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The Personal Stories Behind Vanity License Plates

Did you ever wonder where all these people get the ideas for their vanity license plates? Well I did. I am not talking about the ones with people's names on them. Even my two year old granddaughter, has a vanity plate with JESSICA on it. It's on her little bicycle.

No, I mean the ones that obviously have a story behind them...the ones that show some creativity...the ones that I wish I had thought of myself. One day I was wondering about this when I decided to do something about it.

I was driving toward downtown on the Kennedy Expressway in Chicago on a hot summer afternoon recently. I had the top down on my red Chrysler Le Baron convertible, and I was stuck in a hopeless traffic jam caused by our summer road construction ritual. I spied a middle-aged man driving a Mercury Cougar with the license OLD GANG on it. I pulled up to him and "interviewed" him on the spot. My "interviews" tend not to be in-depth you understand, since I am often driving down the street next to these innocent bystanders as I conduct them. I asked him what OLD GANG meant, and he insisted that it had "no meaning". He just likes it. Hmm, I wonder. With Chicago's somewhat checkered past, that seems sort of unlikely. It looks like the mystery of the licenses is not going to be easy to crack.

As I continued my day, I found many licenses that were pretty obvious, like the Lincoln Mark 7 with the plate

MY MARC 7, and the red Jeep Wagon with Z JEEP (the Jeep). Then there was the Le Baron convertible with LIL RAG (little rag), and the yellow Camaro with LAST Z28 on it. I thought the red Jeep Wrangler soft top with COVR ME (cover me) and the red Subaru Jeep with SUN CKR (sun seeker) were pretty direct as well.

I found IMATAN 1 (I am a tan one) on a white Mazda MX6. The woman who drives that car said, "I am a tan one!" She has a tan almost all year from travel. She said everyone admires her tan.

I'm driving around with the license plate D COWHEY on my car. This was my rather uninspired attempt to be cool. Creative it isn't. I actually spent quite a while considering alternatives before I gave up and settled for a license that at least wouldn't become obsolete. Since my name is so unusual that there are only six of us in the entire Chicago telephone book, I originally requested COWHEY. To my complete surprise, it was already taken by a Cowhey who wasn't even a relative. Finally I settled for D COWHEY.

Most vanity licenses are on "nice" cars - you know, new cars in pretty good shape, or old cars that have been refurbished. I found a dramatic exception though. It was a '77 Buick with the plate BUICK 77. It was just an old car, and it was not in particularly good condition. In fact, it was a "beater"; the only thing "special" about it was the vanity plates.

Some plates were rather exuberant like the white Chrysler LeBaron convertible (boy there are a lot of LeBaron convertibles out there on the streets) with YO BABY 3 and the yellow Honda Prelude with YA BABEE. The young man driving the red Jeep Wrangler with the Illinois plates, ITISFN 2 (it is fun too) said that the car not only looks fun, it is fun also.

Speaking of exuberance, LOVLIF1 (love life 1) is on a black Pontiac Grand Prix that belongs to nineteen year old Brigid. She said she loves life and everything in it. She feels that the plate shows how she feels. She chose it because she wants everyone who looks at it to think, "Boy, she loves life - maybe I should learn to". It was her own idea.

I found LOVLIF2 on a thirty-four year old woman's white Dodge Caravan. I don't think she knows Brigid. She said, "I enjoy life, more people should".

Some people seem to have quite a different attitude, as in the case of the blue Ford Tempo with GET LOST.

I saw a Thunderbird with TRADE 1, and I asked the man driving it what it meant. He said he is the manager of International Trade for his company. Another one that wasn't very obvious was CNLFON4 that I saw on a black Mustang. The guy driving this Mustang told me he designs earphones that fit into your ear canal.

Sometimes a license will make you suspect that there is something behind it, like VXW 777, but this one is just what came when the lady in the peacock Pontiac Bonneville ordered it. SWEET ET was on a white Acura Legend and the lady said that ET are her initials. The guy in the black Lexus told me that C MON means just that, come on, as he waved his arm for me to come toward him.

