Tuesday, December 03, 2013

A Field Guide to the Specialty Licence Plates of the Province of Manitoba

Well, friends, it has come to this.

Following yesterday's surprise, and yet somehow not altogether surprising, announcement of curling specialty plates -- because of course Manitoba is putting out more specialty licence plates -- I was inspired to put together a helpful and timely little collection of specialty-plate info. Because, really, at the rate they've appeared as late, it's only going to get harder to keep track of them all and keep them all straight in one's head. ("We have how many plates about fish?")

I'm reserving the scope of this guide to specialty plates with visual design changes, which leaves out amateur radio operator plates; in researching this post I learned that they're coordinated across the country, indistinguishable from standard plates except by their character sets, and serve a functional rather than purely aesthetic purpose by relaying the operator's call sign. The More You Know!

Limiting my focus to aesthetic changes that received a full promotional blitz from the Province -- news releases, special press conferences, media coverage, the whole kit 'n' kaboodle -- there have been ten specialty licence plates unveiled in the past decade, and you'll see why that's funny in a second.

Please enjoy this field guide to Manitoba specialty licence plates, in chronological order of first appearance:

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Species: Veteran Licence Plates
First Sighted: November 5th, 2004
Classification: Vxx ###
Colour Scheme: Blue text on white background with green and yellow design framing, accentuated by modest but significant additions of red.
Distinctive Markings: Remembrance poppy at centre of plate; Canadian flag replacing "Friendly" beside the Manitoba typeface.
Signature Call: "VETERAN"
Gradient Action: None. I'm just going to go on record right now as vastly preferring solid-colour-artwork background designs to comparatively-lazy gradient-slider backgrounds, which probably foreshadows the fun I'm about to have.
Press Conference Provincial Representative: Ron Lemieux
Also Offered for Motorcycles?: Yes.
The issuing sequence for these plates began at VAA 000; all sources note that the series jumps straight from VAF to VAH, for what are probably very obvious reasons. And I was a little surprised to learn in my research that, as it turns out, veteran plates aren't offered everywhere across the country; Nunavut remains a holdout, in what I'm sure will spark a fascinating discussion someday soon up there.

The veteran plates are very much an outlier, in that -- rather unlike most of the rest of this list -- the specialty touch is a reserved and tasteful addition to the existing plates, weaving itself gracefully into the provincial fabric. Folks with these plates are Manitobans just the same as you and I are, but with that additional something special marked and incorporated into the detail of their identity. I always liked that. Also unique: while the majority of the plates on this list weigh in at a $70 fee, the veteran plates are instead a modest $5 admin charge.

But perhaps most germanely to its outlier status, this was the only specialty plate of the Gary Doer era; in fact, this is the only item on this list not released within the last three years. So strap in, we're heading into a whirlwind.

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Species: Winnipeg Blue Bombers Licence Plates
First Sighted: April 21, 2011
Classification: BB####
Colour Scheme: Dark blue on blue with gold. Well, yellow, I mean, but "gold". There've been a lot of different golds throughout the Bombers' history. (Also, I've just noticed that sometime between 2004 and 2011 the Manitoba wordmark switched over to boldface.)
Distinctive Markings: The Bombers' throwback logo, somewhat curiously, as the italicized lightning-football W was the Bombers' primary logo at the time.
Signature Call: "CELEBRATING FAILURE". Well, okay, no, "TRUE BLUE". But you were thinking it too. (Try not to think too hard about "TRUE BLUE" being written in yellow.)
Gradient Action: partly cloudy
Press Conference Provincial Representative: Andrew Swan
Also Offered for Motorcycles?: No. (Or not these ones, anyway, but we'll get to that later.)
When we think about the Province's specialty-licence-plate madness, this is where it all begins. And, as is often the case with Manitoban issues, we can blame this at least partially on Saskatchewan.

The Saskatchewan Roughriders were the first to develop specialty plates in 2010, celebrating the team's 100th anniversary, and then Manitoba got kind of weird and defensive about it because that's what we do when other places have things we don't. Where are our team's specialty plates? We're... we're special too, right?

Sure enough, the success of the Saskatchewan experiment motivated a limited-edition 8,100-plate run of Winnipeg Blue Bombers specialty plates the next year; the 8,100 plates subsequently selling out at $70 a pop, with MPI gaining $40 on each sale, set the stage for all of the plates to follow. And if there's one team that's proven a licence to print money:

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Species: Winnipeg Jets Licence Plates
First Sighted: November 15, 2011
Classification: WJ#### / J#####
Colour Scheme: Polar blue on light blue with white, as well as the slight touch of red in the logo.
Distinctive Markings: The roundel that heralded Canada's plunge into a militaristic dystopia, if I remember that Tyler Shipley article correctly. ("It all starts to feel pretty George W. Bush.")
Signature Call: "FUELLED by PASSION"; we're all still waiting for that one to grow on us, aren't we
Gradient Action: melting rocket-popsicle
Press Conference Provincial Representative: Greg Selinger
Also Offered for Motorcycles?: Yes.
There was no way these weren't going to happen, especially after the Bombers plates proved as popular as they did. If you're keeping an eye out for them, you probably don't have to look very long; the Jets licences are by far the highest-selling specialty plates. (And also the most frequently stolen.)

