Staff Writer
Columbus CEO

c.2013 New York Times News Service

AVON, Ind. — For some car collectors, completing a vehicle restoration with tires, wheels and paint that look period-correct is just not enough. Even such details as the license plates must be the correct vintage.

“It’s the last detail,” said Jeff Minard, a license plate collector in Pasadena, Calif. “You get the owner’s manual — and then you really want the license plate.”

Minard, 65, explained that while antique plates could be valued collectibles on their own, they also made an ideal finishing touch for an old car.

“It’s part of the car’s furniture,” said Minard, who was a curator for “License Plates: Unlocking the Code,” an exhibition of 220 plates on display through March 30 at the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles. The show celebrates the centennial of California’s first state-issued plate, which arrived in 1914.

Like California, most states began issuing plates — their original role was less about law enforcement and more about verifying that the car’s owner had paid a tax — in the early 1900s. Today, all but a handful of states let car collectors register vintage plates to their old cars, but some basic qualifications must be met: Vehicles generally need to be at least 25 years old, and the year on the plate must match the model year of the car.

The requirements to qualify for year-of-manufacture, or YOM, plates vary. In California, for example, all letter and number combinations must be cleared first. Cars in Illinois must be at least 25 years old to qualify, while Washington state requires them to be more than 30 years old. In Indiana, collectors may use vintage plates but are required to buy a historic-vehicle plate, keep it in the car and renew it each year.

Finding vintage plates can be challenging, but swap meets and websites like eBay and Craigslist help connect buyers and sellers. While some plate years, county codes and states are difficult to find, not all vintage plates are rare.

Over the years, many plate collectors have rescued surplus plates — ones that were never issued before their expiration — from state motor vehicle offices before they were scrapped.

“At the end of the year, I’d bring my pickup truck and start loading boxes of plates,” said Greg Gibson, a collector in Fenton, Mich. Gibson is also the president of the Automobile License Plate Collectors Association, which counts among its members about 3,000 hobbyists from around the world.

For Ed Ragsdale, 50, what began as a hobby turned into a business. After collecting for several years, in 2009 he found himself out of work, so he began selling vintage plates full time from his garage here in suburban Indianapolis.

“I’m actually doing this as my job now,” Ragsdale said. “I normally sell a plate every day, if not 10.”

His holdings include some 60,000 plates, many of which are the unused vintage examples called new old stock by collectors, that he and others saved from the trash. Some of his work is restoring and selling especially desirable plates that were in poor condition when he found them.

Most of the business comes from car collectors looking for a YOM plate, he added. Parked outside the garage was a 1957 Pontiac Chieftain with a 1957 yellow and black Indiana plate.

Perhaps no vintage plate has attracted so much mystique among mainstream car collectors as California plates issued in the mid-1960s. The simple design bears raised gold lettering on a solid black background. A seller offering a muscle car of the 1960s wearing a pair of California black plates brings to the bargaining table instant credibility — even if the plates were not original to the car, experts say.

“Black plate cars draw a premium, because it is one and the same as saying it is a California car,” said Randy Nonnenberg, 36, co-founder of the San Francisco-based website Bring-a-Trailer. “Our cars are on the whole pretty dry and not affected by the rust.”

Virginia first allowed old cars to wear vintage plates in 1983. “It was an alternative to the antique vehicle plates, which were available in all states,” Gibson of the collectors group said.

Many states allow old plates to transfer from owner to owner, potentially increasing the value of the vehicle. “It’s an asset,” Minard said.

Market values of vintage plates differ widely. The earliest plates, which can sell for thousands of dollars, were not issued by states; motorists were assigned a number and then hand-made their plates out of leather or iron. Early state-issued plates are also valuable, including the flat, porcelain variety that by the late-1920s had been replaced by embossed lettering.

A state-approved matching set of black plates regularly sells for hundreds of dollars, although California’s “legacy” plate program, signed into law last year, will let registrants buy a replica vintage plate and assign it to their car.

Minard said he had recently sold through eBay a pair of California black plates bearing the combination VVN442. Normally, the plates would have been worth about $200, but one bidder — perhaps a fan of Oldsmobile muscle cars — paid $600 for the pair.

Prices have taken off as more states have adopted year-of-manufacture programs.

“It’s really changed the dynamic of the plate market,” Gibson said. “To me, the holy grail was finding a 1901 New York plate, because it was the very first plate that was issued in this country.” He bought the handmade leather plate in 1983 for $125. Today, it is worth at least $1,000, he said.

While vintage plate registration programs have made it easier for car collectors to put that authentic touch on their prized vehicle, plate collectors complain that their hobby is more challenging — and more expensive.

“What it did is raise the prices,” Minard said. “As the car guy, you are going to want the nicest plate you can get. So, you’ll pay $50, but the license plate collector will only pay $10.”