This is something I apparently planned to write, or feature, some 42 years ago. Don’t know why I didn’t. But let’s take a look now, because it’s still amusing–hopefully creative–and it gives us teasing glimpses of all sort of hot rods. I’m of course talking about personalized license plates, also known as vanity plates.
Most of these pics were taken at a large event Gary Meadors called “Motate to Merced,” I think when he was still with NSRA, in 1980. I was doing hot rod stuff as a freelancer then, so that’s why it’s all black and white (that’s all the mags used), and why it didn’t run anywhere (no mag wanted it). Color shots are newer.
My sources say personalized plates were first introduced in Pennsylvania in 1931. Lots of other states had them before California. I first saw them in Arizona, which even offered them on copper plates, since they were the copper state. Although CA switched from black plates to blue in 1970, it didn’t start vanity plates until ’72 (maybe that’s when they first offered seven characters). I’m surprised, because these plates of course cost a sizeable surcharge (every year), which means more money for the state. What took CA so long?
I also think some of these just make good black-and-white photos. But in 1980, vanity plates were still somewhat of a novelty. Further, they were one more (new) way to personalize your vehicle, to make an automotive statement. And that’s what rodding and customizing is all about. In terms of “custom” plates, the more creative, and wittier, the better.
So, at first I really couldn’t understand why people would want custom plates that just stated the obvious. We all know what a 1926 T or a ’34 Ford looks like. Then I realized that aggravating question everyone else asks at a gas station, market, or stop light: “Hey. what year is that?” When what they really mean–and should say–is “Hey, nice car!”
Sometimes stating the obvious is witty in itself, such as Danny Eichstedt’s way chopped and sectioned black ’34 sedan, which was incredibly low, especially in contrast to his previous tall-topped “Leg Show” T-bucket.
Or, maybe there are more creative, or just informative, ways to identify your hot rod through its license plate.
So you can see this is mainly a photo essay. The plates do speak for themselves. And, in fact, these are only half the photos I shot at this one event. Plus I have a whole ‘nuther batch of witty plates, and tales, from the late pinstriper/collector Shaky Jake, so let me know if you want to see more.
But first… Whether you’ve ever ordered a vanity plate or not, you have very likely played the mind game of thinking up good ones for you car. Of course I did this for years–decades–for my thank-god-it’s-finally-gone ’48 Chevy. The one with too many doors and not enough cylinders. I’ll only mention a few. Most were self-deprecating. My favorite was SICKX. A nicer alternate was 153624 (firing order). When Pro/Street was happening I would have chosen PRO SLUG. And since it was an honorary low rider, I liked OR LA, or what it meant: ORALE (pronounced OR-A-LAY), which in Chicano slang translates to BITCHIN! in Baskervillese. There were plenty more, but the one I should have done–which I’m pretty sure I’ve seen somewhere–was FOR SALE. On the other hand, the reason I’d never done a personal plate on any of my cars–especially the ’32 roadster–was because they all had black CA plates, which meant they were original to 1963. Until fairly recently, that was the only way you could get a black plate. It had to have been issued to that car between ’63 and ’69, and (for the first time) you didn’t have to turn it in when the new blue plates came out. So my ’32 and ’56 F-100 still proudly wear their original black plates. However, our new ’33 sedan didn’t have old plates when I got it, so I finally got my first personalized plate:
And I took this photo after returning from our recent cross-country trip to show it means what it says.
And speaking of “message” plates, this is one that Lil John Buttera affixed to his famous coffee-brown ’26 T sedan, which he vociferously drove to the NSRA Nats in Tulsa in ’76. It also demonstrates that CA personal plates could be kept and transferred from car to car. This is Lil’s then-new, hi-tek ’32 3-window, seen on Hot Rod’s Dec. ’79 cover, square headlights and all.
For Inliners, this was the plate to get, and it was snagged (in CA) by rod-writer Jay Storer for his quite unusual ’32 highboy roadster powered by an Ak Miller-built turbocharged Ford straight six on propane. Love that single exhaust. And it hauled ass; I rode in it.
I showed this photo on Instagram and people thought it was another Angeleno migrant to Oregon, but I think the subtle reference is to Irma. On the other hand, la douce in French means “the sweet,” and this Deuce is.
OK, how about some that are just fun and creative?
In the above photos, I’d point out that the B BOPIN pickup is a Model B, The CHEV ROD plate is a bit redundant given the Bow Tie right above it, and rodders had a brief infatuation with COORS when it was only available in the West (probably not the best thing to advertise on your hot rod).
Given the scarcity of female rodders, it’s great they can use plates to announce ownership, and hopefully encourage more.
I don’t know about other states, but CA law says it’s illegal to alter a license plate in any way. That would include painting the background of a blue plate black (which some did before new black plates became available). But here are some more creative, and artistic, customized custom plates:
And here’s one I can’t begin to figure out. That nice black ’32 sedan is conspicuously devoid of any louvers, of any kind. Maybe this guy is a deadpan satirist.
Sometimes a personalized plate really adds little to a car that makes a strong statement all by itself. I once used Jay Carpenter’s big block-powered black hiboy in an HRM article to demonstrate the elements that make a real hot rod. It has all the right stuff, and not too much. The plate certainly doesn’t detract, but it’s more like a nice fashion accessory on this rod.
In this case I’d say the plate is more like an exclamation point.
And in the case of Guy Ruchonnet’s similar orange chopped ’34 3-window, with its blown and injected Chrysler Hemi and Funny Car slicks, this plate is nothing less than a declarative statement that has rightfully become a classic. I saw its corollary UD LOSE on an ’80s Pro/Street fairgrounds cruiser once, but it was wishful thinking.
I did mention Baskervillese, didn’t I? Gray had a way with words for all places, in any medium. And that of course included the very appropriate, and by now famous, blue plate on the back of his equally revered veteran Deuce. I took this photo of it parked in its Pasadena carport, along with his last pair of worn-out flip-flops. Adeeos, my good friend.
And adeeos to you, my much-appreciated readers…for now. I’ll be back.