In some countries, you aren’t allowed to personalize the license plates on your vehicle. Other countries changed that rule when they saw the revenue it created. Some countries let you bid on numbers.
The highest price paid for a vanity plate worldwide is $14 million. The plate “1” was bought at an auction in Abu Dhabi in 2007, purchased by Saeed Khouri.
In Middle Eastern countries, lower numbers are desirable, a sign of wealth. In the U.S., people personalize plates for a variety of reasons, and it is primarily the statement on a frame — “My other car is a Mercedes” — that indicates wealth (or the lack thereof).
In California, personalized plates aren’t as popular as you might think. The American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators says that Virginia has the highest percentage, at 16.2 percent of plates issued. Texas has the lowest, at .6 percent. At 3.49 percent, California ranks 22nd, with 1,136,772 personalized plates out of 32,592,000 registered vehicles.
Certain models of car are more likely to sport personalized plates. The Mini Cooper, maybe because of its size, lends itself to creative messages.
When Volkswagen reintroduced the Beetle in 1997, you often saw vanity plates with “BUG” in them.
I don’t see many Priuses with vanity plates, but in the parking lot of Hazard Center, there’s one that reads “CB [heart] 2 TCH.” It belongs to Carol Benesch of San Carlos. “Do you know what it says?” she asks.
“Uh, that you love to teach? I assume the first two letters are your initials.”
She laughs. “Okay. I just have so many people that think it means ‘love to touch,’ and some people will say, ‘What do you do that you love touching? Are you a masseuse?’ Sometimes it’ll be creepier. I guess it makes a good conversation piece.”
Was this your first choice of a license plate?
“Oh, no. I kept trying to get one that had something to do with clean air or the environment. But all my choices were already taken. My husband and I both have a Prius. It’s not because of gas prices. We just want to make a difference, and we care about the environment. He has a UCLA license plate that’s personalized with ‘JB UCLA.’ That’s a tradition in his family, and his parents bought it for him as a gift. But he has a bunch of Obama stickers on the car, and I won’t drive it because of that. I think it can be dangerous because of the way people get about politics.”
What about the dangers of having students know which car in the parking lot is the teacher’s?
“I did think about that. I teach in Encanto. My philosophy was, if someone really wanted to mess with my car, they would just wait and see which car was mine. I’m at the school from 6:00 to 6:00.”
The next time I’m at a stoplight on Camino Ruiz in Mira Mesa, I see a red Ford Explorer next to me with a plate that reads “4 OKIE.” I roll down my window, hand him my card, and say I want to interview him about his plate. He sends me an email a few days later that reads: “My name is John Flowers, and I own the red Ford Explorer Sport Trac with the license plate ‘4 OKIE.’ I was going to a volleyball game with my granddaughter. I don’t know what information you wanted to know, but here is the story behind this plate. My ‘4 OKIE’ plate says this because I’m from Oklahoma. I’m also a big Oklahoma University Sooner fan. While I was in the military, everybody started calling me ‘Okie,’ and the nickname kind of stuck. I tried to get a plate saying just ‘OKIE,’ but there is another car in California with that plate, so I settled for ‘4 OKIE.’ My other car has a plate that says ‘OUGRMPS.’ It stands for Oklahoma University Grandpa. I hope the above info is what you wanted. Take care and God Bless.”
I send Flowers an email with follow-up questions but never hear back from him.
The next day, on the I-5, cars are flying by me with personalized plates. I can’t catch up to them doing less than 80. There’s a “PHNXFLW.” A cute African-American girl in a Mustang with “GTTO FAB.” The fastest car is driven by someone who whizzed past at approximately 90 mph, with a plate reading “I SPEED.” But pulling off the Sports Arena exit, I find a car that was easy to catch up with. A woman in her 70s is driving. I follow her to her place in Point Loma.
Debbie Blum, a sex education teacher, has a plate that reads “P WELL.” I ask her if it means what I think it does. She laughs and says, “It sure does. My husband, who passed away in 1999, was a urologist. He had been asked by colleagues why he didn’t get one that said ‘CANT GO,’ but he said that even though that’s why you’d visit a urologist, he wanted to be positive.”
Blum’s daughter, in her mid-40s and living, along with her husband, with Mom, says, “People love the plate. They give us the thumbs up. Old men especially like it. They understand it. And if someone asks what it means, we just tell them to read it slowly, and they say, ‘Oh.’ ”
Debbie continues, “We had our first plate say ‘OOSIK.’ That’s the name of the penis bone in a walrus. Only four mammals have a bone in their penis. And it was only a few military men, or guys from Alaska, that knew what that meant. Now that Alaska is more in the news, maybe that’s changed. An oosik is two feet long. It’s an Eskimo word. But since [my husband] was in the medical field, he didn’t like when people thought it stood for ‘Oh, sick.’
“In the early ’90s, the DMV was actually looking into foreign words, because a number of words had gotten by them. When my husband got the ‘P WELL,’ the lady at the DMV said sharply, ‘What does this mean?’ He quickly said, ‘It stands for the Pure Well Water Company,’ which at the time did deliveries here in San Diego. There was a fellow urologist named William that had a plate that said ‘WET,’ but it’s his initials that just happen to spell that.