Magazine article The Middle East

A License to Collect Number Plates of the Arab World

Magazine article The Middle East

A License to Collect Number Plates of the Arab World

Article excerpt

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 licence 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, colour 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 foremost authorities on a subject that might elicit yawns from other folks. Unlike philatelists (stamp collectors), the study of licence 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.

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 specialise 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 to own 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 licence 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 pioneer of licence plates in the United States was Massachusetts, which issued its first official plate in 1903.

From all accounts, the first Arab country to require licence 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 Company pressed its own cast-aluminum licence 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 licence 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: "ayin" for Gaza, "bet" for Bethlehem, "het" for Hebron, "shin" for Nablus and "raish" for Ramallah. …

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