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Tales from the Back Bumper: A Century of BC Licence Plates

By Christopher Garrish

Review By Ben Bradley

March 14, 2014

BC Studies no. 185 Spring 2015  | p. 221-22

My parents still have a set of white-on-blue licence plates in their garage, kept from the mid-1980s, when British Columbia switched to the blue-on-white plates with waving flag that have now been standard issue for almost 30 years. Tales from the Back Bumper explains the appeal of these old plates: they are souvenirs of a time when affixing new plates was an annual routine, and when BC motorists looked forward not only to a new set of digits every year, but also to regular colour changes and the occasional new logo or slogan.

Christopher Garrish is an enthusiastic collector of BC licence plates, as evidenced by his award-winning and encyclopedic website www.BCPL8S.ca. He is also a trained historian whose research on cooperative fruit marketing has appeared in this journal. With Tales From the Back Bumper, he aims to provide a social and institutional history of licence plates in BC that avoids getting caught up in details about colour, design, and bolt-hole placement — details that he acknowledges are “like catnip for collectors” (19). He very much succeeds in his aim. This book will appeal to a popular audience, most of whom use passenger plates on their vehicles and are unaware of just how complicated and diverse the licencing process has been. It is also of use to historians who are interested in government agencies, bureaucratic monitoring, and the everyday iconography of British Columbia.

The book is divided into eight thematic and generously illustrated chapters. The first outlines the origins and general development trends of licence plates in North America. Chapter 2 is about the production of licence plates in British Columbia. Automobile owners had to make their own plates until 1913, when the provincial government deemed it necessary to have a standardized form, which led to mass production of plates. Garrish shows that political patronage played a key role in plate manufacturing until 1931, when production moved to Oakalla Prison, where it remained until the Social Credit government contracted it out in 1984.

Chapters 3, 4, and 5 are about passenger licence plates. They cover questions of design (including colours, graphics, and slogans), distribution, validation, and format management. A few sections are somewhat technical, but the glossary provided at the end of the book proves helpful. Many readers will gravitate towards Chapter 5, which is about personalized plates. Six-digit vanity plates were introduced in BC in 1979, but for decades prior to that the Motor Vehicle Branch had had a “special request” policy whereby motorists could stake a claim on specific sets of plates. Favourites included plates with low numbers, lucky numbers, and street address numbers. Anyone could apply but Garrish alludes to preferential treatment for the well-heeled and politically connected.

Chapters 6 and 7 are about licence plates for commercial vehicles like trucks, taxis, and buses. Here Garrish steers the reader through a complicated narrative involving multiple scales of jurisdiction within and beyond British Columbia, as governments strove to regulate competition, ensure safety, and above all make commercial vehicle operators pay a fair share towards road maintenance and construction. By the 1970s many commercial vehicles veritably bristled with special plates, municipal plates, miniature plates, and decals, but this clutter was gradually swept away by regional reciprocity agreements and then the FTA and NAFTA. This discussion of the regulation and deregulation of commercial road transport in British Columbia neatly complements that found in Daniel Francis’s Trucking in British Columbia (Harbour Publishing, 2012). The final chapter of the book is about licence plate collecting as a hobby.

This reader would have appreciated more information about how licence plates were used to monitor British Columbia’s motoring public, whether by the police in criminal and traffic enforcement contexts, or for banal purposes such as the registration of guests at motels and campgrounds. That said, Tales From the Back Bumper covers a great deal of ground and suggests that historians of British Columbia would do well to turn their attention towards topics like motor vehicle testing, driver licencing, and the issuance of health care cards. This soundly researched book, with its bibliography and meticulous endnotes, will be helpful to anyone pursuing these topics.

Tales from the Back Bumper: A Century of BC Licence Plates
Christopher Garrish
Victoria: Heritage House, 2013. 168 pp. $19.95 paper