That’s why folks collect license plates, said fellow collector Tommy Latham.
Memories and nostalgia also are probably why a big crowd traveled to the 23rd annual plate meet of the local East Tennessee Auto PL8S group Saturday.
“I didn’t find anything today,” Latham said. But he did see a nice 1915 Tennessee plate which is highly sought after. Three other popular Tennessee plates are the early 1960s embossed-date plates. And Latham knows his license plate history. “I’ve been collecting for around 20 years. ... It’s a good hobby, a fascinating hobby. I’ve learned so much about history.”
Latham’s first plates were Tennessee tags from the 1970s he had kept for years before the collecting bug bit back around 1995, when he said he remembers attending his first meet. At the time, he thought he was the only one collecting license plates.
“Come to find out, they’re all over the world,” Latham said, with what seemed like astonishment in his voice. And, judging from the constantly growing membership, more and more join the hobby all the time.
Since Latham first started collecting, both he and his wife, June, have been to many meets, including at Niagara Falls a couple of times. And, there are many categories of collectors. Some mainly collect from Tennessee, even trying to get at least one from all 95 counties. Others try to collect plates from all 50 states.
Others, like Jeff Penticuff, who has been collecting since 1980, collect mainly foreign plates. At Saturday’s meet, Penticuff was able to add license plates to his collection from such countries as Latvia, Cyprus, Iran, Quatar, Germany, Jordan and Cuba. But he’s also still trying to fill out his collection of Tennessee plates with a couple from the early 1920s.
“To make a run from 1920 to 1962,” Penticuff said. He started collecting because, when his grandfather Obie Penticuff died, he asked his grandmother for a keepsake of him. He was given the plates from his grandfather’s car. They are still so dear to his heart, he has already made arrangements to be buried with these plates when he himself passes.
And, now, more than 30 years later, this sentimental beginning has grown into a collection of more than 1,700.
“He has his old Tennessee plates displayed in the china cabinet,” said his wife, Gigi. “And he had them hanging on peg hooks around the entire garage walls.”
The local license plate organization, East Tennessee Auto PL8S, was also celebrating two additional events the day of its meet.
One, the national/international organization, the Automobile License Plate Collectors Association, just inaugurated this local group into its new Appalachian Foothills Region, its 25th. ALPCA, founded in 1954, is the largest license plate collectors organization in the world, with more than 2,900 members from 50 states and 19 countries. Vendors and guests came from all across Tennessee and the surrounding areas to the meet, with one vehicle in the parking lot even sporting a Montana tag.
And two, Jim Finley, a well-known and esteemed license plate collector from Cleveland, collector No. 400, received a plaque at the meet commemorating his recent induction into the ALPCA Hall of Fame for his many contributions to the hobby of license plate collecting during the past 60 years.
“I’m the oldest license plate collector in Tennessee that belongs to the ALPCA,” Finley said. He also helped start this local license plate club in Tennessee. But he said he couldn’t have done it without his wife, Ve, who served as the secretary for the collection and, at the meets, sat at the desk and helped customers, and even prepared lunches and snacks. She also helped him expand his collection by knowing just what to get him for a gift for his birthdays and holidays. It was definitely a joint effort, as it is with most of the other collectors.
Finley collected many types of plates, including early Tennessee tags made from materials such as porcelain, wooden, rubber and metal. He also has them from almost every independent country across the globe. But, out of the thousands he has collected over the years, his favorite, he believes, is the No. 3 Tennessee plate with the designation “Enemy Escapee” on its face.
“I don’t guess there are more than half a dozen,” Finley said. The person who owned the what is now called a “vanity plate” created it himself. He was probably a Vietnam War vet, Finley guessed, who may have been captured but then escaped from enemy hands before becoming an official prisoner of war. “He was never a POW.”
Finley had another pleasant surprise at the license plate meet. He sold his entire political license plate collection — 52 tags in all — within 15 minutes of the meet opening its doors.
But when these avid collectors are asked if collecting is mainly a substitute because it’s too expensive to collect antique cars, the answer was an immediate “No.”
“Tags are not a sideline,” Latham said, speaking for what seemed like all plate collectors, “they’re the main line.”