By Phineas J. Stone
As the sun emerged from the clouds last weekend for a brief time, I spotted someone coming down the street in a beautiful old Ford Mustang – the kind of vehicle that only comes out on Sundays.
However, it wasn’t the bright silver chrome or the roar of the well-tuned engine that caught my attention. It was the fine looking license plate on the bumper. Sitting on that bumper were the digits ‘45 V,’ the finest of the fine in low number plates. And it was in the old green and white style of plate – the kind of plate that means you’ve been here for awhile, and with the added low number plate, it meant that the person didn’t just have a great car, they were somebody on the inside.
Or at least it made you wonder if they were, which is the whole purpose.
In just about every state in the union, a license plate is nothing more than a few random numbers and letters on a piece of tin – something so unimportant that most drivers probably don’t even know their own plate numbers. But not in Massachusetts, where even a flimsy piece of tin can become a mark of distinction.
For those who care, and many do, certain license plates are like a pedigree; something singling you out from the unimportant – making others wonder just who you are and just how you got such a plate.
Those plates are referred to as the low-number plates.
In the past, low-number plates were reserved for the elite Yankee families, those with friends in high political places or those with a relative in the Registry of Motor Vehicles. Adding to the mystique is the fact that they can be handed down through the generations in a family, and the regular Joe’s can still get them through an annual state lottery or through paying top dollar to an old Patrician who no longer cares about his or her plate pedigree.
As defined by the Registry, a low number is:
•a plate with one to four numbers
•a plate with one number followed by one letter
•a plate with two numbers followed by one letter
The history is only anecdotal, and a Registry official once told me the official story was buried somewhere with Jimmy Hoffa. However, those in the know, know how it all started.
The plates came about around 1910 or 1912, when automobiles started appearing in large numbers on Bay State roads. The state required that anyone owning an automobile had to come to the State House and register it. In return for registering their automobile, they got a metal plate to affix to the auto to prove they’d paid the correct fees. The plates that were handed out in the beginning started with the number 1 and went up.
Naturally, at that time, the only people who could afford automobiles were the old Yankee families and, to an extent, those from the emerging new rich families. Later, in the 1930s, when cars became prevalent, license plates took their modern form – random, unimportant numbers and letters. However, those who still had the number plates from the early days became distinctive on the roads – set apart and easily identified as an elite driver.
Gradually, those in the lower classes, and especially the new Irish politicians in Boston, began wanting to get their hands on such plates so they could be held in the same regard. Famous Boston Mayor James Michael Curley is perhaps the first person who “bought” a low number, paying an undisclosed sum of money in the 1930s to an elderly woman for her number “5” plate.
A new twist was the “political favor” plate, such as the ‘V 45’ I observed this week. In the 1950s and 1960s, when Governors Paul Dever, Christian Herter and John Volpe were serving in the top office, the low-number plates took on this new alphabetic secret code. It was said that if you were a friend of one of them, or performed a political favor, you were rewarded with a plate bearing the first letter of their last name. For example, a favor for Herter resulted in a plate such as “30 H,” and so on. Again, it was a mark of distinction among the masses, and allegedly a way of avoiding parking tickets and traffic stops.
The whole scene is such a Boston thing, and can’t rightly be explained to those from outside. No one here wants to be a regular guy or gal.
Everyone wants to have an “in,” to have a connection, to be part of the secret society that gets things done on the sly. Those places certainly used to exist in a big way long ago, which is why the plates were coveted, but today that world is shrinking like all other things that were built on Boston social eccentricities.
But you have to love the the insider special.
It’s like the icing on the cake; not only did that Mustang look great rolling down the street last Sunday, but it was made all the better by the intrigue of the low number plate.
I was left saying, “That guy is somebody, and what a car he has.”
Of course, that’s just what he wanted.
And in Boston, whether real or perceived, that’s worth something.