Both the Bombers and Jets base their brand identity around the colour blue, which allowed for some design consistency; Manitoba licence plates have blue plate numbers and a blue wordmark, so blue logos and blue backgrounds were an easy fit. But what would happen if other colours were introduced?

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Species: Firefighter Licence Plates
First Sighted: May 10, 2012
Classification: WF#### / FF####
Colour Scheme: blerrrrrrgh
Distinctive Markings: The firefighting Maltese cross of courage. The pure red of the cross draws attention to how... not-red most of the background seems by comparison.
Gradient Action: smoked salmon
Press Conference Provincial Representative: Greg Selinger and Andrew Swan, unusually
Also Offered for Motorcycles?: Yes.
As you may have discerned from the lettering split, Winnipeg firefighters and non-Winnipeg firefighters receive different prefixes. Curious little sidenote, that.

Say what you might about this overall design, it's certainly... striking. It wouldn't be until mid-2013 that Manitoba finally relented and began incorporating black text into their plate designs again; it's sort of a shame they hadn't considered black for this plate, because this solid blue over an off-pinkish fade is... I want to find a nicer word than "disquieting", but man, every time I look away and then look back I feel ruffled.

The top wordmark being a noticeably different shade than the plate number, yet still no closer to matching the background, adds to the jarring effect of the whole; staring at this plate feels like reading a Lovecraft description, everything constantly shimmering and shifting at the edges of one's consciousness no matter how hard the woefully-limited human brain drives itself mad with the task of discerning it.

But, I mean, that's just my reaction to it. Everything's subjective, maybe you dig it, it's cool if you like it. Next slide!

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Species: Winnipeg Blue Bombers Licence Plates, Again
First Sighted: May 22, 2012
Classification: B#####
Colour Scheme: Blue on gold. Well, tan, I mean, but "gold".
Distinctive Markings: A football helmet with the team's 'new' logo on it, which was pretty well just the old-old logo.
Signature Call: "BLUE BOMBERS", the team wordmark plunked along the bottom
Gradient Action: damp sand
Press Conference Provincial Representative: Andrew Swan
Also Offered for Motorcycles?: Yes.
The second wave of Blue Bomber plates was an almost complete departure from the first, reflecting the full redesign the team made over the 2011-12 offseason. It seemed a perfectly opportune time for a new series of plates; the franchise had fresh new jerseys and logos, the team was coming off an inspiring trip to the 2011 Grey Cup, and optimism was running high.

"'There's a real air of excitement surrounding the football club as it prepares to defend its Eastern Conference title and get back to the Grey Cup,' said Andrew Swan, minister responsible for the Manitoba Public Insurance Corporation (MPI)."


"'This new licence plate, combined with the Bombers’ new uniforms and logo and helmet design, truly signals the beginning of a new era for the Blue Bomber organization and its loyal fans,' said Swan."

Well. That definitely proved true, but not for the reasons people were expecting.

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Species: Bilingual Licence Plates
First Sighted: February 19, 2013
Classification: Standard (xxx ###)
Colour Scheme: Standard
Distinctive Markings: Standard, save for--
Signature Call: "Bienvenue"
Gradient Action: Standard (none)
Press Conference Provincial Representative: Greg Selinger
Also Offered for Motorcycles?: Non
Well, there's definitely a joke in here about French having no translation for "Friendly", buuuut I think I'll steer clear of that one.

I was on the fence about whether to list this or not -- it's not that dramatic a change, really, is it? -- but, sure enough, the Province thought that this single word at the bottom of the plate was an important enough addition to justify a special unveiling press conference with the Premier.

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Look at him, he's so proud to show it off, too! Waving his hand along the Bienvenue, like it's a car on The Price is Right. So ultimately I decided, hey, if they counted it, I guess I'm countin' it too.

If you'd wondered what the going rate is for a single word of French, wonder no longer; drivers with standard, non-bilingual plates (putting aside the question of why bilingual plates aren't standard) can upgrade to the "Bienvenue"-blessed but otherwise unchanged plates for the low, low price of $15. This is, I think we can all agree, a far more viable choice than buying a sticker somewhere else for a dollar and then spending the other $14 on a bag of rice or something.

