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License Plate Restorations Gone Bad

Exposed as they are to road hazards and the elements, few license plates are found in perfect condition. This being the case, collectors and others are often inclined to try their hands at restoring plates to their original condition. Any person contemplating such an endeavor, though, should understand from the outset that an accurate and quality restoration is a difficult task which requires a great deal of knowledge, skill and patience.

But should a plate even be restored at all? Generally speaking, a rare or valuable plate that has any significant amount of its original paint on it should not be restored or even “touched up.”  Doing so will only reduce its value and aesthetic appeal to a fraction of what it would have been if left alone. A purist will say that rare or valuable plates that have any residual original paint at all should be left entirely as-is. Even washing a plate with plain water can ruin the original paint. Think long and hard, do your research and ask knowledgeable collectors before starting any restoration.

Once the decision is made to restore a plate, ask yourself if you have the aptitude to do so and the willingness to follow through to completion. For starters, one must have mastered the art of sheet metal work so as to be able to repair dents, bends, rust, pits, holes and other injuries to a level of perfection that the metal is as flat and smooth as the day the tag came out of the stamping press. Then there is the matter of painting the plate.

But before one even starts to paint, and indeed, before the paint is even bought, the would-be restorer must meticulously research what the correct colors are for plates of the same type and year. It is a common error that people attempting restorations look at a plate of another type and assume that all plates for that particular year are the same colors. It is often the case that they are not, and lack of attention to this detail results in wasted time, effort and money, not to mention a plate that looks nothing like it should. Only when these details are attended to should painting begin.

Spraying on the background color is a skill that can be mastered with a modicum of practice, but coloring the letters and numerals is far more difficult. As originally made at the factory (or prison, as the case may be), this second phase of painting is usually accomplished by a machine which rolls the paint on in a fashion that not only covers the top surface of the characters, but extends it slightly over their edges, thereby achieving a much more attractive appearance. The amateur restorer can generally hope to only approximate the same result, and then only by using a hand roller or laboriously painting the characters by hand. Either method requires a steady hand, infinite patience and a willingness to fastidiously correct any flaws that invariably result.

Below will be seen a sampling of restorations gone bad. There are thousands of them out there, and these are but a few of the mistakes to avoid.
What’s wrong with this plate? As a very important piece of history, this 1912 plate had quite nice original paint when its unknowing owner repainted it to “make it look better.” In doing so its value and aesthetic appeal were greatly diminished, a fact that the owner, who later became a prominent license plate collector, forever regretted.
Restored                                       Original
1916 Passenger. Seen here is a common error in both amateur and professional restorations of 1916 plates, where the raised rim has been painted in the same silver color as the numerals and letters. In fact, the rim is not painted on any New Mexico plates through 1918, with the exception of the 1917 tags. 
  Restored Restored Original, front Original, back  
1918 “thick” type Passenger. The “thick” variety 1918 plates have serial numbers that begin somewhere in the 13000 to 14000 range, continue up to about 19000, and have original colors of dark navy blue—almost black—numerals and letters on an olive background. Something on the order of a thousand or more of the thick variety tags, mostly in the 18000 serial number range, were left over at the end of the 1918 registration year and were apparently discarded, then found years later in badly rusted condition. Many dozens, and probably hundreds of these rusty plates are in circulation today, a great many of which have been “restored.” In these restorations, grossly incorrect colors were used, to wit, baby blue on light grey, rather than the correct colors of dark navy on olive. Moreover, in the restorations the raised rim was painted in the same baby blue as was used on the raised characters, even though the rim is not painted on originals of either the thin or the thick varieties.

At left, above, are two examples of these incorrectly restored plates, and at right can be seen the front and back of a couple of original plates.
Restored                                        Original
1923 Commercial Car. Aside from the metal being lumpy, bumpy and pitted, it has been repainted in entirely the wrong colors. The chosen colors are those of a 1923 Commercial Truck plate, and the owner, who had an original example of the latter, falsely assumed that the Commercial Car had to be the same colors. That it is not can be seen from the photo of the original plate at right, above.  
Restored                                  Original Colors
1923 Commercial Truck. Where someone got the idea that 1923 Commercial Truck plates are white on black is unknown, but there are many of them in circulation painted this way. The paint on the plate at right is not original, but at least is in the correct colors. But even it is an example of a plate that was found with original paint and never should have been repainted in the first place. 
Restored                                        Original
1925 Passenger Car.  Yet another plate “restored” in the reverse colors of what it should be.  This one is particularly puzzling because there are many surviving 1925 plates with good original paint, and nothing with which to confuse the restorer except the 1925 Highway Department tag, of which there is only one original example known (see below).
Restored                                         Original
1925 Highway Department. Here is an example of a plate that someone assumed had to be in Passenger Car colors. The fact that it is not is demonstrated by the original plate at right, which is in the reverse colors. The restorer in this case could perhaps be forgiven, in view of the fact that plate #130 above is the only one known to survive with its original paint. 
Restored                                         Original
1926 Commercial Truck. Again we have an example of a plate that an amateur restorer assumed was in Passenger Car colors, but is not. Compare it to the original plate at right 
Restored                                         Original
1928 Commercial Truck. Another example of a Commercial plate repainted in Passenger Car colors, whereas the original plates are the reverse of those colors. 
Here we have a matched pair of 1938 Truck plates with a pretty good repaint. So what's not to like? They're repainted in the wrong colors, matching those of Passenger Car plates for this year. At right, for comparison, is a 1938 Truck with original paint, these being in the reverse colors of 1938 Passenger Car plates.
1948 Truck plate repainted in the wrong colors, matching those of Passenger Car plates for this year. At right, for comparison, is a 1948 Truck with original paint, this being in the reverse colors of 1948 Passenger Car plates.

Varnished plates. Decades ago, mostly during the 1950s and earlier, there was a misguided belief among some collectors that license plates should not be preserved in their original state, but should be “protected” by varnishing them (or as some people would say today, by clear coating them). Doing so, however, imparts a grossly unnatural appearance, almost if they were made of glass. Worse yet, the varnish in many cases acts on the original paint in much the same way as paint remover does. With the varnish applied, the original paint softens, bubbles up, and breaks into little pieces which float around until the varnish sets up. The photograph above illustrates just such an example. The plate was a superb original 1944 passenger plate which was instantly and permanently ruined upon having varnish applied to it.
Photo credits:  1918 #18831 courtesy Michael Breeding.


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