Ask yourself which sort of car related club would be the most broad based and have a wide and varied membership. Hot rods? Orphaned cars? Microcars. Not surprisingly, it's the one that focuses on something that you will find on almost every vehicle on the road – license plates.
The Automobile License Plate Collectors Association (ALPCA), founded in 1954, currently has five Jeopardy contestants in its ranks as well as a state legislator, NASA scientist, and someone who buys and sells license plates for a living.
Some of the collectors you will meet you would swear were on the autism spectrum with a knack to remember minutiae about number sequences and dates. It is sort of a mixture of awe and doing some armchair diagnosis when you encounter them.
Others are unabashed about their lifestyles so don't be surprised if you meet a furry trainspotter or fundamentalist Christian. Yet amazingly, everyone tends to get along thanks to the unifying appeal of collecting license plates.
On a recent Saturday, I visited a license plate meet of the Garden State Region of the Automobile License Plate Collectors Association (ALPCA) in northern New Jersey. It is one of the many regional license plate meets held throughout the country on various Saturdays in church halls, firehouses, and Elks Lodges during the year.
I ventured about 40 minutes north of Midtown Manhattan to the northern Bergen County town of Allendale, New Jersey to join thirty-eight plate collectors from as far away as Maine, Massachusetts, Illinois, and California in a church hall to spend a morning swapping license plates and stories about them.
Among those in attendance were a high school student, firefighter, retired police officer, retired DOT worker, math teacher, mechanical engineer, auto mechanic, translator, librarian at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, actor, and New York City taxi driver.
"One of the best things about this hobby is the camaraderie and friends you make while collecting. Another plus is that you can build a collection within almost any size budget," Marco Tramelli Vice President and Treasurer of the ALPCA Garden State Region told me.
"A meet like this allows us to get together and trade and further our collections, but that soon takes a back seat to the social aspect of the event. It is an atmosphere that unfortunately is missing in many of the larger more established hobbies associations," Tramelli said.
So what is a typical license plate meet like?
The doors open at 8:00 a.m., to some an ungodly early time, but to others with the early bird yard sale ethic too late. Then the wheeling and dealing begins after the plates are all unpacked onto tables. There are a wide range of plates you can find ranging from porcelain plates from over 100 years ago that once graced the back of someone's Maxwell to a digitally printed flat plate that just came off of a rental car Kia and everything in between with prices to match.
Probably the rarest specimen on view in Allendale was a 1946 New Jersey Governor's license plate, complete with the original state seals, although a 1904-1908 Rhode Island plate was a close second.
A donation auction to help fund the costs of the meet as well as the regional and national organizations was held. The auctions tend to be a fun affair with some good natured ribbing among friends during the bidding. Of course the regional meets have nothing on the yearly international meet where the auction can go on for hours and various DMVs donate plates.
It's a pleasant way to spend a Saturday morning and maybe pick up the missing piece for your collection or the perfect year of manufacturer plate for your old car. You have to either join ALPCA or be the guest of a member to attend, but it is more fun than trawling eBay for just the right plate and you get to meet some interesting people.