In some countries, you aren’t allowed to personalize the license plates on your vehicle. Other countries changed that rule when they saw the revenue it created. Some countries let you bid on numbers.
The highest price paid for a vanity plate worldwide is $14 million. The plate “1” was bought at an auction in Abu Dhabi in 2007, purchased by Saeed Khouri.
In Middle Eastern countries, lower numbers are desirable, a sign of wealth. In the U.S., people personalize plates for a variety of reasons, and it is primarily the statement on a frame — “My other car is a Mercedes” — that indicates wealth (or the lack thereof).
In California, personalized plates aren’t as popular as you might think. The American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators says that Virginia has the highest percentage, at 16.2 percent of plates issued. Texas has the lowest, at .6 percent. At 3.49 percent, California ranks 22nd, with 1,136,772 personalized plates out of 32,592,000 registered vehicles.
Certain models of car are more likely to sport personalized plates. The Mini Cooper, maybe because of its size, lends itself to creative messages.
When Volkswagen reintroduced the Beetle in 1997, you often saw vanity plates with “BUG” in them.
I don’t see many Priuses with vanity plates, but in the parking lot of Hazard Center, there’s one that reads “CB [heart] 2 TCH.” It belongs to Carol Benesch of San Carlos. “Do you know what it says?” she asks.
“Uh, that you love to teach? I assume the first two letters are your initials.”
She laughs. “Okay. I just have so many people that think it means ‘love to touch,’ and some people will say, ‘What do you do that you love touching? Are you a masseuse?’ Sometimes it’ll be creepier. I guess it makes a good conversation piece.”
Was this your first choice of a license plate?
“Oh, no. I kept trying to get one that had something to do with clean air or the environment. But all my choices were already taken. My husband and I both have a Prius. It’s not because of gas prices. We just want to make a difference, and we care about the environment. He has a UCLA license plate that’s personalized with ‘JB UCLA.’ That’s a tradition in his family, and his parents bought it for him as a gift. But he has a bunch of Obama stickers on the car, and I won’t drive it because of that. I think it can be dangerous because of the way people get about politics.”
What about the dangers of having students know which car in the parking lot is the teacher’s?
“I did think about that. I teach in Encanto. My philosophy was, if someone really wanted to mess with my car, they would just wait and see which car was mine. I’m at the school from 6:00 to 6:00.”
The next time I’m at a stoplight on Camino Ruiz in Mira Mesa, I see a red Ford Explorer next to me with a plate that reads “4 OKIE.” I roll down my window, hand him my card, and say I want to interview him about his plate. He sends me an email a few days later that reads: “My name is John Flowers, and I own the red Ford Explorer Sport Trac with the license plate ‘4 OKIE.’ I was going to a volleyball game with my granddaughter. I don’t know what information you wanted to know, but here is the story behind this plate. My ‘4 OKIE’ plate says this because I’m from Oklahoma. I’m also a big Oklahoma University Sooner fan. While I was in the military, everybody started calling me ‘Okie,’ and the nickname kind of stuck. I tried to get a plate saying just ‘OKIE,’ but there is another car in California with that plate, so I settled for ‘4 OKIE.’ My other car has a plate that says ‘OUGRMPS.’ It stands for Oklahoma University Grandpa. I hope the above info is what you wanted. Take care and God Bless.”
I send Flowers an email with follow-up questions but never hear back from him.
The next day, on the I-5, cars are flying by me with personalized plates. I can’t catch up to them doing less than 80. There’s a “PHNXFLW.” A cute African-American girl in a Mustang with “GTTO FAB.” The fastest car is driven by someone who whizzed past at approximately 90 mph, with a plate reading “I SPEED.” But pulling off the Sports Arena exit, I find a car that was easy to catch up with. A woman in her 70s is driving. I follow her to her place in Point Loma.
Debbie Blum, a sex education teacher, has a plate that reads “P WELL.” I ask her if it means what I think it does. She laughs and says, “It sure does. My husband, who passed away in 1999, was a urologist. He had been asked by colleagues why he didn’t get one that said ‘CANT GO,’ but he said that even though that’s why you’d visit a urologist, he wanted to be positive.”
Blum’s daughter, in her mid-40s and living, along with her husband, with Mom, says, “People love the plate. They give us the thumbs up. Old men especially like it. They understand it. And if someone asks what it means, we just tell them to read it slowly, and they say, ‘Oh.’ ”
Debbie continues, “We had our first plate say ‘OOSIK.’ That’s the name of the penis bone in a walrus. Only four mammals have a bone in their penis. And it was only a few military men, or guys from Alaska, that knew what that meant. Now that Alaska is more in the news, maybe that’s changed. An oosik is two feet long. It’s an Eskimo word. But since [my husband] was in the medical field, he didn’t like when people thought it stood for ‘Oh, sick.’
