History of a hobby on a plate

Most people look at a vehicle
licence plate and see only a string of numbers. John Ferguson looks at a
licence plate and sees history.

Mr. Ferguson has the world’s
largest collection of Cayman Islands vehicle licence plates, many of which are
on display in the Cayman Corner of the new Motor Museum in West Bay.

As he talks visitors through the
display, he identifies when each plate was issued, whether it was made in
Mississippi, Alaska or Jamaica, to what kind of vehicle the plate would have
been attached, and exactly where and from whom he got it.

His collection of more than 50
plates at the museum is just the tip of the iceberg – he owns more than 2,000
plates from 75 countries.

Mr. Ferguson buys and trades plates
at conventions and with other collectors. “Some people treat this as a
business, but for me, it’s a hobby,” he said.

The collector is Cayman’s only
resident member of the Automobile License Plate Collector Association, known as
ALPCA, which has members in 70 countries, and he is set to featured in the
association’s magazine Plates as its cover story in December. The cover shows
the collector chilling out on a hammock beside his truck with some of his
number plates around him – not a bad accomplishment for someone who started
collecting seriously just four years ago.

Like many car owners with a
tendency towards nostalgia, Mr. Ferguson kept the licence plates of vehicles he
had owned and picked up the occasional plate here and there, but his passion
for collecting was truly ignited after he and his wife, Katie O’Neill, moved to
their new house in West Bay after Hurricane Ivan. He hung his meagre collection
of 37 plates from the rafters on the ceiling of the two-car port and stood back
to look at his handiwork.

That was when his wife asked him
when he was going to cover the rest of the rafters with plates. “That was a
challenge I couldn’t refuse,” he said.

Four years later, the rafters are
covered in plates from every US state and every country in the world. He
challenges guests to name a country and then points to a plate from there.

Briefly stumped when asked for a
plate from the secretive communist nation of North Korea, he finds one in his
collection that he keeps indoors. “It’s made of steel, so it’d rust if I kept
it outside,” he points out logically.

His collection holds number plates
from every state from the year of his birth, and he is putting together a
tribute to his family in the US, with number plates from each of their birth
years and from the states in which they live.

The Cayman collection on display at
Andreas Ugland’s Motor Museum includes plates that he has found among fellow
collectors’ collections around the world. Tom Smith, of Virginia, a fellow
member of ALPCA, loaned him an early “Invalid Carriage” plate, currently called
Disabled or Handicapped plates, as well as surprise item – a mint condition
pair of plates made in Jamaica, with the number “CI 1941”, complete with the
original envelope they had been mailed from the Department of Licensing in Cayman
to a J. Waters in New Jersey. “The envelope is stamped 31 August, 1967, and
includes the Treasury Department seal,” he said.

The collection also includes
bicycle and motorbike plates.

He has received help in getting the
Cayman collection together from a number of people in Cayman who have fed his
passion for plates and filled him in on the background of vehicle licensing
here.

He also has an impressive
collection of plates of Native American Indian tribes. He places them on his
living room floor to show visitors, stating that he has 34 of Oklahoma’s tribes
and points Shawnee, Cheyenne, Cherokee Nation and others, all with unique
artwork and detail. The collection seems extensive, but he insists it’s not
finished.

And once that part of the
collection is complete, he’ll move on to another run of plates. And then
another. And then it might be time to get a bigger car port.

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Cayman vehicle licence number plates on display at the Mo-tor Museum.
Photo: Norma Connolly