According to a rigorous scientific study entitled “Anecdotal Report of Things I’ve Noticed Lately,” vanity license plates are more popular than ever. In recent days, I’ve spotted a Land Rover wearing “LUVMYLR4,” a Jaguar XJ proclaiming it’s “PURRFECT,” and a Porsche 911 Targa that apparently figured in an ugly divorce — or so I imagine, based on the plate: “SHEH8SME.” I also noticed a white Ford Bronco adorned with “OJ 32,” a vanity tag in such good taste that I’ve no doubt the gentleman was on his way to the opera.
Not that I’m a credible judge of classy vanity plates. My first car wore “13MTA31,” which read as “Eat Me” in your rearview mirror. Or at least, it did if you ignored the “1” on either end, which I added because the state of Maine rejected my bid for plain old “3MTA3.” Apparently someone at the DMV was familiar with the tail number of the airplane depicted on the cover of the 1986 Beastie Boys album, Licensed to Ill.
Almost no one deciphered my plate without an explanation, so I have to conclude that 13MTA31 was a bit of a stretch. Although not as much of a stretch as British vanity plates. In Britain, a vanity plate is only a vanity plate if you squint and use your imagination, and even then you end up paying big money for a plate that barely means anything. “Simon,” your friends will ask (because chances are you’re named Simon), “how much did you pay for 0W1 33L? Because when I’m drunk, that’ll look like it says ‘Owl Eel’! What a coincidence that they had your school nickname, you old owl eel.”
And yet there’s a big market in Britain for these quasi-meaningful tags. Check out some of the plates available from Elite Registrations, a company that buys and sells plates. Why, pray tell, would someone pay $900 for “T9 MMM”? Is that supposed to be an obtuse commentary on the deliciousness of 9 a.m. tea? I’m likewise confounded by the $850 price for “A5 BAG.” I’m no financial expert, but that seems like a lot of money for “Ass Bag.”
By comparison, we’ve got it made here in the land of the free and the home of the low-cost personalized license plate. For a minimal outlay, you can broadcast a message to the world every time you leave the driveway. And yet I don’t. In retrospect, my high-school vanity plate was a manifestation of the same sad urge that caused me to put twelve-inch subwoofers in my car and drive around with the windows down — evidently, I suffered from a profound need for attention.
Over my three years of vanity-plate ownership, I learned that my plate was a conversation-starter. Unfortunately, most of those conversations were with law-enforcement officials — it turns out that you don’t want to give cops any extra incentive to take interest in your car, particularly via a license plate that says “Eat Me.”
I now hew to the Japanese maxim that the nail that sticks up gets the hammer, so my automotive aesthetic preferences run toward stock, including plates that are as innocuous as possible — no clever wordplay, no official plate from the Committee to Save the Red-Footed Pond Shark. Why would I make it easier for someone to notice, “Hey, I’ve seen that car at the dog track, the bail bondsman, and the massage parlor. All in the same hour!” (That’s just an example. I’m not saying I’ve been to all those places in the same hour.)
While I eschew custom tags for myself, I’m in favor of them for everyone else. They are like wild paint jobs or donks — they add some vibrancy to our slate-gray daily-drive existence. And while I wouldn’t personally put thirty-inch wheels on an ’87 Chevy Caprice or order a Dodge Challenger painted header orange, I’m glad other people go to such lengths in the name of public entertainment.
My colleague, Jason Cammisa, is a vanity-plate aficionado. He has a Facebook photo album with his sightings, and he owns a plate that apparently approximates a colorful colloquialism employed by citizens of the tristate area. I have a Ford Raptor-driving friend whose truck wears the cheerfully sophomoric “XX 69 XX.” I know a Navy guy with a Porsche 356 that proclaims “BT ARMY.” But my own plate is so forgettable that I couldn’t tell you what it is without going out and looking at it. And that’s HOWILKIT.