“In the early ’90s, the DMV was actually looking into foreign words, because a number of words had gotten by them. When my husband got the ‘P WELL,’ the lady at the DMV said sharply, ‘What does this mean?’ He quickly said, ‘It stands for the Pure Well Water Company,’ which at the time did deliveries here in San Diego. There was a fellow urologist named William that had a plate that said ‘WET,’ but it’s his initials that just happen to spell that.
“I’ve been reading plates for 20 years, and some are hard to figure out. A friend had the Tarzan call on his plate. It was just a series of vowels that was hard to figure out. My son got me a plate years ago that said, ‘I RN DO U,’ which means ‘I run, do you?’ An entire sentence all on a plate. I also have one that says ‘OMA [heart] 8’, and my neighbor thought that was my favorite gambling number. But Oma is my grandma name. It means grandma in German, Dutch, and a few other languages. Nowadays, with the ‘P WELL,’ it seems to make people happy. They assume my husband’s a doctor. A few times I’ve seen old ladies walk by my car and wince. But the majority like it.”
This reminds me of the episode of Seinfeld where Kramer mistakenly gets plates that should’ve gone to a proctologist: “ASS MAN.”
No way the DMV would approve that, because “ass” is one of the unacceptable words on the New York DMV’s list. Also on the list of things you can’t get in the Big Apple are “NYPD” and “FDNY” — not even if you’re employed by the police or fire department or had your life saved and want to show support.
Each state’s DMV has different rules. The “WSKYBAR” plate I have wouldn’t fly in Oregon. They won’t allow plates referencing drugs, tobacco, or alcohol. Even something as innocent as “VINO” for someone that may be a wine lover or in the wine business is unacceptable.
Comedian Chip Franklin, who does the morning show at KOGO-AM, told me, “When I was in Virginia, for two years I had a plate that said ‘3M TA3.’ Someone looked in their rearview mirror and saw me coming. Soon after, the DMV pulled it from me.”
I ask a San Diego police officer about offensive license plates. Can he pull drivers over and ticket them, or does he report it to the DMV? “No,” he said. “The motorist is protected by the First Amendment and freedom of speech. [On bumper stickers] they can pretty much say what they want, like use expletives such as ‘I Hate America’ or ‘F* You!’ I can only pull them over for having the bumper sticker affect their visibility. Or anything obstructing the actual license plate. But not for something that violates their First Amendment right.”
I follow Barbara Yeager, a 55-year-old, also from Point Loma. She works in the legal department of a credit union. It wasn’t hard to guess her name or profession, as her plate read “BRBI LAW.” She tells me, “I was treating myself to a nice car [Mercedes-Benz] when I turned 50. I felt I’d worked hard for it. I thought, Why not get a personalized plate? I had a naming contest with all my friends, and Eli, another attorney, came up with it.”
I said, “I thought it might be your name or that perhaps you were sued by Mattel, regarding Barbie dolls, since I recently read a story about them winning a suit against Bratz dolls.”
“I actually love Barbie dolls,” she replies, “and have collected them for a long time. And the Mattel Corporation is very aggressive in trademark violations, and I’ve had to deal with them before. But my plate wouldn’t be something they could enforce, because of my name. A benefit of these plates is when people see them, I don’t think they tailgate me as close. They probably think it would be bad to rear-end a lawyer. I had to think a lot about the plates with my name because I was afraid it might sound pretentious.”
What were some of the other options that your friends came up with?
“I can’t remember them all now. Things like ‘CU LAW’ and ‘CU LEGAL’ because of the credit union. Other attorneys see it and say, ‘There’s no question about what you do.’ ”
Does anyone walk by and call you by your name, since it’s on the plate? Or are there safety concerns because of having your name out there?
“I have not had anyone call me Barb or Barbie. As far as security goes, I’ve never had an issue. The ‘LAW’ part does keep people at a distance. When I first met my boyfriend a few years ago, he was quite intimidated when he saw the car and the plate. I am happy to say we got past all of that. No one has ever asked me for advice either. The only problem I ever had involved a misperception related to the car. I was on the way home from work, and a man was smoking in a car next to me. As a nonsmoker, the secondhand smoke was tough to take, so I rolled up the passenger’s side window. The man thought it was a comment as to his presence, and he shouted, ‘Oh, I see a Mercedes bitch can’t tolerate someone in a Nissan.’ Luckily, the light changed. There are more preconceived notions about Mercedes drivers than anything to do with the plate.”
