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tom hawthorn

The licence plate is made of porcelain atop a heavy gauge steel base.

Vertical lettering brackets the plate. The left side reads, LIC. VEH.

On the right, it reads, VICTORIA.

Centred at top is the city seal, baked into the porcelain. Below it is the number 6.

A single-digit licence plate. You don't see those every day.

John Roberts, a retired journalist, bought the plate five years ago from an elderly gentleman who had kept it in a drawer for decades. It cost $1,000.

"I was very pleased," said Mr. Roberts, 69. "So was he."

The plate was in pristine condition, considering its age.

Its exact age is a matter of some dispute.

Mr. Roberts spent hours in the archives, calling on skills learned over several decades as a writer, editor and photojournalist for newspapers in England and Alberta.

He found bylaws in which city council ordered hackney drivers to purchase licences. Seems visitors were complaining about being overcharged by unscrupulous hacks.

Mr. Roberts pinpointed the date of issue for his licence. It was produced in 1884, he declared.

He sent his findings to other collectors.

Many were impressed by the plate. But few agreed with him about the date.

Many collectors know porcelain plates were first issued by the city of Philadelphia and the state of Massachusetts in 1903. Soon, most every jurisdiction began issuing porcelain plates. Porcelain withstood the rigours of the road better than the homemade licences of wood and leather that had earlier adorned motor vehicles. The trend faded away after about 40 years.

Mr. Roberts pressed his case. He compiled his evidence, complete with bylaw citations, sending the information to the people at Guinness World Records.

After a frustrating wait, he got the acknowledgment he so long desired.

You can read it on a framed certificate hanging on the wall of his Esquimalt home: "The oldest licence plate is the 1884 hackney carriage plate from Victoria, British Columbia, Canada, owned by John Roberts (Canada)."

The news earned him front-page news in local newspapers, as well as a favourable item on CTV National News last fall.

It also garnered attention overseas.

Last fall, the Gulf News, a newspaper based in Dubai, reported the "world's oldest number plate" was for sale for 29 million dirhams, about $7.8-million Canadian. Spectacularly wealthy businessmen had paid fantastic sums at auction for the prestige of owning single-digit numbers in the United Arab Emirates. Perhaps one would be interested in dropping spare millions on a licence plate of historic interest.

Not surprisingly, Mr. Roberts prefers to place his keepsake in a safety deposit box.

Mr. Roberts was born during the war in Burton Upon Trent, a Staffordshire town known as the capital of British brewing. His father was a British Army warrant officer who served as a Desert Rat in the North Africa campaign.

The younger Roberts left his homeland in 1975, finding work on such newspapers as the Red Deer Advocate and the Rimbey Record. He was editor of the latter when it went bankrupt 15 years ago, impetus for a desired move to Victoria. He now works part-time as a bus driver, guiding tours for cruise-ship passengers.

The publicity he generated for his plate convinced other collectors to state their opinions about the dating.

Eric Taylor, a television documentary producer who maintains a website dedicated to porcelain plates, has no doubt about the Victoria plate. Four corner holes with protective grommets. Two elongated slots. Porcelain. A format "suspiciously identical" to the first motorcycle plates issued by the British Columbia government - in 1913.

In December, Plates, the official magazine of the Automobile License Plate Collectors Association, published a richly illustrated, six-page article offering a compelling argument that the Roberts plate dates from the 20th Century. The evidence includes an examination of three obscure city council decisions - the 1883 Hack Regulation Bylaw, the 1901 Hired Vehicles Bylaw, and the 1912 Hired Vehicles Amendment.

Christopher Garrish, one of the article's authors, told me the recognition by Guinness left him "incredulous. There's nothing to support [the]claim."

He issued a challenge: "Show us a picture."

After word of the conflict reached Guinness, they withdrew the category of "world's oldest plate."

For his part, Mr. Roberts vows to prove his case by investing even more time at the archives.

"I'm trying to find a photograph of a horse and carriage," he said. "Just one picture will prove my point."

If it is any comfort to the owner of Victoria porcelain No. 6, the collectors challenging his claim face a similar dilemma. No one has yet unearthed a photo of the plate on a car in Victoria, circa 1913.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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