How Did We Get Started ?!?
Jan/Feb 2021 edition
Issue #14 AutoMobilia Resource Magazine
As told to Sharon Spurlin by Jim & Charlotte Russ
The most frequent question Jim and Charlotte get from customers and spectators at car shows and swap meets is, “How did you get started doing this?” Jim and his brothers were all shade-tree mechanics as teenagers and young adults, and that carried over into their career choices. All of them became involved in auto parts – whether it be sales, management of stores or ownership of stores.
Jim’s interest in collecting license plates was inspired by his older brother, who gave him a few plates early on. As a teenager, Jim’s first car was a 1950 Chevrolet, so it just seemed natural to buy one in the early 1980s to restore. Once the car was restored, Jim began to search for a 1950 vintage license plate to register to his car. He finally found two of them at a junkyard about 50 miles from home. Later, when he attended local car shows, inevitably someone would ask him where he got his license plate. He mentioned that he had an extra one that he would be willing to sell, and the rest is history.
With such an interest in automobilia, Jim and his then teenage son began making a yearly trip to Carlisle, Pa., for automotive events. About 30 years ago on one of these trips, which was primarily to look for vintage Mustang parts, Jim bought 13 West Virginia vintage plates. He likes to tell how his son joked, saying, “Dad, you’ll be up here next year trying to sell those back.” Well, not only did that not happen, but Jim was back there the next year trying to find all he could to restore to sell. Initially, he sold from the trunk of his car at local shows. It didn’t take long to see the need to build display boards to show the ever-increasing amount of plates he had acquired.
As Jim often tells customers, vintage plates are not being made anymore, and you can’t buy them at Walmart. The fact that many of the most collectible plates are rare dictates the price for Jim, and then the condition and amount of work and material which goes into restoring them is reflected in the price to the customer.
Jim’s restoration process is to initially soak the plate in a stripping solution, then clean it in a glass-bead cabinet and clear any remaining debris with a wire brush on a wheel. He then attempts to straighten minor bends or bumps. If the plate has major bends, he employs a good friend who is a body man to straighten them. If the plate has extra holes, the next step is to close those holes. Following this step, Jim primes with two or three coats, depending on the condition of the plate.
At this stage, the plate is ready for two or three coats of automotive paint. In most cases, the paint of choice is acrylic enamel with a hardener for shine. A few plates are finished in lacquer with clear or a basecoat/clearcoat system. After sufficient drying time, the plates are then turned over to Charlotte for doing the numbers and letters with a professional sign painter’s paint.
They are also often asked, “Does restoring a plate affect its value?” There are certainly purist collectors (especially American License Plate Collectors Association members) who will not deign to buy a restored plate. However, many collectors like their plates to be mint or restored. Restoration can add value to a plate unless you are dealing with a purist collector.
Jim and Charlotte mostly do restoration for their own inventory and for people who send them their own plates. The base restoration price is $80 per plate but can be higher if there are holes that have to be closed, major bends, or new paint from a failed self-restoration (new paint is harder to remove than old paint).
Jim’s Old PL8s specializes in sales & restoration of embossed plates from the USA, leaning mostly to the East Coast and from the first issues up to 1980.
They have paint color codes on file for all USA plates, but they have also been able to restore a few international plates when there is enough paint on them to determine the colors. Unfortunately, they can’t restore porcelain or leather plates.
Jim and Charlotte will talk more about plate collecting and values in the next article.
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License Plate Revelations
While pastoring two churches, Jim founded Jim’s Old PL8s as a small-scale hobby business. Over the years it grew and has really flourished since his retirement. His wife, Charlotte, is also quite involved in the sales, restoration, and clerical side of the business.