One of Barbi’s coworkers comes out to the parking lot in Sorrento Valley and shows me her plates. It reads “FRDBSTR.” Her name is Heather Herbert, and I ask her if anyone has asked if it stands for “Fred.” She says, “Well, I have ‘fraud buster’ written on my license-plate frame, for the mentally challenged people. I used to always have people asking me if it meant ‘Ford buster,’ and so now I don’t have to explain it. A few of the benefits of being a financial-crime investigator and having that on my plate is if I brake-check someone that’s tailgating. They seem to back off. And officers will ask who I work for. It’s gotten me out of some tickets, and we end up talking shop. It doesn’t always get me out of tickets, though.”
Is this the first time you’ve had a personalized plate?
“No. I had one that said ‘OG OFFCR.’ My family is all in law enforcement, and they say that the first thing everyone says when they are pulled over is ‘Oh, gee, Officer, I didn’t know I was doing 100.’ I have a jeep right now that says ‘CLYMDT.’ That means ‘climbed it.’ And I did the same thing with the license-plate frame. That says, ‘Been there, done that, climbed it.’ Too many people thought it meant…well, you know [chlamydia].”
The DMV has said that if they get just one complaint, they’ll consider yanking your plate. They look for anything that might be slang for something else: for instance, they won’t issue the number “13” because it stands for marijuana. But sometimes, the owner has no intention of fooling the DMV. A San Diegan named Jeannine had a plate that said “TOOL LVR,” after her favorite band. When her husband drove the car, he got a completely different reaction.
I saw a car in San Diego with the plate “XTC FORV.” There’s a band called XTC, which is what the owner probably explained to the DMV. But DMVs have pulled plates with variations of what could be read as “ecstasy” because of the drug reference.
Another worker at the credit union is Sherrie Wilkerson, also in her 50s. She has an interesting story. Her black Thunderbird has a plate that says “BLKBYRD.” She tells me, “My second husband, who has passed away, bought the car in 2002. I initially asked what the plate meant, and he said, ‘Think about it. What kind of car is it?’
“We had known each other since junior high, and we got together after my first husband passed away. I’ve kept the car and plate because there were so many coincidences. When my husband bought a house for us that I hadn’t seen, it was on Raven Wood Drive. And I was told once by a Native American that my spirit was the blackbird or raven.”
Have people ever asked if the plate is because of the Beatles song “Blackbird”? Have they made other comments?
“No. Everyone probably just assumes it’s a plate describing the car. One gentleman saw me get out of the car and grimaced and said, ‘Oh. I expected another driver.’ Maybe he thought I was too old to be driving that car.”
Have you had other personalized plates?
“I had a Porsche, but the plate was just ‘BLUPRCH.’ Not the most creative. My husband’s family had a bunch with their names, followed by numbers. I had a ’vette that I tried coming up with plates for. I wanted ‘FLVRBCH,’ but the DMV wouldn’t let me have it, because they thought my abbreviation for ‘beach’ was too much like the other B-word. But you know what’s harder than getting a plate past the DMV? It’s naming horses. My husband was in that business, and you’d have to submit five to ten names to the jockey club. You couldn’t use a name like Trigger. They wouldn’t allow it, unless you were Roy Rogers. You couldn’t use the name of a famous person or business, unless you had permission from them. And they wanted to make sure it was a name that wasn’t used anywhere in the world, because during air transport, they didn’t want it confused with another horse. With computers now it’s easier, but back then, it was a real hard process getting the name. He’d often go to buy the horse and ask what its name was. It was just so much easier.”
As I leave this business park in Sorrento Valley, an SUV drives by with an “I [heart] Barbi” plate. It’s a weird coincidence to see another “Barbi” plate. I follow the driver to her home but stay far enough back so that she won’t dial 911. I see a PT Cruiser in her driveway that also has a personalized plate.
The couple that lives here is Kitty and Kevin Donaker. She’s an accountant and tells me, “I’ve never had personalized plates before. But I’ve collected Barbie dolls for about 17 years. And I got these plates about the time those symbols came out. They have a hand and a few other things. But the heart worked best for what I wanted. Nobody ever comments on my plates or asks what they mean. Although, when Kevin is driving the car, we notice he gets some funny looks.”
Kevin, a musician in his 40s, says, “I just tell people my wife’s name is Barbi.”
