Or: Tag, You’re It


The display of registration status on cars is a funny thing, in both senses of the word. The humble license plate, number plate as they call it in the UK, or just plain ‘tag’ as many Americans call it, goes back almost as far as the automobile itself and serves multiple purposes. They show not just the mere fact that the vehicle is registered, but also where and indirectly, to whom. The original and most important purpose of the numbers on each plate was to make identification in case of collisions quick(er) and easier(er). And while recent technological developments have made this last function easier than ever, the plates themselves haven’t really changed that much. They’ve usually been made of metal, been emblazoned with a number, and displayed on one or both ends of the vehicle. The first one was issued in France in 1893, and the first plate-requirement in the United States was issued by the state of New York in 1901, although it was up to the vehicle’s owner to furnish the plate, which could be made of metal or leather. Can you imagine how much style privately-produced leather plates would have today? Just imagine the ones that would have adorned those cowboy-Cadillacs that had bullhorns mounted on the grille and used silver six-shooters for door-handles. What is probably the oldest still-current vehicle registration number in the USA was issued by Massachusetts and was the number 1, issued in 1903 to a Frederik Tudor, and the number is still held today by one of Tudor’s descendants.

In 1931 Pennsylvania changed things forever by issuing the first personalized license plate, and as of 2005, 3.83% of the 242,991,747 privately registered or commercially owned vehicles in the USA had a personalized or ‘vanity’ plate. In 2007 Virginia had the highest rate of them at 16.2%, and Texas had the lowest at .5%. I had one of the plates in that half-percent in Texas in 2007; more about that later.

It is likely that personalized plates have been making people scratch their heads in puzzlement from the very beginning. Reasons vary, such as saying something that only the bearer knows the meaning of, or having to abbreviate a lot due to limited character-spaces available, working around an idea that’s already taken, or saying something in a language not common to the region. Then there are the offensive ones. Every state has the authority to deny an application for a personalized plate if it doesn’t meet certain standards of decency. I haven’t been able to find out when or where the first instance of this was, but there have also been several cases in which a state had to revoke a plate because the offensive nature wasn’t immediately obvious when the plate was approved. One interesting example happened in 2015 in Texas where they revoked 370H55V. I sort of wonder how that one slipped past them. Others only might be offensive, such as one from California that has been passed around the interwebz that says ISED. It’s a likely guess that the applicant was trying to say ‘is loved,’ but the interwebz being the great distiller of human nature that they are, postulated that it might mean ‘I sharted.’ Most of us wouldn’t want to proclaim something like that on our plate, but as they say, it takes all types.

Some plates make bold proclamations, like one seen many years ago that said FASTRNU. I wonder what effect this had on any speeding-citations the owner may have received. Or less-bold proclamations, like ITCBTSY. Some make bold proclamations in a self-deprecating way, like the Charger Hellcat I once spotted wearing MPG LOL. Some are obvious things, like MY BMW or 57CHEVY. Some are less-obvious, like one my dad had in the 1980s that said DOHC. That one adorned his ’74 Alfa Romeo Berlina, a small sedan that anybody who isn’t into cars wouldn’t assume much about, but which was unusual among compact cars in the USA at the time for having a Double OverHead Cam engine. This was actually his second-choice; he wanted ALDO but that was already taken. Dad’s name wasn’t Aldo but the car’s was, named after the funny little Italian man in the TV ads for Cella wines that were running in those days. Dad liked naming his cars; he also had a Sunbeam Alpine at the time that wore HENRI (which wasn’t Dad’s name either, for the record). He had another Alpine that he called Henrietta but I can’t recall whether or not he’d put a shortened version of that on a plate. Another less-obvious one was on a Lotus Elise I used to see around Atlanta, which read OMG BBQ. You’re probably reading that as ‘Oh My God Bar-B-Q,’ but you’d only be half-correct. I overheard the owner explaining it at a cruise-in once, and as it went, back when he was pondering the purchase of an Elise he was dating a girl who was constantly telling him that he shouldn’t make such an impractical purchase. He got tired of hearing that, broke up with her, bought the car, and got a plate that stands for “Oh My God, Bitch, BE QUIET!”

At the time I’m writing this, there’s a picture going around on social media of a Maserati with a plate that says DUZ18E5. People younger than Gen X probably won’t get it. A year or two ago in Kansas City I saw DOOMBGY. Doom buggy? And a mini-van somewhere with SWGR WAGN. I suffered some eyeroll when I figured that one out. Another famous picture that’s been passed around the interwebz is of a Virginia plate that comes with the slogan ‘kids first’ across the bottom, and the person ordered it with EAT THE in the character spaces. That’s not as bad as the ones who have A55 RGY on plates from states that have something round like a peach or orange in the middle of their designs. Somewhere out there there’s a Lamborghini Murcielago with NO MURCI. How terribly clever. But not as clever as 6UL DV8.

I’ve had two personalised plates. Years ago when living in Texas I had a motorcycle that I thought deserved one. It was one of the classic air-cooled BMW twins in black with white pinstripes, and a previous owner had fitted a sporty fairing with a matching paint-job. The look of the thing reminded of Batman for some reason, so I got a plate for it that said BATBYK, the spelling the result of only six characters being able to fit on it. The Lotus I own today came with a plate that said YELOTUS, a name given by a friend of the previous owner because the car is painted yellow. It’s too good to not hang onto.

Keep your eye open for those interesting plates out there on the road. They’re lots of fun!