For only the second time in the history of The Back Bumper, I’m handing the 2Cents pen over to a guest writer. Norm Ratcliffe has been collecting plates since his joint “inauguration” into the hobby at Benton Harbor, Michigan in 1982 with life-long collecting buddy William Loftus.
Herein is written Norm’s simultaneous discovery of no fewer than three Ontario leather automobile licence plates, plus an impressive late-issue rubber plate. They’re indeed authentic. This discovery brings the number of known leather examples to 13 from ten… all in a single day. Normy, you have the floor!
So, here’s the story about the “Wonder Case” that has unearthed—to our passion and attention—four absolutely spectacular early specimens of Ontario license plates. This includes one benchmark “game-changer” in the form of a first-issue manufacturer/dealer plate.
Two weeks ago, November 5th 2020, to be exact, I received a simple text message from a friend of mine with a photo attached:
“Hey— have you ever seen a leather license plate before?”
I tapped the photo and expanded it to see what he was talking about.
The photo showed an old wooden case with a green fabric background. Inside the case appeared to be four eye-popping early Ontario license plates. However, the angle of the photo provided some glare where I couldn’t make out the plate closest to the top left corner of the case.
I saw what appeared to be a 1903/04 Ontario leather plate number 222, and another such example numbered 742, but without the requisite metal oval tab at the bottom centre of the plate. There was also a 1910 Ontario “white bar” rubber plate number 8794. The top left plate in the case appeared to be another leather plate, but with the metal mounting rings set closer to the centre of the plate. It bore what appeared to be an ornate letter, as opposed to a number.
Being the dyed-in-the-wool skeptic that I am, I went straight to Eric’s “Ontario Early Years Plate Registry” to see if any of the three legible plates were already recorded in the annals of the hobby’s archives. I figured that every Ontario leather and rubber license plate that has survived over the past 110+ years has already made it into our realm of knowledge. However, there was no sign of ANY of them recorded, including the 1910 rubber!
As I’ve already said, I’m a skeptic… The line of work that I’ve been in for the past 29 years that has conditioned me to be that way. But also, when it comes to the plate-collecting hobby, usually the “too good to be true” stuff usually IS. These HAD to be fakes… Yet, it appeared that whoever created this display case went to great lengths of care to have engraved brass signage made up. The signs adorn the theme of early Ontario automotive registration, with a quote from the Provincial Secretary’s Office in July 1905 that decreed: “Every automobile using highways of Ontario must be registered by Provincial Secretary, Toronto.” There were also smaller brass plaques affixed below each license plate indicating the years 1905 through 1908 (attributed incorrectly to each plate). This error indicated to me right away: They have no idea what they really have…IF these are real!
My friend—who had texted me the photo—followed up with another…this second image was a close-up of the oval tab affixed to the bottom of plate #222. That’s when my heart began to race, and my palms got moist. It had EVERYTHING that would indicate the plate was the real deal, including the patina in the crotches of the numerals, and the distinctive ornate script accents on the oval that separate the real from the fake.
So I texted my friend; “Where is this place, and what are you doing there?” He replied that he had ordered some products on-line from this particular business in Toronto. When he arrived and waited by the order counter for pick-up, he had seen this shadow box display that was mounted to the wall. It was behind the propped-open interior door.
My friend is a collector in his own right—mostly transit, police and fire department related stuff—but as a fellow collector, he thought that this display was pretty special. It was worth taking a couple of photos and sending to me just to see if there was any merit to any of it.
He asked the salesman if the interior door could be closed so that an unobstructed photo of the display could be taken. The salesman indulged.
A conversation then ensued whereby my friend exalted me as a “prolific” and “professorial” license plate collector of many decades. He suggested that I would quite possibly be interested in seeing these plates for myself if such an indulgence could be afforded.
The salesman indicated that he would be open to it, if an appointment was made in that regard.
The salesman also said that the plates have been on display in that case affixed to the “lobby wall" since he started with the company 42 years ago. They were apparently found in the company safe when the company moved from their original downtown location on Church Street to the current location back in the early 1960’s.
He stated that the company, under its previous name, manufactured the original license plates seen in the case and that they were “a part of our company’s history.” I then asked my friend about the plate in the top left corner of the case. I couldn’t make it out from the light bouncing off the glass.
He texted back: “It was not like the other ones…..it only had the letter F….and the metal tab on it was different….had the word EXEMPT on it and some other stuff…..”
It was at that point that my blood pressure went into the Van Allen Belt. Palpitations… moisture on my forehead... I could not contain myself to “play it cool.” I exclaimed something profane to the ceiling and called him on the phone. A text message just would not suffice at this moment.
I had him describe the plate in every way possible.
“Did I find something special…?” he asked.
"DUUUDE!!! You have found the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Treasure of Oak Island all in one!"
He was as excited as I was. He’s not a license plate collector, but he sure felt like one at that moment. He said to me: “Well, I have to go back there in a couple of weeks, maybe I can get better pictures of it then.”
To which I replied; “F*** THAT!!! We’re going NEXT WEEK—ASAP!!!” ...to which he laughed, and said that Wednesday was his only available day to attend.
He gave me the name and phone number of the salesman: Peter. As in the Saint Peter who maintains care and control of the Gates of Heaven.
On Tuesday November 10th, I made contact with Peter, who seemed very engaged and friendly. “Ah yes…I was told to expect your phone call.” We agreed to set the appointment for the following day at 2 pm to afford time for my friend to get there after his work shift.
Sadly, as I was heading down to the city that following day, my buddy called me to say that he wouldn’t be able to make it after all. An incident he had to deal with had come up. He really wanted to be there with me to share in the joy and excitement of it all…That my friends, is what a TRUE collector is all about !
