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Crates of plates

City enthusiast has quite the collection -- and he has a licence to prove it

Posted: 02/22/2014 1:00 AM | Comments: 0

Last Modified: 02/24/2014 4:32 PM | Updates

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Jennifer Jones fans weren't the only ones who stood up in the hack and took notice when the provincial government, in conjunction with Curl Manitoba, unveiled a new, curling-themed licence plate on Dec. 9, 2013.

For people who seek out plates of every colour and description, it meant another visit to their friendly neighbourhood Autopac agent — a stopover that has become increasingly frequent lately thanks to the upswing in specialty plates, such as those toasting the Winnipeg Jets, Blue Bombers and Goldeyes.

Take Manny Jacob, for example — a Winnipegger whose business card reads "License Plate Collector." Last year Jacob took time out from his daily routine to become a certified ham radio operator.

Why? Because among the dozens of distinctive plates the province issues, there is one dubbed "Amateur Radio Operator Licence Plate." The catch being: in order to qualify, you must possess a "certificate of proficiency in amateur radio." (Well, that and $26.25.)

"I guess there's a chance I might have been able to buy a second-hand one from somebody," says Jacob, reaching for a plate with a VA4 prefix -- the telltale sign it's the property of a "ham." "But I wanted to be completely above-board. So I learned the content, took the test and am now a certified ham radio operator."

Jacob, 38, grew up in Beausejour. In 1987, Premier Howard Pawley deemed it no longer necessary for motorists to display licence plates on the front and rear of their vehicles. So along came Jacob, an 11-year-old kid with a screwdriver in his back pocket, approaching people in grocery store parking lots, asking if he could have one of their plates.

"A lot said no. But a lot said yes, too. And that's all this started."

"All this" is an exhaustive collection of plates from points near and far, the lot of which Jacob stores in individual, plastic sleeves on industrial-strength shelves ("There's a bit of weight to 'em, that's for sure.") in his home office.

Jacob used to be attracted to "anything and everything." He has since narrowed his scope -- somewhat. "These are French-language Ontario, these are Manitoba non-passenger, this is my apportioned bus collection..." he says, touring a visitor through his cache.

Although few others collect in the precise manner Jacob does -- he categorizes his area of expertise as "modern, non-passenger plate collecting" -- Jacob isn't alone in his general pursuit. Jacob is a card-carrying member of the Automobile License Plate Collectors Association (ALPCA) -- a 60-year-old international organization that includes some 3,000 dues-paying members from over 20 countries.

To the untrained eye, many of Jacob's plates appear to be doubles. OK, so maybe the lettering on some is a darker hue of blue. Or the buffalo in the top right corner is a solid shade instead of a silhouette. But look closer and you'll begin to spot the various subtleties, he instructs.

Take Jacob's string of Manitoba veteran plates, for example -- a series adorned with a poppy and VA letter designation. There are at least six different types available, depending upon whether the person applying for the plate is of Ukrainian, Dutch, Japanese, French, Italian or English descent.

Jacob also has a number of plates that commence with RA, for remote area, which are issued to Manitobans who live in isolated sections of the province.

"These are for vehicles that travel in places not connected to the main highway network," Jacob explains. "Because there's a very low likelihood of the drivers getting into accidents, they are sold at a discounted rate. At one time they were only $5 or so, but they probably go for a bit more now."

Speaking of price, Jacob rarely pays for new specimens; he prefers to trade or, if that doesn't work out, well, let's let him explain...

"Pretend I'm at Walmart and I spot a Brandon Bus Lines bus in the parking lot with a plate I don't have," he says. "What I'll do is take a picture of the bus, Google the company's phone number and contact the fleet manager. I'll say, 'Hi, I'm Manny -- a licence plate collector from Winnipeg. I saw your bus -- it's got this really rare plate on it -- and do you happen to have any old ones kicking around the back of your garage?'"

Although Jacob has been collecting plates for over 25 years, he doesn't pretend to have any inside knowledge when it comes to what specialty plates are hitting the streets next. (There are no rules about how many current plates a person can own; the vehicle licensing board actually encourages motorists to swap out their Jets and Bombers plates, according to which team's schedule is in full swing.)

"If you go to the MPI website, there's a lot of information there about the specialty plate program -- how you have to commit to certain number of plates before your Sasquatch club or record collectors' organization gets its own plate," he says. "There are always new ones coming out and it's hard to keep up."

Andy Bernstein is an ALPCA member from Douglaston, N.Y.

When he was growing up, his family took annual road trips to Florida to visit his grandparents. To pass the time, Bernstein kept track of how many different licence plates he spotted along the way. By the time he was nine, Bernstein was a regular visitor to an automobile wrecking yard near his home, where the owner would let him fill his knapsack with as old plates as he could manage.

Sixty-five thousand plates later, Bernstein now hears from like-minded collectors from all over the world - people who contact him via his website, www.platehut.com.

"I specialize in picture, slogan, commemorative and international licence plates with the name of the country clearly indicated on them," Bernstein says, when reached at home. "I also love old porcelain plates -- the type that were around before 1915."

Bernstein laughs when the topic of how many different Manitoba plates are on the road, nowadays. "You might think you have a lot but really you don't," he says. "Here in New York we have over 300 different licence plates -- one for every sports team, university, environmental group... heck, if the Porsche Owners' Club of America has a New York division, we have a plate for them."

Bernstein says value of vintage plates depends on a number of factors, but primarily condition and rarity.

"It's a sensitive issue but early plates from the Yukon -- ones issued in the early 1920s -- can fetch into the thousands (of dollars)," he says. "Same thing with the Northwest Territories, where the first plates were issued in the '40s. If you can imagine the weather and road conditions in those parts of the country back then, it's pretty rare to come across any that aren't damaged or rusted through."

If there is one thing licence plate collectors can brag about, Bernstein says, it is their stellar sense of geography. "I can't tell you how many Americans I've met who think the two biggest provinces in Canada are Toronto and Montreal. But I guarantee anybody who collects plates is fully aware of where Manitoba or Saskatchewan are," he says with a laugh.

For more information on licence plate collecting, you can contact Bernstein through his website or visit Jacob's website - www.railbus.ca.

david.sanderson@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 22, 2014 D11

History

Updated on Monday, February 24, 2014 at 4:32 PM CST: Adds missing paragraphs.

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