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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.

Diamonds in the rough

Updated: Dec 20, 2020

Being a high school teacher, the first week of classes is typically one of the busiest of the year. I’m learning names, having kids added and dropped from my courses, collecting fees, issuing textbooks, calling parents, and, if there’s time, teaching. It’s not a good time to take a couple of days off... which means that my going to the full four days' worth of the fall Barrie Auto Market won't be in the cards for the foreseeable future, unless I switch careers or retire.

But for this year, I found something way better than Barrie. Eight times better, to be exact. I kept it a secret from the moment I discovered it, because I knew it would be my Barrie for the fall.

My target: An estate auction in the Ontario village of Jordan. The contents of the house were to be cleaned out, and as luck would have it, the listing mentioned license plates, from the 30s and 40s (1936-41, to be exact). What really caught my attention was that they belonged to Archibald J. Haines, a Member of Provincial Parliament (MPP) in the Ontario Legislature. I speculated that the plates might bear lower numbers, and I asked the auctioneer to send me description of the plates. He e-mailed me some images that confirmed my hunch: They were indeed special low numbers.

In particular, the 1936-38 pairs (8 plates) were all-numeric, with three digits. The numbers differed for 1936 and 37, but it looks like Haines was able to keep his numbers (121 and 161) from 1938 onward. However, the plates from 1939 to 1941 were of the format 1B121 / 1B161, instead of being three digits. The 1B161 plates from 1940 were missing.

This was an important find, because it was not previously known exactly when the final year was for all-numeric plates to be issued to MPPs, and it was not clear what MPPs received afterward. Given the numbers issued to Mr. Haines, it appears that 1938 was the final year for all-numerics, and corresponding preferential numbers were pulled from regular passenger series and reserved for MPPs in following years.

The mini-run was located in the family garage and appeared to be in at least restorable condition. There were 18 plates in total. The auction was scheduled for Labour Day (a school night), and Jordan is a good 7 hours from home. I’d be wiped out afterward, but I was determined to go and keep it a secret from my fellow collectors.

I got myself to Jordan by 8 am, having camped the night before. The plates were there, in the garage, but the condition wasn’t quite as good as I’d hoped. Nonetheless, they were only suffering from some surface rust and fading, and I was absolutely convinced that there were polished plates underneath, waiting to be freed. I estimated their value to myself and waited for the auction to begin. I didn’t see any familiar faces in the crowd, which meant that I was probably the only one there who knew how rare and important the plates were.

The auctioneer started off in the garage, but moved off to do some furniture for a couple of hours. Time was wearing on and I had to get myself all the way back to Ottawa. I asked one of the runners, a kind elderly lady, for help in getting the plates on the auction block. With her help, the bidding opened on them a few minutes later.

I bid $100 because it’s a nice round figure, and it’s enough to keep most bargain-hunters out of the running. An older guy raised the bar by $25, but I just kept nodding smugly and outbid him every time. I paid slightly more than I would have liked, but I didn’t approach the value that I estimated. That meant that I’d be able to keep more plates without the need to resell to reduce my overall spending.

There was one problem, however, after I bought the plates: they were all nailed to the garage wall with heavy iron tacks that were pounded in tightly (no extra holes through my plates, though). I would have to pry the tacks out of the wall to free the plates. I went to the car and came back with the only tool I had: a pair of needlenose pliers. Over the next hour, I pried the 18 plates from the wall. The house had been sold and the new owner was clenching his ass over the fact that I’d be leaving nail holes in the wall. “Are you sure the plates were for sale?” he asked the auctioneer. But the plates were in the listing——had been for months——and for the amount I was paying, it was easy for the auctioneer to dismiss the guy’s panicky concerns. I was careful to pull the nails out without digging into the wood, and aside from the nail holes, which old Archie Haines created 60 years earlier, there was nothing to worry about.