Kitty tells me her sisters also have personalized plates. One says “SO GOOFY,” and Kitty mentions something about her liking the Disney character. “My other sister is named Deletta. Believe it or not, someone already had that plate. So she spelled it ‘Dohletta.’ ” Kevin adds, “The ‘Doh’ part is a Simpsons reference.”
I ask him about his plate, “CLUB 33.” He says, “I had been looking on the DMV website. You can go on there and just check out all the possibilities of plates, put the letters in, and see what’s available. CLUB 33 was never available. And then one day it came up.”
I ask how that’s possible, because when I worked in radio, our “ROCK 102” plates from the station van were stolen, and the DMV said we had to get different ones, because once a plate is issued, they will never issue it again. Even to the same vehicle. We wound up with the call letters “KIOZ FM.”
Donaker says, “Well, I think if someone dies or just gives up the plate, it goes back into the pool and they’ll reissue it. That’s what happened with this one. And I reserved it, even though I didn’t even have a car to put it on yet. I had a truck but wanted something nicer for it. It was probably a month later when the PT Cruisers were coming out and getting popular. I bought one and put the plate on it.”
Do people ever ask what it means?
“When I picked it up at the DMV, the woman said, ‘Oh, is this that mythical club at Disneyland?’ I told her it was real and that we were members. She didn’t believe me. There are less than 500 members and a long waiting list to get in. But most Disney fanatics know what it means. I might get someone coming up and asking, ‘Does your plate mean what I think?’ ”
I ask this guitarist if he ever had any music-related plates in the past.
“No, but my previous one said, ‘PIRATE K.’ I’m into pirates.”
I follow an SUV down Mira Mesa Boulevard. It has a plate that reads “PJ [heart] USC,” and the vehicle is even in the USC color, cardinal red. I approach PJ in her driveway and ask if she’s a USC alum.
“No. My dad went there for a few classes before he was in the fire department. And my girlfriend went there. I just really like the campus. And I follow their football team. It’s the only college game I watch. I’m more into the NFL. But I love so much about that school. The sculptures on each side of the building, they were done by hand, in recognition of the designer of the building. They have beautiful gardens. I do hate the area it’s in.”
P.J. Mohr works in accounting. I ask her if she goes up north to attend USC games.
“I used to go to a few each year. But I lost my husband and then moved to San Diego.”
Do people that are from rival schools like UCLA drive by and flip you off?
“No. I haven’t had any road-rage incidents. People always say I must be a USC student or have kids that go there.”
Have you had other personalized plates?
“Yes. On my Ford Aerostar, I had ‘AERO4PJ.’ My mom thought of that one. My late husband was a ham-radio operator, and he had his call sign on his plate.”
I think that’s common for ham-radio operators. I worked with a guy that did that and have seen others on the road.
“They all do that. My husband’s was ‘WB6RAJ.’ All his friends had their call signs on their cars, too. Someone at my church also has one.”
Her USC plates got me thinking about a guy who played on my high school basketball team, football for SDSU, and a few years with the Washington Redskins. I’m told he has a Redskin plate.
But back in 2002, the State of California went after Dale Atkeson’s plates. The former Washington Redskins fullback (now in his 70s) has had two vanity plates for years. One said “1REDSKN,” and the other said “REDSKN2.” Atkeson says the word “Redskin” stands for pride, accomplishment, and toughness. But a group called Advocates for American Indian Children claims the word is “a bad, ugly term.” The state agreed and took the plates back.
In Oceanside, I see a car with a plate that says “PISTOLA.”
North Park resident Ken Calloway tells me: “I had an officemate who had ‘WRK NFL,’ and everyone would always ask what he did in the NFL. Actually, the DMV screwed up and left a space out. It should have read WRK N FL, as in ‘workin’ fool.’ ”
I see Rose Ann Vossenkemper’s Audi roadster in a parking lot in Escondido, near where she resides. Her plate is ‘XHRDWORK.’ She’s a Filipina in her mid-30s who works two or three different jobs, and she tells me, “My old plates had my name, ‘ROSEANN.’ That was on my red convertible 180. But I wanted to be more original. I wanted the word ‘work’ in it. I first looked at ‘WRKNPLY’ and ‘WRK4FUN.’ I told my husband I would save up for the car, and I started working part time at Buca di Beppo. After a few weeks of saving tips for this car, I realized it would take longer than I thought. My husband then took me over to get it. But I wanted to dedicate it to work and working so hard. My dad doesn’t like it. Maybe he thinks I work too hard and shouldn’t have to. But when I’m at stoplights, I can see people reading it. And I see smiles on their faces. Once I was standing near my car, and a couple walked by and read it and said, ‘Oh, that’s cute.’ I just didn’t want the plates to come across like I was spoiled. And the way it’s spelled is easy enough for people to read and figure out. Although my boss did ask me what it said. It’s sort of become my motto now.”
