British Columbia Passenger License Plates
1985 - 2001

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An era in license plate manufacturing quietly ended in the summer of 2013 when Astrographic Industries of Surrey, British Columbia decided to close the majority of its plate making facility.
Astrographic had started as a sign making firm before entering the license plate field in the late 1970s when it began producing registration decals for the Motor Vehicle Branch (MVB).  A few short years later, the provincial government was looking to promote home-grown industries after the recession of the early 1980s and approached Astrographic to assume the task of producing a new series of British Columbia license plates.  Astrographic had, by this time, developed a reputation for being an innovative company, which appealed to the government as it sought out someone capable of producing a “close registered graphic” comprising a stylized tri-coloured version of the provincial flag.
Promotional Poster - Don Schneider CollectionDespite other bids being submitted by the likes of Canadian Traffic Control Ltd, Continental Traffic Signs, EBCO Industries, Hi Signs Manufacturing Ltd., Superior Stamp & Stencil Co. Ltd., Western Tools Company Ltd., and Pressed Metal Products, a multi-million-dollar contract was subsequently signed with Astroigraphic in March of 1984 and the company was given nine months to roll out the millions of license plates that would be needed to replate all vehicles ahead of the 1986 World Exposition being held in Vancouver.  To help Astrographic in this task, the province offered the equipment from the Plate Shop at Oakalla Prison (which had been shuttered in the late 1970s), and this included presses and various dies used to produce BC and Yukon plates from the mid-1950s through to the mid-1970s
A multi-million-dollar contract was subsequently signed in March of 1984 and Astrographic was given nine months to roll out the millions of license plates that would be needed to replate all vehicles ahead of the 1986 World Exposition being held in Vancouver.  To help Astrographic in this task, the province offered the equipment from the Plate Shop at Oakalla Prison (which had been shuttered in the late 1970s), and this included presses and various dies used to produce BC and Yukon plates from the mid-1950s through to the mid-1970s.
"In the Fall of 1984, Astrographics developed, designed and built their computer-controlled 15,000sq. foot metal division production line."
"Retro-reflective sheetng is applied to coils of aluminum, then blanked."
"Close register color graphics are applied and baked, one color at a time."
"Computer controlled embossing equipment ensures accurate definition of numbers and letters with high production speeds."
"Blanked pairs of plates are cut out from the embossed strips."
"Each pair of plates is dipped in clear plastic then baked for long life."
Ron Garay Collection
A promotional decal distributed by Astrographics to potential clients. On the back is the contact details of the Direct of Marketing as well as some stats on the new BC plates, including the anticipated life-span (7 years), materials (Alcan aluminum, 3M retro-reflective sheeting), and manufacturing techniques (computer-controlled embossing).
While multiple problems plagued Astrographic’s transition from decals to license plates (and are detailed more closely in my recent book Tales from the Back Bumper) a fateful decision made during the negotiations in 1984 regarding the price to be paid per license plate would ultimately lead to financial ruin.  The government was not prepared to budge from the agreed cost, leading, somewhat ironically, to Astrographic declaring bankruptcy only three years after winning a contract that had been intended to promote and benefit a local business. Despite this setback, Astrographic would emerge from bankruptcy and continued to manufacture British Columbia licence plates through the 1990s.
The design of the new Flag Graphic was unveiled in early September of 1984 to much fanfare and, while the "Beautiful British Columbia" slogan had been retained, the Minister of Transportation, Alex Fraser, did comment that the idea of changing the slogan to "Super, Natural" British Columbia (another favorite of the Socreds) had been toyed with. The series itself started at LAA-000 (and progressed through to XKK-999 as part of the first million plates:
The First 100 plates
Christopher Garrish Collection
With the "Flag Graphic" series beginning at LAA-000, these plates would have been from the first one hundred issued (i.e. the 45th, 50th and 67th sets). Rumour has it that these plates went to provinicial dignitaries.
As it had only been five years since B.C. adopted the practice of staggering verhicle registrations - prior to this every driver in the province had generally been required to renew between the first day of January and the last day of February - approximately 580,000 motorists (one-third of all driverts in the province) were scheduled to renew on February 28, 1985.
By February 27th, however, only 100,000 plates had been manufactured, and at least 700,000 were needed before a sale to the public could begin. The failure to meet the February rush ensured that many blue-base plates would still be on the roads when Expo started in May of 1986.

ABOVE: One of the "EXPO-86" plates that was presented to Hansen in 1985 from the Royal BC Museum Collection (NOTE: it is not thought that this plate was used by Hansen).
BELOW: A picture of Hansen in front of his Man in Motion World Tour van which the "EXPO-86" plate was attached to, and is visible on the front bumper.
ABOVE: Then Premier Bill Bennett presenting Rick Hansen with the first set of plates in the new "Flag" series at Oakridge Mall in Vancouver on March 21, 1985.
Eventually, a new press was installed in mid-March of 1985, but by the end of April only 300,000 plates had been made as applying the new graphic was proving especially tricky due to the three colour involved. By May the province had given up trying to forecast when the plates might be ready, simply stating that it would be some time in the summer. It would only be on August 1st that the Flag Graphic was ready, resulting in a situation where it is possible to see a July 1986 validation decal on both the old and the new bases.
1985 & 1986 Decals
Christopher Garrish Collection
Christopher Garrish Collection
Christopher Garrish Collection
Finding a 1985 decal on the Flag base is rare and it is understood that they were only issued to replace lost or stolen plates as of August 1, 1985. Conceiveably, it should then be possible to find such plates with September 1985 decals given the way the province's 12-month renewal system worked.