I got out of there at 4 pm, and bypassed an accident on the QEW by driving the entire length of the 407 toll highway. After following highway 7 for the rest of the way, I arrived in Ottawa at 9:30. I was so busy the following week that I didn’t even look at my loot until the following weekend, at which time I gave them a good cleaning.

Some plates were marginally improved, going up one notch on the ALPCA grading system. However, I managed to breathe some life into the 1937s, and brought them from dirt-poor condition into the good range.

I used a technique that combined CLR treatment with my own rubbing using my wife’s cotton make-up cleaning pads. CLR is great for getting rid of rust and rust staining, while leaving the paint relatively untouched.

The 1936 pair cleaned up using the above method and about 20 minutes of elbow grease. They still have some rust specks, but the numbers are brighter and if I look for it, I can see some of the original gloss. Now I have numbers 245 and 25 for that year, although my 25 is the lower number and is in better condition.

The 1937 pair was initially a lost cause. The red paint has a tendency to fade badly. When I got them, these plates weren’t just the typical flat pink colour you see with faded 37s… they were light beige. A beginner wouldn’t have been able to tell that the colour was originally bright red. I soaked them in CLR for a few minutes and began rubbing at the beige background with a cotton pad. After about 20 minutes, I was barely making a difference. In some spots I could see the red paint emerging from underneath the oxidized beige, but if anything, the plates looked worse. I needed a better idea.

I asked for help on the plate geek list, and someone suggested using an eraser. I’ve done that before on newer non-reflective plates to get rid of rust staining around boltholes, but I had never tried using an eraser to breathe some life into a very old plate. I grabbed the nearest Pink Pearl and started rubbing firmly on the face of the plate. It took some effort, but the rusty beige came off cleanly, exposing bright red underneath. I used up half the eraser on the two plates, plus I went through several pencil-tip erasers, which I used to clean out various crannies between the smaller characters. I’m pretty sure the CLR softened things up for me. I used a little more CLR to do some extra cleaning / erasing, and I noticed that the white paint on the numbers was beginning to come off. I rinsed off the CLR and carefully buffed the white numbers with a cotton pad, to try and spread some of the remaining white paint around. That worked out pretty well——it evened out the amount of paint on the numbers, and gave me some gloss to boot, although there are some telltale streaks on the numbers that show where I was buffing. No matter. These plates were in poor, needs-repainting condition, and now they’re easily in the good range, with no repainting required. Next time I see a faded Ontario 37 in someone’s dollar box, I’m going to pick it up and see if I can improve the technique.

Moving onto the 1938s: These plates had nice blue colour on the back side, but the front was solid brown rust, with no hint of blue. The numbers were badly faded, but untouched by rust. I soaked them in CLR for 15 minutes and began scrubbing one of them. Nothing. I gave them another 15 minutes. Again, nothing. I gave them another half-hour. Finally, I managed to scrape off some rust, revealing the distinctive shade of eggshell blue that adorns 1938 plates. Cleaning these plates was very difficult, as the rust stuck to the paint very tightly and I had to be careful not to scrub the plates down to the metal. It turned out that wasn’t possible——if I was going to expose the blue paint, some of the metal would have to be exposed. I gambled and cleaned the first of the four plates I had, using the scrubbing technique I had used recently and successfully on a rusty 1938 cycle. I didn’t scrub the entire plate hard, because I didn’t want to risk losing any orange paint on the numbers. In the end, I coaxed out some blue paint, while exposing some bare metal, and improved the overall look of the plate. I did the same with the other three 1938 plates, gave them a shot of car wax, and buffed them. They look better than before, but I wasn’t quite able to duplicate the success I enjoyed with the 1937s.

The 1939 plates cleaned up as easily as the 1936 pair. They both have the same type of paint that resists scrubbing. My 1940 and 1941 plates were a little more difficult due to their lighter background colour, but a combination of CLR, pencil eraser, scrubbing, wax and buffing improved their appearance markedly as well. They’re not perfect, mind you, but hey——they make up the oldest run of Ontario MPP plates I know.

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