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Delaware’s Enduring Love for Low-Number Plates

Jordan Irazabal photo collecion/Delaware 3000 project

What’s the curious allure of low license-plate numbers in Delaware, where mere digits can dazzle and define? In the First State, the vehicle-registration rules create an intriguing dynamic: license numbers can be transferred and passed down through generations. They often feature in family wills as heirlooms. Here, a low number subtly yet powerfully proclaims, “I’m from here,” rather than, “I’ve just arrived.”  

Add to that the cachet of political standing. Lowest-number plates indicate an elected official, and proximity to those numbers suggests political clout. The crème de la crème—license plate No. 1—always adorns the car of the current governor, while No. 2 goes to the lieutenant governor and No. 3 to the secretary of state. This cultural significance has spawned a profitable cottage industry, where auctioneers fetch six-figure sums for these coveted items. Motorists pay hefty prices each year to acquire some of these plates when they become publicly available for purchase. 

lf you look at the prices over time, it’s a good investment – probably a lot better than the stock market.

Auctioneer K. Wade Wilson on the value of low-number Delaware license plates  

Are low number plates only desirable in Delaware? Only lately? No, and no. A Lynn, MA motorist, for example, on January 4, 1936 sought state supreme court action to restore to him a low-number license plate he had held for six years. The registrar instead offered Nicholas Mathey registration 36,518, which he flatly refused. 

Is the obsession over low-number plates a small state thing, then? In a small state, runs this theory, chances are high you’ll recognize who’s behind the wheel of a low plate number car. Massachusetts, after all, is the 6th smallest state.  But no. A newspaper article dated April 6, 1937, from Austin, TX, discussed the intense debate over the allocation of low-numbered automobile license plates, specifically those between 1 and 200.  

Transformations of 1942

Two changes took place in 1942. First, With WWII’s arrival, Delaware switched to a single permanent porcelain plate to save metal. Prior to then the state had issued pairs of tin plates, just like every other state. Second, the DMV that year permanently assigned license plate ownership to vehicles, not individuals. These permanently assigned plates remain valid as long as the vehicle’s registration is active. Because the state did not make a general reissue of license numbers for more than 40 years, some motorists in the 1980s still had tags made in the 1940s, when the official colors were black and white.  

In 1952, the state adopted embossed letters on black stainless steel license plates, initially using reflective tape but later switching to white paint. Five years later, in 1957, blue and gold plates supplanted these, although lawmakers did not alter the permanently assigned tag regulation.  

Delaware’s unique system fostered a parallel economy. As the black-and-white tags from the 1940s grew increasingly rare over time, license-number brokers and auctioneers saw green in black & white. By the 1960s, classified ads began to transact in both vintage plates and low number registrations. Typically, after procuring a low license number, brokers would have it reproduced in porcelain-coated steel. The black-and-white color added cachet for owners seeking status, though the real value of a validated license plate lies in its numbers. 

Big players trading in these prized numerals, such as used-car dealer Jay Hurley of Greenwood or Wilson Auctions in Lincoln, found their services increasingly in demand by century’s end, with single-digit plates coming to market starting at $100,000.  

Cultural Icons and Local Identity

The allure of low-number license plates in Delaware goes beyond simple alphanumeric markers on a vehicle. In this state, these plates become cultural icons that embody family heritage, political influence, and a deep-rooted sense of local identity. 

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