At a concert in Solana Beach, I see a car pull into the parking lot with “I [heart] DOORS” plates. Since my license plate is “WSKYBAR,” after my favorite Doors song, I had to find out the story.
Ida Miller, a Doors fan in her late 50s, lives in Fullerton. She said, “I got these plates the first morning those symbols came out. I was there at 9:00 a.m., when they opened, so I knew I’d get these. I didn’t even think of any other possibilities. It was perfect. I run a website dedicated to the Doors. And the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame even used some of the items I had for their exhibit on the band.”
Have the three surviving band members seen your plate?
“Yeah, they all have. I think John [Densmore, the drummer] is the only one that’s commented. He said, ‘Boy, you must be a big fan.’ I did have all three of them autograph the plate. I just told the DMV they were stolen, and they gave me more plates. So, I have a few extras.”
I ask Miller if the Doors have the band name, or any songs, on their plates. She says, “I don’t know about anyone other than Ray Manzarek [keyboardist]. He has a VW Bug with ‘RAYMAN1.’ ”
Is this the first car you’ve had with these plates?
“No, this is the second. And I’ll use them again if I get another car in the future. Sometimes people wave or give me the thumbs-up. Other times people hold up a Doors CD case as they pass in traffic. The plates have also resulted in conversations with strangers who are Doors fans.”
Does anyone else in your family have personalized plates?
“I was the first. My older sister has ‘BL2LBI,’ her initials are ‘BL’ and the ‘LBI’ stands for Long Beach Island, New Jersey, where they have a summer home. My other sister has her initials and birthday. My son has ‘SUPEDVE,’ for his college nickname, ‘Super Dave.’ My mom has ‘GRANKY,’ the name she’s called by her grandchildren.”
One morning I drive past the Chevy’s Restaurant in Del Mar. I see a bunch of woodies in the parking lot, most with personalized plates. A number have the year of the vehicle, like “31 WOODI,” “49 ALOHA,” or “SURFN 47.” Some combine the car with a profession. A dentist has a woody with “TOOTHPK.” There are also “JAX OAK,” “WUDN TOY,” and “SPLNTR.”
I talk to Mike and Meg Merkt, who have a 1946 Ford woody. As a 15-year-old, Mike bought his first woody for $350. When the two married in 1977, they ended up finding one in Ramona that belonged to a surfer in P.B. They now own four of them.
Meg is a court reporter, and Mike’s a microbiologist. The plate on this woody says “BCHNRDE.” How could the DMV have issued a plate that looks like “bitchin’ ride”? Mike laughs and says, “We had some property at the beach near the 101, and one of the car-lot businesses had the name ‘Beach N Rides.’ Nobody has had any negative comments from it. I think woodies are smile cars.”
The president of the woody club comes over and tells me, “Last year their woody was in a car show in Huntington Beach. It wasn’t just for woodies. There were over 400 cars there, and they won an award for the best license plate.”
Have you had other personalized plates?
“When we had a spa business in Encinitas, we had ‘SPATUB’ and ‘SPA N TUB.’ ”
Although putting the name of a business on license plates is popular, the most commonly seen plate is a person’s name.
Andy Digerness, who owns Dig’s Wheels in Escondido, said, “I get personalized plates on cars all the time. We remove and dispose of them, since personalized plate fees are $35 a year, I think. The most common thing we see are names. I’ve removed a ‘SXYLISA, CHASE D.’ His name was D. Chase. ‘DONS ZX,’ I remember. Some we can’t figure out. We removed a ‘BNRLUVR.’ A mechanic who’s Mexican told me it had to mean ‘beaner lover’ ”
After spending time in a car dealer’s lot, customers sometimes invest additional hours trying to come up with the perfect plate for their vehicle.
One woman has blogged about the
California DMV not allowing the plate “BRSTFDR” (talk about something more dangerous than talking on the phone while you drive).
She posts that it was a violation of her civil rights: “I said it was ridiculous and that everything will offend someone. Either allow ‘BRSTFDR’ or disallow all personalized plates. It didn’t have profanity in it!”
In La Mesa a few years ago, I saw the plate “OH THIT.” But as the DMV states, something may slip by them. They always reserve the right to pull it. Even if a word isn’t considered profanity now, it might become slang for something forbidden someday. And then it won’t matter how long you’ve had the plate.
Just ask the Redskins.