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Peterson: Ode to an Illinois license plate

Published: Friday, March 14, 2014 12:36 a.m. CST • Updated: Wednesday, April 9, 2014 11:06 a.m. CST

License plates should last forever, at least in Illinois where license plate designs last for decades.

Right now, Illinois has as nice a looking license plate as there is on the road. The letters and numbers are bright red, with a field of blue rising then fading out from the bottom. At the top is Illinois in a flowing script font, and at the bottom is the state slogan, “Land of Lincoln.” What sets it apart from the other states is the blue profile of Abraham Lincoln in the center.

As ugly as the state flag is, Illinois has a model license plate: simple and commemorative of the state.

This design became available in 2001, 17 long years after the introduction of its predecessor, a dull plate that got the job done. “Illinois” and “Land of Lincoln” on the top with three underlines over the letters and number, all blue against white.

Say what you will about the old 1984 series plates, they were built to last. In fact, when I traded up to the new plates in 2004, I framed my rear license place as a bit of folk art. The license plate is horribly bent and mangled, and it is covered in rust, yet you can still make out the license plate number clearly. I had that plate for a dozen years on two different vehicles.

It hangs on a wall in the Middle Room in the same corner as the page from The Weekly World News that contains a letter to the editor I wrote to the far-out news weekly which I am forever proud of and the collage of the grand opening of the Woodstock Walmart where I was the second customer. Drat!

I so wanted to be the first customer, but a 10-year-old elbowed his way past me in a lane where a professional checker was running the cashier, not someone rusty from the regional office. I was beat out by 13 seconds, and he got the headline in the newspaper the next day.

Before 1979, Illinois issued new license plates every year, but 1979 was the year they figured out the dynamics behind the little sticky registration sticker that you apply to the plate. The same plate was used until 1984, when the tripled-underlined plate was introduced and remained Illinois’ plate until 2001 – and its red-and-white truck mate for a few more years.

Illinois plates were looking pretty beat up and boring.

The new plate was pretty nice, as far as license plates go.

But if you’ve driven at all in Illinois, you will notice the plates haven’t held up. The white and red background is peeling off, so much so that you can’t read a lot of the plates. And I think that is a distinct advantage to bank robbers who flee in a getaway car. Bank robbery isn’t easy to get away with, but witnesses not being able to read the license plate helps the bad guy.

What happened was the protective coating that apparently is applied to the plates was defective at manufacture, causing it to chip away. You can go the secretary of state’s website and get a “Potentially Defective License Plate Contact Form” to fill out for a free plate. This works for plates manufactured before March 1, 2004, otherwise it costs $29 for a replacement plate with the same number. They must have figured out the manufacturer’s defect.

But the protective coating isn’t so protective. The screws that automakers use for license plates rust under the weather; they aren’t made of aluminum or stainless steel. I haven’t had my car 10 months and it already is showing signs of rust seeping down from the screws, ruining the look of decent plate. And it’s not just my plate, but thousands of plates on the road.

The 1984 series plate I had for a dozen years had plenty of rust on it, almost to the point of obscuring the red numbers, but the rust was not from the screws. The plate had been mangled over the years, probably from parking in too many snowbanks. And it was a truck, so it took a beating.

But the rust was from the plate itself, obviously made out of some kind of steel that oxidized once the protective coating was broken. It looked nothing like the 2001 series plates that had the manufacturer’s defect where the numbers and letters chipped away.

This new rust is a stain, the kind that water with too much iron in it leaves in the sink. 

To stop this – it kind of snuck up on me – I’m going to have to go to the hardware store for nonrusting screws to replace the current ones. I like my red, white and blue plates. I don’t want Lincoln’s face discolored. Lincoln wasn’t a red-beard.

• Dick Peterson, who lives in Woodstock, is a mental-health advocate. He is a freelance writer and a former Northwest Herald Opinion Page editor. He can be contacted at

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