Issue 20.1: February/March 2017

Mixed Plates

Finding every Hawai‘i license plate
ever made might be impossible, but that doesn’t stop
serious collectors from trying
Story by Larry Lieberman. Photos by Dana Edmunds.

For most people the sight
of an antique car puttering down a modern Hawai‘i roadway offers a charming glimpse into the past. True enthusiasts will appreciate original parts and authentic details. Then there’s a tiny group of experts for whom one detail is never accurate, no matter how many other original parts remain.

“Antique cars on Hawai‘i’s roads can’t use the authentic license plates from their year of manufacture,” says DeSoto Brown. “The old plates aren’t street legal anymore, so you won’t see them on the road. There just aren’t that many left.”

Brown would know—the Bishop Museum historian has been collecting Hawai‘i license plates for more than forty years and boasts one of the largest and most complete private collections of Hawai‘i plates in the world. “Maybe it’s a brain anomaly, but you know some of the things that most people throw away? I’ve always been motivated to save them,” Brown says. “License plates, dog tags, bike tags, even old car registration papers. I like to learn about the history of these items and where they came from, and then share that information with others.”

Bookish and meticulous, Brown relishes his work in the honeycomb of Bishop Museum’s archives. He pores over photos of plates from his personal collection, pointing out rarities and recounting the events that shaped Hawai‘i’s vehicle licensing programs. “The Kingdom of Hawaii began taxing dogs in about 1870, so if you had a dog it had to be registered, and a metal tag would have been issued for it. Vehicle registration followed, starting in 1906 on O‘ahu, which created a new source of tax revenue.” Those registrations, and their associated plates, tags and stickers chronicle the evolution of motoring in Hawai‘i from its earliest days.

Since the first Hawai‘i vehicle license numbers were issued, there have been many changes to plate and tag designs, numbering systems and graphics—a rich field for those afflicted with the collector’s gene. But not many older plates survive; as newer versions were issued, most older plates were thrown away, ending up in trash heaps, landfills or just dumped in the ocean. “These days the chance of even stumbling across one in an old garage or junk pile is almost nil,” says Brown. Because there’s no state- or county-maintained archive of Hawai‘i license plate variations through the ages, the only way to build an accurate inventory is through diligent collecting by junkaholics like Brown. “It’s like solving a puzzle,” he says.“Now no one has a complete collection—although I’m getting close.”

Collecting Hawai‘i plates is a challenge also because of their dizzying variety: Hawai‘i is the only state in which license plates are issued by counties rather than by a statewide department of motor vehicles. The City and County of Honolulu, Maui County, Hawai‘i County and Kaua‘i County all follow statewide design guidelines, but over time the four-county format has resulted in a large number of variants even though the actual number of plates has been comparatively small.

Because for many years each of Hawai‘i’s four counties had its own automobile registration system, collectors like Brown have their work cut out for them in pursuit of a complete set of licenses. Above, tags from 1919 and 1920.

So where does Brown find these license plates of yesteryear? A few were tucked away in storage sheds or hung on rural garage walls. Even fewer have circulated in the antiques and collectibles market. Brown remembers the agony of a missed acquisition years ago, when as a young man he found a well-preserved 1951 plate at a swap meet but passed because he couldn’t afford the $5 asking price. “I have a couple of plates now that are probably worth thousands,” says Brown, who started collecting seriously when he was about 20.“But in the old days I used to buy a lot of them for a quarter or fifty cents.” Brown recalls the first plates he intentionally collected, a pair of white-on-green 1961-1968 Hawai‘i plates he found in the trunk of a 1960s Rambler. “Not long after that my sister found a pair of 1950 Hawai‘i plates and gave them to me,” Brown says. “These two plates looked very different in size, color and layout. The differences eventually inspired me to start searching and learn about when and how Hawai‘i license plates evolved.”

In the beginning all plates were homemade. Starting in 1906, owners of motor vehicles (also known as horseless carriages) paid a registration fee and received a license number that they were required to paint on a piece of wood or metal and affix to the car. In 1915 the City and County of Honolulu and Hawai‘i County began issuing formal license plates, initially made with a porcelain finish but eventually stamped in aluminum (today they’re made with steel). Maui County followed suit in 1920, and by 1921 Kaua‘i County was the last remaining jurisdiction in the entire United States still using homemade plates. In 1922 all four counties agreed on a uniform plate design, with different numbering sequences for each county. For the next thirty years (except during metal shortages in WWII), new plates would be issued annually for every vehicle. The colors changed every year to make it easy for police to see whether a car’s registration were current.

From 1953 on, cars retained their plates for multiple years, changing only the registration tags annually. In 1961, two years after statehood, new plates were issued replacing the word “Aloha” with the phrase “Aloha State.” In 1976, the bicentennial year, new plates were issued with the first graphic images: King Kamehameha I and Diamond Head, along with a red hibiscus flower printed on a reflective white background. The graphics were designed on the Mainland and, according to Brown, were locally unpopular. Island residents felt the images seemed like an outsider’s clichéd interpretation of tired Hawai‘i images. In 1980 the state sponsored a local design contest, and a new plate was issued in 1981 featuring the winning graphic: a Hawaiian warrior.

Dennis Kamimura was only a couple of years into his job as the Honolulu City and County licensing administrator (a position he held until his retirement in 2013) when the warrior plates were released. “Then, in 1990, the legislature asked us to come up with a new graphic design,” Kamimura recalls. “I asked the manufacturer for options that would be meaningful to Hawai‘i but also OK with law enforcement in terms of readability.” Three options were presented by 3M Company, which manufactures the reflective coating that covers the plates, and the legislature’s transportation committee picked the simple but colorful rainbow graphic. This time there were no objections.

