British Columbia Passenger License Plates
1913-1914

A special thanks to Eric Taylor for providing much of the written material appearing on this page;
Dave Hollins for digging in the Provincial Archives and unearthing the material this writting is based upon; and
John Mackie for forwarding the story about "Buck's plates".

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In many respects, the challenges and problems encountered in BC during the second decade of the 20th century in terms of licensing motorists and registering their vehicles are no different than those found in other jurisdictions across the country and into the United States. In many instances, governments of this era simply played follow-the-leader and adopted those measures that appeared to work well elsewhere. Accordingly, it is hard to spin a good yarn from this period about BC as many of the decision made here were utlimately based on experiences elsewhere.

Fortunately, the Provincial Archives in Victoria possess the outgoing correspondence file of the Superintendent in charge of Motor Vehicles, Colin S. Campbell, for the period in which the province assumed responsibility for issuing license plates. This correspondance provides an interesting insight into the challenges of acquiring a large number of license plates in a period when it was still unkown as to how best manufacture such a product.
As the file relates, in the summer of 1912, Campbell had begun investigating what material the first BC plates would be made of. He solicited bids from such companies as the McDonald Manufacturing Company of Toronto, but ultimately chose the McClary Manufacturing Company, which had offices in Vancouver, but which would produce the plates in its London, Ontario factory and ship them via rail to Victoria. The McClary Manufacturing Company had already produced Ontario’s 1911 first-issue porcelains, and very likely made the Manitoba 1911 and Alberta 1912 plates as well, so Campbell was probably familiar with the company’s work.
Shown above left, photos from inside McClary's London, Ontario facility taken around the turn of the 20th Century. While license plates in the stages of production are, unfortunately, not visible, the stoves that McClary was better known for can be seen in the foreground. At middle and right, one of McClary's stoves displaying the same white porcelain that the company would use on its licence plates for Canadian provinces between 1911 & 1914.


Ontario - 1911

Manitoba - 1911

Alberta - 1912

British Columbia - 1913
A certain lack of creativity seems to pervade the McClary Manufacturing Company's approach to license plate design in the period between 1911-1913.
An initial order of 5,000 pairs of plates was placed, but on December 4th, it was clear that this allotment would soon run out and 2,000 additional sets numbered from 5,001 to 7,000 were ordered for delivery by mid-January. The McClary Manufacturing Company seems to have handled the task well, although Campbell did complain that the plates were not packed consecutively in the boxes and the numbers on the sleeves holding each set of plates did not always correspond with the number of the actual plate. As a result, all of the plates had to be unwrapped and double-checked before they could be distributed.
1913
Pierre Delacote Collection
Ron Garay Collection
Issuing Statistics
Initial Series:
1 to 7,000*
Registered:
5,201
Over-run:
(not applicable)
Issued:
Pairs
Manufacturer:
McClary Mft.
Dimensions:
305 mm x 167 mm
Material:
Porcelain on Steel
Comments:
According to correspondance from the Superintendent of Provincial Police, and dated July 15, 1915, the total number of registered vehicles in the province in 1913 was 5,201.
* Estimate / Unconfirmed
Ron Garay Collection
In early January, Campbell began distributing the new B.C. porcelains to his local representatives so that they could be issued to motorists. Notably, although the plates were ordered from the manufacturer in pairs, local constables were given a clear directive to issue only one plate to each motorist. It was clear than the Automobile Act would soon be amended to require the use of plates on both the front and the rear, but until that happened, motorists were not to receive pairs. Constables were also instructed to remind vehicle owners that the Automobile Act required that the plate be placed on the back of the car in such a position that the vehicle’s lights would shine directly on it so that it would be plainly visible day and night. The only vehicles exempt from having to carry license plates were official fire, ambulance, and police vehicles.

The Back of a Porcelain Plate

Ever wondered what was on the back of one of these porcelain plates? Well, here you go ...

When the second order of plates arrived from the McClary Manufacturing Company in late January, Campbell again distributed them to his constables. Seventeen cases of plates numbering from 6,100-6,600, for instance, were sent to the Chief Constable of Vancouver for vehicle owners in that city and its surrounding communities. Everything was going according to plan until March of 1913 when the anticipated amendment to the Motor Traffic Regulation Act was finally passed by the British Columbia legislature requiring the use of plates on the both the front and the rear of each vehicle. At this point, local constables were instructed to issue the second of each pair of plates. Campbell reported that when all was said and done, 5,201 plates were issued to passenger cars in B.C. in 1913.
When it came time to order the new plates for 1914, Campbell again began making inquiries to determine the best material, price, and manufacturer. In writing to the Secretary of State in Sacramento, California, Campbell wanted to know what material was currently in use there and whether officials and motorists were pleased with it. As he wrote, “this year we are using enamel and find that many automobile owners complain that they chip very easily and become disfigured.” Of course, in the summer of 1913 when this letter was written, California did not yet have standardized license plates and the Secretary of State was not really in a position to answer Campbell’s inquiry.

