There are about 2850 license plate collectors around the world who are current members of the Automobile License Plate Collectors’ Association. Some of us collect new graphic plates, others collect old porcelain plates, and there are others who only collect plates from their birthyears, or their home province or state. Some are interested in registration history, and some are interested in the manufacture of the plates themselves. It’s a multi-faceted hobby, for those who care to engage.
I have long been a collector of Ontario plates to the near-exclusion of all others. It can be a painful exercise, since Ontario is a jurisdiction that gives up very little. New plates are hard to find, interesting plates of earlier generations are scarce, the early registration books were privately hoarded until recently, other registration materials are hopelessly archived and off-limits, and the current prison-based manufacture of Ontario plates is kept largely under wraps, although some information has trickled out over the years, from various sources.
The basic process itself isn’t too technical. Modern plates begin with adhesive reflective sheeting applied to a long, twelve-inch-wide strip of aluminum ribbon. The sheeting features the “Ontario” and crown graphics. The ribbon is then cut into twelve-inch sections for each plate to be made. Sharp corners are rounded off, and holes are punched, resulting in a flat “blank”. The blanks are inserted into a hydraulic press that contains removable steel dies bearing the numbers. Dies are manipulated by hand, so occasionally a plate may be made with the numbers misaligned. If a blank goes into the hydraulic press upside-down, the result is a plate with apparently inverted numbers—although it’s really the background that’s upside down. The dies fit into the press in a single direction, so it’s not possible for the dies to be placed in upside down.
The newly-embossed plates must be fed through a paint roller system, where cylinders coated with viscous paint are rolled over the raised edges, resulting in paint being applied neatly to the numbers. This paint must be dried and cured in a hurry. At the old Millbrook prison, where Ontario plates were made until 2003, the plates were dumped on a conveyor belt and passed through a modular flat belt license plate curing oven, manufactured by the John R. Wald Company. Convection was used along the entire length of oven to cure the paint in about a minute’s time. Of course, the plates emerging from the oven would be too hot to handle or package effectively, so the rear end of the oven was equipped with a refrigerated cooling tunnel, to cool the plates down quickly. After cooling, they were inspected by hand and fed into a plastic bagging machine to seal them up, prior to boxing. Generally, fifty pairs of plates fit into a box.
These silent video clips were originally taken around 1979, presumably by the Ontario government. The undated truck plates you see here were issued starting in 1979-80, at the time when Ontario’s wasteful quarterly truck plate system went to a new undated plate that was validated using windshield stickers. Given that trucks, buses and farm vehicles in all four quarters would all have required such undated plates in a short time, it’s probable that those undated plates were banged out starting from AA1-001 all the way up to the end of the H series sometime in 1979. The truck plates in these videos, In the CF series, would have been distributed to southwestern Ontario:
AA1-001 series – probably around the GTA BA1-001 series – all reserved for buses CA1-001 series—many issued in the southwest (London, Windsor) DA1-001 series – possibly across central Ontario (Barrie, Orillia, Parry Sound) EA1-001 series – eastern Ontario FA1-001 series—all reserved for farm trucks letter G not used HA1-001 series—many seen through Northern Ontario (Sault Ste. Marie had HH through HK)
A regional TV station did a news spot on the production of new reflective license plates, circa 1994. The footage in the video shows the application of the reflective backing on the blanks, and it also shows how the front of the hydraulic embossing machine is manually operated, with a worker inserting and removing dies by hand. (Sadly, this footage is no longer available.)
It was around 2000 that a small band of Ontario plate collectors were unexpectedly awarded the opportunity to tour the facility (I was not among them). The tour was made possible due to a one-day shutdown for mechanical maintenance. Photography was not allowed. Their tour arose as a result of one collector’s tenacity during a dialogue with his member of provincial parliament. After the Millbrook prison was closed in 2003, plate manufacture was moved to a new prison in Lindsay. However, the huge Wald curing oven was abandoned, presumably because it was custom-installed within Millbrook, and not cost-effective to relocate. The Millbrook site is now sealed, and awaiting demolition, but occasionally, adventurers manage to break into the site to photograph the decay. On the left is a sample M-31 Wald oven from a promotional brochure. On the right is the same type of oven left behind in the now-deserted Millbrook facility. Apparently, some defective castoff plates litter the floor near the discharge end of the oven, and they await an adventurous collector—while there is still time to embark on such adventures.