The Middle East / June 1999
By Larry Luxner
For much of his 50 years, Jim Fox toured the globe as a drummer in a rock-and-roll band named the James Gang. Between cutting albums and raising a family, Fox never gave up his obsessive love for a hobby as far from rock music as one could imagine: collecting license plates.
Today, the ex-rocker living in a small Ohio town smack in the middle of America's "Rust Belt" has 30,000 motor vehicle plates of every size, shape, color and description adorning the walls of his home -- including 400 rare and elusive Middle Eastern gems issued by more than a score of governments from Abu Dhabi to the Yemen Arab Republic.
Fox is considered one of the world's most foremost authorities on a subject the might elicit yawns from other folks. Unlike stamp collectors, known as philatelists, the study of license plates is so arcane there isn't even a noun for those who engage in it -- though Fox himself suggests "crazy" as a suitable adjective.
"I started collecting plates in 1954, when I was seven years old," he said in a recent interview. "I can remember dragging license plates home from the corner gas station in a bright red wagon."
That same year, he says, the Automobile License Plate Collectors Association was founded "by two guys who met by accident and discovered they both collected license plates." Today, the group has about 2,500 active members in the United States and 20 other nations. However, only a handful of those specialize in plates from the Middle East.
"The average collector is at best trying to get one plate per country," said Fox, a past president of ALPCA. "They don't care what the plates say. They just want to complete the set."
One such collector is Wes Willoughby of San Francisco. After 20 years of scavenger-hunting, the former newspaperman now claims at least one plate from nearly all of the world's 295 currently issuing states, nations, provinces, islands and territories.
Looking back on the accomplishment, Willoughby reported that Sudan and the former Yemen People's Democratic Republic proved among the most elusive of countries on his list. But now he has both, and recently even picked up a PLO diplomatic plate from the African nation of Senegal.
Asked how he got interested in such an esoteric hobby, Willoughby replies: "It was a routine at the end of every year around Christmas that my father would get a new plate for his car, and he'd take the old one and hang it in the garage.That's what started me off."
No one really knows how license plates began, though the reference book of all serious hobbyists, the 800-page Registration Plates of the World-- published in 1994 by the European Registration Plate Association -- says the German state of Baden began issuing plates on a regular basis in 1896, and that Luxembourg was reported to have issued the number "1" to a Benz the year before. The forerunner of license tags in the United States was Massachusetts, which issued its first official plate in 1903.
From all accounts, the first Arab country to require license plates was Egypt. A photo in the October 1914 issue of Ford Times magazine shows a Model T parked in front of the Great Pyramid of Giza sporting a red, white and black number tag made out of porcelain. Fox says he was given a plate just like that in trade, though "being the nut that I am, I would have paid virtually anything to get it."
In the ensuing years, all Arab countries began mandating license plates, though not all the plates were issued by specific governments. During the 1950s and 1960s, for example, the Arabian American Oil Co. pressed its own cast-aluminum license plates for use in the oil fields of Saudi Arabia. Fox says he has two of them in his collection, which has grown partly through trading with other collectors, and partly through written requests addressed to government officials in obscure countries.
The most recent Arab jurisdiction to issue its own license plates is the Palestinian Authority. Up until two years ago, the West Bank and Gaza had used Israeli government-issued plates which, in addition to a registration number also contained a Hebrew letter denoting the district, i.e. "ayin for Gaza, "bet" for Bethlehem, "het" for Hebron, "shin" for Nablus and "raish" for Ramallah. As a result, it was easy to distinguish those black-on-blue plates from the black-on-yellow plates used in Israel proper -- a distinction that helped rock-throwing Arab youths target Jewish motorists during the height of the intifada.
Drew Steitz, a Pennsylvania collector who publishes PL8S -- a newsletter for other collectors -- says that's not the only place in the Mideast where license plates became part of a larger conflict. Since the Gulf War, he says, license plates from Iraq and Kuwait have substantially increased in value.
"I remember paying $50 for a Kuwaiti plate, and that was before the crisis. Now I'd pay up to $100 for a Kuwaiti plate," he said. "Also, it was very hard to get Iraqi plates before. Now it would be practically unattainable." Collectors say the short-lived Iraqi plates proclaiming "Kuwait -- Iraq's 19th province" are among the most valuable souvenirs of all.
That's a far cry from most of the common plates seen on highways across the 50 U.S. states and Canada, which are made from cheap, lightweight aluminum by prisoners who have little choice in the matter.
Throughout the Arab world, however, plates are painstakingly hammered out by skilled craftsmen working at their own sign shops. Many plates, particularly those from Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and Syria, are highly sought after for their raised lettering and unusual cast-aluminum construction.
Ross Day, a librarian at the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art, learned about that first-hand on a recent trip to Tunisia.
"While in Tunis, I passed by a little license-plate shop," recalled the longtime plate collector, who was in North Africa with his wife, a doctoral student in Arabic literature. "On my last day in Tunisia, I decided to go back. On my way to that little store, I ran across another place that was even larger, near the Plaza la Republíque. It seemed to be one of the major license plate manufacturers of Tunisia."
Despite a lively conversation with the French-speaking license-plate maker, Day failed to secure a tag for his own collection. A few years later, Day was briefly detained by Syrian police while trying to take a photograph of a license plate on a 1940s vintage Buick parked -- of all places -- in front of a police station in Damascus. After a friendly chat with the policeman, Day was released, but warned to be more careful when taking pictures.
Says Fox: "Arab plates are generally considered very interesting but difficult to collect. That's because people in most of the Arab countries don't speak English, and so the text on the plates is becoming more and more Arabic, though for years it was bilingual. For that reason they've become somewhat of a mystery to the average collector. I like them because they look so different from what we're used to seeing."
Arab plates even rate their own style, Quartered Arab, which Registration Plates of the World lists as one of the world's seven most common plate styles, along with American, Australian, British, French, German, New Zealand and South African.
For some unknown reason, the most common color combination on Arab plates is silver-on-black, though yellow, blue, green, red and orange number tags can also be spotted from Morocco to Iran. Fox says he's accumulated several plates from every Arabic-speaking country, with a rich variety from Egypt, Lebanon and the Gulf States.
But like fellow collectors Steitz and Willoughby, Fox is finding some countries more elusive than others.
"When it comes to a country like South Yemen, which is pretty obscure, I've never had a lot of luck," he said, adding that he lacks plates from several former Trucial States such as Fujairah and Umm al-Qiwain. However, Fox said he prefers trading to buying. "Plates only have value to a collector. They aren't worth much on the open market."
For years, the only countries not represented in the Fox collection were Albania and North Korea. Just when he acquired plates from both nations, the Soviet Union collapsed -- and 15 new countries were born. From some of them, particularly the Central Asian republics of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, license plates are nearly impossible to come by.
"These are not wealthy places, and they're not particularly friendly with outsiders," he laments, "so my letters almost always go unanswered."