Driven collectors: License plate enthusiasts gather to share passion

2013-06-23T00:00:00Z Driven collectors: License plate enthusiasts gather to share passionBy Renata Birkenbuel of The Montana Standard Montana Standard

They’re a tiny group, but they know how to step up to the plate.

Six passionate collectors, some as far-flung as Kentucky and Florida, gathered in Butte on Saturday to revel in the joy of trading, selling, buying and talking all things license plates.

You may have saved your first license plate from your teen years, but if you’re heavy into the history, style, color and make of license plates from all over the country — or world, even — then the Piccadilly Museum of Transportation at 20 W. Broadway St. was the happening place to be.

Mike Sullivan, collector since 2006, saved his 1967 Montana plate, which was bolted to his first car — a 1956 Chevy. Like that sentimental item, most of his 150 plates displayed have a story to tell.

Take, for instance, a slew of modern personalized plates that bring a chuckle to visitors: “1uglytk” describes a friend’s old Ford truck, “Gerry” describes a first ex-wife, “OHMYDOG” is a clever palindrome used by a Harlowton resident and “OLDTIMR” doubly describes the owner of an antique shop.

“They’re given to me, most of them from family and friends,” said Sullivan, who lives in Butte. “I mostly just show, but I buy a few.”

His main goal is to eventually collect plates from all 56 Montana counties. He owns 30 so far.

“It’s just a fun hobby,” said Sullivan.

If you’re looking for, say, a 1929 Costa Rica plate, then Uptown investor supreme Jeff Francis has it in his vast collection, which he calls the “largest, comprehensive, complete collection in the world.” That’s because it includes plates from not only the United States, but also from Canada, Mexico and about 200 other countries.

Francis may spend a lot of his time investing and overseeing commercial real estate, including 10 historic Uptown buildings, but collecting license plates remains his passion.

“It’s my life,” said Francis, 50. “I’ve met a lot of people and a lot of friends. It’s an overall good group of people.”

The collectors’ roots run deep, as Ron Sinnema, 52, who drove from Manhattan to lay out his license plate wares for the handful of visitors, originally met Francis when both were teenagers. Of course they met at an Automobile License Plate Association show.

Some of these guys are specialized, although many — like Sullivan and Sinnema — focus on collecting all 56 Montana counties. Sullivan and Francis are gearing up for the touted national association show in Reno, where 400 collectors will converge, next week.

Having recently returned from vacation to the South Pacific, Francis relished opening a box of license plates that he bought at the Land Transport Authority in American Samoa.

However, upstairs on the second floor of the former Conlin’s Furniture building, part of the Francis collection spreads out on the walls — categorized by Montana county. The collection includes plates from 1914 to 1957 that Francis bought from a Roundup license plate dealer.

“It’s a fascinating collection,” Francis said. “I wanted to share it.”

All told, Francis owns a 40,000-plate master collection — housed in a weatherized vault on over 500 displays in St. Petersburg, Fla., where he lives.

In honor of his home state, Florida, he has “very diligently” collected at least one of each plate from 1938-1975.

The first license plate ever created was a 1903 Massachusetts issue, complete with the words “Automotive Register,” according to Sinnema, who builds alder cabinets for a living.

“When I was younger, you could afford to barter, buy and sell, but the new graphics are popular,” said Sinnema, referring to the current selection of Montana digital plates.

When a Montana driver walks into the local Department of Motor Vehicles, there are 151 styles from which to choose, including pet issues like wildlife, hunting, fishing or favorite state colleges. But they lack the antique embossed, debossed, porcelain flat metal-painted or beveled edge plates of old.

What Jonathan Baker, 26, of Virginia City likes about collecting plates are the artwork, lettering and numbers. He owns 99 of the digitally created specialty plates now available through the DMV. Not to be outdone, he owns all letters of the alphabet, too, despite the fact that plates that begin with “X” or “Z” are rare finds.

“I started getting deep into it in 2006,” said Baker. “They quit embossing the numbers and letters in 2003. Ours and Pennsylvania were one-of-a-kind embossing.”

— Reporter Renata Birkenbuel may be reached via email at

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