The plate shown below at far-left (LAA-736) represents the initial manufacturing process employed by Astrographic in which a “male/female” die was used.  This process required the stamping of a die into a matching cut-out and resulted in very crisp and clean characters, but did not lend itself to large volume production – which is what was needed to meet the goal of having enough “Flag” plates ready to issue in January of 1985. In order to increase production, Astrographic began to experiment with different manufacturing processes.  The plate shown at left-middle (PCG-969) is an attempt to use the male die along with a neoprene (synthetic rubber) top plate.  As can be seen, the characters are not nearly as crisp and the paint is somewhat sloppy. The plate shown at left-bottom (NPN-030) represents the classic Astrographic die type and again employs a neoprene top plate with a narrow die set.
Early Die Variations

The following series of plates from the "PAA" range show just how haphazard and unpredictable the use of the various die types is in the early Flag run:
Dave Hollins Collection
TYPE 3
Dave Hollins Collection
TYPE 1
Dave Hollins Collection
TYPE 1
Dave Hollins Collection
TYPE 3
Dave Hollins Collection
TYPE 1
Dave Hollins Collection
TYPE 3
Dave Hollins Collection
TYPE 1
Dave Hollins Collection
TYPE 3
Dave Hollins Collection
TYPE 1
Dave Hollins Collection
TYPE 3
Dave Hollins Collection
TYPE 1
Dave Hollins Collection
TYPE 1

1985-2001: "Flag" Graphic
Christopher Garrish Collection
Christopher Garrish Collection
Christopher Garrish Collection
Christopher Garrish Collection
Issuing Statistics
July 1985:
LAA-000 to XKK-999
Jan 1986:
LLA-000 to XXK-999
Sep 1988:
LLL-000 to XXX-999
Sep 1990:
LAL-000 to XKX-999
Nov 1992:
AAA-000 to KKJ-999
Dec 1994:
AAL-000 to KKX-999
Mar 1997:
ALL-000 to KXX-999
Apr 1999:
ALA-000 to KXK-999
* each bloc represents approximately 1,000,000 sets of license plates
Christopher Garrish Collection
Christopher Garrish Collection
Christopher Garrish Collection
Christopher Garrish Collection
Bill Hobbis Collection
Christopher Garrish Collection
Christopher Garrish Collection
Christopher Garrish Collection
Christopher Garrish Collection
Christopher Garrish Collection
Christopher Garrish Collection
Christopher Garrish Collection
Christopher Garrish Collection

The "Flag" was never intended to be used more than 6-7 years at most, after which it was assumed it would be replaced by a new design. 30 years later, however, it is not uncommon to see plates issued in the 1980s still in use and many of these are finally starting to show their age. We suspect that the original plate "NBE-800" (issued in 1985 or '86) likely fell apart but for sentimental reasons(?) the driver did not want to give up the number so created their own replacement plate. We are unsure what materials were used, but in Vancouver's wet climate we don't expect this plate to last anywhere near another 30 years and assume that the police have already cracked down on its use (how could they not given the design looks nothing like the "Flag"). At some point, ICBC is going to have to formally recall whatever plates from the AAA-000 series remain on the road and replace them with newer AA0-00A plates.

1996 Decal Variation
In 1989, ICBC had established an alternating colour scheme of green-red-blue-black annual registration decals (although, 1990 was more pinkish then the red of 1994 and 1998). By 1996, the relatively simple colour scheme of the black-on-white decals was abetting the work of forgers who were producing enough fakes that ICBC was forced to issue new, pink decals for November and December of 1996.

A clause in Astrographic’s contract with the province allowed the Insurance Corporation of British Columbia (who now administered the plate contract after amalgamating with the MVB in 1996) to require delivery of plates within 30 days.  In 1998, this clause was exercised on the basis that Astrographic could not provide the required stock within a timely fashion and a short run of plates with Waldale Manufacturing Limited (of Amherst, Nova Scotia) dies in the “KRL” to “ARC” range began appearing shortly thereafter. 
Die Variations - Introducing Waldale!
After the initial flurry of different dies types the accompanied the introduction of the "Flag" graphic in 1985, not much changed until late 1998-99 when plates began appearing with Waldale dies after the province ordered a set of plates to in the “KRL" series (near the end of the ALL-KXX run) to the "ARC" series (near the start of the ALA-KXK run) from the Nova Scotia manufacturer. With the benefit of hindsight, we now know that the Corporation was preparing to change manufacturers at the expiration of their contract in 2002 with Astrographics and was essentially conducting a dry-run with Waldale to see what they could produce.
Astrographic would subsequently lose the license plate contract to Waldale three years later, with Waldale continuing to produce B.C. plates over the past decade and recently winning a 6-year contract (with two optional 3-year renewals) – which could take their term of production through to 2025.

Error Plate
As can be seen on the reverse of this plate, the missng letter was meant to be an 'H'.

Oh My God, Barbeque!
Visitors to the ICBC web-site in the first years of the 21st century will recognise the photo above (right), which is a personalised plate slogan (composed of letters from the alphabet) on a regular passenger plate base. According to one account, the fellow whose car this appears on worked beside the Astrographic facility in Surrey and befriended an employee of Astro, who eventually made them this plate as a gift. How photos of the plate on the front of this fellows car made its way to ICBC is not clear, but the benefits of using the plate for promotional purposes is quite clear as the "OMG BBQ" slogan (an internet joke from the period used to mock people who excessively use three letter acronyms) would not have appeared on any other vehicle with the "Spirit Flag" base.

With the end of available combinations under the AAA-000 format by June of 2001, ICBC made the decision to flip the sequence and begin issuing plates at 000-AAA, which takes us to our next page.

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