Spare Parts: A sticky situation

By Ernie Copper

Have you ever picked up an old license plate inside an old barn and brushed away the dirt to find out just how old the plate was? Depending on your age, you may have even unbolted plates from the bracket of an old bike you bought. See, years ago it was not uncommon for a plate to stay on the bike when you bought it. Nobody really cared. My Dad used to say, “They fit right on it,” mocking the one-size-fits-all nature of license plates, which in and of itself is something of a miracle. It is truly amazing, as pointed out by my son, that all 50 states seemed to agree on the size and bolt spacing of license plates.

The oldest plate I got with a bike was a 1969 California black/yellow motorcycle plate. Saving it wasn’t so much me being a visionary as it was an attempt to get the bike presentable to sell to the next owner. But I hung the plate on the wall and there it stays.

I have several old plates from family-owned cars and bikes from the ’60s and ’70s, before the insurance companies and the state got so picky about turning them back in to prevent insurance fraud. I’m not sure what determines when it’s time to get a new license plate in my state let alone the other 49. I’ve had my current plate at least 20 years. The two bikes I had before that both had different plates and I’m not sure why. After you bought plates for your bike, you would renew your registration each year. Once you sent in your check and the paperwork you’d get a postage stamp-sized reflective sticker back in the mail. It featured the current year and made your vehicle “current.” You were entrusted to apply this sticker to your existing plate without supervision.

Years ago, it seems we must have gotten new plates every year. The old plates I have behind my bar from the ’20s and ’30s each have a different year embossed on them and no stickers. The stickers, it seems, were a cost-effective way to maximize revenue from my registration dollar, as they undoubtedly cost far less to manufacture and mail than a new plate. But not less than nothing.

While I can’t tell you when Pennsylvania started producing registration stickers, I can tell you when they stopped. December 31, 2016. It’s called Act 89. I was reminded of this while getting my bike inspected this year when my eagle-eyed mechanic saw the stack of old stickers adorning my plate and related a story about how someone he knew got fined for not removing the old registration stickers from their plate even though we aren’t concerned with them anymore. To ensure that didn’t happen to me, he got out his single edge razor blade and soon, 20 years of riding history fluttered to the ground in a reflective collage. Just like that. Nothing to hang on the wall for Auld Lang Syne, just little flakes of trash sticking to the bottom of my boots and his garage floor.

I did a little research on the subject and found that the root of this rumor was primarily parking tickets issued when drivers/riders were visiting other states. Our state’s official position seems to be, take them off or leave them on. We don’t care. The discontinuation of the registration sticker program reportedly saves the state approximately $3 million annually including postage. As a taxpayer, I’m OK with that.

Still curious, and slightly nostalgic, I began to look over the rest of my license plate collection. Aside from the plates from the ’20s, ’30s which have found their way inside my home, I have plates from the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, ’90s and, as they say the hits of today.

One has a “T” or temporary sticker on it. Before that, we had oversized white cardboard plates of shame. The notary issued them while you waited for your real plate to get there. They were the DMV equivalent of a racer’s rookie stripe. Most race tracks make rookies apply a yellow stripe (or other means of identifying newbies) to their car. It’s a great practice unless you’re the rookie.

In a knee-jerk, tech-resistant reaction to the recent loss of my registration stickers, I began to wonder, just what will future generations be able to collect to remind them of their happy motoring, good times? Screen shots? Cloud thingies? The very idea of aspiring to own your own vehicle, much less specifically a motorcycle (or two), seems to be in jeopardy these days.

Time marches on. It seems like it won’t be too long until even license plates themselves will be a thing of the past. I hate to sound curmudgeonly; I really do. But if the shoe fits, I’ll wear it with pride, even if it does have bits of my old registration stickers stuck on its sole.

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