By chance, I recently happened to meet a fellow San Diegan, Paul Franke, who has in his garage a collection of 22,000 license plates. Of course, I was interested in seeing that, and he was kind enough to invite me over and spend an afternoon showing it to me.
I hadn't realized how popular license plate collecting is. The Automobile License Plate Collectors Association
has almost 3000 members, and it holds an annual national convention, as well as smaller regional ones. But even within this large community of collectors, Paul's collection of 22,000 plates is very impressive.
Guinness lists the largest collection of license plates in the world
as being that of Péter and Tamás Kenyeres who have 11,345 plates. Seeing that, I wondered if Paul actually had the true world record. But no, he assures me that Guinness is wrong. While his collection is undeniably large, he doubts it's even the biggest in San Diego County, and this BBC article
indicates there's a collector in Florida with over 50,000 plates.
Paul stores his license plates thematically. Along one wall (above left) he has boxes of plates arranged by state. (He long ago acquired plates from every state.) On another wall (above right) he has boxes of plates with more random themes. For instance, he has a box of error plates. Can you spot the errors in the examples below?
(scroll to the bottom of this post for the answers)
Some of the more offbeat themes he has include:
(it's actually amazing these made it past the censors at the DMV, since they're quite puritanical):
Paul occasionally goes to the plate conventions, and when he does he usually puts together a display board to show off a part of his collection. Both of the boards below won prizes. This first one features more 8s (strings of them).
While this second one shows sets of matching plates from different states. Pause to consider how difficult it must be to find these matches. In order to recognize a match, when he's out searching through junkyards or antique stores, Paul has to remember all the plates he has back at home, which he admitted that he is, indeed, able to do. I asked if he has a computer database of his collection. But no, it's all in his head.
Paul is now 69 and he's been collecting plates for, essentially, his entire life. In fact, he still has the very first plate he ever owned, which hung on his tricycle when he was 4.
Below is Paul at the age of 17, back in 1967, with his first car. He still has the plate from it.
If you ask him what his oldest plate is, this is what he shows you:
(Though, if I recall, the actual oldest plate he owns is a California plate dating back to around 1905.)
One of his favorite plates is his "ICE HOLE" plate (bottom left), which was a vanity plate that he personally ordered from the DMV while he was working as a driver for an ice company. He says the DMV initially resisted giving it to him, since it sounded too much like A** Hole, but he convinced them that it was work-related. Later, he found a matching plate from Alaska.
He has so many plates, that he was even able to put together a greeting for me:
Answers to the error plates: (top left) upside-down M; (top right) upside-down S; (bottom-left) upside-down W; (bottom-right) upside-down 8.