A love for low-digit license plates in the First State

On a dark night in the 1960s, two men met in a trucking yard in Pennsylvania. One was the former owner of the Philadelphia Eagles, Leonard Tose. The other was Wilmington businessman Marvin Tibbett.

The purpose of their rendezvous? The transfer of a four-digit Delaware license plate.

Tose had just bought a new car in Delaware, but secrecy was likely in his best interest since he was facing millions of dollars in gambling debt at the time.

As a Pennsylvania resident, Tose couldn’t use the Delaware license plate, number 6999, so he gave the plate to Tibbett, a client of his who was a general manager for Franklin Fibre. Tibbett immediately put the tag on his blue Dodge Polara, according to relative Jason Casper.

Casper, a driver’s education teacher in Wilmington, has had tag number 6999 since his grandmother, Tibbett’s sister-in-law, gave him the plate in 1999. He learned the origins of the plate from his cousin about two years ago.

Casper estimated that the plate is worth up to $12,000.

“I had no idea what the plate was worth when I was a little kid walking outside to my grandmother’s car. I just knew I liked the number,” he said, adding that he liked the shape of the number nine.

However, like many Delawareans with low-digit license plates, Casper said the tag means more to him than the market value.

“My grandmother always told me if I ever needed money, ‘Go ahead and sell it,’” Casper recalled, his eyes glistening with the thought. “I could sell anything, but that’s a number I’ll never get rid of because it was Mom Mom’s.”

In Delaware, license plates with less than six digits, 99999 and below, often get passed down through generations of families, can symbolize wealth or simply show off a sense of state pride, according to enthusiasts and DMV officials.

 ‘Elusive treasure hunt’

For years, license plates have been sold for tens of thousands of dollars at Delaware auctions. But, few have attracted more media attention than the 2008 sale of plate number six for $675,000.

After that sale at Emmert Auction in Rehoboth, Jordan Irazabal of Wilmington said he started taking photos of low-digit license plates on his phone. Before long, his hobby turned into a full-fledged mission to find all 3,000 license plates four digits or lower. (That includes tags 1-1,000, C1-C1,000 and PC1-PC1,000.)

He documents the photos on his website TheDelaware3000.org, and on Facebook and Instagram. He has collected all but 93 and often seeks public help finding the remaining numbers.

“You get to meet people and see their goodness and willingness to help,” Irazabal said. He recalled one instance when he met a man in Hockessin who owned a few plates that he needed to photograph.

“I went to his house, took his pictures, and talked to him for a bit. He asked me if I had this other number, 657, and I didn’t,” he said. The two drove to Claymont to meet the man’s friend who Irazabal said was likely in his nineties. In a mini shed was an old Packard with the three-digit plate.

“If I had not known about it, I wouldn’t have ever seen it because it never comes out of the garage,” Irazabal said.

Both Irazabal and enthusiast Reid Williamson, originally from Laurel, said they believe the interest in low-digit tags, especially selling them, has increased in the past 30 or 40 years.

Several people said low-digit license plate sales are tied to the economy and how much expendable income buyers have.

Wade Wilson, customer service representative at Wilson’s Auction in Lincoln, said that tag sales follow trends like the housing market.

“The tag market seems to be on the upswing,” he said.

Wilson’s Auction holds three big sales in a year (New Year’s, Memorial Day and Labor Day), and they normally auction off 10 to 20 tags at each, he said.

This past Labor Day, they sold all 13 tags that were up for bid, he said. The highest bid was for number 2778 at $7,500, with the next highest following closely at $6,600 and $6,200.

Wilson’s Auction and Emmert Auction Associates in Rehoboth handle the majority of the low-digit sales, but some people don’t want to wait for an auction. That’s where online sites like Delaware Tag Traders come in, founder John Wakefield said.

Wakefield’s family owns Emmert Auction, and now he not only watches people buy and sell tags at auctions, but he sees it online every day.

“When someone spends that kind of money on a license plate, it’s always surprising,” Wakefield said. That’s not to say Wakefield, who owns a four-digit plate himself, doesn’t understand what the plates can mean to someone.

“I have people selling these tags with tears in their eyes,” Wakefield said. He explained that sometimes people sell their tags because they’re moving out of the state and have no relatives to pass it on to.

John Atkins, a former state legislator in Sussex County, said he had similar regret after selling his tag number C917.

“For years, I’d wake up and it’d be 9:17. I’d go to McDonald’s and the receipt would be 917. A tractor trailer would pass me and the number would be 917,” Atkins said. He later bought the tag again after seeing it advertised at Wilson’s Auction.

Atkins said he owns at least a dozen license plates.

“It’s the elusive treasure hunt. You’re always looking for that better tag,” he said.

Sentimental value

While lower numbered license plates have been known to catch higher prices, several tag collectors and auctioneers said that a plate can increase in value if it has repetitive numbers or is someone’s birthday, anniversary or lucky number.