Interestingly, veterans have been able to select any language they wish on their plates since 2004; sightings of French, Dutch and Ukrainian have been confirmed, and there are likely other languages somewhere out along the roads as well. Something to keep an eye out for! This is a field guide, after all.

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Species: Winnipeg Goldeyes Licence Plates
First Sighted: March 22, 2013
Classification: G#####
Colour Scheme: Blue text on a white-to-yellowish background (ostensibly a "gold"), with accents of red and grey.
Distinctive Markings: I am pretty sure that fish just pooped that baseball out onto the floor. Which wouldn't have been half as awkward if he hadn't maintained eye contact the entire time.
Signature Call: "GOLDEYES". As far as anyone is aware, that might actually be the Goldeyes' motto.
Gradient Action: Scorched Earth for MS-DOS
Press Conference Provincial Representative: Andrew Swan
Also Offered for Motorcycles?: Yes.
It tells you all you need to know about the Goldeyes that the city's two other professional teams got three other plates first. The team may be fortunate they hit their twentieth anniversary when they did.

This background is the third different interpretation we've seen of "gold" on this list, although in this case "gold" came out as more of a smeared dijon mustard. Oddly enough, aside from the team's (notably absent) mascot and a little bit of the team logo, you really don't get a lot of gold or yellow out of looking at the Goldeyes. Their jerseys are white for home games, grey for away games, and red for afternoon games. Team merch runs in red, grey, and navy because navy is inescapable. But yellow? Naw, man.

(I suppose it's possible that the designers considered using a red background, looked at how the firefighters' plates turned out, and decided to just wing it.)

The plates, to their credit, are now sold out -- although it must be noted, with that said, that the reason Bombers and Jets plates aren't sold out is because there's enough demand to keep printing them. Still, if the Goldeyes can put together another championship run or two in the next few years, they may be able to shore up enough support that they can earn a second run of plates and unleash their terrifying steroid monsterfish on motorists all across the province.


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Species: Fish Futures Licence Plates
First Sighted: May 2, 2013
Classification: ####F
Colour Scheme: Dark blue text and logo over a white background, with an understated light-blue wave design along the bottom half of the plate.
Distinctive Markings: yep, that's a fish
Signature Call: "FISH FUTURES" within the logo; the "TL" represents trailer licences
Gradient Action: none, in a nice change of pace
Press Conference Provincial Representative: Andrew Swan
Also Offered for Motorcycles?: No. I can't remember the last time I saw somebody riding a motorcycle with fishing gear, so this is probably just as well.
This, I can say with absolute certainty -- this was the point when I exited the ride.

There I found myself one day, sitting silently and staring at my computer screen, beholding the newfound information that the Province of Manitoba was holding two fish-themed specialty licence plate press conferences within six weeks of each other. "My god," I thought to myself, "my god, I've been wrong all along: I'm sane. It's the world that's gone crazy."

Perhaps weirder still than all of that, this is actually one of the more tasteful designs on the list. This is the only specialty trailer plate on the list, and the designers likely recognized that the smaller available space would be overwhelmed by stuffing too many ideas into it. The end product here is simple and clean, refined, even elegant -- my favourite of the two fish plates, certainly, at any rate.

If you're wondering why the top of this section's image seems cut off, it's because it was; the sheet was never fully flipped off of the giant novelty display plate at the unveiling, and with only 2,000 Fish Futures plates printed there are precious few other pictures of the plate. Y'know what my other option for this section's image was?

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That is actual size, look at how tiny that is. Given the nature of the subject material and all, I felt pretty obligated to just throw the little guy back.

And speaking of throwbacks:

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Species: Collector Vehicle Licence Plates
First Sighted: July 12, 2013
Classification: CL#####
Colour Scheme: Vintage black on vintage yellow.
Distinctive Markings: SO YELLOW
Signature Call: "Collector". Though in my day, if we wanted to tell other motorists something, we had to roll down the window and shout it at 'em.
Gradient Action: none, mercifully
Press Conference Provincial Representative: Andrew Swan
Also Offered for Motorcycles?: No, oddly. Or at least, not yet. (Edit: Gerald Huhtala of the Manitoba Association of Auto Clubs notes in the comments that the plates will be available for motorcycles, and can also be personalized.)
I'm more taken by this one the longer I research it, although part of that might just be that it gives me so much to research. I do not claim to be a hard man to please.

These plates are intended for use on well-kept vintage automobiles from a variety of eras, so the goal for the design (I'm hypothesizing) was to create a suitably vintage-inspired look without specifically tying it to any one particular former plate design. The end result is a carefully-balanced hybrid of plate styles from all across the decades, recalling many of the beloved old designs generally but none of them specifically. It doesn't look like the old plates so much as it looks like it belongs in the old plates, if that makes sense. I quite like how they made that work.