The next week I was in Kentucky and I met a man with a white Le Baron convertible with CHIRP on his plate. It was in a gas station so I was able to do a more or less "in-depth" interview with him. He explained that his last name is Bird, and his brother started the vanity plate idea by putting TWEET on his plates. Not to be outdone, he came up with CHIRP.

I found many licenses that were part of a larger story. A client of mine, Jim Arzbaecher, has a blue and silver Custom Ford van with the plate MY T KOOL (mighty cool). He explained that his girlfriend, Cathy Donovan, has a blue Chrysler Le Baron convertible with MY T HOT (mighty hot). She chose MY T HOT to describe her hot looking sporty convertible with matching driver.

Jim had tried to get MY T COOL, but it was already taken. He also originally intended to put the plates on a '93 Lincoln Mark VIII, but he saw the van at an auto show, and the rest is history. He used to own a traveling disc jockey business, and then he had the plate RECORDS.

Scott Philyaw, a friend of my children, drives his mother's white Mercedes Benz station wagon with BEAR II on it. I thought she might be an ardent Bears football team fan. Not so. His dad owns a company called Midwest Brown Bear. The company distributes Brown Bear equipment. His dad's license is BRN BEAR (Brown Bear) after the company of course. So, the underlying meanings of plates are often not obvious at all.

Out in Schaumburg, Illinois I ran across a beautiful young woman in her early twenties driving a grey Nissan 300ZX with the plate PRIMA DNA (prima donna). I asked her where she got the idea and she told me that she has five older brothers and sisters, and she is sort of spoiled. (A 300ZX, I think I agree). She said that she picked the plate out herself though, so she must at least be in touch with reality.

In the same vein, THE BABY is on a forty-one year old woman's beige Oldsmobile Delta 88. She said that the family always said that the baby gets everything. Of course, she is the baby of the family. Her sister Cindy Maiorano gave her this plate for her birthday.

One of my employees has a license plate that is LOGICAL, but it isn't logical at all anymore. He worked for a company named Logical, about 10 years ago. He kept the license long after the job was gone.

A banker friend of mine, also a zealous golfer, has PLAY N 18 for his license and my lawyer, Wilbur O. Whamond has WOW 80 on his red Chrysler LeBaron convertible plate. He has had his vanity plate for so long, that he didn't even have to pay extra for it! He got it before the state decided that they could make money on vanity plates. My accountant, James M. Paddack, has JMP CPA on his car.

There is a white Ford Mustang convertible in the parking lot where I work with SO MCH FN on the plate. The woman who owns it says the car is so much fun. It keeps her attitude young. She thought "What can I say about a car I've always wanted that is so much fun - Eureka!!"

She said that her brother died of cancer and he said to her "Sis, if I knew this was going to happen, I would have eaten more chocolate bars". Her license plates will remind her to have fun while she can.

A blue Hyundai Sonata with FUN DAY1 has the owner's initials, DAY, and her philosophy of life, FUN. The number one saved her money.

OLSMYLS (all smiles) is on a white Oldsmobile Regency 98. The woman driving it said she is all smiles. She has always been content and she smiles a lot. People tell her since she was a child that smiling makes people happy. She said "I make people happy".

JKNILL 1 was a complete mystery to me. It is owned by Jeanette Knill - not so hard if you know that! her husband had the idea. It is on a blue Dodge Caravan.

The lady driving the Buick LeSabre with BAWBWA was actually named Barbara, and she said that her license was inspired by Jane Pauley's rendition of Barbara Walters.

MY JAI 5 is a license with multiple meanings. It is on a grey Mercury Sable Station Wagon. J.A.I. are the woman's initials. JAI is pronounced "high", like in "Jai Lai". She has five people in her family. Last, but not least she said "My JAI (high) is my family.".

