door of the restaurant, I could see a white-and-red June ‘77 plate through the window. My mind imploded at my discovery, and Spageddy Eddy’s quickly became my favourite eatery. They used to paste their menus on the backs of Ontario plates (now they use vinyl LP jackets).
On Saturday morning, I put my son in the car, bright and early, and I made the southwesterly drive from London to Bothwell. I lived in London for only four years, but I often rode my bicycle throughout Middlesex county, and even next door into Elgin and Oxford counties. Whenever I return there, the countryside takes me back in time. I remember the sun pressing down on me as I crossed some miles among the crop fields, and I enjoyed the relief when I passed beneath the shady stands of old-growth hickory and black walnut trees that surrounded the houses. I remembered the tangy aroma of the towering walnuts, similar to citrus, as their fallen fruit opened in late summer. I coasted downhill and pushed uphill again with every stream the roads crossed. Now, 25 years later, a gentle press of the accelerator is all I need to conquer those same tributaries. I pointed out an unending string of bygone sights to my son, who looked outward with interest from the back seat.
We arrived in Bothwell, the town still chilly and dewy from the previous night. My first order of business was to check out the flea market vendors. It was nine o’clock, and anyone who’s anyone was open for business. The vendors were set up in several rows, just like at Barrie, Stirling, Lindsay and Bonfield. The market was smaller than most, but what it lacked in quantity, it bloomed in quality. There were no off-topic vendors selling jams or cheap electronics. All of them were related to car parts and antiques to some degree.
I wandered down the rows slowly, with my son only too willing to volunteer his second pair of eyes to point out a plate I might have missed. I made some worthwhile YOM stock purchases, and I could even afford to be picky and leave a few behind that I didn’t quite need.
One vendor had a plethora of newer traffic signal parts available. No assembled signals, mind you, but that’s not hard to do. He had signal bodies, visors, coloured filters for the incandescent collector, and plenty of LEDs for newer signals. I had to remind myself that I’m a plate collector first, and I was a very long way from home with scarcely any space in the trunk or back at the homestead to be bringing home yet another signal to unite with the three I already have.
I stopped for a moment to look at a beautiful 1946 Buick Super fastback sedan, sitting on a trailer. It was beautiful to me, at least. It was a barn find——a restoration project——with faded navy blue paint, and most of the chrome intact. It seemed to be complete, and the price was reduced from $5000 to $4650. I love the profile of those torpedo-backed cars. My former ‘71 Beetle shared the similar curving oblique rear lines that dove from the rooftop to the road. If I had the know-how and the time…
I shifted my frame of mind back to that of a plate collector. I had recently gone through my entire collection, and I had lost the appetite for buying plates when they didn’t fill a gap in one of my runs. I mean, how many June ‘65 quarterly truck pairs do I really need, even if they are nice? I admired some really nice sets of early quarterly truck plates, but left them behind. Earlier in the summer, I had taken on a lot of plates in order to get a few that I really wanted, and my trade boxes were already bursting at the seams. This wasn’t the time to pick up plates that wouldn’t have a home in my runs.
I found a fake Ontario plate while I was in the fields. It was attached to a chrome frame, and was well-used. It looked odd to me, so I picked it up. It was much heavier than it ought to have been, even considering the added weight of the frame. I flipped it over, and found that it was made of a flat piece of stainless steel. The face was so badly faded and peeled that it was impossible to tell how the numbers and province names were originally applied, but they were accurately depicted. It seemed like a lot of trouble to go through to replace what was probably just a lost front plate. I briefly considered buying it, but it was filthy, and the face was crumbling as I held it. I photographed it well, and bought a more interesting farm plate from the same seller instead.
I turned another corner, and another item of interest popped up. This time, it was a single-cylinder motorized bicycle (a little too old and primitive to fit my mind’s eye of what a moped should be). It had double-sided British plate affixed to the front fender, complete with its 1960 registration certificate sealed within a holder that was connected to the plate.
One seller had a handful of Latin America plates buried in with some common Canadian plates. My son Greg spotted them, and wanted the small Colombian motorcycle plate. The seller wanted next to nothing for it, so we made that Greg’s big find for the day. I picked up two other Colombian plates and a Nicaraguan one, for good measure. I just had a feeling about them.
That was it for the market, so we turned to the car show. I don’t get out to this part of Ontario much anymore, and with the YOM sales I’ve made to people in the region, I hoped to find some of my own YOM handiwork. I wasn’t disappointed. For the first time in years, I found about a dozen YOM-plated vehicles at a car show, and the majority of them were mine (I keep a list on my phone). I wore my battery down, as well as my son’s patience, while I snapped pictures of each one I could find. Several were new to me——meaning cars belonging to my clients, for which I didn’t previously have a picture of them wearing their plates.
We spent the rest of Saturday socializing with the extended family. On Sunday, it was time to go home. But I couldn’t resist making a little diversion. I had been to Grand Bend back in the spring, but it was on a day that the town’s best antique store, Dale’s, happened to be closed. Moreover, the Pinery Antique Market is only open on Sunday, and I hadn’t been there for 15 years. Both had some interesting plates for me to find previously, so we made the trip along old Highway 81 to see what was cooking.
It was worth the effort, because I found a JON passenger plate at Dale’s. The reverse JON series had been issued in the London area around 1990, and while I was a student there, I did see a few JON plates in use, but nothing I could ever get for my collection. I since found one, but 861-JON is in better condition. I’ll be keeping them both. Dale’s also has the old northbound King’s Highway shield assembly for the junction of Highways 21 and 81, but they’re firmly not for sale, and are being used as permanent decor.
The Pinery did have a few plates, but nothing that was of any interest… just beat-up front plates. It didn’t seem to be the same place that I visited all those years ago, when I found a batch of low-numbered dual-purpose plates.
I drove the car east for a long time, and made a scheduled pit stop at an antique store in the Niagara region to buy a yellow QEW highway shield by arrangement. The price was a bit steep, but given the awesome design of the sign and the fact that this older variation is an endangered species, I was happy to fork over the cash. The shopkeeper happened to have a couple of plates I wanted, plus a clean copy of Genesis’ 1978 LP “...And Then There Were Three.” He gave me a deal on those. With that, I swallowed the full 407 toll and drove as fast as I could reasonably expect in order to get home. We managed to arrive back in Ottawa at sundown, five hours later.
We had been five days away from home, with plenty of driving. Despite the initial debacle in London, the trip was overall worthwhile, and lots of fun!