I drove down to the address. I realized that not only had I been on this street before, but I had driven past this business on more than a couple of occasions for work-related things over the past couple of decades. The business is situated in an older multi-unit industrial plaza, sharing space with sketchy chop/tint-shops, marble and granite cutters and wholesale meat purveyors.
I parked alongside the building and just stared at it for awhile, saying to myself, “One of the biggest finds in the history of this hobby is just inside those bricks.” I psyched myself up to head in and not gush, but I also didn’t want to play it coy. I felt like I was about to go on a first date with the Prom Queen. I think I even did a breath check. I had brought-along print-outs of the Early Years Registry to provide some context as to what was in play for the impending discussions. I also had ready my business cards and contact information… everything but my birth certificate and blood screening records.
I walked up to the front door, harkening back to my earliest years as a collector: 13 years old and slogging through wrecking yards, antique stores, flea markets, and barns. I had been doing the same for decades since then, waiting for “the Big Find.” And here it was about to happen.
I opened the front door and entered the foyer that opened to a long counter and a lot of typical office clutter. The person behind the counter asked if I had an appointment and I said; “Yes, with Peter.”
As they went to retrieve my host, I looked to my left, and WHAMMO! There it was! The display case was right behind the propped-open foyer door. Blasphemy, I thought… You’ve blocked this treasure with a DOOR?
I have attached to this essay a photo of the display as it appears on the foyer/lobby wall of the business. The door to the left of the photo is usually propped open, thus obscuring it.
At that very moment, I thought that I must first confirm the dealer plate right away: Just in case the Good Lord wanted to “take me” right then and there, before joining the Choir-Invisible. Sure enough, there it was, with just enough clearance to see around the door frame: “EXEMPT FROM PROVINCIAL LICENSE.”
Tranquility Base….the Eagle has Landed.
Peter the salesman emerged. In this era of damned face masks, it is so difficult to fully gauge someone’s personality and demeanour with one of these face-diapers. He seemed nice enough, even though I could only read his eyes.
Peter told me about the history of the company, and how it’s been run by the same family since its incorporation in 1907. He even showed me the framed Articles of Incorporation with the date June 26 1907 inscribed. He said that the current owner—a great grand-daughter of the original owner—still comes in from time to time to visit, indicating that she herself is elderly.
It was “picture time,” so I began in earnest to capture these gems as best I could with my iPhone. However, there was intense glare and reflection bouncing off the glass door of the case. The case did look fairly old, and I stared at the small keyhole located at the bottom centre. I prayed for a key or laser-burning vision…either way.
I told Peter about the glare/reflection problem, and asked if he knew where the key to the case was... so that, “pretty please,” can we open it for a proper photo shoot?
Peter replied, “I’ve been working here for 42 years, and that case has always been closed. Nobody knows where the key went. But I can shut some lights off for you to maybe get better pictures.”
He shut off the lights at the front foyer, where 5 other people were trying to do their work. That was uncomfortable. "Don't mind me, folks..." I tried holding up pieces of paper to blot-out some of the reflection to no avail. I must’ve taken 30 photos, and only eight turned out acceptable. The longer I stayed taking pictures, the longer it felt like I was wearing out my welcome, even though the staff quietly and politely went about doing their work.
I showed Peter the print-outs of the Early Years Registry He was quite interested in seeing the depth of the information and photos of the old leather and rubber plates. He was amazed that there was even information about the original registrants.
I showed him that license plate #222 was registered to a gentleman that resided at 75 Queen Street East in Toronto, to which he said; “75 Queen East? That was attached to our old place on Church Street, as we had the corner lot… so that makes sense!”
So, it was at that point that I realized that I need to speak to the owner in the coming weeks ahead. Peter asked if there was a way to show the information to the owner as she’d be interested to see it. So I gave him all the printouts to pass along to her.
So of course, the uncomfortable question had to be asked. We’ve all been there for something like this. We want it/them, but we don’t want to upset our hosts by appearing selfish and grabby.
"So would you ever consider allowing any of these to go to an ever-loving home away from here?”
Again, these damned face masks, allowing me only to read the eyes. But Peter chuckled. “No way… these are a part of our company’s history. They’re going to stay here.” And this I have to respect, but still: Peter’s just the salesman. The owner needs to make the call on the play.
It was at this point that I directed him to the Early Years print-out for the Ontario rubber plates that showed that it was indeed the Gutta-Percha Rubber company that manufactured their 1910 white-bar plate. But a different manufacturer was used to make the leather plates. It was kinda my way of saying; “Yeah…But you guys didn’t make the leather ones, so TAKE MY MONEY!”
Peter said to me; “Yeah, that makes sense as we never did vulcanized rubber products..and that definitely appears to be vulcanized rubber.”
This story ends on a promissory note. I had mentioned to Peter that I may need to return to take further photos perhaps with a partner who can hold-up a baffle of sorts to blot-out all the glare and perhaps even arrange it to be on a date where staff would not have to be disturbed.
Peter replied; “Sure, we can arrange for that. Just give me a call ahead of time, and we’ll see what we can do. But you have me thinking now: Maybe it’s not a good idea to keep these things out here in the open anymore?”
I told him that I would not divulge the current name of the company or its location. I gave him my word as a hobbyist that I would never place their enterprise in a position where their privacy and property would be put at risk, to which he expressed relief.
This will be a relationship. Likely a long relationship, where I will be checking-in with the proprietors on a semi-frequent basis. It’s fun to fantasize that some day, the desire for the company to keep these relics will pass, and the funds that would replace those “things behind the door” may one day be an acceptable substitute. But even if it never happens, the significance of this find to this hobby is worth so much more.
I’m just glad to have provided it.