When I asked the guy in the grey Porsche whether
TEEZ ME referred to sex or golf, he said that I could take it any way I wanted. He was quite noncommittal, but obviously pleased that someone noticed his plate and commented on it.

Speaking of double entendres, what do you suppose the guy in the blue Chevy Nova meant by GOPHR IT (go for it?). So many possible meanings, it makes the mind reel.

I must tell you, life is not always easy for a rolling reporter. I was driving my wife's two door hardtop Thunderbird and I tried to interview a guy in a blue Toyota Camry about his MISS U 2 plate, and he couldn't hear me. He thought I was saying something was wrong with his car, and he pulled into a side street to look at it. I guess you could say he missed me too. I just drove on, but I was embarrassed to the point that I didn't even ask the guy in the Chevy Blazer where he got the idea for C U PAL (see you pal).

The maroon Bonneville with UA PILOT seems obvious since we are in the neighborhood of United Airlines corporate office and about 10 miles from O'Hare Airport, the principal hub for United. With things the way they are in the airline business though, I wonder if he still has his job. This car was parked and no one was around. It is in the neighborhood so I'm going to follow up on this one to attempt to get "the rest of the story".

When I asked the young lady in the black Eagle if she was a flight attendant, she was amazed. When I asked her if she worked for United, she thought I was a fortune teller. Her license FLYME 11 (fly me 11) was pretty much a giveaway, and she was about 4 blocks from United's headquarters so I just guessed at her employer.

One challenge to my project is finding the great vanity plate owners. I was in a bank parking lot in Schaumburg when I saw a gold Cadillac with SANTA on the plates. It was in July so he must have been on vacation (I assume that it was the real Santa Claus). I waited a long time but no one showed up. Business in the gift-giving world must be okay though. After all, it was a gold Cadillac and he was parked in a bank parking lot.

I was able to get a report from one of his assistants, though. SANTA 3 is on a blue Oldsmobile 88. The thirty-nine year old man who owns it received this plate as a gift from his wife. He is a visual merchandiser for Marshall Fields. He starts Christmas in August. He used to make ornaments for the "big tree" at the State Street store. Their house is decorated to the point that it has been confused with the Park Ridge Historical Society. He loves Christmas and giving gifts. Thus, the name Santa came about.

There was another person I really wanted to interview, but I couldn't catch up with him. He was the man driving the Lincoln with the handicap plates with GIMP on them. I'd be willing to bet that he has quite a sense of humor.

In Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, I found a man with a Chevy backing his boat into the lake. He had 2BFSHN (to be fishing) on his plates. He said that his wife came up with the idea for the plates. I asked him if he is an active fisherman. He said, "Eight days a week if I could". Our passions are emblazoned on our licenses. Sometimes this includes our work. The guy running the parasail concession had SAIL3 on his car. Then a man in a Plymouth Voyager passed by with VDO MAN on it. I wonder if that means VOO DOO MAN? If it does, is it his passion, his work, or maybe both?

John Kirshner has SKY KING on his Oldsmobile Cutlass. He has SKY KNG1 on his other car, an Oldsmobile Spitfire. Sky King was the star of an adventure series in the '50's and '60's. As a child he watched this show and was enthralled with the idea of flying. It was his first exposure to flying and its "romance" has stuck with him to this day. He became a private pilot in 1975 and he received his instrument, multi-engine and commercial ratings. He didn't say whether or not flying is his occupation, but it certainly is his passion.

Steve Kotz has RRFAN 1 (railroad fan 1) on the Illinois plates attached to his black VW Fox. He said he is railroad fan #1. He has an interest as a model railroader and a rail fan. He likes all aspects of railroading and he wants the world to know.

Many people think that M BOX CAR on the blue Honda Accord has something to do with railroads. Others think it is because the car is a hatchback, but his friends know better. Actually Mike Bock just put the phrase "M. Bock's car" phonetically on his plates. Mike tried to get just BOX CAR, but it was taken. There must be another railroad enthusiast out there somewhere.