The rainbow plates were issued in 1991 and have been in use ever since. At that time all four counties also adopted the “ABC-123” numbering system; to this day all passenger plates in Hawai‘i are identifiable by the county codes built into their lettering formats (starting with E, F, G, J, N, P, S for Honolulu, M and L for Maui, K for Kaua‘i and H or Z for Hawai‘i). The rainbow design has been recognized by the International Association of Chiefs of Police for being among the best-designed and most readable in the country. Every county also has multiple plate variations, with alternate numbering schemes for trucks, motorcycles, government vehicles and modern “horseless carriage” plates used for antique vehicles. There’s no plan to change the rainbow graphic anytime soon. “Plate change is very expensive, with the counties having to pay costs up front,” says Kamimura. “Until the counties run out of different license plate numerals, I doubt they’d be willing to fund the cost.”

Because plate designs changed every year from 1922 to 1952 (and from 1915 for Honolulu and Hawai‘i counties), Brown can date archival photos from that period if there is a car in the picture, as in these images from 1941.

Across town from Bishop Museum there’s a local store stocked to the gills with Isle knickknacks and artifacts—a likely place to find an old Hawai‘i license plate. Antique Alley is a haven for memorabilia hunters, hidden on a side street behind the Ward Stadium 16 movie theater in urban Honolulu. Proprietor Paké Zane, equal parts Confucius and Rip Van Winkle with his ZZ Top-style long white beard, has been a practitioner of what he calls “cultural recycling” since 1976. “Cultural recycling is a means of giving cultural artifacts a new life. Most of the things we’ve acquired were originally discarded or given away by someone else,” says Zane, who’s appeared several times as an appraiser on the PBS series Antiques Roadshow. “You have to look hard to find the treasures. I’ve been dumpster diving, found a lot of stuff on the street or at swap meets and garage sales, or bought things from people who did the same.” Zane’s store serves up wall-to-wall relics ranging from buttons and posters to vintage cameras, cigarette lighters, soda bottles and of course a few license plates in whatever condition Zane found them.

Above, images featuring plates from 1933 (left) and 1938 (right). Before the Territory of Hawaii began issuing standardized plates in 1922 it was not uncommon for plates to be hand-painted on various materials by vehicle owners.

“Typically the people that get involved in collecting old license plates are the ones who deal with old cars, who are into the history of vehicles,” says Zane. “And then there are guys like DeSoto, who is more of a documentalist. He found a niche and just got so far into it that he became the expert.” Zane and his wife, Julie Lauster, started off buying, selling and trading collectibles at swap meets in the 1970s and eventually opened their first store in 1980. Quite a few license plates have passed through their doors over the years. “There’s so many variations, it’s hard for beginning collectors to focus or keep up,” says Zane. “And finding old ones in good condition is next to impossible—but that is the challenge for any collector.”

Think collecting license plates sounds a little obscure? Think again. The Automobile License Plate Collectors Association (yes, there is one) has nearly three thousand members worldwide. Eric Taylor is one of them, and he knows a thing or two about Hawai‘i plates. A history lecturer at UCLA, Taylor grew up in California but traveled to Hawai‘i frequently with his father. “I got into collecting license plates with my dad when I was a kid,” Taylor recounts. “It was a great way for us to bond, and as I learned more about how scarce the early plates were, it became an obsession. We would plan our trips around collecting and advertise for leads in advance. Then we’d go scouring the Islands, hitting the swap meets and garage sales, driving around to old houses and making deals whenever we could.”

Long ride to the rainbow: There is no state or county record of license plate designs from year to year, so Brown scoured old newspapers, government records and photographs to construct a chronology of the variations of Hawai‘i’s plates, tags and stickers since the first licenses were issued in 1906. There is currently no plan to change Hawai‘i’s rainbow plate, which has earned awards as well as public approval.

One of his favorite finds was when he and his father met an old-timer on Kaua‘i who had stashed away a box under his house, filled with a complete run of Kaua‘i plates from 1922, including one of the only known surviving homemade wooden Hawai‘i plates in existence. The owner wasn’t interested in selling at the time, but Taylor returned a couple of years later and struck a deal. Not long after, in 1992, Hurricane Iniki devastated Kaua‘i, and the house was torn up. “Those plates surely would have been lost,” Taylor says. “But by the time the hurricane hit, they were safe with me, and they’ve been a highlight of my collection ever since.”

Taylor’s collection hasn’t stopped growing, and it isn’t limited to Hawai‘i plates—he now holds one of the world’s largest collections of porcelain license plates from across the United States and Canada. For Taylor, plates from Hawai‘i have special meaning because of his memories of trips to Hawai‘i with his dad, now 86, who doesn’t travel much anymore. “We did go to Maui a couple of years ago, though, and sure enough, he was out in the bushes trying to find stuff,” Taylor recalls. “The early plates from Hawai‘i are exceptionally rare and valuable, and becoming an expert has been exciting.”

If you’re bitten by the collecting bug, you might get a head start by picking up an existing collection—a run of Hawai‘i plates going back to 1922 (culled from the contents of a car museum) was auctioned a few years ago for around $18,000, and Taylor once paid $20,000 for two very rare Hawai‘i plates. If those figures produce sticker shock, don’t worry—there’s still good old-fashioned picking to do. And if you happen to find a 1918 Hawai‘i plate in any condition, call Brown. He’s been looking for that one.

What will Brown do with his collection if he ever completes it? “I’m not looking to sell them,” he says. “My goal would be to donate them to the museum so there will be a permanent place to keep them all
together.” HH