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First started as "My 2 Cents" in 1997, I have written posts numbering into the hundreds. It will take some time to resurrect the older posts, so keep checking back. They will include meet reports, travelogues, and news of interest to Ontario licence plate collectors.

Open For Business: A Plategate Unicorn Revealed

I was fortunate this month to acquire a unicorn-calibre Ontario plate for my collection: A blank Ontario plate, discarded from 3M, with the “Open For Business” slogan that was intended for commercial truck plates, as per the Ontario government’s news releases in 2019. My information is that it was rescued from a company scrap pile in Texas.

Of course, we all know that the flat blue passenger plates were released first, with the "A Place To Grow" slogan. We also know they were soon found to have unreflective characters on a highly reflective background. This unfortunate fact rendered the plates largely illegible at night. Rather than fix the problem, the Ontario government scrapped the rollout of new plates. But the province was later forced to issue the flat blue plates because of supply chain problems early in the COVID pandemic. Some of these blue passenger plates remain on the road, but the project never got as far as issuing commercial plates. Whether they were ever manufactured or not remains to be seen. Ontario skipped part of the commercial BF series, plus BH and BJ… which is uncannily like the skipped CMNA to CNZZ series of passenger plates. General consensus is that these serial blocs were intended to be printed on the first blue plates, had the rollout not been aborted.

This “Open For Business” blank of mine is the genuine article. It has some obvious differences with the “A Place To Grow” passenger plates, but there are some subtle differences as well. Let’s compare.

A regular daylight shot of the two shows that the colours appear substantially the same. Maybe they have a slightly different hue if you stare and squint. The trillium divider is placed further to the left of the blank, ostensibly to accommodate the AA-12345 serial format currently used on commercial plates in Ontario. Also, a close look at the lower right of the blank reveals that the three dark circles in the crown are absent. Those circles appear in the crown of the passenger plate (as well as all other such crown-bearing plates since 1973).

The light blue "swoosh" of the commercial blank plate is wider on its right-hand downstroke than its passenger counterpart. It looks to have been widened so the division between light and dark blue passes directly between the words "for" and "business." If the commercial swoosh was kept to a consistent thickness, the light-dark division would pass between the "U" and "S" in the word "business." That's probably just a bit of artistic licence (no pun intended) to improve the legibility of the slogan.

The texture of the two plates is clearly different. The passenger plate has a relatively smooth surface, which gives it a glossier sheen. The commercial blank has a more textured surface, and it has an almost tacky feel, similar to the sheeting of new Alberta plates. Both the blank and the passenger plates have tiny dots embedded in the sheeting, to which I’ll refer hereafter as “microdots.” The microdots protrude from the surface of the commerical blank plate to a greater extent, particularly the darker blue sections. This gives the blank plate a less-glossy sheen. This difference is most obvious when light bounces off the plates at a shallow angle.

Above: The smoother passenger plate is shown at the top; the commercial blank is shown beneath it. Note the more textured surface, particularly the darker blue portion surrounding the word "for."

Above: Same plates as previous image, but reversed positions: The textured commercial blank is shown above, with the smoother passenger plate beneath it. Note the relative lack of texture.

I thought that maybe the microdots themselves were different between the two plates. The commercial blank features a 3M HDLP (high-definition license plate) maker’s mark that also protrudes from the surface. The passenger plate doesn’t have such a maker’s mark, but does have a repeating sequence of miniature trillium logos down the left side, and repeating instances of the number 16 (or the code 9I) down the right side. There seemed to be no difference in the composition or spacing between the microdots of either plate… they’re simply raised to a higher extent on the commercial blank plate.

Above: The bottoms of both plates shown side-by-side (showing a couple of scrapes on the commercial blank plate). The next image will be a close-up of the area close to the 3M HDLP maker's mark.

Above: A closer view of the previous picture, with the commercial blank visible at top, and the regular passenger plate visible at bottom.

Above: Detailed view of the bottom of the commercial blank plate, including the 3M HDLP maker's mark, showing the microdots. Each line on the tape measure is one millimetre.

Above: Detailed view of the bottom of the regular passenger plate, showing the same microdot density as the commercial blank plate. Each line on the tape measure is one millimetre.

These dots are a key factor in the plates’ retro-reflectivity at night, and I wanted to compare that aspect. I already know that the white characters of the passenger plate don’t reflect in this manner, and I wasn’t interested in re-testing that aspect; I was looking purely at the blue backgrounds to see if there was a visible difference in colour while reflecting. I placed them in a dark area and aimed a desk lamp at them, being careful to keep the light beam perpendicular to the plates themselves. The result shows a clear difference between the blues of the regular passenger and the commercial blank. The entire face of the blank lit up with a vertical stripe pattern that is not seen on the passenger plate. The lighter blue mid-area of the blank plate is quite a bit darker than that of the passenger plate. Both of these differences can be seen with the naked eye, and the image below is an accurate depiction.

Above: Ignoring the numbers on the passenger plate, there is a clear difference in the retro-reflectivity of these two plates. Note the vertical stripes and lowered contrast between blues of the commercial blank plate.

Interestingly, the customized sample plates that were produced in 2019 for the press have the same vertical-stripe retro-reflectivity pattern as the commercial blank plate does. This image of the sample made for CityTV (from my 2019 files) clearly shows the same reflective pattern. The characters are reflective too, showing that a proper reflective plate was always within reach.

I can't resist standing on a soapbox for a moment: I suspect that the Ontario Government negotiators—acting on simplistic instructions from their elected boss— selected a cheaper tier of sheeting / manufacture. They signed a contract, and Ontario received what it paid for: Plates with numbers that weren't bright at night. I further suspect that the Ontario negotiators were unable to have the problem fixed without upgrading to a better (read: more expensive) tier of sheeting, such as the HDLP sheeting shown on this commercial blank. Even further, I suspect that rather than spend the money to fix an embarrassing error into which they negotiated themselves, they scrapped the whole process, and hid it behind their non-disclosure agreement. The first few weeks of COVID provided an ideal distraction for most people to forget about Plategate.

I’m not a 3M insider, nor am I a government insider, nor am I a reflective sheeting geek. I don’t know what the various codes mean. I also don’t truly know if the sheeting of the commercial blank is a higher-tier product than that of the passenger plates, or if it’s just a newer version of the same product. But this blank plate reflects with less background contrast, which might have made for greater legibility if these plates were ever made with some damn numbers that reflect.

And that brings us to the most entertaining part of this article… What would these commercial plates look like if they were actually numbered? Using a couple of existing passenger plates, I pinpointed the size and positioning of the numbers, and then transposed some characters from those passenger plates onto the blank, to create this mock-up. The spacing between the numbers to the right of the divider is the same as that of passenger plates: I used one that bore the number “374,” and another with “451.” I arranged the two layers of fixed digits so that the “4” was precisely overlapped, thus preserving the spacing. As for the spacing of the BH… that’s a best guess. The number here is essentially random. But it falls within the commercial serial range that was never issued, and is assumed to have been reserved for the “Open For Business” plates that never were.

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