"Survives Long Burial"
(Victoria Colonist - April 1948)

A neat newspaper feature regarding the discovery of a 1913 license plates that had been buried for 35 years in the garden of the property at 543 Dunedin Street in Victoria.

Interestingly, the plate was registered to a motorist residing on Goldstream Avenue in Langford, which is across town.

Regardless, if the plate still exists, it would be the highest known survivor from this era.

1914
Rick Pilotte Collection
Pierre Delacote Collection
VE7DFI Collection
Issuing Statistics
Initial Series:
1 to 7,500*
Registered:
6,688
Over-run:
(not applicable)
Issued:
Pairs
Manufacturer:
McClary Mft.
Dimensions:
305 mm x 167 mm
Material:
Porcelain on Steel
Comments:
According to correspondance from the Superintendent of Provincial Police, and dated July 15, 1915, the total number of registered vehicles in the province in 1914 was 6688.
* Estimate / Unconfirmed
Jopn Ilnytzky Collection
On the advice of the Illinois Secretary of State, Campbell also wrote to the Adams Seal & Stamp Company of St. Louis, requesting a catalog for what would have probably been embossed metal plates. Ultimately, however, the contract for 1914 plates once again went to the McClary Manufacturing Company at a cost of less than twenty cents per plate, and porcelain was once again the material of choice. In the end, as Campbell reported, 6,688 plates were issued to passenger vehicles in 1914.
As can be seen with the plate shown above, one of the problems with the porcelain plates is that they can easily chip and fracture. It is not known if the damage done to this plate was during its time on a vehicle, or from subsequent storage.
It is notable that Campbell was actively pursuing potential contracts with porcelain manufacturers to supply the 1915 plates as well. In fact, he seems to have been fairly close to a deal with the United Enameling and Manufacturing Company of Los Angeles in May of 1914. The decision to finally go with the McDonald Manufacturing Company of Toronto was made, in part, due to the advice of the Deputy Provincial Secretary in Edmonton, Alberta, who advised Campbell that the lithographed flat steel plates provided by McDonald to vehicles in that province in 1914 were found to be more satisfactory than the porcelain plates of the prior two years.

*     *     *     *     *
Buck's Plates
This story came to us through the Vancouver Sun's John Mackie while he was working on his column about BC license plates, and involves a collector named "Buck Rogers" who, sometime in the late 1950s, came across a special commercial garage near Oak and Marine drive in Vancouver.
As Buck passed by the garage one day, he noticed that it was shingled with literally hundreds of mostly porcelain license plates on the exterior walls, roof, door as well as the interior walls, and that all of the plates were, more or less, in numerical order. Moreover, inside the garage was a bench that ran from one end of the workshop area to the other, underneath which were dozens of stacked boxes containing thousands of additional unissued BC plates.

Apparently, the garage's owner had once been a BC Government Agent at the local courthouse, which also happened to be the location from which license plates had been distributed to the local community. The Motor Vehicle Branch generally required that all unissued plates be destroyed at the end of the year, and that Agent's submit an affidavit to Victoria confirming as much.

There are, however, numerous stories floating around of this not always occurring and, in this particular instance, it would appear this fellow decided to shingle his garage with the plates and, over time, managed to take all the un-issued stock home with him.
By the time Buck came across them, the stacks of plates had been there for so long that the box material was either completely rotten or had totally corroded away, leaving only the unused plates in their original wax paper sleeves.

So, as any good collector would, Buck approached the proprietors of the garage and queried if "you’re going to take all this to the dump, aren’t you?"

The guys inside replied that "yes, gradually", they would be taking the plates to the dump, so Buck offered to take it all away for them on the condition that he got to keep whatever he wanted from the pile.

As Buck's friend, Rick Percy, relates, these guys thought he was nuts, but agreed to the deal.
Buck then called up his friend Rick and said "I’ve got to get all these home." So Rick went up and looked at them and said "Oh my God", to which Buck replied "Yeah."

During his lunch break, Rick would load up his car and take a load down from the garage to Buck's house at 325 Smithe Street in Vancouver, and would do another run after work. This carried for about four days until all the plates had been transfered to the basement of Buck's house.

According to Rick, some of the plates were more damaged than the others because no thought or care had put into their condition when they had been afixed to the extior of the garage.
For instance, Buck wasn't the only person to have noticed the garage's unique exterior and during the early years the proprietor had been approached on numerous occasions be people seeking to buy some of the plates. So, through the 1920s and 1930s he put shingle stain on the outside one's in attempt to discourage people from pestering him.
Buck attempted to clean these up and slowly sold them off over the years, so if you’re at a swap meet and you see a porcelain BC license plate and you look at it and see there’s a little bit of brown shingle stain, you know where it came from

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