Sometimes the message is meant for marauders, as in the case of the Fire Engine Red Classic Cadillac with HNSOFF (hands off) that I saw in Chicago Magazine. I also read that Michael Jordan, the celebrated (former) Chicago Bulls star, has MJJ23 on his Mercedes (His jersey is number 23). When he was asked about this apparent contradiction to his desire for privacy, he pointed out to the reporter that he has smoked windows. Speaking of appropriate celebrity licenses, Ray Meyer, former coach of the De Paul Blue Devils, has
DE PAUL for his tags. The NFL Defensive Player of the Year for the '92 '93 season is Cortez Kennedy. His nickname is "Tez" and he plays in the Kingdome. The Spokesman Review newspaper recently featured a picture of his Mercedes grill and bumper sporting his Washington plate with TEZDOME on it.

In Chicago we have a colloquialism where we call our professional sports teams "Da Bears", "Da Bulls", etc., so when I saw the gold '90 Lincoln Town Car with DA BIG 23 (the big 23), I had a pretty educated guess that it was a Chicago Bulls fan rooting for Michael Jordan. I was right!

I was in downtown Chicago recently when I decided to expand my methods out of pure frustration. I saw a Lexus with LIFE IS A, and I just couldn't stand the suspense. The car was parked and there was no one around. I waited for a while in the rain, but finally I left my business card with a note on it asking the owner of the car to call me for an interview. Is the person a psychologist, a psychiatrist, a philosopher, a poet or just someone who realizes that life is a series of unanswered questions? It was behind the Art Institute, maybe the person is an artist...

Sometimes you know that a plate has significance, but the meaning isn't obvious. What do you suppose EVR AMN1 means? Well, I conducted a rolling interview of this man and his wife and found out that it stands for the Randy Travis hit song "Forever and Ever Amen". It seems that the gentleman is an enthusiastic fan of Randy Travis. They were both quite pleased that I asked.

I saw RAN 23 on a yellow rag top Jeep. Could it be an almost successful marathon runner, or maybe one that ran 23 marathons? Poor guesses. The young man's name is Randy and he originally had these plates on a 1923 T Bucket Roadster. He kept them on the Jeep for sentimental reasons.

Another plate that I knew must mean something, but I couldn't for the life of me figure out what, was JCNRCR1. It belongs to Jay Claffey and he has it on his red Honda Civic. It stands for Jay Claffey and Renee Claffey are one. They're married. It seems so simple once you know.

Then I saw SMR WNDS on a red Chevy Ranger. The guy told me it stands for "summer winds". As he said it he snapped his fingers and smiled broadly.

I saw a man driving a dusty rose Cadillac with FAREBOX on his tags. I asked him what it means, and he told me that he sells fare boxes to transportation companies (busses, etc.). Interesting.

I couldn't get close to the blonde in the Mercedes 300S with ONTHVRG (on the verge). She must be on the verge of something good though, since that is a rather pricey car.

I was driving behind a little silver Mazda MX3 with
LISS MX3, and I pulled up to ask the young man what LISS meant. He smiled and told me that it stands for Lisa's. Lisa was sitting in the right seat draped over his arm. She gave him a big kiss, and he turned to me and said, "I've got everything figured out."

The white Nissan Maxima with HAF A DAY reminds me of a story that an entrepreneur from Texas once told me. The Texan is a millionaire. He said that anyone can become a millionaire by working only a half day every day. He said that it doesn't matter which twelve hours you work, just so you consistently put in your half a day. I never got to talk to the owner of the Maxima, but I'd be willing to bet that is his philosophy too.

The blonde woman driving the blue Camaro with TOMSTER told me that her son is Tom. I presume that the blue Camaro is his. I asked her if he is a "monster" (just a guess). She said he's a big guy...very big!