“They’ll spend more money on tags that have a sentimental value,” Wakefield said.

For example, Casper gave his father plate number 24128 since he was born in 1928, and Atkins bought plate C1995 because that was the year his son was born.

“It’s worth what you’re willing to pay,” Casper said.

He told of a time when someone agreed to sell him plate number 6998 for $3,000. They had been sitting in the David Finney Inn in New Castle and walked outside together. When the seller saw that Casper owned the next consecutive number, 6999, the seller demanded a higher price, Casper said.

Just like Casper, Ricky Pryor of Dover said he would never sell his four-digit plate, number 1001.

“That would probably be one of the last things I’d part with,” Pryor said. His father gave him the tag in 1976 when Pryor got his first car.

Both Casper and Pryor continued to use their license plate numbers in other areas of their life, such as the last four digits of their phone numbers, driver’s license numbers and email addresses.

Pryor said that until the mid-1980s, most license plates were sold privately without a lot of show or press attention. A 1986 issue of the Delaware State News published the names of people who owned two and three digit numbers.

Williamson said he used to know everyone who owned the two and three digit numbers in his small town in Sussex County.

“Once people started selling them more, the culture changed,” Williamson said.

Before the selling surge, and still today, many plates were passed down through generations. Pryor said he knows of only a handful of the plates numbered one through 50 that are still with the original families.

Number four is the lowest numbered plate someone can own because one, two and three are taken by the Governor, Lieutenant Governor and Secretary of State, respectively.

 First State pride

As a driver’s education teacher, Casper must teach his students about how to register a car with the DMV, but he said he often expands that to include some Delaware license plate history.

“I’m 302 through and through,” Casper said. “I just like to give a little bit of Delaware history [so] that maybe another generation will be able to take on the pride in having low-digit tags.”

Other small states, especially in New England, also have an interest in low-digit license plates, Irazabal said. However, when we peek over the border into Delmarva and Pennsylvania, the talk around license plates looks a bit different.

In Virginia, the governor decides how low-digit license plates are distributed, often giving plates to members of his staff or supporters, said Williamson, who lives in Virginia.

The Maryland Department of Transportation Motor Vehicle Administration has not received any requests for low-digit plates, according to Katie Kuehn, MDOT MVA strategic director.

Similarly, the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation said they have not noticed an interest in low-digit plates, according to community relations coordinator Craig Yetter.

It seems there is a distinct license plate culture in the First State.

“I don’t think if you’re not [a native born Delawarean] that you’d fully understand,” Atkins said.

 Black and white or stainless steel?

Even with this state pride attached to low-digit plates, visitors will notice that many low-digit plates are not in the Delaware blue and gold, but instead in black and white.

These plates are exact reproductions of the black and white porcelain license plates that the state started issuing in 1942. The Delaware Historic Plate Society is authorized to make these, which are legally registered to your vehicle.

You can only request a reproduction if your plate existed in that time period. That means the plate cannot be higher than: 86999, C9999 or M/C9999. PC tags, originally for station wagons, and trailer tags cannot be reproduced.

The historic plate society also reproduces stainless steel plates, first issued in the early 1950s.

DMV releases five-digit tags

If someone wants a black and white plate, then, they must embark on the hunt for a low-digit tag.

The good news? The DMV makes it pretty easy.

At least once a year, often in late October or early November, the Delaware DMV releases five-digit tags.

When someone doesn’t renew their registration, their license plate stays in the DMV system for one year, then the number gets reissued, said Scott Clapper, DelDOT chief of vehicle services.

The DMV collects an inventory of five-digit numbers and purposely releases them around the holidays because many people like to give the black and white plates as gifts, said Shelley Koon, chief of communication for Delaware Division of Motor Vehicles.

“We just try to make sure we have enough to meet the demand, which is hardly ever the case. We don’t want people to leave disappointed,” Koon said.

Residents pay a one-time fee to register the new license plate to their vehicle, which for vehicles under 5,000 pounds are: $35 for a title without a lien or $55 with a lien. After that, they pay the standard $40 to renew their registration each year.

While at the DMV, people can also buy a black and white porcelain or stainless steel plate from the Delaware Historic Plate Company for $115.

This year, the DMV had enough inventory to release tags July 9. The DMV does these releases every year, and it can sometimes take a week or two to get through all the available numbers, Koon said. But, this July was different.

“It was literally a day or in some cases four hours, and we think it’s because the media covered it,” she said. “They went really fast this time.”

Amy Estrada of Dover said she got in line at the DMV at 6 a.m. to get a five-digit plate for her new car.

“Standing there was a pain in the butt, but we had some nice conversation. And as soon as those doors opened, it was really smooth. We were in and out in probably 10 or 15 minutes at most,” Estrada said.

The DMV will send out a press release when five-digit plates will be available this fall.