Don't keep an eye out for them, though, at least not yet. These specialty plates won't actually hit the streets until March 2014 at the earliest, as part of a broader Collector Vehicle Program still listed as "pending approval" by the Public Utilities Board. Suppose they don't approve it; is there such a thing as licence-plate vaporware? Goodness, I hope not.

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Species: CurlManitoba Licence Plates
First Sighted: December 2, 2013
Classification: CM####
Colour Scheme: Black on various shades of yellow, which -- as Colin Fast pointed out to me -- is traditionally the colour that Manitoban teams wear at national curling competitions.
Distinctive Markings: What appears to be a Tim Hortons maple doughnut.
Signature Call: "curlingforlife.com". I'm more of a pro-choicer, but let's not start that argument right now. (Also, website addresses on government-issued identification still feels like something that'll take some getting used to.)
Gradient Action: Subdued! Actually quite refreshingly subdued. Blue and red being the primary colours of significance in curling, I'd initially envisioned and feared a half-Jets-half-firefighters abomination. So this is nice.
Press Conference Provincial Representative: Andrew Swan, dressed quite staggeringly appropriately.
Also Offered for Motorcycles?: No.
And here we are, finally, at the tenth and currently most recent item on our list. Well, unless they've announced another one today while I was writing, let me just doublecheck quickly and--nope! Nope, we're still good.

If we put aside the frequency of specialty plates for the moment and evaluate them on a case-by-case basis, all things considered, I have to say I'm not mad at this one. The softness of the rock logo feels a little clip-art-y for my liking, and a licence plate web address in lieu of a slogan is not something I've entirely quite steeled myself against yet, but we actually do seem to be making progress over previous efforts.

For one thing, the murky gradient hells of earlier models appear to be naturally phasing themselves out; for another thing, that black rather than blue print really does make a world of difference in anchoring the design. (It is strange that we've seemed to move from our blue period to our sort-of-yellow period, though.) So perhaps there is hope! We do seem to be on an upward curve, so as long as MPI continues releasing new specialty plates -- and they don't seem likely to be slowing down any time soon -- it's possible that the looks of them might continue improving as well.

A little fun with numbers: if you include the 2004 veterans plate in the dataset, the ten plates over ten years averages out to one specialty plate release a year. If you remove the veterans plate, the average jumps to three plates a year. (Numbers never lie, but you can coax almost any testimony you want out of them.)

Which of the ten plates do you like best? What new specialty plates do you anticipate, or what new plates would you want to see? Let me know in the comments below! As you have probably been able to tell, I am finding myself interested in licence plates.

Thank you for reading!


Chris said...

Wow! Great writeup!
It's weird how we never had custom plates, but then starting with the bomber plates, they just exploded. Options! I actually don't like them too much.

I would also note, that Taxi and Limo plates (Standard plates) always start with the letter X.

Gerald Huhtala said...

Some notes on the Collector plate;
- will be available for motorcycles
- vehicle must be 25 years or older
- minimum vehicle value of $5,000 for cars and $4,000 for motorcycles
- also incorporates a special, reduced premium for most vehicles, representing the extra care and reduced use of collector vehicles

Gerald Huhtala
Vice Chairman
Manitoba Association of Auto Clubs

Gerald Huhtala said...

...one other note on the Collector plate;

- personalized plates will also be available as opposed to them all beginning with 'CL'

Gerald Huhtala
Vice Chairman
Manitoba Association of Auto Clubs

Orbis Terre said...

Winnipeg and Non-Winnipeg firefighters HATE each other. When General Scrap had that fire a few years ago it didn't get put out right away because the Springfield FD refused to allow the Winnipeg FD's onto the scene to help out.

@YWGger said...

Specialty plates... I'm reminded of the old adage that "it's not difficult to separate a fool from his money."

Enjoyed your field guide!

Erik said...

Where's my Star Wars Geek specialty license plate?

Star Wars has merchandised everything else. The Province likes to link itself to anything popular. Win-win!

That being said, where's the Krusty Brand license plate?

Anonymous said...

Let's not forget our other source of civic pride ... bring on the Slurpee plates!

(Might as well do the Murder plates too.)

Anonymous said...

"Waving his hand along the Bienvenue, like it's a car on The Price is Right."


Anonymous said...

Great writing James! Thank you!

Anonymous said...

Really don't like the idea of this type of custom plates. It seems as though they are inviting unfair treatment or equality issues. Such as law enforcement not pulling over veterans or firefighters, or pulling over goldeyes fans simply because they don't like the goldeyes.