So far I have found that everyone I have actually been able to talk to has been quite happy to tell me the story behind their plates. My only problem has been to get to them for the interview. I was musing about this problem one day when I hit upon an idea. Why not prepare an interview and put it on a postcard? If the person wants to be in my book, he or she can simply send me the postage paid interview in the mail. Then, I reasoned, I would only have to get close enough to the person to hand them the postcard. I could also leave them on parked cars so that when the owners are not around they can still tell me their story.

I started to do just that. The day I received my first response, I was having lunch with my son and three of my four daughters. I passed the response around, and to my surprise, my children all asked for a supply of the cards so they could do interviews for me too, or at least leave them on cars with plates of interest. My daughter Lisa was particularly interested. She said she is always wondering why someone would choose a particular license. And here I thought that I was the only one in the world that was interested in this bizarre subject.

The first response was from a person who was driving a red Honda DelSol with the plate SPAMONI. It looks like a guy's handwriting and he said that he got the nickname Spamoni on prom night. He is 100% Italian, and he
says that the plate helps him express his love for the Italians. I have started distributing these post cards in earnest now...more to come on this important development.

I saw a red Ferrari with KNICKRS, and I learned that the guy that owns it also owns a 20's style restaurant and lounge called Knickers.

Al Larson, the mayor of Schaumburg, IL, drives a Toyota Tercel with SCHBRG 1 on it. I found his wife, Nancy's red Chevrolet Celebrity station wagon in the parking lot of the famous Woodfield Mall in Schaumburg. She has
SCHBRG 2 (Schaumburg 2) on her plates. That seems appropriate for the Mayor's wife. She said both her husband's and her plates were her idea. She gave her husband number one because he is the Mayor. She took number two because she is "the power behind the throne".

The other day on the way home from work I saw a young woman in a black Ford Mustang 5.0 convertible with Wisconsin plates that said DUMBEL. This was an opportunity I just couldn't pass up. I chased her for seven miles through heavy traffic, going as much as 25 miles over the 50 mile per hour speed limit (those 5.0's really move, you know) only to have her change three lanes and slip away at a red light.

Then, to my surprise, a few blocks later she was right in front of me again. I leaped from the car and gave her one of my interview postcards. She took it and looked at me as though I was crazy. She looked like a "hard body" weightlifter type. She looked good. I am jumping to conclusions about this but I'd be willing to bet that she, in fact, is a weightlifter. Yet, after all my diligent effort, to date, she hasn't returned her survey.

Since then I saw her license plate on a new Corvette, and it was parked in front of a gym. She must not have had time to fill out my survey what with shopping for a new car and all.

I was in the rolling country of northwest Illinois one beautiful sunny afternoon when I came upon a gentleman in a gas station with BREW 73 on the plates of the Pontiac Grand Am that he was gassing up. To my surprise, when I asked him about his plates, at first he didn't know what I was talking about. Then he realized that he was driving his daughter's car with the vanity plates. He said that Brew is her nickname (their name is Brewbaker) and 73 is her birth year. He said his other daughter has SPUNKY 89 (he wasn't sure about the number) on her 88 Cutlass Supreme. That is her nickname and her graduation year.

Since the rolling hills in this part of Illinois are not quite as easy to farm as the flat plains that make up most of the state, many people raise horses here instead of farming. People refer to this area as "horse country". The guy in the red GMC Sierra looked like a rancher. His plate 3 OZONE was the subject of my next interview. He said that for the past twenty years he and a small group of his friends have used the name Ozone for many ventures that they have gone in on together. There are at least four of them that have OZONE in their license plates. One of them has a ranch that he calls the Ozone Ranch.

Yet another Chrysler LeBaron convertible showed up with an interesting plate. An attractive woman was getting into this shiny black car with the plates BUMPS 46. This was in the parking lot of my favorite discount store in the world (really), Wal*Mart, so I didn't have to contend with red lights changing to green, etc. and I was able to conduct an in-depth interview.

