Why Do Americans Use European License Plates On Their Cars?

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Gather ‘round, good people of Jalopnik, because it’s time for Letters to Doug: your favorite weekly column wherein you ask questions (“Are cars fun?”) and I give answers. (“Yes, cars are fun.”)

Remember: you, too, can participate in Letters to Doug by e-mailing me your letter at Letters2Doug@gmail.com. I cannot promise that I will respond to your letter on the site, but I can promise you that I will read your letter and potentially laugh at it, especially if it involves your ownership of a first-generation Volkswagen Touareg.

Anyway: it’s time for today’s letter, which comes to us from a reader in Cincinnati named Elvis. Elvis writes:

Hi Douglas!

Is your name short for Douglas? Or Dougbert? Dougstopher? Anyway..

I have a couple of related questions, and they’re about foreign license plates. You know how you occasionally see Audis and BMWs rolling around with Euro-looking vanity plates? Well, why? Are they ex-pats? Are they so proud of ze German engineering, of the heritage of their car? Did they take a really long ferry ride over the ocean and forget to change it? Also, in Europe do people drive their Mustangs around with American vanity plates? I heard you’ve been to, and even sat in a car in Europe, so I feel that you are qualified to answer.


Elvis from Cincinnati

First off, Elvis, I am happy to report that “Doug” is indeed short for “Douglas.” What’s Elvis short for? Elvisserie? Elvisdoodle? Elvisbamacare? Please provide your answer to me in the form of another e-mail, or possibly a short skit in which you act out life as a Volkswagen Touareg by laying on the floor and moaning.


Anyway, Elvis, now it’s time to address your question, which is basically asking why people use European vanity plates on their cars here in the United States of America.

I’m happy you asked this question, Elvis, because it touches on a subject I am very fond of: license plates. I am a license plate aficionado, specifically when it relates to Colorado “denim” license plates, which I have been trying to obtain from each county in the state since I was approximately 15 years old.


Unfortunately, after more than a decade of trying, I am still not done. In fact, I believe there is a good chance that I will never finish. I will be on my deathbed, with my children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren gathered around, and using my final dying breath, I will look at all of them with love, and peace, and the memories of decades spent together enjoying each other’s company, and I will utter: “Finish the denim license plates.” And then they will look at one another and say: “What did he say? Spin the Danish cookie cake?” “No, I think he said: ‘Film the damn light brigade.’” And that will be my legacy.

The point is that I am highly qualified to answer this question.

Now, for those of you don’t know what Elvis is talking about, here is the situation: a good number of American people stick European license plates on the front — or even the back — of their vehicle. Sometimes they even get their own plate number made up on this European license plate, and they use it in place of their normal state-issued license plate.


Why do people do this? I have come to find out that the main reason is because they believe it’s cool. They believe that if they’re driving around with European license plates, observers will look at their car and say: Whoaaa… that guy’s car is EUROPEAN.

And then I think these Euro license plate users believe that everyone will then point and stare, perhaps forgetting that a large number of modern cars are European, including a small Mercedes minivan you can get with steel wheels.


This is, in my opinion, one of the single stupidest trends in the history of automotive customization, and I believe it should stop immediately. It should stop yesterday. It should stop last week. If a European came to America and discovered that we were using European license plates as decoration, I believe he could cultivate a successful stand-up comedy career just telling his fellow Europeans about it. (“The guy had a 19-inch-wide license plate from Bulgaria on the front of his car… BECAUSE HE THINKS PEOPLE WILL THINK IT LOOKS COOL! HAHAHAHHAHAHAHA!!!”)

Now, I admit that there are a small number of people whose European license plate actually belongs on their vehicle. For instance: some people did BMW or Volvo factory delivery, and they leave their German or Swedish plates on the front of their car because they think it’s cool.


But even these people should wise up at some point and remove the damn European license plate. Yes, you picked up your car in Europe. Yes, it’s kind of neat. No, this does not make you any cooler when your car is sitting in a Costco parking lot on a Saturday afternoon because you’re buying bulk diapers in order to save $4.73.

As for the other part of your question, Elvis, NO! Nobody in Europe would ever fasten an American license plate to their car in an attempt to seem cooler. The closest you can get in some countries is smaller license plates that are designed to fit American-sized license plate holders for imported vehicles. But this does not make you cool, or special, or unique. The guy at the European DMV just gives you your smaller license plate, and then he goes on doing normal, European things, such as smoking, and paying taxes.


With that said, I have seen a few cars in Europe bearing American license plates. In 2013, I saw a Bugatti Veyron in Monaco with Quebec plates. On the same trip, I saw a Rolls-Royce Phantom Drophead Coupe with Florida plates. In 2012, I saw a Honda Accord on the Italian coast with Virginia plates. And last year, I saw a mint, well-preserved, black 1980s Mazda 626 sedan making its way down Strada Statale 583 near Bellagio, Italy, bearing Maryland plates.

But these are legitimate people with legitimate license plates used for legitimate registration purposes. These people are cool. Sadly for the Euro front plate crowd, I’ll never be able to say the same thing about them. Because let’s be honest: there’s nothing cool about a guy from Indiana with an automatic Mini Cooper whose Euro front plate says “MINI COOPIN”.


@DougDeMuro is the author of Plays With Cars, which his mother says is “fairly decent.” He worked as a manager for Porsche Cars North America before quitting to become a writer.