It seems that she was quite a tomboy when she was little. She was always hurting herself and breaking her bones. So much so (she broke her arm twelve times) that her Dad nicknamed her "Bumps" and that has stayed with her throughout her life. She said that it was a little awkward during her teenage years, but as so often happens with our childhood nicknames, it never went away. Her husband passed away some time ago, and her daughters got the license for her a couple of years later in an effort to cheer her up. It was easy to see that she was touched by the gesture.

One of my employees, Marilyn Hilb, helped me snag a great one! Upon my instruction, and without knowing why I was asking, she gallantly raced up to the blue Chevy Beretta with O SUE ME 2 (oh sue me, too) on the plates, and delivered the postcard survey.

I later explained my little project to Marilyn and she just sort of shook her head at me. (Later, though, I actually talked her into helping distribute the postcards.) The plate belongs to George and Linda Farmer and it was Linda's idea. It seems that they had some "friends" that sued them over a disagreement that arose.

Linda just wanted to let them know she thought they were wrong. George thought it was a nasty thing to do, but Linda was driving the car and she said that basically she feels it's a sign of the times.

The Mitsubishi 3000GT is a beautiful, fast, exciting, expensive, sexy, powerful, and otherwise appealing car. When I saw the red one with the license IOA LOT 2 (I owe a lot too) being driven by Bonnie Dabelow I already knew the answer to the meaning of her plate. Her survey came back and she said "It's true!".

Tom Treml feels the same way about his vehicles. He has MY DEBT on three different types of vehicles. He has it on his blue Lincoln, on his red Chevy Truck and on his black Honda motorcycle. In the state of Illinois, the same license can be used for each different class of license. Tom happens to own one of each of three classes of vehicles.

Tom said he thought of his vanity plate(s) back when he was in high school in 1978. He wanted something that would be good for any vehicle he chose to drive. He started paging through the dictionary looking for words or combinations of words that would fill the then six letter limit. When he got to the D's he knew he had what he was looking for. He wrote to me that eleven years after receiving his first MY DEBT plate, he was delighted to receive both a B Truck Plate and a Motorcycle Plate with MY DEBT on them.

He wrote that he gets a lot of positive response, but some people just don't get it. Interesting things have happened because of his vanity plates, though. He was sitting in traffic one day waiting to pay a toll. He looked in the rear view mirror and saw a woman mouthing the words "MY DEBT" to her passenger. Just then she rear-ended him. Another time, on the way to work he stopped at a convenience store. The clerk at the counter noticed his plate and said, "'MY DEBT', I should have that on my house". Tom's response was that a house is an asset, and as far as he knows you still don't need a license plate for your house.

Most of the time I am not going to report on licenses that are obviously people's names because that doesn't strike me as very interesting. An exception to this rule is that my daughter named Suzanne was called Suzy Q by my mother, and I have seen many variations of Suzy Q so I have asked some for reports. The first one came in from Sue Vesper. She has SUZY Q 13 on her black Chevy Cavalier Z24. Suzy Q is her father's nickname for her. Her birthday and lucky number are 13 and she wants to make sure that no one forgets her birthday.

SMOKY 7 was on a big 4-door 1985 Buick. The person behind the wheel was an older gentleman and I was curious, since many of the vanity plates seem to be on young people's cars. I gave him a survey and in it he explained that he is 80 years old. He was a truck driver and the truck that he drove was tractor number 7. It smoked like a coal furnace fire. Hence he and his wife came up with SMOKY 7 for his plates.

Jodi Parisi has what one might call a positive self-image. She has EMPRISS (Empress) on her black 1990 Cadillac Seville. She said she is a female with supreme power to that of an emperor. She likes to think big. She says, "When you think big, you'll be big."

OH BOYS 4 is on the Illinois plates on Mike Misicka's red Ford van. They have four kids, and they are all boys.

Mike Squire wouldn't make it on the Wheel of Fortune. He has SQIRE 1 on his Illinois plates on his Suzuki Samurai. He said, "I was too cheap to buy another vowel"!


©1994 by Dennis R. Cowhey
All rights reserved.
Library of Congress Number: 94-96301 Guest Post